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For millennia, in a land now known as Colorado, the wind blew and snow drifted to leeward. The crystals piled deeper and deeper until they compressed into rivers of ice that carved vast gashes into billion-year-old granite and gneiss. When the earth warmed and the ice melted, jagged spires and towering walls stood proud where they’d resisted the relentless ice. Then came the tourists. Thicker and thicker they accumulated until trails had to be paved, parking lots enlarged, camping spots reserved months in advance, a national park declared. Now three million humans each year pay their entrance fees and peer through windshields at what the ice
couldn’t cut. Swarms follow asphalt paths to reflective ponds. Thousands dayhike deeper into crag-walled canyons. But all is not found. Wild places remain in this park. Let us introduce you to three of the best.
Tonahutu Creek/North Inlet Loop
During the glacial ages, most of the snow that fell in the Rockies built up on the eastern, or leeward, side, carving those rugged faces the crowds come to see. The west side is different. Less jagged, more subtle, with space to explore. The masses are happy to drive under the famous precipices
and snap their pictures. Happier still are those few who shoulder a backpack and wander the west-side trails in classic Colorado high country, discovering pockets of alpine ruggedness and miles of sweet-smelling pine and spruce.
Starting near Grand Lake, the 21-mile Tonahutu Creek/North Inlet Loop lets backpackers experience the best of the west, including half a dozen miles of tundra hiking along the spine of the Continental Divide. Weather permitting, drop your pack on the Divide and spend several extra hours rim-walking the eastern edge, staring down at those near-thousand-foot walls and towers everyone else is ogling from below.
This fantastic loop isn’t unknown, but you won’t be disappointed or elbowed off the trail. The one thing you’ll compete for is a campsite just below timberline. The Renegade and July campsites are popular launching points for the tundra ahead (reserve in advance if you’re visiting mid-summer or later). For more solitude, hike the various side trails or explore unlimited off-trail terrain, which you’ll share only with bears, elk, and other wildlife.
Never Summer Loop
Think of the name as a sure-fire crowd repellent. In fact, the snow melts out of the Never Summer Mountains in the northwest corner of the park between May and July, depending on the year and altitude. Then it’s wide open for backpackers to scramble its almost-13,000-foot peaks and marvel at a geographical anomaly: The Continental Divide loops southward here, and for about 6 miles, all east-flowing waters reach the Pacific and west-flowing waters head for Mississippi.
The choicest weekend (or longer) loop goes up the Colorado River Trail and down the Grand Ditch Trail (10 to 15 miles round-trip, plus side hikes). Each trail is unique: The former parallels the uppermost reaches of the stream that eventually carves the Grand Canyon; the latter follows an old gravel road (not used by vehicles) along a canal carrying water toward the parched eastern plains. Look closely, and you’ll find abandoned mines and the archeological remains of Lulu City, which once supported them. Little Yellowstone at the northern end recalls the bright white and yellow volcanic rocks of that famous Wyoming canyon. Still seeing more people than you care to? Step out of the national park into the seldom-seen Never Summer Wilderness.
Lost Lake, Mummy Range
Listen to the growling thunder as you search deep in the Mummy Range for mysterious Lost Lake, lurking somewhere under Stormy Peaks Pass. Actually, the only mystery is how this spectacular place could be so overlooked. A quick glance at the topo reveals its appeal: Right at timberline, Lost Lake is the first of a chain of lakes set close to tight clusters of contour lines indicating cliffs, ridges, and icefields of magnificent stature. Their wild isolation is hard to beat even in a state full of superlative mountain scenery.
As you shoulder your load 9 miles and 2,500 vertical feet from the trailhead, you might appreciate the “barrier of effort” that will forever keep most of humanity from reaching
Lost Lake and her sisters. Once you’ve dropped your pack in camp, you’ll want days to explore tundra drainages leading to a handful of hikable 13,000-foot peaks, including Mummy Mountain itself. Don’t miss a dash up Stormy Peaks Pass, if the weather gods allow it. Trails here don’t loop, so when food runs out, you’ll need to hike back the way you came.
The Tonahutu Creek/North Inlet Loop begins near the Kawuneeche Visitor Center by Grand Lake. The Never Summer Loop begins at the west end of Trail Ridge Road, just north of Grand Lake. (Note: Trail Ridge Road usually opens around Memorial Day; western access is from I-70 then over Berthoud Pass). The Lost Lake, Mummy Range hike begins at the North Fork/Dunraven trailhead.
Even on these uncrowded trails, if you want a specific campsite (especially on the Tonahutu/North Inlet Loop), you better reserve early. The jockeying begins March 1. If you’re flexible on campsites, you can often get a permit the morning of your hike from the backcountry office in Estes Park or the Kawuneeche Visitor Center.
These trails are high (they begin above 8,000 feet). If you’re a lowlander, allow a few days to adapt to the altitude. Snow doesn’t melt off the highest passes until July, right about when the
infamous afternoon thunderstorms kick in. Be sure to check on storm patterns, so you don’t get caught above treeline when the lightning bolts start flying.
Hiking Rocky Mountain National Park, by Kent and Donna Dannen ($14.95). Leaving the Crowds Behind: A Guide To Backcountry Camping In Rocky Mountain National Park, by John E. Heasley ($24.95). Trails Illustrated’s Rocky Mountain National Park map (800-962-1643; www.backpacker.com/mapstore; $9.95).
Backcountry Office, Rocky Mountain National Park, (970) 586-1242; www.nps.gov/romo.