Rocky Mountain National Park: Mount Ida and Gorge Lakes (Version 1)

Hike cross-country to explore this secluded chain of hanging lakes on this challenging point-to-point in Rocky Mountain National Park.
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Hike cross-country to explore this secluded chain of hanging lakes on this challenging point-to-point in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Navigate a backcountry obstacle course of boulder fields, willow thickets, rushing creeks, and waterfalls on this 10.5-mile routefinding challenge into one of the park’s most solitary lake basins. From Milner Pass, follow the Ute Trail through subalpine spruce forest. At mile .6, turn right at the T and climb past treeline into tundra backdropped by layers of peaked ridgelines.

For the next 3.6 miles, the route ascends grassy, alpine slopes just below the crest of the Continental Divide to 12,880-foot Mount Ida. (Scan rock piles at mile 1.4 for sun-bathing yellow-bellied marmots.) Top out on Ida’s talus-covered summit at mile 4.7, and preview your upcoming route down the tiered Gorge Lakes basin (with eight topaz-colored pools).

Next, downclimb 500 vertical feet of class 3 boulders on Ida’s southeast face to the saddle below, then descend scree and snowfields for another 400 vertical feet to the rock-strewn banks of stingray-shaped Azure Lake. At mile 5.5, cross Azure’s outlet creek and drop down steep class 3 terrain to a lower rock bench that cups Inkwell Lake.

Scramble across car-size boulders and rock-hop across small cascades along Inkwell’s northern shoreline before descending flatter, mellower slabs into the Arrowhead Lake basin; bushwhack around the west side of the largest Gorge Lake through stunted conifers.

Near mile seven, cross the top of a waterfall, the outlet stream of Arrowhead Lake. From here to Rock Lake (800 vertical feet and .8 mile away), choose your own adventure down steep slopes crowded with dense willows, conifer stands, and tiered waterfalls. After crossing marshy meadows by Rock Lake, continue a quarter mile and spend the night at Little Rock Campsite (mile 8).

The next day, descend northeast along the creek into Forest Canyon, negotiating stretches of downed trees. At mile 9.1, ford the Big Thompson River, lined with tall chiming bells and heartleaf arnica. The final grind to Trail Ridge Road scales 2,200 feet in 1.2 miles (tip: climb toward Rock Cut’s fortress-like formations). Road-walk .2 mile west to your ride.

NOTE To check out a slight variation on this route, go to backpacker.com/hikes/988229.

INFO For information on permits, current trail and camp conditions, and wilderness guidelines, go to nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit/backcountry.htm

PERMIT A wilderness permit is required for all overnight camping in the backcountry. Reservations accepted ($20 administrative fee for permits during peak season). nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit/backcntry_guide.htm

CONTACT Rocky Mountain National Park, (970) 586-1206; nps.gov/romo

-Mapped by Kim Phillips and Rachel Zurer

TO TRAILHEAD
Shuttle car/Rock Cut: From Elkhorn Ave. and Moraine Ave. in Estes Park, drive south on US 36 W/Moraine Ave. In 6.7 miles, continue straight on US 34 W/Trail Ridge Rd. Follow it 13 miles to Rock Cut parking area.

To trailhead/Milner Pass: Continue on Trail Ridge Rd. another 8.4 miles to parking at Milner Pass.

Trail Facts

  • Distance: 16.9

Waypoints

GRG001

Location: 40.419887, -105.812094

Park at the Milner Pass parking pull-out on the east side of the road (pit toilets and interpretive signs located here). Pick up the maintained trail at the southern end of Poudre Lake, and follow it east to the first switchback.

GRG002

Location: 40.418797, -105.808189

Cross a split log footbridge.

GRG003

Location: 40.418199, -105.80821

Turn right at the T-junction, heading southwest.

GRG004

Location: 40.413607, -105.808347

The trail climbs past treeline into an alpine landscape. Ahead, the route travels just below the crest of the Continental Divide.

GRG005

Location: 40.409528, -105.804429

Stay straight on the main path where a faint trail veers off to the left. Traverse grassy slopes ahead.

GRG006

Location: 40.402716, -105.797149

Look to the right for views of a small lake.

GRG007

Location: 40.388694, -105.791349

Follow the path that ascends this ridge to Mount Ida.

GRG008

Location: 40.371855, -105.778808

Crest Mount Ida at mile 4.7. This wind-blown and rocky 12,880-foot peak rests on the Continental Divide and towers above the Gorge Lakes in the valley below. Mount Julian and Terra Tomah Mountain border the lakes on the east. Look south for views that extend to Grand Lake. Next, down-climb boulders on Ida's southeast face to reach the saddle below.

GRG009

Location: 40.370147, -105.776677

From the saddle connecting Mount Ida and Chief Cheley Peak, descend northeast to Azure Lake. Route-finding skills are required at this point. The best and most efficient route may change seasonally.

GRG010

Location: 40.372237, -105.773711

Pick a route along the left (west) edge of Azure Lake.

GRG011

Location: 40.373221, -105.771923

Traverse the southern slopes of this hillside, heading toward the outlet creek.

GRG012

Location: 40.373809, -105.769962

Cross the outlet creek and descend to Inkwell Lake.

GRG013

Location: 40.375808, -105.769348

Pass a small waterfall.

GRG014

Location: 40.376159, -105.768976

Climb over and across massive boulders that line Inkwell's shoreline.

GRG015

Location: 40.377105, -105.766074

Views of Trail Ridge Road appear to the north.

GRG016

Location: 40.377291, -105.765644

Maneuver across more boulders.

GRG017

Location: 40.377659, -105.765138

In September, this creek was partially covered by a small snowfield.

GRG018

Location: 40.380377, -105.764205

Descend past treeline.

GRG019

Location: 40.388017, -105.759469

Cross the top of a cascading waterfall, the outlet stream of Arrowhead Lake, and hike south for another 850 feet.

GRG020

Location: 40.386574, -105.759023

Game plan your next moves from this rock slab overlooking the landscape below.

GRG021

Location: 40.386738, -105.758876

Descend through small meadows.

GRG022

Location: 40.387619, -105.757952

Waterfalls cascade down on the left.

GRG023

Location: 40.38704, -105.756893

Marshy area

GRG024

Location: 40.386345, -105.755579

Crawl through downed trees into a meadow.

GRG025

Location: 40.386089, -105.754869

Push your way through this section of thick willows.

GRG026

Location: 40.38619, -105.754523

Catch views of Rock Lake and Little Rock Lake.

GRG027

Location: 40.385622, -105.753861

Use caution when down climbing these waterfalls; the rocks are extremely slick.

GRG028

Location: 40.386118, -105.753128

Down climb the creek on slippery rocks.

GRG029

Location: 40.387947, -105.750895

Your boots will get wet plodding through this marshy meadow next to Rock Lake.

GRG030

Location: 40.389333, -105.747558

Little Rock Campsite: Set up your tent on this flat dirt platform surrounded by trees.

GRG031

Location: 40.389055, -105.747448

Next day: Turn left at the sign post for Little Rock Campsite. Hike northeast along the creek.

GRG032

Location: 40.392241, -105.741172

Pass through a large meadow; the snaking creek should be on your right.

GRG033

Location: 40.393336, -105.739188

You may spot rusted old cans lying in the trees.

GRG034

Location: 40.394329, -105.738838

Prepare to slow your pace along this stretch of trail. You'll have to climb over and crawl under countless downed trees.

GRG035

Location: 40.397559, -105.736534

Ford the Big Thompson River, which was a small creek in mid-September.

GRG036

Location: 40.403837, -105.734689

Turn around for views to the south, including Mount Ida and the Gorge Lakes.

GRG037

Location: 40.405849, -105.733901

Look for the obvious Rock Cut formations through the gaps in the trees.

GRG038

Location: 40.406488, -105.733267

Trees open here into an alpine meadow. Climb north up steep, grassy slopes toward the road.

GRG039

Location: 40.410968, -105.729048

The route meets Trail Ridge Road at mile 10.3. Stay on the shoulder and hike west to the Rock Cut parking area.

GRG040

Location: 40.412096, -105.732841

Pick up your shuttle car at the Rock Cut parking area.

Poudre Lake

Location: 40.420322, -105.81144

Ute Trail

Location: 40.420322, -105.81144

Trailside rock formations

Location: 40.4203, -105.810143

Subalpine Forest

Location: 40.415398, -105.809341

Flora

Location: 40.41486, -105.809044

Wildflowers

Location: 40.414627, -105.808617

Western Views

Location: 40.413345, -105.808403

Views to the north

Location: 40.412228, -105.808762

Trailside Views

Location: 40.411133, -105.807793

Alpine Tundra

Location: 40.410057, -105.806259

Rock Piles

Location: 40.410057, -105.806259

Yellow-Bellied Marmot

Location: 40.409988, -105.806122

Trailside Views

Location: 40.409309, -105.803535

Continental Divide

Location: 40.388546, -105.791374

Timber Lake

Location: 40.3792, -105.795044

Mount Ida

Location: 40.371738, -105.780174

Chief Cheley Peak

Location: 40.372128, -105.778938

Gorge Lakes

Location: 40.372128, -105.778938

Azure Lake

Location: 40.372128, -105.778938

Southern slopes of Mount Ida

Location: 40.370694, -105.777719

Chief Cheley Peak

Location: 40.370598, -105.777077

Mount Ida

Location: 40.370064, -105.776306

The saddle below Mount Ida

Location: 40.370453, -105.776253

Snowfield

Location: 40.370533, -105.776222

Snowfield above Azure Lake

Location: 40.370594, -105.775879

Mount Ida from Azure Lake

Location: 40.373219, -105.771927

Azure Lake

Location: 40.373215, -105.771477

Waterfall

Location: 40.375957, -105.769234

Inkwell Lake

Location: 40.37645, -105.768654

Waterfall

Location: 40.37645, -105.768654

Rock slabs between Inkwell and Arrowhead Lakes

Location: 40.377739, -105.764923

Arrowhead Lake

Location: 40.378502, -105.76445

Arrowhead Lake

Location: 40.387847, -105.759375

Views to the north from Arrowhead Lake

Location: 40.387747, -105.759518

Southern views from Arrowhead Lake

Location: 40.387764, -105.759537

Eastern Views from Arrowhead Lake

Location: 40.387764, -105.759537

Boulders below Arrowhead Lake

Location: 40.386944, -105.758812

Outlet stream of Arrowhead Lake

Location: 40.387554, -105.757759

Rock Lake

Location: 40.388153, -105.750664

Little Rock Lake Campsite

Location: 40.38929, -105.747505

Little Rock Lake Campsite

Location: 40.389057, -105.747437

Meadow above Forest Canyon

Location: 40.392925, -105.739433

Rock Lake's outlet creek flows through the meadow

Location: 40.392925, -105.739433

Forest

Location: 40.396725, -105.737663

Big Thompson River

Location: 40.397545, -105.736656

Wildflowers

Location: 40.39761, -105.736435

Wildflowers

Location: 40.39761, -105.736435

Tall Chiming Bells

Location: 40.39761, -105.736435

Wildflowers

Location: 40.39761, -105.736435

Heartleaf Arnica

Location: 40.397869, -105.735947

Climb to Rock Cut

Location: 40.406643, -105.732613

Rock Formations

Location: 40.406643, -105.732613

Final Climb

Location: 40.406643, -105.732613

View of Gorge Lakes Basin

Location: 40.406685, -105.732544

Rock Cut

Location: 40.406742, -105.732307

Southern Views

Location: 40.411037, -105.729347

Trail Ridge Road

Location: 40.410946, -105.729424