If I'm dreaming, don't wake me up. Ahead of me is a surreal floral display of reds, blues, violets, and yellows so verdant it radiates a neon hue. The painfully blue sky is serrated by the Continental Divide. Jagged ridges merge with snowfields. A gentle breeze sweeps off the glacier above, chilling my sweat-soaked body and coaxing me back to reality. Hard to believe I left Denver only a few hours ago for a three-day solo backcountry trip in Rocky Mountain National Park's Wild Basin district.
Despite its proximity to Denver, this national park remains a refuge that boasts of a 355-mile trail system, hundreds of peaks topping 10,000 feet, and a medley of wildlife. But what really sets Rocky Mountain apart from other parks in the Lower 48 is its alpine tundra. A third of the park lies above timberline, and one-fourth of the plants you'll see here are found in the Arctic.
The park isn't exactly a close-kept secret, though. More than 3 million people went through the gates in 1996. But for the vast majority of visitors, the sum total of their experience is a drive over touristy Trail Ridge Road. They never savor the huge tracts of secluded land that lie hidden in the park's depths, like Paradise Valley, the Mummy Range, and my personal favorite, Wild Basin.
Wild Basin certainly lives up to its name. The area is dominated at its northern boundary by massive, 14,255-foot Longs Peak, the park's highest summit. The Basin isn't for hikers shy of altitude or those who prefer a tidy network of loop trails. Here you can link several in and out trails by hoofing it cross-country. Expect elevation gains upward of 5,000 feet.
A hike I like is the dramatic 19-miler that connects Bluebird Lake Trail with Finch Lake-Pear Lake Trail via the Continental Divide. There are no maintained trails to the top, but you can follow the drainage above Bluebird Lake for about 700 lung-busting feet to reach a saddle on the Divide. Weave your way south to jutting Ogalalla Peak, the park's southern boundary. In the distance you'll see the 6,000-year-old St. Vrain Glaciers.
Backtrack north a few hundred yards to Cony Pass and begin your descent to Cony Lake and the Finch Lake Trail that leads back to the trailhead. Campsites are nothing short of spectacular at azure Bluebird, Hutcheson, and Finch lakes. Plan on three full days of hiking to navigate this loop.
QUICK TAKE: Wild Basin, Colorado
DRIVE TIME: Rocky Mountain National Park is about 65 miles (roughly 11/2 hours) northwest of Denver.
THE WAY: From Denver, take US 36 northwest to Boulder, drive north to Lyons and continue west to Estes Park. Then take CO 7 south 12 miles through the village of Meeker Park, turn right (west) at the Wild Basin sign and drive for about 2 miles to Wild Basin Ranger Station.
TRAILS: Wild Basin district is plied by seven trails totaling 32 miles.
ELEVATION: Hikes in Wild Basin involve elevation gains of 1,400 to 3,000 feet; roughly 5,000 feet for peak baggers going after summits.
CAN'T MISS: The floral display in late summer can be a real scene-stealer.
CROWD CONTROL: Weekend dayhikers rarely venture past Calypso Cascades and Ouzel Falls. The least traveled and most remote areas are Cony Creek and Hunters Creek Crosscountry Zones.
MAPS AND GUIDEBOOKS: Trails Illustrated publishes Rocky Mountain National Park, #200 ($8.99, 800-962-1643). Hiking Rocky Mountain National Park, by Kent and Donna Dannen ($12.95, from The Globe Pequot Press, 800-243-0495), is a good all-purpose guide.
PIT STOP: Plop down on the outdoor deck at Estes Park Brewery in Estes Park and soak up a Stinger Wild Honey Wheat beer along with a majestic view of the Rockies. The bratwurst is not to be missed.
WALK SOFTLY: Where there are trails, use them. In trailless areas, walk lightly, spread out so footprints aren't concentrated, and rock-hop where possible.
MORE INFORMATION: Backcountry Office, Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park, CO 80517; (970) 586-1399. You must have a backcountry permit ($15) to camp overnight in the park from May 1 to October 31.