For our journey to Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) we stayed in Estes Park which is known as the base camp for RMNP. Estes Park is located only 70 miles from Denver.
RMNP is the 26th largest national park, which encompasses 265,461 acres (414.78 sq mi) of federal land, with an additional 253,059 acres (395.40 sq mi) of U.S. Forest Service wilderness adjoining the park boundaries. The Continental Divide runs generally north–south through the center of the park, with rivers and streams on the western side of the divide flowing toward the Pacific Ocean while those on the eastern side flow toward the Atlantic.
RMNP is one of the highest national parks in the nation, with elevations ranging from 7,860 feet in the grassy valleys to 14,259 feet at the top of Longs Peak. The Trail Ridge Road is the highest continuous paved road in North America with a peak elevation of 12,183 feet. The scenery is unlike any other with the spectacular beauty of the Continental Divide and collection of 72 peaks that all top 12,000 feet in elevation. Several small glaciers and permanent snowfields are found in the high mountain cirques.
Picture below are Mount Julian (left of center) a 12,933 foot peak; Cracktop (center peak) at 12,760 feet and Chief Cheley Peak visible to the right of the snow bowl (12,804 feet).
With only 4 full-days in Colorado and a typical summer weather forecast (periodic rain and thunderstorms), we had to hope for the best in order to complete 2 good hikes.
Our best wildlife sighting. We saw this elk driving back to the Airbnb from RMNP.
Chasm Lake Hike (10.8 miles)
Chasm Lake is a beautiful high alpine lake, located in a cirque surrounded by Mount Meeker, Longs Peak and Mount Lady Washington. Be forewarned, parking is limited so get to the trail head early. The Longs Peak trail head started at an elevation of 9,405 feet with a walk through a thick forest.
The sound of water continued throughout much of the early hike.
After approximately 2 miles, we emerged from the forest and entered the subalpine zone (9,000-11,000 ft). Fir and spruce trees grow straight and tall in the lower subalpine forests, but become shorter and more deformed the nearer they are to the tree line.
In this region. the trees began to change shape into what’s called Krummholz forest. It’s a German term meaning “crooked” or “twisted wood”.
After leaving the forest we had a clear view (left to right) of Mt. Meeker (13,916 ft), Longs Peak (14,259 ft) and Mt. Lady Washington (13,281 ft). It was a short walk to the tree line and the alpine tundra region.
The alpine tundra is characterized by dwarf shrubs which grow close to the ground due to the cold climate and strong winds. Over 1/3 of RMNP resides over the tree-line above 11,000 ft.
The next section of the trail involved crossing a snow field situated on the hillside above Peacock Pool and Columbine Falls. The falls are visible in the picture below; they were much more impressive the closer we got.
We weren't surprised to see snow in July since we were at an elevation of 11,486 feet.
Slow and steady.... one wrong step and it was a long slide down toward Columbine Falls. The path was only slightly wider than two boots. After a short adjustment period, it was fun walking through the snow field (at least one of us thought so!).
The final section of the hike involved some scrambling and hand holds up the outer side of the 'wall' that holds the lake.. This short but strenuous pitch was well worth since we were quickly rewarded with the views of Chasm Lake.
Chasm Lake sits in front of you in a grand cirque below the towering Longs Peak.
Situated in the top middle section of this picture is Longs Peak and the 'Diamond' (top center). The Diamond is the sheer east face of Longs Peak; 900 feet of vertical and overhanging rock tops out at 14,000 feet, forming a diamond-shaped wall within the wall—the premier alpine face in the lower forty-eight states.
A brief stop for lunch and then the start back down. We had beautiful weather for this hike until the end. As we approached the parking lot, it started to rain.
Old Fall River Road and Trail Ridge Road
The next day we took a break from hiking and enjoyed this iconic drive through the heart of RMNP. Old Fall River Road, completed in 1920, was the first auto route in the park that provided access to the alpine tundra which starts between elevations of 11,000 to 11,500 feet, depending on exposure. This road is a 9-mile long gravel and dirt, one-way uphill climb with plenty of switchbacks. Weather permitting it opens in early July. We were luck the road had opened only a few weeks earlier.
The only downside with taking Old Fall River Rd is that you bypass half of the Trail Ridge Road. but the scenery was still amazing. Old Fall River Road intersects Trail Ridge Road just before the Alpine Visitor Center.
One of the first pullouts is Chasm Falls. A short steep trail led to a nice view of the falls and the 30 foot drop.
After the falls, the road continued climbing passing into the subalpine region filled with spruce and fir trees. The trees began to shrink as the high-elevation climate becomes more extreme and plants become fewer.
Elk and mule deer are common along the fields that mark the ascent to the higher elevations.
Located above the tree-line, the alpine tundra of RMNP is considered by many as the most pristine in the lower 48 states. The growing season here lasts only 6-12 weeks. Most tundra plants are low growing and compact which shelters them against the drying cold winds. Despite the severe conditions, more than 100 species of flowering plants live on the alpine tundra.
On the roof of the Rockies where the road climbs to 12,183 feet, severe weather can come at any time. Temperatures commonly drop below freezing even in summer. Pictured below is Terra Tomah Mountain with its plateau top reaching 12,718 feet.
Trail Ridge Road views are not considered complete without a view of Mount Julian (left) and Cracktop Mountain (right). The 'crack' in the mountain is easily seen in this picture.
Flattop Mountain and Hallett Peak Hike ( 11.4 miles)
Originally, we had planned to climb Mount Ida but we were told the trail was snow covered and hikers reported large sections of the trail were still snow covered so we decided to do the combo hike Flattop Mountain and Hallett Peak. The trail starts off along the shores of Bear Lake with a beautiful view of Hallett Peak... our destination for today.
This hike was a continuous series of taking shirts and jackets on then off again. Our clothing at the early morning start of the hike walking trough a forest of aspens and thick pine tree.
It wasn't long before we had a view across the valley of Longs Peak.
Approaching the tree-line and getting better views of the surrounding Rockies.
From one of the trail lookouts, we had an excellent view of our destination, Hallett Peak (red arrow). It seemed so far away at this point.
After about 2.8 miles, the trees started to thin. After a series of switchbacks we entered the exposed alpine environment.
The trail became rockier but still well marked. By this time Dave had added a short sleeve shirt on top of his long-sleeve jersey. The wind had picked up making it feel that much colder.
After reaching the alpine tundra plateau, it was another 1.5 miles to the top of Flattop Mountain. A nice view of the Mummy Mountain range as we crossed the tundra heading toward the Flattop summit. A few other hikers passed us on their way down.
Most of the hike from this point on was into a strong head wind.
Marmots having fun in the rocks.
Just below the summit of Flattop Mountain, we reached a horse hitch rack with great views of Hallett Peak and Tyndall Glacier (far right). Time for a picture. From here, we were less than 200 feet from the summit of Flattop.
A snow field crossing led to the 'summit'. It was much easier than the snow field we encountered on the hike to Chasm Lake. Getting even chiller; it was time for jackets and gloves.
At the Flattop summit (12,324 feet) it was easy to see how this mountain got its name; it’s less of a peak and more of a broad field of tundra and rock. From here we followed a series of cairns for about a half a mile to Hallett Peak (12,713 feet).
Along the way, we passed Tyndell Glacier and gorge as two people were getting ready to strap on their skis for what would obviously be a great run. It's a lot steeper than it looks with a 40-50 degree slope.
Now started the steady scramble to the summit. It was challenging first because of the altitude and steepness and secondly because there was no visible trail, you simply chose the 'best route' to each cairn.
After climbing 400 vertical feet from the summit of Flattop, we reached Hallett Peak (12,713 feet) and celebrated our success.
We took refuge from the wind in an outcropping and took time to appreciate our stunning views and also chow down snacks. We could see storm/rain clouds in the distance so we cut our stay short and headed down to avoid inclement weather while we were out in the open and exposed.
Our summit views.
Short video taken at the summit.
Our last look back at Hallett Peak and the long journey back to the car.