Colorado Vacation, Part 5: Long’s Peak Loop

This is a multi-part trip report, if you haven’t already you should start with Part 1. Remember too that you can click on any of the photos to see larger versions of them.

This morning at Moraine Park, we got the highest compliment possible from a fellow tent person in a car campground: “You’re so quiet.”

Today’s our day off. After yesterday, we need one. I’m up early, repacking the food bin, sorting out all the stuff in the back of the car. We’re heading to Estes Park for a quick breakfast and a trip to “Dad’s Laundromat” but first we need to pick up our next backpacking permit.

Backcountry office

After breakfast, Bryan and Mandy drop me off at the laundromat and run to the outdoor store for a water pump attachment and new boot laces while I finish up with the clothes. We’re all grumpy this morning for some reason we don’t understand, and it’s hard to take sides when everybody’s wrong, but clean shirts and new boot laces help a little.

Bryan’s been looking forward to showing us Fall River Road, and we leave just after noon to experience it in all its gravelly one-way glory. We’re quickly past the twisted, sparse trees to above treeline, and it feels like we can see forever. Mandy has fallen in love with this landscape, even more than the other places here in the park.


This gravel road was the original route through the park and over the continental divide but, due to maintenance issues, they had to construct Trail Ridge Road (the highest continuously paved road in the US) which we’ll take on the way back.

Trail Ridge Road

At the Alpine Visitors Center we learn the difference between a glacier and snowpack but don’t take time to stay for the ranger program on lightning. The roof is covered with heavy wooden timbers to keep it from blowing away; winds here regularly get to above 100 mph in the winter and the center is only open for a few months in the summertime each year.


We return to the parking lot, repack, and catch the shuttle back to the Glacier Gorge trailhead for a short uphill hike to the Boulder Brook backcountry site, where we’ll spend the night. We hike in our big packs through throngs of tourists up to Alberta Falls, where we take the North Longs Peak trail and abruptly find ourselves completely alone. We hike about three miles this afternoon, without seeing any other people, on the gently upward slope of a very nicely built trail. We stop a couple of times this afternoon, to pump water, to put moleskin on a hot spot on Mandy’s toe, but generally we feel good and make decent time.

Neat creek

We’ve been trying hard to take care of ourselves. Bryan set his watch’s alarm to fifteen minutes, and when it goes off we take a quick break and a drink. We can tell that our bodies are getting used to the thinner air at this altitude, and for the first time today we hike without uncomfortable breathing. We get to camp just before dark and after working together to set up the tents, Bryan pumps water while Mandy and I start supper away from camp, boiling water and measuring it into the foil pouches that hold beef stew and pasta.

I realize that I’m still too close, so I find a place farther from camp and carry the food, wrapped in my down vest for insulation, to the new kitchen area. In the process, I ooze spinach puttanesca all over my vest! While Mandy and Bryan eat I have to go to the creek in the dark to wash my vest out, and by the time I hang it from a tree to dry my remaining supper is ready. We get things organized for tomorrow’s early morning and we’re in bed, at around 10,000 feet, by around nine. I sleep well despite being certain that my nice vest will be devoured by creatures in the night.

Oh-three-hundred came much earlier than we wanted it to but even Mandy got up and around without complaint, shoving her feet into boots in the dark. We decided, sometime shortly after our stop at the group campsite privy, that someone needs to produce a tshirt with a list of “Privies of Rocky Mountain National Park” with elevations and boxes to check off. The weather’s nice — not as chilly as we expected — and the hike goes well.

I keep thinking about bears. Not nice bears. Though we haven’t seen one, there have been several reports of bears, many of them mamas with cubs, on our hikes on previous days. Our previous trips in the past year have resulted in run-ins with large scary creatures, and I keep expecting this one to be no different. It’s very, very dark. And then we step across some VERY FRESH BEAR POOP in the trail. We keep going along at a good clip but we’re too sleepy to remember the words to any songs. I remember this as a very difficult portion of the day.

Sunrise from near Granite Pass

Dawn comes on the side of Battle Mountain. We’re well above treeline and I take a break while Bryan and Mandy take some photographs; I’m having trouble breathing, though Bryan and Mandy are fine. It’s not much farther to Granite Pass, where we’ll meet up with the East Long’s Peak trail and the steady stream of other hikers who will try to summit today.

Just at Granite Pass it starts to drizzle. It’s not cold, and it’s not raining much, so we pull out our raincoats and keep walking up the switchback trail to the boulderfield. The view from here is stunning, even though it’s misty; we walk through high meadows of green grass dotted with big rocks, and we see mountains spread out in the distance for miles and miles and miles.

By the way, in the photo below you can see how Longs Peak was shrouded in clouds (hint: Longs is in the top center of the photo).

Rain makes us unhappy

It rains more and more as we get to the Boulderfield. People who’ve slept here huddle unhappily outside their tents, next to the stone windbreaks. We can see people standing in the keyhole above, deciding whether to go forward with their climb. We watch a marmot scurry around, his tail moving in quick circles as he runs, excited by all the people in his backyard. The people are less excited, because we’re all trying to decide whether to turn back or go forward.

The rain continues; now the whole sky is layered in gray blankets as far as we can see. Long’s Peak is socked in clouds; we might be able to make it to the top but we wouldn’t be able to see a thing from there. The exposed portions of the steep trail will be slippery in the wet. We’re frustrated; I’m breathing better and feeling fine, Bryan’s not sick as he’d been last time he’d tried Long’s. Mandy’s in fine shape, too; our whole week has been planned so that we’d feel good at this point in our Long’s Peak hike, and we do feel good, but the weather is awful.

Resting on way down from Longs

We start slogging down the switchbacks in the rain, toward our base camp. Mandy is disappointed but a good sport; Bryan’s really much sadder than even he’d anticipated but he tries not to show it. At Granite Pass we stop to rest, and a couple of hikers stop to visit. They hadn’t summitted either; in fact, only one person had, quite early, and he’d been turning other people around as they came up the mountain.

Knarled wood

After the first disappointment wears off, we enjoy our hike down. Mandy hams it up, doing inexplicable Elvis impersonations and farting cheerfully. The mist shrouds the farther mountains but we can still see what we missed on the way up the trail in the dark. Near treeline the scrubby twisted trees, called krumholtz, are interesting and alien, and farther down we pass through woods full of enormous, twisted, dead spruce trees. Decimated by fire a hundred years ago, the woods in this area still haven’t fully recovered. Mandy makes up songs about the relative size and tastiness of small woodland creatures:

“I want a chimpmunk for breakfast,
a squirrel for lunch,
a pica for supper,
or maybe a bunch.”

We get back to our base camp at Boulder Brook around noon, already having hiked ten miles for the day. We crawl back into our beds in a light rain and fall asleep; this may be my best nap ever. The sun is starting to peek out when we wake around three. I vote not to hike out this afternoon; our plan was to spend another night here, but I can’t argue against the practicality of a head start and I let myself be bribed by the promise of another cheeseburger from the Rock Inn. We pack up camp and head downhill.

Boulderbrook campsite

The Boulder Brook trail appears to be the bastard path of the national park. It’s steep but very pretty, totally untraveled, and while it was built well it now seems to be entirely unmaintained. We follow the stream that, in this morning’s boulderfield, was barely more than a trickle; now it’s a substantial and steep creek rolling down from the mountain. We’re back at the car at six, and reflect on the wisdom of the day’s decision not to keep climbing. The sky’s blue down here, and the day’s turned out warm, but Long’s Peak above us is still socked in clouds.

We have to try two visitors’ centers before finding one with good t-shirts. Later, driving through Estes Park, we can’t help picking out the places we’ll go on our next visit, the things we were interested in but didn’t have time to do this time, the items to look at when we come back to try Long’s Peak again. We have another excellent cheeseburger before heading back to the interstate, toward home.

The story continues…
Part 4 – Part 5 – Part 6