This article was originally written way back in 2004 on an older version of my website. I have updated it over the years. Besides being (possibly) the oldest article on this site, it is my most popular as well.
As a rule of thumb, snow persists into the higher areas well into April or early May for the foothills. Don’t expect the higher country to be snow free until July.
In general, the Lost Creek Wilderness area and the Twin Owls loop are open ~mid-late May or so (depending on snow year) to ~late-Sept/early October. The other loops? About late June or early July with winter coming by mid-Sept or so. These dates are rules of thumb and are all dependent on the snow year and how soon winter comes of course.
- These ideas not enough? Five more Colorado backpacking loops ideas may be found here.
- Looking for early or deep shoulder season backpacking trips? Click here! These trips are ideal when there is too much snow higher up.
Finally, if you want to know to get to these places without a rental car, please see this link.
Please Note: While these trip ideas will help you plan out a trip to some areas I love, it is not by any means a complete guide. It is rather an overview of the area.
The trip ideas below are not a replacement for a map, compass (and GPS) and their use. You should consult the appropriate map before planning your trip. Naturally, you should also have the skill set to be comfortable and safe in the Colorado outdoors before attempting a trip. The mileage and elev gain comes from mapping software and/or established websites.
It should be noted that consumer grade GPS and GPS enabled phones are reasonably accurate for pinpointing location but are not accurate for measuring distance. A Recreational Grade GPS will typically add mileage that is not accurate.
If you are new to the Colorado outdoors (or the outdoors in general), you may want to read my basic guide for beginners backpacking. If you are more interested in day hiking, I wrote an intro guide as well. This day hiking guide was meant for trips I lead. If you go off on your own day hikes, you should have the items I listed for “longer or more arduous trips”.
Some of my favorite trips have been off-trail. However, for the purpose of this little guide, I decided to keep to trips that are accessible by trails. Off-trail hiking can be fun. But it requires knowing how to be comfortable with a map and compass and being a bit off the beaten path (or not path at all!). I’m also lazy and do not want to write a detailed description that off-trail routes would require. 🙂
Have fun in the Colorado outdoors. It is a great place to be!
The loops are:
- Pawnee Pass and Buchanan Pass Loop
- Twin Owls Loop
- Bear Lake to Grand Lake loop
- Lost Creek Wilderness Loop
- Maroon Bells Loop
Backpacking is perhaps the most “pure” way to enjoy the outdoors.
You are immersed in the outdoors and living in nature with the gear and food on your pack. You are not just visiting the wilderness; it is your home. Be it for a night or several days, there is something special about spending time in the wild. Cares are forgotten, you live life at its simplest and life seems to be down to its essentials.
Below are (in no particular order) some backpacking trips I have enjoyed for various reasons.
Total Length: ~28 miles (with Crater Lake option)
There are some places in the mountains that I’ve returned to many times. Places that are beautiful and stunning and always seems to call out to me.
Franconia Ridge in New Hampshire. The Wind River Range in Wyoming. The canyon country of Utah.
All places that are far from my current home. Places the require travel time and often vacation time.
But there is one place near my home that I always return. A place that is full of alpine views and lakes. Abundance of wildflowers in the summer and golden leafed aspen in the autumn. This place is in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. Or more specifically a two pass loop that encompasses going over to the Continental Divide and continuing on to the remote feeling Western side of the Indian Peaks. It is a loop I call The Double By-Pass. This loop makes for a challenging two day backpack or a more leisurely three. Some crazier people are known to have done it as one-helluva-day-hike. Ahem.
Start at the Mitchell Lake trailhead in the Brainard Lake Recreation Area . Proceed up the Mt. Audubon trail and soon pass timberline. Pause at the Beaver Creek Trail junction, and enjoy the scenery before you descend back into timberline and to Coney Flats. At peak aspen season, the yellow aspens framed by Sawtooth in the background makes for a great photo.
Continue on the Buchanan Pass Trail to Buchanan Pass itself. The Continental Divide now stretches north and south. Descend to Fox Park, and enjoy the wide meadow. Continue further down into the trees and watch the eco systems change as elevation is lost.
At the Cascade Creek Trail junction, continue southeast to Pawnee Pass, and walk along the many creeks and waterfalls. The loop continues at the Pawnee Pass trail junction, but it is worth the two mile r/t side trip to Crater Lake and the great view of Lone Eagle Peak.
Continue gaining elevation as you pass Pawnee Lake and then climb up to the divide and Pawnee Pass.
Descend again down the Pawnee Pass trail where the trail joins up with the Jean Lunning trail. The junction is next to Isabelle Lake with its commanding views back to the divide and Isabelle Glacier.
Follow the Jean Lunning trail around Long Lake and to the Long Lake trailhead. Take a breather and follow the asphalt briefly back to Mitchell Lake trailhead and the completion of this loop.
NOTE ABOUT BRAINARD: This area has become increasingly busy over the years. Due to changes in 2013, there is less parking near the Mitchell Lake TH. There is now a new parking lot near the Pawnee Campground area perhaps .5 miles from the Mitchell Lake TH. However, both these parking lots fill up early. If you go on a weekend, GET THERE EARLY (by 8am. Seriously) Otherwise, you have to park at the winter trailhead and hike up the Sourdough to the South St. Vrains trail or road walk up Brainard Lake Rd.. This will about ~6-7 (road vs trail) miles R/T total to the hike.
Two Days vs Three: If you decided on the three day option, the Buchanan – Pawnee route makes more sense. You can camp after the shoulder of Audubon in the Coney Flats area, then climb over Buchanan and camp between the two passes to avoid afternoon t-storms. OTOH, if doing a two day loop, you’ll want to go over Pawnee first. By the time you the afternoon t-storms roll in, you’ll hopefully be well below treeline. Get an early start the following day to avoid t-storms in the afternoon at the shoulder of Audubon.
Post Hike: After this calorie burning trip, a great place to refuel is in the funky mountain town of Nederland (“Ned” to locals). Some great Indian/Nepali food is found at the Kathmandu restaurant. What better place to eat this kind of food than at 8200 plus feet and in the shadow of the Continental Divide? If you are tired, the bottomless cups of chai will get you going again….
Total Length: ~14 miles (with Bridal Veil Falls option)
The Twin Owls Loop more often than not is a favorite day hike of mine more so than a backpacking trip. Its lower elevation makes it accessible the entire year. Wide open meadows provide great views of the Continental Divide, the Mummy Range and the most famous peak in Rocky Mountain National Park: Longs Peak. This trip is also an excellent Fall trip as the aspens abound and frame the nearby peaks so well.
The above qualities also make it an excellent trip for people new to backpacking and/or Colorado.
With two backcountry campsites more or less located in the middle of the loop, it is an excellent way to get introduced to the Colorado outdoors. Even if you are an experienced backpacker, it is also a good trip if you just want a quick overnighter. A trip does not have to be difficult or long to be enjoyable. 🙂
Rather than duplicate the excellent description found at Protrails (great website if you are looking for day hiking ideas beyond mine) , I’ll just add some info from a backpacking perspective.
Follow the description listed in the above site from the main trailhead.
At the meadow, be sure to enjoy the unique rock formations above. In the Fall, the aspen with the ridge above is extremely nice view.
After gaining some elevation you descend into another open meadow , just past is the Peregrine campsite at the 5.5 mile mark. Alternately, you can go not quite a mile further to the Rabbit Ears campsite.
After making camp, be sure to take the side trip to Bridal Veil Falls. It makes a wonderful, pre-dinner trip. Without your backpacking gear, it is a very easy ~2 mile round trip excursion from either campsite.
The following day, continue along some more meadows and make a climb up to a ridge.
The way down from Gem Lake is simply stunning. More views towards the peaks, interesting rock formations and more aspen that is simply stunning in the Fall.
Congrats! You’ve done your first Colorado backpacking trip! The first of many more to come.
Post Hike: On the way back from this trip, be sure to stop at Oskar Blues in Lyons.
About half-way between Boulder and Estes Park, Oskar Blues makes for a great post-trip burger and brew. The burgers are delicious and the beer yummy. Oskar Blues has also been known to do AYCE BBQ during the summer, too!
*** It should be noted that consumer grade GPS and GPS enabled phones are excellent for pinpointing location but are not accurate for measuring distance. ****
Total Length: Approx 35 miles (with Shaft House option per all trails software)
Total Elevation Gain: 7200′ elev gain
Many people often ask me what would be a suitable trip for someone coming from lower elevations. A trip that really shows off some of the best parts of Colorado. Preferably a place that is not too crowded. And of course, not too far from Denver/Boulder.
The Lost Creek Wilderness fills this criteria quite well. Its highest point is “only” just aove 12k ft (and the majority of the area seldom getting much above 10k ft). Not only a great trip for people from lower elevations, it is also a great place for early summer or late fall backpacks. And it is a place I find more and more magical each time I go.
There are two lovely loops I always suggest. The first is a ~22 mile loop with about 7000′ gain. It is a loop that shows fantastic red rock formations, views of Pikes Peak and goes through wide open meadows.
However, I prefer a ~35 mile loop with 7200′ +/- elev gain. This extend loop takes in much of the same scenery and use all of the same trails except for one. (A cut-off trail that goes through McCurdy Park). The larger loop goes along the ridge between McCurdy Mountain and Bison Peak. In my opinion, the best part of the Lost Creek Wilderness. This loop is a challenging two day loop or a moderate three day loop. For those wishing to spend extended time in the wilderness or take it easy, it makes for a nice four day loop as well.
With either option, you will see one of my favorite parts of Colorado. A place that is bit off the beaten path.
I really can’t phrase the description of the LCW better than local guide book author Gerry Roach:
“You can hike hours through trees, then burst upon a private universe far above roads and cities. These summits let you taste freedom and touch the sky. They will draw you back.”
This route starts at the Goose Creek Trailhead. This trailhead can be busy, but once you are past this area the crowds thin out remarkably. The trailhead starts in an area devastated by the notorious Hayman fire of 2002. However, once you drop to the Goose Creek area (only a mile in or so), the woods become lush, the creek flows and you see the resiliency of nature.
The trail shortly splits at the trailhead. Follow the Hankins Gulch Trail to Hankins Pass. At the pass follow the Lake Park Trail. You’ll see the first of many red rock formations that is part of the Pikes’ Peak Uplift.
At the end of the Lake Park Trail, continue north to the McCurdy Park Trail /Brookside-McCurdy Trail split. At this split, you can go to the beautiful McCurdy Park and do the 22 mile loop. Or you can continue to my favorite part of the LCW – the ridge between McCurdy Mountain and Bison Peak.
To put it simply, the ridge is incredible. Wide open, red rocks that look like dribbled sand and impressive views to Pikes Peak to the south.
As you continue along this ridge, you’ll have ample opportunity to “bag” McCurdy or Bison Peak with its commanding views of the surrounding land.
Just off the ridge, and near Bison Peak, is the impressive and officially un-named rock formation I call the Bison Peak Sentinel.
This large and obvious rock formation stands out on the plateau and makes a great place to take in the grandeur of Lost Creek Wilderness.
At Bison Pass, continue north down to the valley and connect to the Wigwam Trail. For a while you will be enjoying easy hiking in the Lost Park and Wigwam Park areas. Enjoy the wide open meadows that is the other notable feature of the LCW.
At the end of Wigwam Park, hook up on the Goose Creek Trail again. This trail will be followed for the remainder of the hike and will take you back to the Goose Creek Trailhead.
Along the Goose Creek Trail, you’ll look into McCurdy Park again and see more of the impressive rock formations that never fail to impress.
Further down the Goose Creek Trail, you’ll see a side trail to the Shaft House. This side trip is less than one mile round trip and is well worth the extra time. The Shaft House is the site of an abandoned late 1800s/early 1900s attempt to make a dam in what is now the Lost Creek Wilderness.
This site of the failed attempt not only illustrates a part of Colorado history, but also makes a person realize how different this area could have been if the attempt was successful. Out of this failure, Colorado has gained a great outdoor area.
After this side trail, and about two miles of hiking, you come to the end of the Goose Creek Trail and complete the trip. If you are like me, you’ll fall in love with the Lost Creek area and want to return multiple times to rediscover its charms.
Post Hike: The Crossroads restaurant I had suggested previously is no more. It has been replaced by a mediocre ‘road theme’ (Think RT66) restaurant with a not-so-good beer selection. Though I have not tried it, one reader at Backpackinglight.com said “You pass by an excellent place to eat on that drive (Goose Creek or Wigwam THs to 285). With some very good beers on tap. Plus they allow dogs on the deck (a good place for stinky hikers anyway). It’s Zoka’s in Pine Grove. Give it a try. zokas.com”
I’m always up for trying new places and will have to check it out!!!!
Note: I’ve received reports that the mapping software is inaccurate vs the Recreational Grade GPS. It is the other way around. 🙂 It should be noted that consumer grade GPS and GPS enabled phones are reasonably accurate for pinpointing location but are not accurate for measuring distance. In mountain terrain, the mileage numbers are often inflated.
|#4 The Grand Traverse – Bear Lake to Grand Lake loop, Rocky Mountain National Park
Total Length: ~34 miles
Total Elevation Gain: ~6700′
Maps: Trails Illustrated Map #200 (Rocky Mountain National Park)
Dogs: No pooches allowed
Permit: A backcountry permit is needed Additionally, bear canisters are now needed for any RMNP site below treeline. Also, please note that Esbit and alcohol stoves are not permitted in RMNP.Here is a backpacking trip that takes in the high country of the Continental Divide on a wide plateau. Where you can follows a famous long distance hiking trail for a bit. A loop where there is a good chance you’ll see big horn sheep. A half-way point where you can sit by the shore the largest natural lake in Colorado, cross over the divide again and then end the loop by admiring a lake nestled along the divide. Phew!In short, a loop that takes in what many people picture as the quintessential Colorado experience of backpacking: Wide open spaces, limitless vistas and big mountains. The length of this loop makes for a challenging two day trip or a moderate three day trip.This hike starts at the very popular and crowded Bear Lake trailhead.A beautiful area, but best enjoyed at the end of the loop when (hopefully) the crowds are a bit more scarce.
From this trailhead, ascend up the Flattop Mountain Trail. This area will be busy, but not nearly as busy as Bear Lake below. On this hike, you’ll gain almost half of the elevation gain for this trip (almost 2900′)! So keep that pleasant fact in mind as you amble up the trail with full packs. The worse of climbing is being done right away. 🙂
Of course, it isn’t too bad when you have some of the finest views in Colorado on the way up and at the top. Enjoy the views of nearby Longs Peak, have a bit to eat at the edge of a glacier and enjoy the fact you are on now on the backbone of the continent while on you walk along the Continental Divide Trail.
At Flat Top, you may elect to take a side trip up to Hallet Peak. Otherwise, continue on the Tonahutu Creek Trail. There is a good chance you’ll have this area to yourself.
The views on Bighorn Flats and towards Sprague Pass are some of the best in the park. You’ll often see bighorn sheep on the northern side of this area, too.
As you make your way down the trail and into the trees, you will pass several backcountry sites that make a great place to camp for the first night on a three day trip. You are in trees and it is peaceful.
Along the way on this trail, you’ll encounter the area called aptly enough Big Meadows. The hiking is easy and gentle along the creek.
Continue to follow the Tonahutu Trail to near Grand Lake. You will reach a trailhead. If you want to keep this trip as a backcountry experience, do not go into town, but go to the other trail: The North Inlet Trail
The North Inlet Trail is where you start to gain the divide again.
Continue to follow the North Inlet trail through mainly wooded terrain. After some steep switchbacks you’ll again be above treeline. Continue on and you’ll shortly be back on Flattop Mountain.
Follow the Flat Top Mountain trail again down back to Bear Lake and the completion of this loop.
A great option on this trip is to to make your own version of a European-style hut to hut (or car to town to car? 🙂 ) trip. Have a light day pack, hike the ~17 miles to the Tonahutu/North Inlet split and walk into the town of Grand Lake itself.
Enjoy the views of Grand Lake, grab some food and crash in town for the night. Hike out after a big breakfast (and copious amounts of coffee). A great trip for those who want to enjoy some Colorado scenery..but not rough it too much. 🙂 See the link above for more info…
Grand Lake photo courtesy of Wikipedia
One place I recommend staying is the Shadow Cliff Hostel. Besides offering traditional dorm-style hostel accommodations, they also offer private rooms. The hostel has an amazing view of the lake and is right next to the Tonahutu/North Inlet trail split. At only $27 a night (for a bunk) as of 2012, it is an amazing deal!
Another option is ta smaller loop that is great for a mellow-ish weekend backpack is to start/end at Grand Lake. Eliminates the hike to and from Flattop and Bear Lake. Shaves about nine miles and 2700′ gain. Makes an ~25 mi R/T and 3000′ hike roughly over two days. Great scenery with easy logistics. A moderate loop can be done for over three days.
Note: Sadly, you’ll also see another unfortunate part of modern day Colorado hiking: Pine Bark Beetle infested trees . You’ll see the brownish-red pine needles a fair amount at the start of the hike; you’ll really see them in the Grand Lake area….
Post Hike: If you do the Euro-style hiking, there are plenty of places to choose for munchies in Grand Lake. They are all in easy walking distance of the hostel as well.
After the entire hike, I suggest my old standby of Oskar Blues in Lyons. Why tinker with success?
Total Length: 30 miles (via Geneva Lake)
Total Elevation Gain: ~10000 ft
Maps: Trails Illustrated Map #128 (Maroon Bells)
Dogs: On leash only
Permit: Free and avail at trail head
This loop is, without question, one of the most scenic, epic, stunning, superlative filled (on trail) backpacks you can do in Colorado. Your lungs and quads power you over over four alpine passes, (and, on the option I prefer) by four large mountain lakes. The wildflowers are a riot of color at peak and the backpacking trip also is an aspen watchers delight. If you are looking for one of the most memorable backpacking trips you can do, this is the one!
The only down side of this loop? Many other people also love this loop, too. We are talking near “Franconia Ridge on a summer weekend” level of crowds.
The solution? Do this loop during the week or after Labor Day.
This loop is also at the edge my “two-three hour drive” limit, but well worth the extra time in the car (Take Independence Pass for a quicker drive!)
My only personal regret from doing this loop? My camera died on me. Argghh! Gives me a great excuse to do this trip again, though
Luckily, my friends were able to provide me some great photos. Thanks guys!
The reason for the nickname of this hike is easy enough to guess. Via trail, you circle around the 14k plus feet peaks of North and South Maroon aka The Maroon Bells over four 12k plus feet passes.
Due to the length and elevation gain, this trip is a very challenging two day one. Most people prefer taking 3-4 days to do this loop.
The loop starts at the Maroon-Snowmass trailhead in the Maroon-Snowmass Wilderness.
Right away you will see the grandeur of this hike. You are gazing upon what is reported to be
the most photographed view in Colorado: The Maroon Bells from Maroon Lake.
From the lake, continue up the trail to Buckskin Pass. Steeply switchbacked, but oh so glorious at the top! I suggest doing this pass first as you are fresh and the last pass (West Maroon Pass) is comparatively easy.
After Buckskin, continue on the trail and probably enjoy the wildflowers at peak. If Buckskin was not jaw dropping enough, it will definitely drop at Snowmass Lake.
Now Follow the Geneva Lake trail up to the second pass: Trail Rider Pass.
More Colorado goodness awaits you!
After Trail Rider Pass, continue to follow the Geneva Lake Trail to Geneva Lake. A few more miles are added this way than via the traditional route, but the carpet of wildflowers and Geneva Lake itself are both outstanding!
Now follow the North Fork Trail to the third pass: Frigid Air Pass.
Of all the passes, I think this one was my favorite. The view was of deep green vegetation mixed in with snow and maroon color of the peaks. The view was expansive and remarkable.
Pause, enjoy the view and get ready for the last of the passes: West Maroon Pass
The views are comparable to Frigid Air Pass, if not as expansive. West Maroon Pass does have this really deep red rock that reminds me of Mars. It is also a great place to pause and enjoy your last bit of wilderness before plunging back into the “real world”.
Leaving the final pass behind, you eventually amble along West Maroon Creek which the leads to fourth and final lake of the loop: Crater Lake.
From Crater Lake, you only have a mile or so to go until the end. Take a moment to pause by the lake. Snap some photos. And (if you are like me) be amazed at what a wonderful experience you just had.
Shortly after the lake, you again join up with the Maroon-Snowmass Trail and head back to Maroon Lake.
At Maroon Lake, look back to where you have been. And contemplate that just one trip to this area is not enough. Four passes, four lakes, two 14k foot mountains and many memories. You will be back.
Post Hike: Nearby Aspen is not exactly a low rent district (to put it mildly). I’ve have not found any “wow..what a great place for not too much money” kinda place in Aspen. Of course, I have not spent much time in Aspen, either! There are some bars and grill type places (my post-trail comfort food place!) in Aspen, but I suspect they are on the expensive side comparatively speaking. Still, when you are hungry, you probably do not mind a $20 burger. 🙂 Maybe this Google search will help?
If you are hiker trash like me, you may want to look into a rumor of a Cucnia D’Aspen that appeared one Fall evening before a trail race. But that is just rumor….