Archive for the ‘Rocky Mountain National Park’ Category

  • Points Earned:  1
  • Trip date:  June 29, 2010
  • Wilderness area:  Rocky Mountain National Park
  • Wilderness size:  249,339 acres
  • Location:  Northern Colorado
  • Total miles:  4.2
  • Elevation differential:  1000 feet
  • Destination:  Gem Lake
  • Duration:  Day hike

Rock-bound Gem Lake

I had originally planned to hike up to Fox Creek Falls in the Commanche Peak Wilderness, but private property blocked access to where I thought there was a trailhead.  That’s what I get for relying on a 20-year-old forest service map.

It turned out to be a blessing in disguise.  I drove back towards Estes Park and noticed a trailhead sign for a place called “Gem Lake.” Why not?  It turned out to be one of the coolest, most unique day hikes I’ve ever done!

The area to the north of Estes Park and just inside the eastern edge of Rocky Mountain National Park offers an environment that is much different than most of the rest of the park.  While most of the park is characterized by high green valleys, soaring alpine peaks and cirque lakes, this area is more like the Lost Creek Wilderness southwest of Denver.  It is a bit lower in elevation and defined by huge rock formations–cliffs, overhangs, teetering boulders, etc…

Huge rock face near Gem Lake

From the trailhead, there are two ways to get to Gem Lake.  There is the direct route, which is only 1.8 miles.  Or, there is a longer approach that first goes to near the base of the Twin Owls and eventually reaches Gem Lake in about 2.4 miles.  I chose the longer route, but returning via the direct route, making for a nice little 4.2 mile loop.

The first attraction on this hike is the Twin Owls–two giant rocks separated by a narrow fissure that can take on the resemblence of two stoic owls overlooking their valley below.  There are a number of climbing routes on the Twin Owls.  Climbing route names include Upper Owls, Lower Owls, and, my favorite, Bowels of the Owls:

The Twin Owls

After approaching The Owls, the trail makes a turn towards the north or northeast for a long stretch of consistent uphill.  New boulders, cliffs and strange rock outcroppings come into view one after the other.  If you need a reminder that you are actually in Rocky Mountain National Park, just look southwest across the valley to impressive views of Longs Peak and its surroundings:

View to higher peaks over the peculiar rocks of the Gem Lake area

As I was looking back across the valley, I noticed the presence of the north Twin Sister.  The Twin Sisters are a priminent feature of the Front Range when viewed from the flatlands to the east, and they are part of Rocky Mountain National Park.  I suddenly remembered that I had climbed the North Twin Sister in 2007 and forgot to count it on this blog or put up a trip report on it.  Rather than create a separate trip report, I will just add the following information and include the mileage in my stats page:

The Twin Sisters trail is 7.2 miles round trip with an elevation gain of approximately 2,500 feet.  Most of the trail is a monotonous series of switch-backs with increasingly good views to the west of Longs Peak.  It gets much more interesting over the last half mile or so as the treeline is reached and the trail makes a final turn to the right and to the summit at around 11,500 feet.  I encountered the largest community of marmots I’ve ever seen right at the summit!  The views from the top of North Twin Sister are quite impressive with completely unimpeded sights over the eastern planes, and a close-up view of Longs in the other direction.

Back to the Gem Lake trail:  As the trail gets closer to the lake it only gets more interesting as now it cuts between those rock faces and gets a little steeper.  Dryish ponderosa forest is inturrupted here and there by green garden-like stretches with aspens and wildflowers:

A beautiful passage on the Gem Lake trail

One of the most interesting sights on this trail was a bizarre rock that I decided to call the Cyclops Boulder.  It has a naturally eroded, almost perfectly round, hole through the middle of it, and it is perched and shaped in such a way that it looks a little bit like a wierd one-eyed monster peering down at any hikers coming up the trail:

The Cyclops Boulder with its "eye" staring down on the trail below

A look through the eye of the Cyclops

Gem Lake arrives with a surprise as it is situated in the most unlikely setting.  Nothing more than a half-acre pond, it is nestled almost completely, it seems, in solid rock.  I’ve never seen a lake, or pond, quite like this one.  It was fantastic and yet slightly unnerving.  It seemed as though it shouldn’t be there, but it was:

Peculiar Gem Lake

Another angle on Gem Lake

I returned to the trailhead via the short 1.8 mile route feeling very fortunate, in a way, to have been unable to do the hike I had originally planned.  This one will go into my favorites list.


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Trip Report 6
  • Points: 1
  • Trip Dates:  1989?
  • Wilderness Area:  Rocky Mountain National Park
  • Wilderness Size:  249,339 acres
  • Location:  Northern Colorado
  • Destination:  Longs Peak Summit
  • Total Miles:  16
  • Duration:  Day hike

The square top of Longs Peak

A world-famous "big wall" the Diamond on Longs' East Face

The Keyhole. Look closely and you'll see dozens of hikers which is typical of a weekend summer afternoom

It was my second attempt at the summit of Longs, the first one being cut short at the keyhole by threatening weather.  This serious hike is one of the most incredible in the state due to its extreme scenery and unmatched character.  If you don’t like crowds, go on a weekday after Labor Day.

To get up and down Longs in a day requires a pre-dawn start at the trailhead.  We started off around 3:00 am in pitch-black in the thick pine forest.  Step after endless step in the dark took us up the monotonouos mountainside via a series of long switchbacks.

The first of many stunning moments came as we reached the open expanse of timberline right at sunrise.  We looked east to the double-summit of the Twin Sisters peaks as the red ball of the morning sun emerged from the horizon.  An explosion of color filled the sky, and for the first time we could see the landscape around us, pale in the early light.

Continuing on the trail somewhat follows a ridgeline and eventually enters the Boulder Field.  The Boulder Field of Longs is something else.  Huge teetering chunks of granite, many as big as houses, lay in haphazard positions as if they were simply dropped onto the flat by some colossal dump truck.

Picking through the Boulder Field an unusual sight grows gradually nearer:  the Keyhole.  The Keyhole is a three-quarter notch in the top of the ridge and the route goes right through the middle of it.  Reaching the Keyhole opens up all the scenery on the other side of the massive mountain that was previously blocked by the ridge, and it is some rugged, beautiful country.

After the Keyhole, you make a left turn and traverse what is called the Ledges, skirting the steep slope of the peak, before ascending the quite steep Trough to the next ridgetop.  Another left and the trail follows The Narrows.  People afraid of heights might have difficulty here as the trail literally follows a three foot wide shelf with huge vertical drops on the side.  Due to heavy traffic, people carefully pass each other on this narrow ledge going in opposite directions.  Step carefully.  Finally, a last steep push up a solid slab of rock called The Homestretch takes you to the flat 4 acre summit of Longs.

The Keyhole route is a three-quarter spiral up the big 14,259-foot mountain.  The verticle wall of the East (Diamond) Face is the only part not traversed.  Doing it in a day is a long and fairly strenuous hike, but it is more than worth it and continues to be one of the most impressive and memorable hikes I’ve ever done.

The pictures above were found on the internet.

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Trip Report 4

  • Points:  1
  • Trip Dates:  July 1985?
  • Wilderness Area:  Rocky Mountain National Park
  • Wilderness Size:  249,339 acres
  • Location:  Northern Colorado
  • Destination:  Chasm Lake
  • Total Miles:  8
  • Duration:  Day hike

Chasm Lake with Longs Peak's famous Diamon Face

The 2,000 foot Diamond Face of Longs Peak drops almost straight into the deep waters of Chasm Lake.

This may have been my first hike into designated wilderness, although I can’t be sure as it was about 25 years ago.  I went with my cousin and his wife who were visiting from back east.

The first 3, maybe 3.5 miles of this trail is the same trail used for the very popular Keyhole ascent of Longs Peak itself.  The Chasm Lake trail breaks off to the left from the Longs Peak route once the trail rises above timberline.  I remember the trail going back downhill into a high valley and then up into the basin supporting the lake.  It is a very spectacular setting, and a very popular trail in the park.

The picture above was found on the internet.

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