This trip was a real highlight of my summer. It offered a good break from triathlon training, and I was really looking forward to disconnecting for a few days and reconnecting with my friend Chelsea.
As usual, I started packing weeks in advance to ensure I didn’t forget anything and give myself time to edit what I was bringing. This was my first trip without Jon, so I wanted to ensure that I could be self-sufficient and carry everything that I needed. And being self-sufficient is heavy! Thankfully, I would not be alone and would be able to share some items with Chelsea – most importantly the bear canister since I could barely get it to fit inside my pack. (Not an issue of over packing, more that my pack is on the smaller side (45L) and was just a hair too narrow to drop it in horizontally, and it took up almost the whole pack vertically.)
This was also my first time flying with my pack, so I packed a suitcase with the items that would be questionable to carry on, or a hassle, and checked that but carried on my pack and essentials. Everything went pretty smooth except we had to wait almost an hour for them to get the bags to baggage claim – lame! And we were on a timeline to get to Rocky Mountain National Park to pick up our permit before the wilderness office closed! And first we had to rent micro spikes for a section of the hike that was still snow covered. Thankfully, we were able to get the micro spikes and get to the ranger station in time. I had a couple experiences with rangers leaving up to our departure, and the rangers at RMNP were super nice and helpful in each of those interactions. I was notably impressed with the quality customer service.
We camped at Glacier Basin Campground prior to hiking out – it allowed us a night of sleeping at higher elevation (8,500′) and we’d be really close to our trailhead. After setting up camp and organizing our packs we went for a little 3 mile run around Sprague Lake. It was beautiful and mostly flat – just challenging enough. When we got back, the sun was going down so Chelsea built us a fire. Our only fire of the trip, so we enjoyed it while we ate our delicious dinner of freeze dried food. Our meals complimented each other, so it was super tasty to do combo bites. 🙂
We had an early morning the next day – alarms were going off at 5 AM (!!) so we could eat and pack up. It didn’t seem like we had that much to do to get on the road, but it consistently took us two hours each morning. It was a short-ish drive (maybe 20 minutes?) to Bear Lake Trailhead (elevation 9,450), where our adventure officially began at 7:10 AM!
Today, we estimated that we had about 9.2 miles to reach our destination. We’d be hiking up Flattop Mountain Trail, where we’d top out around 12,324′, then would make a left onto North Inlet Trail to get to our backcountry campsite – N. Inlet Junction (@ 9,600′).
Leaving Bear Lake Trailhead, we briefly walked along a flat section by the lake, then quickly began to climb switchbacks through pine trees. It was only 1.15 miles before we reached our first snow patch! Eventually, the entire trail was just one big stretch of snow that we had to hike over. The climb was tough – I kept telling myself, just hike for 5/10/15 minutes, then take a break. And I took lots of breaks! Thankfully, there were lots of pretty views to enjoy during the breaks and through the pain of hiking uphill with a 30+ lb pack on.
It took us about 2.5 hours of hiking to reach the junction with the North Inlet Trail. The terrain at the top was completely snow covered, and so different from what we passed along the way. The cairns on the North Inlet Trail were no joke either – they were actual stone structures. Super pretty. We broke out the trekking poles for extra stability as we crossed our first of many snow fields for the day. Thankfully, it wasn’t completely snow covered so after awhile we were back on the dirt and making good time over generally flat-er ground. By now it was noon and time for a lunch break on some big boulders with an awesome view! As we ate, some suspicious looking clouds started to form over the hills, so we packed back up and got on our way – we still had miles to go.
When making our final preparations for the the trip, I had called the rangers to ask about what kind of conditions we could expect on the trail, especially since we’d be at some higher elevations. They warned us that some sections of the trail were still covered in snow, and that we’d want microspikes and trekking poles to navigate those sections. We prepared accordingly, but didn’t really know what to expect. In fact, when we crossed the first section of snow-covered trail around mile 7, we didn’t even know that it was a taste of what was to come.
We were hiking quickly, as there definitely was a storm coming in. We passed a handful of folks coming up in the opposite direction, and all warned of snow covering the trail down below but didn’t express too much concern – we even passed a young boy, maybe middle-school age (??) so figured it couldn’t be too bad!
Well, some sections were pretty darn freaky since you had an expanse of snow covering the hillside, in such a manner that if you slipped you’d just slide right off the edge of the hill – and it was quite a drop to the bottom. We donned our microspikes and kept moving downhill. The microspikes and trekking poles were essential, and we’re so glad we had them! The last big stretch we passed through was the scariest and when we went around the switchback and saw we’d have to cross over that exact same section just lower down, we started hiking straight down the hillside. (No easy task considering how steep the hill was.)
Thankfully, we were just a few miles from our campsite by the time we got to the bottom. Coming down the snow patches had been pretty stressful and we didn’t think to stop to eat a snack or anything, so we were running on low energy as we finished our day. On top of being tired, the rain caught up with us, but at this elevation it was hail! And there were tons of downed trees that we had to climb over and under. Finally, we made it to our campsite, 10 miles after we began that morning!
We’d be easing into back country camping – the North Inlet Junction campsite was located right next to a river and even had an outhouse! So luxurious 🙂 We had wanted to take a quick nap to recharge when we got into camp, but after setting up camp and getting settled in it was pretty much time for dinner and bed. We had another early morning the next day with a lot of miles to cover.
Day two started bright and early with another 5 AM wake up, and surprisingly another 7 AM start. The terrain was completely different than the day before. We were going through mostly flat(er) trails, and much of the morning was spent following North Inlet creek. We had a bit of a startle about an hour into our morning – as we were walking single file line through a narrow section in the trees, suddenly there was a guy standing right on the side of the trail next to a tree! It had been 19 hours since we last saw someone, and Chelsea even screamed a little from the surprise.
We took a morning break at Cascade Falls, about two hours into our hike. Afterwards, we started getting into day hiking territory, as this was a destination for people hiking from Tonahutu trailhead. It was crazy how heightened our sense of smell was after just a day or two away from people – we could smell people’s deodorant and shampoo… and it had us wondering if they could smell us too!
We took a lunch break at the North Inlet trailhead, before switching over to the Tonahutu Creek Trail. We’d have another 5.5 miles until we reached Sunset campsite (9,550 elevation). We hiked alongside meadows and even saw elk grazing in Big Meadow!! Overall, it was a pretty easy day of hiking but it was a long day – almost 14 miles in all. My feet were definitely barking towards the end. We took a long break on a rock, just to find out that our destination was just a few feet up the trail! Go figure!
Sunset campsite was on a bit of an “island” – or at least felt like it. We had to cross a log bridge to access it, then climb up a bit of a steep hill, as the actual campsite was on top of a knoll. Today we got our nap! It was glorious! And then it rained, which was also glorious! But the mosquitoes were really bad here, and that was less glorious. Despite our nap, we were in bed early – before dark even.
Day Three was another 5 AM wake up, and we actually got on the trail before 7 (barely)! Our morning started out through the trees, definitely on a bit of an uphill. We shortly reached a burn section still recovering from a 2013 fire.
Our first destination of the day was Granite Falls. These falls were thundering! Much bigger than yesterday’s Cascade Falls. We continued along a moderate uphill, through more burned trees until we reached our final water stop at mile 3.6. From here, we’d be hiking up, up, up for the next 4+ miles.
After nearly two days at lower elevations, in the trees and meadows, we were heading back into epic view territory. Each rest stop (there were many!) was a joy to look around at the mountains and hills surrounding us. We reached the junction with Flattop Mountain just before mile 8.
We had just 4.5 miles back to the trailhead and the end of our Continental Divide Loop adventure. Those last miles the last day… I was ready to be off the trail. But after some food and rest I was already thinking I could have gone longer! Although it was tough at times, and we were hurting at times, it was a wonderful three days, 36 miles and 6,800′ of elevation gain in the great outdoors with a great friend.