Situated just 90 minutes from Denver, Rocky Mountain National Park is certainly the closest park to the Front Range. That, combined with tourists from all over the country, made it the third most-visited park in the nation in 2018, according to the National Park Service, with nearly 4.6 million visitors. Knowing this, here is an itinerary that will get you away from the tour buses and give you a glimpse of the solitude and high-alpine scenery that make Rocky truly iconic.
Moderate Adventure: Backpack to Lake Vernal and Spirit Lake (15.8 miles roundtrip)
Load up an overnight pack with your backpacking gear and head to the west side of the park and the quieter Grand Lake Entrance Station. From here, find the East Inlet Trailhead on Grand Lake and prepare for 24 hours of solitude, beauty and communing with Mother Nature.
The trail to Lake Vernal (first) and then Spirit Lake (second) is not incredibly difficult for its steepness or technical chops, but it is double-digit mileage if you opt for the whole thing. But even those who want a beautiful day hike will find something on this trail as it is littered with waterfalls and large wildlife, including moose. Along the way, hikers will spy Adams Falls, named for Jay E. Adams, an early settler in the area, before arriving at Lone Pine Lake and then Lake Vernal. (Pro tip: For backpackers, some of the best sites are situated between these two lakes.)
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For the adventurous, Lake Vernal isn’t the end of the road. From there, catch the trail (unofficial yet somewhat maintained) to Spirit Lake, loosely a half mile away. Spirit is rarely visited, so you won’t have to share some of the best rugged alpine views around. Added bonus: Thanks to its orientation in the East Inlet Valley, Spirit Lake is a prime viewing spot for sunset. Assuming you begin hiking on Saturday morning, you should easily arrive at the lake in time to catch an amazingly beautiful cessation to the day before waking on Sunday and retracing your steps back to the car.
Note: Overnight camping requires a Wilderness Camping Reservation Request. These can be acquired in two ways: Online at pay.gov/public/form/start/68498987 when reservations open for the season on March 1, or in person at either of the two Wilderness Offices at Beaver Meadows Visitor Center or Kawuneeche Visitor Center.
Strenuous Adventure: Lulu City and Longs Peak
Of course, Rocky Mountain wouldn’t be the park that it is without adventure options. For those looking to push their physical limits, this itinerary is for you. First, warm up your legs on Saturday by entering the park on the Grand Lake side. From there, find the Colorado River Trailhead on Trail Ridge Road. You’re headed to Lulu City, an easy, 6.2-mile roundtrip trek to the now-abandoned former mining town. Founded in 1879, Lulu was named after the daughter of Benjamin Burnett, a Fort Collins merchant who plotted the town. At its prime, the population hit 500 people, but low-grade ore made most miners quickly leave. It was abandoned by 1885. Today, most of the buildings are long gone, but you can still see dilapidated cabin remnants and a few foundational platforms, along with educational park signs.
Once you’re done at Lulu, head to the east side of the park and snag a hotel in Estes Park. Hit the hay early because you’ve got a 2 a.m. wake-up call looming on Sunday.
Longs Peak (14,259 feet) is arguably one of the most iconic fourteeners (peaks over 14,000 feet) in Colorado. The standard route — dubbed the Keyhole — is well-traveled, but it’s no joke. Many hikers have been left gasping for air in the Boulder Field or nervously shaking in their boots at first sight of The Narrows. The trail is 14½ miles long with an elevation gain of more than 5,000 feet, according to 14ers.com, so hikers need to be physically fit, mountain-competent, and have prior experience hiking and scrambling.
But for those who do, the peak is a treat. I recommend beginning your hike no later than 3 a.m. in order to be down and off the mountain before lunch to avoid afternoon lightning storms. The fun begins about 4 miles into the hike after trekkers pass Chasm Lake (11,500 feet) and reach the Boulder Field. From there, there is more scrambling as the trail winds up toward the iconic Keyhole (a rock formation) and on to The Ledges, a narrow section of rock with massive exposure. From there, the trail continues through The Trough, a 600-foot gully of loose rock, The Narrows and, finally, The Homestretch, a polished slab of granite that has seen a few hiking accidents over the years. Of course, reaching the summit is only half the battle; now you have to go back down.
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