Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Hiking the high tundra traverse
|Click for full map.|
Nineteenth-century painter Albert Bierstadt did not think small when it came to capturing the immense beauty of the Rockieshe hauled out a canvas six feet [1.8 meters] tall by ten feet [3 meters] wide. His “The Rocky Mountains” is a nice effort, but it doesn’t measure up to the real thing.
This loftiest of all national parks, with a mean elevation of 10,508 feet [3,203 meters], claims just one of Colorado’s vaunted 14ers14,255-foot [4,345-meter] Longs Peakyet it holds a lifetime’s worth of high places to climb, scramble, and hike.
Beyond the park’s fearsome east-facing crags lies a sublime and overlooked region: more than a hundred square miles [259 square kilometers] of flower-speckled tundra open to experienced hikers.
All prices in U.S. dollars
5 Perfect Days
The Ultimate Itinerary
Whoa, flatlander. Make this an easy day, to acclimate to the park’s thin air. Be in line at the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center by 8:30 a.m. to snag backpacking permits, then claim a tent spot for tonight at Aspenglen Campground, the least frantic of the park’s eastern camping areas. Grab lunch and a deck seat at Estes Park Brewery, at 470 Prospect Drive.
Once the afternoon thunderstorm has rolled through, take your drive on Trail Ridge Road. Head west up Fall River Road, then east down Trail Ridgethat way, you’ll be moving against the prevailing traffic flow. Pull over at the Ute Crossing trailhead and walk along Tombstone Ridge for incomparable views of the high peaks bathed in alpenglow.
Begin the 16-mile [26-kilometer] “Mummy Grand Slam,” which traverses the wide-open tundra in the north end of the park. Herds of elk and bighorn sheep abound along the route; people don’t. Hard-core locals do the slam in a day, but allow two for relaxing by beautiful lakes and exploring high places.
Hike to your campsite at Lawn Lake, drop the heavy packs, and scamper to Crystal Lake, which is tucked against the base of Fairchild Mountain. Or scramble to the summit of 13,425-foot [4,090-meter] Mummy Mountain for incredible views.
Break camp earlyyou want to be below tree line before the daily cloudburstand head down to the Saddle, at the crest of the Mummies. The trail peters out here, but route finding is straightforward.
On the way to the hike’s end, at the Chapin Pass trailhead, peer over the edges of Fairchild and Ypsilon Mountains for vertigo-inducing views down sheer rock walls.
No extra car for a shuttle? Many hikers simply thumb a ride back to camp on Trail Ridge Road.
Now that you’re acclimated, it’s time to scramble up a worthy summit. If you’re visiting in midsummer, save Longs Peak for the fall and instead head for Mount Richthofen, in the rarely visited Never Summer Range.
Glenn Porzak, a local who has scaled every peak in the park multiple times, rates the 12,940-footer [3,944-meterer] “one of my all-time favorite trips, with views that extend to Pikes Peak, a hundred miles [160 kilometers] away.”
Establish a preclimb base camp six miles [9.7 kilometers] up the trail at Box Canyon.
Clamber toward Richthofen via Thunder Pass. From this point, the route takes off cross-country through scree, across tundra, and past boulders. Pick your way around Static Peak to a saddle beneath Richthofen.
The Never Summers are precipitous, front and back, and crumbly, so watch your step. Once atop Richthofen, walk the knife-edge ridge south to Teepee Mountain. Complete the loop by descending to the trail in Skeleton Gulch and heading back up to Box Canyon.
Permits: Backcountry permits for overnight camping can be reserved in advance after March 1. They can also be picked up the morning of your trip at the backcountry office, but be forewarnedyour choice of sites will be limited.
Contact: For a trip planner, contact the park’s backcountry office at the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center (+1 970 586 1242; www.nps.gov/romo).
For the full Rocky Mountain National Park guide, pick up the May 2002 Adventure.
Next: Explore undiscovered Yellowstone >>