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Chasm Lake – Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Chasm Lake turned out to be a total surprise. This moderate track offered a wide variety of sceneries through a number of alpine settings – tall spruce, short junipers, tundra, snowfields, rolling brooks, waterfalls, and alpine lake. This is one of our favorite for sure.
Fearing the highly probable afternoon storms and a lack of parking spots, we arrived at the Longs Peak trailhead well before 6am dressed up like Michelin men. The cool morning air helped us to conserve energy as we ascended from 9500 feet to over 12500 feet in about 4.5 miles. This turned out to be a relatively easy track since we already had 2 days to build up our red blood cells count. On the way up, we were tempted to hike Long’s Peak but it was too early in the season, way too late to start and much of the upper sections of Long’s Peak were still classified as technical full of ice and snow.
The 1st few sections of the trails were very well maintained with hard packed dirt and no loose rocks. Once we past the 1st junction (right toward Echo Peak), the trails took on a life of a rugged back country hiking trail. Unfortunately, that’s all we can remember about the trail condition since Mary & I aren’t normally bothered by the condition of the trails as much as altitude and distance… overall, I remembered a pretty long ascend as we zig-zag our way through the forest. There were a few waterfalls along the way. One of the falls cross-pathed with a log bridge and allowed us to view the water rushed beneath our feet.
As we climbed above the tree line, the trail gave away to a 360 degree view of the tundra, alpine flowers and surrounding mountains. We arrived at the junction where the trails splits left (towards Chasm Lake) and right (towards Long’s Peak). From here, the path to Chasm Lake followed Mt. Lady Washington to our right and views of a valley and Columbine Fall to our left. Peering down the valley we saw a beautiful pool of emerald water called Peacock Pool.
In less than half a mile from the intersection, we arrived at a large patch of snowfield. The snowfield was steep, dangerously steep if someone looses his/her footing since there is little time for self arrest before hitting a rock patch. We slipped on some traction devices and proceeded without a hitch. After passing the snowfield we arrived at a gorgeous patch of greenery along a mountain stream. In the distance Mt. Meeker stood at about 11 O’clock and Long’s Peak at about 2 O’clock. At the base of the mountain there was a Climbers Cabin and a sign with an arrow pointing straight ahead (presumably toward Chasm Lake). For some reason we followed two older hikers ahead and continued straight until we arrived at the second patch of snowfield… we were already a quarter ways up on the mountain at this point. This is when I noted we are about to climb Mt. Meeker, we stood half way up the mountain and there were no trails in sight. Up ahead, we saw one of those hikers gingerly made his way across a patch of extremely steep snowfield. The snowfield (later we learned it’s the Meeker Glacier Basin) was almost vertical and we held our breath as we watched him progressed; he acted as if he had no cramp-on... In the next hour or so we saw no traces of the 2 hikers ahead.
After learning the mistake of following other hikers (we should know better by now), we descended to the cabin and looked desperately for cairns. Mary finally located a few cairns on the right at the base of a rock wall, apparently recent storms have scattered rocks all over the place. After only a couple minutes of Class 2 scramble, we arrived at the Chasm Lake. Words and pictures cannot be used to describe the spectacle unfolded in front of us - OH, That Headwall... Fruit of labor, at last!:)
- Bring proper raingear – at this altitude, no matter if its summer or winter always expects the worst. We had a sunny 65 degree weather turned to 38 degree pea size hail storm in a matter of 10 mins – our back (protected by our hard shells) had a solid 1 inch of ice. To the young lads wearing T-Shirt & tennis shorts past us on their way to pneumonia and humility… hats off to their bravery. :)
- Wear gaiters - gaiters not only act as a barrier to snow/ice/bugs but act as extra ankle support – we swear by them.
- If traveling in early summer (like us), expect to cross snowfields at higher altitudes. We had tracking poles and traction devices attached to our boots to help us through the snowfields (some at 30 degree slopes) and up toward Mt. Meeker. Lightweight crampons / Ice Axe are suggested if large snowfield crossing/glacier travel is expected. If in doubt, turn back because you can always summit another day… there is NO ROOM FOR MISTAKES or TAKING CHANCES up here, a small mistake can turn into a disaster before anyone can register in their oxygen starved brain what had just happened.
- Hike only after you have been properly acclimated. On the day one of our arrival from Texas to Colorado, just for fun and experiment we went for a hike near 12000 feet. Without resting I took a reading off the Oxymeter and the reading was a shocking 75, the lowest I have ever been (clinically I should have been past out). Mary, much ‘weaker’ ''figuratively" speaking had a reading about 10 digits higher than me. Once partially acclimated 3 days later, on the Chasm Lake hike we registered ~94-95 consistently at up to ~13000 feet. To acclimate, we hiked progressively longer distance & higher elevation daily and came back down to sleep at Estes Park (~7700 feet).
- Cache water/food before summit/final leg of the hike. This technique can be used for any hike. Do some careful calculation and you’ll feel a boost of energy from section to section with each lighten of the load. (Update: as of 2010, cache of food/water is no longer allowed on this track)
- Start early and expect weather change before the afternoon thunderstorms.
Distance: ~ 9 miles roundtrip
Elevation: ~9500 feet
Gain/Loss: ~3000 feet
Rating: 9 out of 10
Hallet Peak (Flatop Mountain) – Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Hallet Peak was another hike that exceeded our expectation. On route we expected to see nothing but “Flat Top” but the scenery was nothing but flat… We got up early and arrived at the Bear Lake trailhead by 6am. It was a beautiful morning and the sun had already cast its hues of yellow and orange over the lake. The air was crisp, cool and still. Mary couldn’t help but take her time with photography. After recalibrated the elevation on my watch I walked away briskly and yelled at her “we got no time to waste”. As it turned out, I end up taking more breaks and was the slower of the two, as usual… :)
What made the hike spectacular was that 50% of the path was above tree line. Therefore unlike many summit hikes, the views were not limited to the trees in front of us. Stop points along the way were Dream Lake Overlook and Emerald Lake Overlook. These overlooks were both “so so” in our opinion probably because we’ve seen it so many times in brochures and hiking websites. We knew time was on our side with such an early start so within the forest; we took the time and enjoyed many small breaks.
Soon after the Emerald Lake overlook the tree line disappeared. We picked up the pace for some reason, anxious to see what’s in the open. Not to be disappointed, the view ahead reminded us Chasm Lake. With clouds bellowing below us, it looked like we were starring down at the top of the Smoky Mountains. After about another mile (or 2), we arrived at a Hitchrack (for horses) and the bottom of a large snowfield. A mule deer ran up the trail behind us and showed us the way… apparently the trail starts again somewhere above the snowfield.
For the 1st time in days we pulled out tracking devices and slipped onto our shoes. The morning was still cool enough to allow the micro spikes bite into the hardened snow; we walked up the snowfield with no hesitation. The top of the snowfield is where the elevation gain tapered off and we have officially reached the Flattop Mountain. To our right were rolling mountaintops covered with patches of snowfields. To our left was the Tyndall Glacier sitting between the Flattop and Hallet Peak. Once again, the peak looked impossibly far way although we were only about 1 mile away from the summit. We arrived at a 3 way intersection and took a ‘trail’ off to the left; the trail is full of lichen-covered rocks and short alpine plants/flowers. Without cairns, the hike up the summit from here and up could have been very difficult.
Just in front was the world famous Continental Divide with Grand Lake far below. The divide was comprised of rolling mountaintops with dropped off to the sides occasionally… these dropsoffs include the Tyndall Glacier now to our left. The wind blew continuously from the Northwest and we were forced to put every piece of garment on and tightened every drawstring around our outer shells. But still we blew up like balloons; wind gusts must have been 50+mph.
The summit was easier to reach than we had expected, I think it has more to do with adrenaline than anything else. We shrugged off the altitude and just wanted to reach the top. Within a matter of 20-30 minutes (like we were counting), we arrived at the summit, wide eyed and gasping for air…not from the lack of oxygen but the views. The views extended 360 degrees in every direction… forever. Mountains, snowfields, valleys and glacier, lakes are everywhere near and far. No picture can capture this…I kept saying it to myself. “No picture can capture this…” Unfortunately, I was right…our pictures didn't capture the scale and feeling of the place.
After taking refuge behind a rock shelter and ate lunch, we descended quickly because Mary started to get chills from now 60mph+ wind. In all, we met about 10 people summited that day. We arrived at the trailhead full of smile and a sense of accomplishment. “YEAH” – we budded fists.
Tips: arrive early to take advantage of cool morning for ascends, try to summit before noon since afternoon is usually plagued with thunderstorm and stronger wind. Be prepared and be a responsible hiker - i.e., bring proper gear. We saw a young hiker wearing sneekers with a sprained/broken ankle being helped by a young ranger down the mountain…and an older ranger bringing a horse up the trail to meet them halfway. This could happen to anyone but with a little precaution, proper footwear, gaiters (w/ supports), hiking poles, etc may have prevented this mishap. The older ranger didn’t look happy when we met him around 3:30pm, and he was still early in the forest on his way up!
Distance: ~ 10 miles roundtrip
Elevation: ~12700 feet
Gain/Loss: ~3400 feet
Rating: 9 out of 10
The Loch – Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
The Loch is considered by many as one of the best hikes in the valley. The hike starts off at the Glacier Gorge trailhead. The tiny strip of lot can only hold a few cars and are full by dawn so we ended up taking a shuttle from the Bear Lake trailhead. Opt not taking the bus and you will need to add about 2 miles to the trip.
We started off with an upward trot through a very well maintain section of the trail. At about half a mile we arrived at the Alberta Falls. People were lined up to take pictures so we continued without stopping. Starting here, the trail became rocky and more rugged. After a while we came upon a junction (left to Mills Lake and right to The Loch). As far as I know the trail towards Mills Lake is more level when compare to the switchbacks toward The Loch. Overall, the trail was a pleasant walk and can be accomplished by the entire family except the very young/old.
The Loch is a moraine (glacier) lake surround by mountains with view of Taylor Peak and Powell Peak. If you still have energy, continue the hike and you will arrive at the Timberline Falls/Sky Pond and Andrew’s Glacier. We circled half way around The Loch and traced our step back to the Glacier Gorge trailhead.
Distance: ~ 6.5 miles roundtrip
Elevation: ~9000 feet
Gain/Loss: ~1000 feet
Difficulty: Easy - Moderate
Rating: 7 out of 10
Deer Mountain – Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
This is probably the easiest summit hike in the park. The trailhead is situated off Highway 34 or 36 near Estes Park, at the Dear Ridge Junction Trailhead. The 6 mile trek is a good pre-climb for more strenuous hikes. There are good views during the beginning and latter sections of this hikes.
We started off around 8 O’clock and were surprised at the expansive views along the base of the mountain. So for those of you don’t want to go all the way up, you can still enjoy some good views of the surrounding mountains, valleys and fields as long as you turn around before the switchbacks.
Once we hit the switch backs, the trail climbed steadily through a forest that seemed to grow thicker as we climbed higher. The trail then leveled off for about a mile or so before reaching an intersection. We followed the sign, turned to the spur on the right and headed straight up the summit. The trail was extremely well-maintained and unlike other summit hikes, this one can be accomplished by anyone in reasonable shape.
At the summit, there was a panoramic view of Rocky Mountain National Park. From Twin Sisters to Long’s Peak.
Distance: ~ 6 miles roundtrip
Elevation: ~10000 feet
Gain/Loss: ~1000 feet
Rating: 7 out of 10
Lily Mountain – Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Lily Mountain was a great warming up trail to get our legs and lungs ready for longer summit hikes. Although mountain peaks are mostly farther away from the lily summit, the summit sill awards you with a sense of openness and good views extending in all directions.
The last section of the trail requires a little bit of Class 2 scrambling over the rocks, it is doable by anyone other than the very unfit. The trail is only worthwhile if you get to the top so don’t give up!
Distance: ~ 3 miles roundtrip
Elevation: ~9800 feet
Gain/Loss: ~1000 feet
Rating: 7 out of 10
Mt. Sneffles - Ouray, Colorado
Mt. Sneffels is considered to be an iconic 14ers in the State of Colorado. The summit is only a little more than 1.70 miles from the upper trailhead, but the truth is that trail is more of a scrambling/climbing route rather than a hiking route. If you are adventurous & is not afraid of heights, this day hike is hard to beat.
To reach the upper trailhead, stay on your right until you reach Yankee Boy Basin. It is situated at one of the terminus of CR 361 (1/4 mile south of Ouray). A lot of people park their vehicle at the restrooms (~11,350’). Note before reaching stretches of creek crossings, near the end of the Yankee Boy Basis you will reach a Y intersection with a gnarly menacing looking Jeep road ascend toward the right; a word of advice DO NOT take that ‘Jeep Road’. On our way down we stayed toward the left & end up coming down that Jeep Road (rather than the stream crossings). The ‘road’ was in such a bad shape that Mary had to get off the SUV twice to guide me through a couple of drop offs. I even used rock slabs to create ‘stairs’ just in case our rental’s 9.0+ ground clearance wasn’t enough. Overall, you get the point, if your vehicle has less than the ideal ground clearance, a long wheelbase & bad approach/departure angle, rent a Jeep from Ouray or stop as soon as your oil pan starts to leak. :)
With the right vehicle or a pair of strong quads, making it to the upper trailhead itself should be a rewarding experience. For us it was both exhilarating and scenic. Views extended in all directions with endless waves of trees, wildflowers and peaks. Overall the summit route consist of 3 stages & has a pretty name “Lavender Couloir Route”. It starts off with a fairly level walk to the base of the basin, followed by a climb toward the 1st saddle, up the gully to the 2nd saddle/face a "V" notch, then an easy stroll to the summit. While the "V" notch may pose some danger that requires a Class 4 move with exposure on one side we considered the toughest part of the climb as the section below the 1st saddle - this benign looking stretch can be the most dangerous if not taken seriously.
The 1st section of the climb was full of powdery dirt & scree (small, sharp, and brittle loose rocks). Adding an approach angle of 45 degrees or greater in some places, you’ve got yourself a recipe for sore legs the following morning. Having tracking poles, microspikes (we left in the car that day), and helmet will help with the climb. At one point a climber from above slipped & sent a couple of bricks hurling down the slope missing us about 10 feet away – thank goodness we both wore helmets that day. Lesson: try not to have any climber immediately above you! The view throughout the hike was spectacular from the trailhead to the summit; a totally spiritual experience to cleanse our mind, body and soul.
Distance: ~ 2.5 miles roundtrip (from upper trailhead)
Elevation: ~14000+ feet
Gain/Loss: ~1600 feet
Difficulty: Moderate to Difficult
Rating: 9 out of 10
Accessible only by a 4WD/AWD vehicle with "HIGH" ground clearance - I would say 8.5' or greater based on our run. The Alpine Loop is a nearby world class 4x4 route famous for its alpine scenery. The loop can be accomplished both clockwise / counter clockwise but I found it easier to do it clockwise starting from Silverton. Attempt to enter the loop by taking the Jeep Route 4 miles north of Ouray is not recommended since the 1st four miles was really rough and any stock SUV will likely get more than scuffed up after the ride... To us, we like offroad only to a point of taking us to the trailhead, 4x4 to a point of testing vehicle's capability/driver's skills is not our cup of tea. The road condition changes rapidly in that part of the country & it was here we had a few doubts about the road classifications systems - Cinnamon Pass is supposed to be the easiest 4x4 route but it ended up to be as difficult as the Engineer Pass due to recent rain/wash-outs, so before you go consult the Visitor’s center for the most recent road conditions.
Accessible only by a 4WD/AWD vehicle midway between Ouray & Silverton is another gem of hike at Porphyry Basin. The narrow jeep road leading up the basin is very easy to miss, look out for a brown road sign 822 (near the infamous Black Bear Pass road entrance). The view at the top of the basin/past the basin was spectacular. The only gripe we had was the narrowness of the jeep road. At one point, we came head-to-head with 2 other 4x4s on their way up...& per trail rule, I had to back up some 200 feet to a switchback to allow the other vehicle to pass. Obviously Mary had to get out & guide me, the backing up was a little scary.
Dealing with the stress of off-roading and possibility of a vehicle malfunction can tax your energy. In our rental we added 2 manual bicyle pumps, a tire repair kit w/ permanant plugs for up to 4 tires, and a fix-a-flat for the 5th tire failure. If you think that's too much you should find a tour company to ride the loop in their vehicle so you can concentrate on the scenery; dress warm & cover your face so you can lessen the damage from dust and alpine rays.