The first summer I spent in Colorado I did some of the more touristy things that the state has to offer. These are things that everyone who visits or even lives here should do at some point so I figured I'd check them off the list right away. One of those activities was driving Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) from the east side of the park to the west side. The road climbs above treeline as it snakes through the mountains and provides spectacular view of the Rocky Mountains. At the top there are several viewpoints where you can look west. One of the things that struck me as I was looking around was the valley between the mountains I was standing on and the ones to the west. I could look over the edge, 2000 feet down, and see a river and some lakes down there and I remember wondering to myself whether you could get down there to go hiking.
The view of the Gorge Lakes from Trail Ridge Road
A couple years later I was perusing one of my books that details all of the hiking trails in RMNP. I came across a section about the Gorge Lakes and as I started reading I had an eureka moment. This was it, this was the area that I had looked down upon years before from the road and here were the details for how to get there. I took in all I could from the book and when it said that there was actually a backcountry campsite down in there I got really excited. I immediately figured out how to book the site and on the first day you can reserve backcountry sites in RMNP I got online and reserved Little Rock Lake campsite for two nights during the first weekend of September. The next step, which turned out to be pretty easy, was finding a couple of friends who wanted to do it with me. Andrew and Mike were on board right away so then all we had to do was wait for September to come.
When the day arrived we got up before dawn and made the drive to the park. It was a little chilly down in Denver and Boulder and as we drove up into the mountains the temperature continued to drop and of course a light rain began to fall. By the time we made it to the trailhead at Milner Pass the temperature was 34 degrees and a steady light rain was falling. We sat in the car with the heat blasting and had a long conversation about whether this was going to be worth it. We were inches away from calling it and just driving into town to hang out for the weekend when the rain broke (momentarily). We made the decision that we were there so we might as well do it. We hopped out of the car, got our packs together and got on the trail just in time for the rain to start again. At this point we were hiking though so there was no turning back.
As we climbed the trail the rain continued and the fog got thicker. I would be lying if I told you it wasn't pretty miserable for the first 45 minutes. After about a mile and a half of hiking the fog decided to lift for a minute and we got a decent little view of the tundra we were hiking through. We used this little break in the weather as an opportunity to take stock of where we were.
A break in the rain lets us regroup
The trail looking back from where we just came.
On a normal trail, hiking through fog isn't so bad. You can generally follow the trail to your destination without really getting lost. But the hike to this campsite is not a normal trail. You start off on a trail that takes you to Mt. Ida and beyond but the route to the campsite and the Gorge Lakes splits off about a half mile from the summit to Mt. Ida. From there you hike off trail down a ridge and into the gorge, navigating by compass and, assuming you can see, following the most logical route down the mountain. Unfortunately for us, the fog made it a bit difficult to see where we were going. Nevertheless, we pressed on keeping a lookout on our left for the ridge that we would use to navigate down the mountain. At one point, completely surrounded by fog, we came to a rocky outcrop that felt like it was higher than everything around it. We pulled out or compass and map, looked around and made the decision that there was no way that we had already gotten to the summit of Mt. Ida. Besides, we hadn't seen any ridges off to our left so we should probably keep going. We continued to press on but the trail started down hill pretty steeply and when we consulted the compass we decided that we were going the wrong way. Back up hill we trudged to that same rocky outcropping where, to our surprise, we found three human beings. One of them had a gps and proclaimed we were standing on the summit of Mt. Ida. And that is the story of how we hiked half a mile too far and up an extra 800 feet to decided we hadn't hiked far enough so we should keep going, just to decide we had gone too far therefore deciding to turn around hike back up a couple hundred feet just so we could accidentally summit Mt. Ida twice in one day.
Hey Andrew and Mike, how is the view from the top of Mt. Ida today?
Summit of Mt. Ida
On the bright side, we now knew where we were, and we also knew that there was literally no more uphill we could do today, so we started back to find the ridge we had missed. After about 15 minutes we saw off to the east a ridge that looked like it could be the one we were looking for. We stopped, tried to stare through the fog and then made the decision that this was it, so let's go.
Looking down the ridge that would lead us to the Gorge Lakes.
After 25 minutes or so of hiking down the ridge, the fog started lifting and miraculously the sun started poking through the clouds. That is when we caught our first glimpse of the lakes below.
Azure Lake through the fog
Elated, we kept going (or I should say they kept going as I kept stopping to take photos of the gorge and its beautiful lakes).
Arrow Head Lake (center), up to the right Inkwell Lake, downhill to the left (small) Rock Lake and Little Rock Lake
Love Lake and Arrowhead Lake
Arrowhead Lake with Azure Lake off in the distance
Love Lake (center), Amore Lake (slightly up and to the left), Rock lake (to the right and down the slope)
From here we could see our destination but the fun was just starting. Once we got to the treeline we knew where we wanted to go, but navigating a route through the wilderness when you can't see the sudden cliffs and dropoffs is not as easy as one might expect when viewing the scene from above. The hike down through the forest was actually the hardest part. Climbing over wet trees, pushing through the brush while trying not to slip and fall 200 feet down a slope all while carrying 40 pound on your back is definitely an adventure. But, the moment that we poked out onto flat ground and we saw the shore of Rock Lake in front of us we knew that we had made it. We found a social trail along the edge of the lake and followed it to Little Rock Lake where we found a marker, 7 miles from where we began, for our campsite.
We setup our tent and spent the rest of the day fishing in Little Rock Lake. We made dinner on an amazing rock bench that overlooked Rock Lake and gave us a great view of the area. We made this place our kitchen for the weekend. Eventually the light started to dim and it was time to figure out where to hang our scented items so as not to attract bears. We then settled into our tent and drifted off into a well deserved sleep.
Small trout from Little Rock Lake
Our campsite at Little Rock Lake
The next day, well that is a story for next time.
Until next time,
As always, a few of these photos are for sale as prints. If you are interested check them out HERE.