Hiking Circuits in Rocky Mountain National Park

Hiking Circuits in Rocky Mountain National Park

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by Jack P. Hailman, Elizabeth D. Hailman

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Hiking Circuits in Rocky Mountain National Park is the first guide dedicated entirely to the loop trails of Rocky Mountain National Park, trails that return hikers to their starting point without the necessity of retracing steps or walking on roads. Having explored the park extensively for over 30 years, Jack and Elizabeth Hailman describe and map 33

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Hiking Circuits in Rocky Mountain National Park is the first guide dedicated entirely to the loop trails of Rocky Mountain National Park, trails that return hikers to their starting point without the necessity of retracing steps or walking on roads. Having explored the park extensively for over 30 years, Jack and Elizabeth Hailman describe and map 33 circuits and component loops, with detailed driving instructions to the access points. Circuits range from a 15-minute stroll around a lake to strenuous all-day outings in the high country and even a few multi-day backpacking trips. Side trips are often recommended for viewing a scenic waterfall, summit, lake, or other natural feature. A convenient table lists circuits by walking time, allowing hikers to choose loops designed to fit their schedules. Each account includes a map, directions to the trailhead, trail distance, estimated hiking time, elevation range, exertion rating, segment descriptions for both clockwise and counter-clockwise hikes, and rail notes about the wildflowers, animals, and other natural history features encountered by the authors. Maps show the loop route, short access trails where applicable, routes of optional side trips, trail junctions, point-to-point walking distances, elevations of the trail points, and more. Included are appendices for natural history, local hiking supply stores, and fee schedules, with an extensive bibliography for reading and reference.

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University Press of Colorado
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5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)

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Loop Trails, With Special Sections for Combining Circuits and Using the Shuttle Bus to Complete a Circuit
By Jack P. Hailman Elizabeth D. Hailman

University Press of Colorado

Copyright © 2003 Jack P. Hailman and Elizabeth D. Hailman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87081-721-2

Chapter One

About the Circuit Accounts

Within the major access sections (East Side, Bear Lake Road, West Side), accounts are ordered by access point from north to south. If the name of a circuit ends in "Loops," that circuit has component circles (either concentric, or, more commonly, adjacent to one another). For planning purposes, a complete table on page xiii shows formula hiking times for all circuits and any component loops. Many circuits also have one or more optional, out-and-back side trips, which extend the hiking time, so the table provides maximum formula times that include all possible side trips.


FORMULA TIME(S): This section provides formula walking times (in hours and minutes) for the circuit only (shortest hike) as well as the circuit plus all optional side trips (longest hike). As explained in the Introduction, formula time is calculated by allotting an hour for each 2.0 miles walked and each 1000feet of total elevation gained. Formula time is the actual walking time and does not include lunch stops, lengthy rests, sightseeing, photography, or other diversions.

HIKING ELEVATIONS: This section provides the lowest and highest elevations of the circuit. Often, an optional side trip will take the hiker up from the circuit; these higher elevations are also given. Total elevation gain may be much greater than the difference between highest and lowest elevations.

EXERTION RATING(S): As explained in the Introduction, we have devised a rating system to reflect the strenuousness of a hike. The formula incorporates factors for distance walked, total elevation gained, and average altitude. Minimum rating is for the circuit itself; the maximum figure includes all optional side trips.

FEATURES: Here we describe the general character of a hike and its main attractions-obviously a matter of judgment.

ACCESS POINTS: The access points are the named trailheads, picnic areas, or other places where hikers can park a car. Details on how to find the access point(s) are given later in the account.

SEASONS: Notes on appropriate seasonal use are based on information kindly provided by RMNP staff member Dick Putney.

SUMMARY: Here we provide a table showing the distance, elevation gain, formula time, and exertion rating for the circuit itself and for each component loop and optional side trip. If you wish to plan an outing involving at least one but not all possible side trips, add the formula times for the desired side trip(s) to the formula time for the circuit itself to estimate walking time. The exertion ratings also add in the same way.

FINDING THE ACCESS POINT(S): Sometimes the most confusing thing about a hike is finding the starting place. This section provides directions to the access point (or points, if more than one choice is available), and to the trail from the parking place if the way is not obvious. We also state whether drinking water and toilets are available at the access point. Warning: Access points rarely provide sources of drinking water. Fill your bottles before setting out for the day.

TRAIL DESCRIPTION: This section includes notes for each leg of the hike (including the formula time for that leg) and indicates whether the hike should be done clockwise or counterclockwise. If we favor walking the circuit in a particular direction, we state why. We may also say a few words about the general ecology and terrain here, but if our notes are more extensive, we save them for the hiking notes. Note that summing individual formula times may differ from the overall time by 1 minute because of rounding. The component leg times are useful for predicting when you should reach a specific point, such as a planned lunch stop. They are also helpful for orienting yourself. If you should have reached a particular place after 20 minutes of walking and have not reached it after 40, you've probably missed it. The notes also provide times for side trips, and often some notes about what you may see on a given leg of the hike. Ancillary information-on natural history, for example-is shown in italics. Walking a circuit in the other direction from that described in detail will involve the same time overall, but individual segments will differ because the elevation gains are in different places. Therefore, following the main description, we offer a summary of the trail segments in the opposite direction. The optional out-and-back side trips are the same regardless of which way the circuit is walked.

OUR HIKING NOTES: For those circuits we've taken notes on (most of them), we share our experiences. If we timed our hike, we begin by comparing the actual duration with the formula time. We try to mention the habitats (including component trees) passed through, smaller plants noticed (principally wildflowers), birds seen or heard, and mammals spotted. These are not necessarily the things you will find or notice, but at least you are alerted to possibilities. Some guidebooks tend to highlight the larger animals, even if people are extremely unlikely to see one. For example, Mountain Lions do inhabit Rocky Mountain National Park, but they have huge home ranges and are both nocturnal and shy, so your chances of seeing one are very slim. You do have a good chance, however, of seeing the same things we did on a particular route.

About names of animals and plants: Following a convention universal in ornithology and widespread among wildflower enthusiasts, we use initial caps on proper names of plant and animal species ("a grove of Engelmann Spruce") but lowercase generic categories ("a grove of spruce trees"). This orthographic device is useful in distinguishing between, for instance, a Blue Jay (a particular species of jay) and a blue jay (a jay that is blue, which is true of both the Blue Jay and Steller's Jay). To avoid burdening the book with Latinized scientific names we use standard common names for which the exact scientific name can be found in an appropriate reference. Common names of plants follow Plants of Rocky Mountain National Park by L. H. Beidleman, R. G. Beidleman, and B. E. Willard. We list wildflowers in the sequence they are found in this book, except that we follow the usual practice of listing monocots before dicots. Fungi are no longer considered plants, but rather compose a separate kingdom paralleling plants and animals. Mushroom common names are taken from A Field Guide to Mushrooms of North America by K. H. McKnight and V. B. McKnight. Bird names, and the sequence in which birds are listed, follows the authoritative A. O. U. Check-list of North American Birds, 7th ed., published by the American Ornithologists' Union. You needn't bother tracking down this academic monograph in a college library, however, because the species list is available on the World Wide Web at http://pica.wru.umt.edu/aou/birdlist.html. For mammals, we follow the names and sequence in J. O. Whitaker's National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mammals. Finally, some of the more common plants and animals can be found in the Natural History Appendix near the end of this book.


Each account begins with a trail map drawn specifically for this book. These maps coordinate with the trail descriptions: trail points (solid triangles) mark the divisions between legs described in text. The elevations (in feet) at the trail points, and the distances between trail points (in miles to the nearest tenth), are also provided (except for extremely short trails such as Lily Lake Inner Loop, Sprague Lake Circuit, and Bear Lake Circuit).

We have always taken elevations and trail distances from authoritative sources when possible (e.g., USGS topographic maps and official RMNP publications). When comparing distances given in different trail guides for the same trail, we have found discrepancies-occasionally significant ones-so use such data cautiously. When there was any doubt or we could not locate a trail distance in a reliable source, we have measured trails with a map wheel on topographic maps as carefully as possible. We then compared a reputed distance with our walking time to see if the values were reasonable.

Accurate elevations are easier to come by than accurate distances (assuming the trail route is located correctly on the map). The elevations we provide are accurate within one contour line (plus or minus 80 feet maximum discrepancy). Some of our map distances will no doubt prove slightly off, but not enough, we trust, to noticeably affect the formula walking time or exertion rating of a circuit.

Jack has also measured distances on some circuits with a handheld GPS unit, but comparisons with other sources reveal that GPS always underestimates trail distances. The main reason appears to be that GPS calculates distances by comparing the latitude and longitude of successive points. As far as GPS is concerned, if you fall off a sheer cliff that is 1000 feet high, your body will have almost the identical geographic coordinates it did the instant before you fell. In this case, GPS cannot detect that you did indeed travel 1000 feet.

Account maps also provide information that may not be included in text. For example, backcountry campsites are shown even though they are not mentioned in text. Watercourses (brooks, streams, creeks, rivers) are usually identified by name on the maps but only rarely in text. Even though a trail map is probably sufficiently accurate and detailed to stand alone as a guide, we urge once again that you carry a topographic map. If you lose the trail (as in a violent rainstorm) or for some reason need to go cross-country, a topographic map is an absolute necessity.

Circuit Hikes From Access Points on the East Side


East Side circuits are those located on the eastern side of RMNP, excluding those accessed from Bear Lake Road, which we have placed in a separate category. In order to access most of these East Side circuits, you will find you must leave the Park and drive to an access point on or just inside the park's eastern boundary.

Those staying in campgrounds may find it convenient to do a circuit hike that begins right by their campsite. Unfortunately, most of the East Side circuits cannot be hiked in this way. The exception is the Wind River Circuit, which could be hiked from the Glacier Basin Campground on Bear Lake Road. The Longs Flank Circuit is indeed accessed from Longs Peak Ranger Station and Campground, but it is not a circuit one could hike while camping in this tents-only, limited-stay small campground. Longs Flank is one of only two circuits in this book that cannot be done as a day hike, so special planning for a multiday trip is necessary.

The accounts in this section are ordered geographically by access point from north to south. All have different access points.


FORMULA TIMES: 6 hours, 57 minutes for the circuit; 11 hours, 9 minutes including both side trips.

HIKING ELEVATIONS: 7920 to 9122 feet.

EXERTION RATINGS: 19.8 (moderately strenuous) for the circuit itself to a maximum of 31.9 (very strenuous) with both side trips.

FEATURES: Geologic formations (Lumpy Ridge), wildflowers and birds, views of Estes Park, and the unusual Gem Lake; side trips to Balanced Rock and Bridal Veil Falls. Unlike most circuits on the eastern side of RMNP, this one is fairly deserted, except for Gem Lake and Bridal Veil Falls, which are popular spots. You'll also see technical climbers on the south face of Lumpy Ridge. The area around Twin Owls Trailhead and along the trail to Gem Lake is one of the best places to see birds in Rocky Mountain National Park.

ACCESS POINTS: Twin Owls Trailhead (East Side, north of Estes Park). The circuit is also accessible from Gem Lake and Cow Creek Trailheads, neither of them directly on the trail (see accompanying map) and therefore not considered alternate access points.

SEASONS: Summer and fall hiking are great. The south side of Lumpy Ridge is good in winter; the north side, however, collects a lot of snow, rendering a loop hike difficult.


Distance Total Elevation Time Exertion Route (mi.) Gain (ft.) (hr.:min.) Rating Basic circuit 9.6 2156 6:57 19.8 Roundtrip to Balanced Rock 2.6 1280 2:35 7.5 Roundtrip to Bridal Veil Falls 2.0 620 1:37 4.6 Totals 14.2 4056 11:09 31.9

FINDING THE ACCESS POINT: From the intersection of US 34 and US 36 in Estes Park, go westbound (actual direction is initially north, then curving west) uphill on the US 34 bypass for 0.4 mi. and turn right (north) on McGregor Avenue. McGregor Avenue is the first road west of the historic Stanley Hotel on the US 34 bypass. Drive 0.8 mi. to the end of McGregor Avenue (where the road makes a sharp right and continues as Devils Gulch Road) and enter the McGregor Ranch by continuing straight ahead for 0.9 mi. (Do not bear right on Devils Gulch Road.) Follow the ranch road left around and past the small museum and then other buildings to the RMNP parking lot at the end. (Absolutely no parking is allowed on ranch land; violators will be towed.)

Water is available from a spigot on the uphill side of the parking lot. Warning: this is a hot hike at relatively low elevation through much open parkland, with natural water available only at Gem Lake and Cow Creek. Carry more water than you would for most hikes of the same duration. Outhouses are located beyond the eastern end of the parking lot, at the start of the trail. Lumpy Ridge is a favorite climbing spot, and the small parking lot fills early; arrive before 9 A.M.

TRAIL DESCRIPTION (counterclockwise): The circuit can be walked in either direction, but we recommend counterclockwise; this direction allows you to traverse the good bird-watching stretch between Twin Owls Trailhead and Gem Lake early in the morning, when birds are most active.

Lumpy Ridge is popular for technical climbing for several reasons. First, the outcrop is granite, a favorite rock of climbers because it is hard, does not crumble, and provides hand- and footholds. Second, the vertical surfaces are steep enough and high enough to be challenging. Third, the elevation is low, so the climate is not as harsh and the chances of afternoon thunderstorms in summer are lower. Fourth, the climbing routes are immediately accessible via a short walk from the parking lot, whereas high-country climbing often requires a lengthy hike in and out. And last, the skill required and the risk involved are lower at Lumpy Ridge than high-country sites.

The area between the trailhead and Gem Lake is popular among bird enthusiasts for its easy accessibility and diversity of good habitat. The cliffs provide nesting places for White-throated Swifts, this being the best place in the park to find them. The low elevation, open forest, burned forest, ranch fields, and other factors contribute to the ecological diversity that promotes good birding.


Excerpted from HIKING CIRCUITS IN ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK by Jack P. Hailman Elizabeth D. Hailman Copyright © 2003 by Jack P. Hailman and Elizabeth D. Hailman. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Jack P. Hailman has been a backpacker for more than forty years and, with Elizabeth D. Hailman, has hiked extensively in Rocky Mountain National Park. The Hailmans are also the authors of Backpacking Wisconsin (2000).

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