Posted: May 24, 2014 by Sam Szarka
Five Colorado backpacking loop hikes that will knock your socks off and give rocky mountain high a new meaning
As the hot summer sun melts the winter snows off of the high peaks, I get the itch to hit the trail, fill my lungs with piney mountain air, enjoy the sight of jagged peaks lining the horizon for miles, then relax to sounds of a gurgling brook beneath a canopy of star studded skies. If you’re like me, you’ll enjoy these mountain loop hikes picked for their alpine scenery, and because they are loops, they can be done without requiring a shuttle driver.
Rocky Mountain National Park – Continental Divide Loop
Head for Rocky Mountain National Park’s aptly named ‘Continental Divide Loop’ which makes a circuit of the Continental Divide as it traverses the park from east to west. Discover high altitude peak views of the park’s ranges and lush meadows on this highly popular 25 miles loop hike.
Begin at the Tonahutu / North Inlet Trailhead just north of the town of Grand Lake. Head east following the North Inlet Trail as it climbs past cascades through dense lodgepole pine. Follow the trail as it turns sharply north and climbs steep switchbacks to 12,324 ft. Flattop Mountain where views of the rugged Continental Divide and the park’s densely forested valleys stretch out below. From Flattop Mountain, head west along the Continental Divide Scenic Trail as it follows a broad flat ridge top before dropping south into the forested Tonahutu drainage. Follow the Tonahutu Creek Trail south into a wide valley where Tonahutu Creek waters lush meadows. Complete the loop by returning via Tonahutu Creek Trail.
More Info: For more trail related information, visit the Rocky Mountain National Park Continental Divide Scenic Trail page
Trail Length: 25 mi.
Trailhead: Tonahutu / North Inlet
Maroon Snowmass – Capitol Creek Circuit
This trail is going to knock your socks off with some life-list type scenery. Intended as an alternative to the super popular 4 Pass Loop, this trail is longer, and better. At a challenging forty miles in length, this trail circles the rugged Snowmass – Capitol Peak massif in the Maroon Bells Snowmass wilderness. Navigate over four mountain passes (two of them unnamed) and past four alpine lakes: Snowmass Lake, Geneva Lake, Avalanche Lake, and Capitol Lake while remaining above treeline for most of the way. You’ll find solitude on large portions of this trail, but don’t be surprised by the crowds near popular Snowmass Lake and a few hikers on the Capitol Creek Trail.
From the Capitol Creek trailhead, begin on the Ditch Trail and head south for Capitol Lake. Pop over the pass beyond Capitol Lake on the Capitol Creek Trail and then head south on the Avalanche – Silver Creek Trail past Avalanche Lake. Continue following the trail south over rugged terrain toward Arkansas Mountain and Silver Creek. Connect to the Lead King Basin Jeep Trail and drop down to the Geneva Lake Trailhead (2.2 miles of road distance). Head to picturesque turquoise-hued Geneva Lake. Connect to the Geneva Lake Trail for the next leg of the trip which takes you east over Trail Rider Pass to Snowmass Lake. Turn north onto the Maroon Snowmass Trail as it follows Snowmass Creek northward up valley. Depart the Maroon Snowmass Trail onto West Snowmass Trail and climb over Haystack Mountain to connect to the Capitol Creek Trail and the final leg of the trip.
Trail Map: Maroon Snowmass Capitol Creek Loop Map
Topo Map: Maroon Bells Trails Illustrated Map
Trail Length: 40 miles round trip
Trailhead: Capitol Creek
Eaglesmere / Surprise Lake Loop
The Eaglesmere is a loop hike to three high altitude lakes on the northern perimeter of the Eagles Nest Wilderness in northern Colorado. The trail offers the hiker a sunny aspen forest, dense spruce-fir forests, several lakes and best of all, mountain views of the rugged Gore Range to the south. Trek 3.6 miles to the twin Eaglesmere Lakes situated at 10,400 feet, then head southeast to Surprise Lake with the option of a side trip to stunning Upper Cataract Lake at the foot of the northern face of Eagles Nest peak. The hike length is 10.7 miles without the side trip to Upper Cataract Lake. Add an extra 4.3 miles (round trip) for the side trip.
The Eaglesmere trail (#61) begins at a fork near the end of County Road 1725. Be prepared to pay the US Forest Service use fee ($5). The road forks right onto County Road 1726 and ends at the Eaglesmere trailhead. Ascend 3.6 miles through a sunny aspen forest along the south face of a mountainside. After summiting the mountain, the trail enters a dense spruce-fir forest briefly before descending across another sunny south facing mountainside. After 2.8 miles, the trail enters the forest again and connects with the Gore Lake trail at a trail junction. At the junction, head right for 0.8 miles to the Eaglesmere Lakes. For the next leg of the trip, head back toward the Gore Lake junction, and head south (right) at the fork toward Surprise Lake. 3.0 miles from the Gore Lake junction you will encounter the trail junction to Upper Cataract Lake. Upper Cataract Lake likes at the foot of the Gore Mountains that lie to the south at 10,800 ft. and is another 2.15 miles away. Continue to Surprise Lake trail junction and turn right onto Surprise Lake trail to return to the Surprise Lake trailhead on County Road 1725.
Zoomable Map: Eaglesmere Loop Map
Trail Length: 10.7 miles; Add another 4 miles if you hike to Upper Cataract Lake
Trailhead: Eaglesmere & Surprise Lake trailheads
Weminuche Pass / Granite Lakes and Continental Divide Semi-Loop
For a high altitude hiking experience with panoramic views, take a trip south to the Weminuche Pass area in the Weminuche Wilderness of southern Colorado. Begin this hike from the Thirtymile campground and trail head on the east end of the Rio Grand Reservoir west of the town of Creede. Camp beside beautiful Granite Lake in the heart of the wilderness, then head west toward the Continental Divide before returning via another trail.
Begin the hike with a gradual climb on the Weminuche Trail (#818) to the 10,650 ft. Weminuche Pass which is situated in a wide open valley surrounded by forested peaks. Camp in the trees on the south side of the pass. Continue south on the Pine Rim Trail. Connect to the Divide Lakes Trail briefly before taking a detour onto the Granite Lakes trail (#540). Granite Lake is situated in a bowl surrounded on three sides by forested hillsides. The trip distance to Granite Lake is 12.4 miles. Spend the night at Granite Lake. Continue on the next leg of the trip by returning back toward Weminuche Pass via a different route. Follow the southern shoreline of Granite Lake south and then east. Continue further southeast leaving the lake behind (off trail) into a treeless meadow before looping back north and uphill to connect to the Weminuche Trail. Head north back to the junction of The Weminuche, Pine River and Rincon La Osa trails.
To get to the Continental Divide, the Rincon La Osa Trail is one option that heads west to higher ground. Follow it northwest is it follows a drainage initially through forest and then beside wet meadows. Eventually the trail climbs a series of switchbacks to the top of the Divide at 12,093 ft. On top of the pass, views of the Rio Grande Pyramid, the East Ute Creek drainage open up. Head north, following the Continental Divide and climb a high ridge for even better views of the rugged Needle Mountains to the west. Follow the Cont. Divide Trail north east and then drop down from the Divide on the Rincon La Vaca Trail to head back to the Weminuche Trail. Return on the Weminuche Trail the way you came.
Trail Map: Weminuche Pass Continental Divide Loop Map
Trail Length: 36.1 mi.
Lost Creek Loop
Unique in character and rugged, the Lost Creek Wilderness is host to the Lost Creek Loop. This trek winds through some of the best scenery the Lost Creek Wilderness offers, including the rugged Goose Creek drainage with its fun granite spires and giant sized boulders as well as jaw-dropping views west toward the high Collegiate Peaks and the Mosquito Range.
Begin at the Goose Creek trailhead and head for Hankins Trail (#630). The trail climbs first through a short section of ponderosa pine forest that was burned during the 2002 Hayman Fire then ascends into a healthy pine forest before transitioning into a mixed pine and aspen forest toward Hankins Pass. From Hankins Pass, head north on Lake Park Trail (#639) and connect to McCurdy Park Trail (#628) briefly. Head north to the McCurdy Brookside Trail (#607) junction. At this point there is an option to cutoff a part of the loop by continuing to Goose Creek via McCurdy Park. For the longer loop, and for spectacular views from the top of McCurdy – Bison ridge head north west on the Brookside McCurdy Trail. The trail climbs to a high vantage point above tree-line as it traverses a ridge connecting McCurdy Mountain and Bison Mountain. Connect to the Wigwam Trail and head east to the Goose Creek drainage where rugged and pink hued Pikes Peak granite has been eroded into a jumble of boulders of immense proportions and others into spire-like formations. Goose Creek Trail (#612) returns you to the Goose Creek trailhead.
Trail Map: Lost Creek Loop Map
Topo Map: Lost Creek Wilderness Map
Trail Length: 34 mi; 24.5 mi. with optional McCurdy Park cutoff
Trailhead: Goose Creek
About the Author
Sam is a lifelong backpacker, wilderness photographer and author. He is the author of the Colorado Backpacking Guide as well as the Backpacking Guide to Colorado’s Top Eight Trails. Sam is also the owner and webmaster of ColoradosWildAreas.com. If you’d like to contact Sam, you may do so via the contact page.