Ask Me: What Are the Best Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park and Near Breckenridge, CO?
Thank you for continuing to both inform and inspire through The Big Outside. Your efforts are always appreciated.
As I mentioned to you a couple years ago, my wife, daughter and I have been making an annual trip to Rocky Mountain National Park in late August. We love everything about it, but after climbing Longs Peak a couple times, I would like to see some more of the Rockies. As our schedules/work circumstances have recently changed, I have an opportunity to head to Colorado this June by myself. Although I plan to spend a couple days in Estes Park (it is important to me to go back and support the community that has meant so much to me and my family after the devastating flood last September), I would love some suggestions on getting the most out of the other 4-5 days.
There is much of the state that interests me, but in keeping a reasonable proximity to RMNP, I am leaning towards a few days in/around Breckenridge (I have never been there). There seem to be quite a few 14ers within a reasonable distance of Breckenridge, as well as many other scenic dayhikes and drives. Other than as much dayhiking as possible, the only other thing I really want to do is spend some time on Mount Evans to hopefully photograph some mountain goats.
Again, since I don’t have to worry about how anyone else is feeling along the way, do you have any suggestions on how to make the most out of a week in Colorado in early June?
With sincere thanks and appreciation,
Thanks for the nice words about my blog.
You probably realize the Rockies will still have a lot of snow in early June. The usual hiking season really starts more like in July. I’ve hiked some Front Range peaks and some near Breck. What’s your experience and comfort level with hiking/climbing on snow on open mountain slopes? Have you used an ice axe and crampons?
Thanks for the reply. My timing (early June) is not optimal, but unfortunately it is the only time I can squeeze in this year.
To date, I have no experience with an ice axe or crampons. I have summited Longs twice in late August with no problems. I am actually looking forward to the “challenge of the season.” I am guessing that microspikes should suffice for most of the easier routes on 14ers near Breckenridge? I will be there for three days, and then head to RMNP for the next four. Depending on how I feel after Breck, I might try Longs again. The keyhole with microspikes sounds okay, but an ice axe (with exposure and high wind) is probably out of my comfort zone for now. I would really like to challenge myself, but as usual, I will be hiking alone and need to stay smart.
Thanks again, and keep doing what you do.
Sounds like you haven’t done much in Rocky Mountain National Park besides Longs. There are several excellent dayhikes on the east side of the park that should be at least partly accessible for you.
A few years ago, I hiked with my kids in the Wild Basin area, getting to Thunder Lake and Ouzel Lake (see lead photo above), both of them above 10,000 feet and ringed by big peaks. The trails to them are mostly in the woods, pleasant, with no exposure.
The classic dayhikes in glacier-scoured lakes basins on the park’s east side start from Bear Lake Road and go to Glacier Gorge (10 miles, 1,430 feet out-and-back if you go all the way to Black Lake); Odessa Lake (8.2 miles, 1,215 feet out-and-back); and Loch Vale (6 miles and 1,000 feet out-and-back to The Loch, 10 miles and 1,710 feet to Sky Pond, 10.6 miles and 2,510 feet to the base of Andrews Glacier).
Also from the end of Bear Lake Road, you can dayhike 12,324-foot Flattop Mountain (8.8 miles, 2,849 feet round-trip), which I’ve hiked, but from the west side. It’s popular and has a sweeping view of the Continental Divide and overlooks Tyndall Gorge. You will undoubtedly encounter snow on much of the hike, but the trail from the east side isn’t overly steep or exposed, so I don’t think you’d need an axe. With freezing overnight temps to firm up the snow, using microspikes, you might have good conditions, but you’d want to get up there early and back down before the snow gets too soft.
Near Breckenridge, I definitely recommend 14,265-foot Quandary Peak, eight miles southwest of Breck on CO 9. It has excellent views, especially from the summit, and the hike up the east side from Monte Cristo Trailhead (10.8 miles, 3,400 feet out-and-back) is not steep or exposed. I climbed it in early July, when there was plenty of snow on the open slopes but the rocks (which we hiked) were mostly snow-free. In early June, I’d certainly expect snow.
I’ve also hiked 14,060-foot Bierstadt Peak, another accessible classic with great views and an easy route from Guanella Pass Trailhead that’s is 6-7 miles round-trip with almost 3,000 feet of climbing and descent. We also hiked the 1.4-mile ridge connecting Bierstadt to Mount Evans, but it may be more exposed and snowy than you prefer without an axe.
A quick search of “hikes near Breckenridge” also turned up this good top 10 list.
I hope that’s helpful. Enjoy your trip, let me know how it goes.
Thanks for all the helpful suggestions. A few of them are definitely on my list. I purchased a pair of microspikes and an ice axe to see what develops. With more late-season snow than usual, I guess a lot will depend on conditions when I get out there. Ideally, I hope to gain a little comfort with the conditions while in Breckenridge, and then expand on that while in RMNP.
I am looking forward to expanding my comfort zone. For me, the most difficult thing about being in Colorado is knowing I will have to return to NJ 🙂 Thanks again for your time and suggestions. I hope to send a trip report worth reading when I get back.
Your cautious judgment is wise. But if you make decisions conservatively while out there, I think you’ll still find some hikes that are adventurous and within your abilities—especially Quandary and Flattop, given the right snow conditions. But the hikes to the RMNP lakes I mentioned are all worthwhile.
Keep in touch.
I just got back last night from an extremely gratifying week in Colorado. Your suggestions were spot on! I flew to Denver and got to Breckenridge late Thursday night. I spent the day Friday hiking some shorter trails with some mining history, and a hike with some views…basically just putting a few miles on my legs. On Saturday, I hit the trailhead to Quandary at daybreak. As predicted, it didn’t take long before the trail disappeared. Like most of the older tracks indicated, I basically took a sharp right and headed up. The snow up and through treeline was hard enough to stay on top of with just occasional postholing. Once above treeline, even though it was early, the sun was really softening the snow. Microspikes, gaiters and poles were the perfect combination. The weather was ideal. Once I reached the summit, I was treated to fifteen minutes of solitude to enjoy the spectacular views as I had the summit all to myself. I started down while passing quite a few people who were headed up. About thirty minutes later, I was passed on the way down by someone who was glissading with an axe. It looked like fun, and something to try sometime. The descent was otherwise uneventful with increased postholing through the trees.
On Sunday, I headed to RMNP. I spent the first couple days enjoying numerous hikes to some lakes. They were all great. The most memorable was probably one of the shorter hikes to Mills Lake and The Loch. Again, since I started at daybreak, I did not see a single person on the way to Mills Lake. On the way, I walked around a boulder and surprised a large elk. While less than three feet away, we were mutually surprised. We stared at each other for about twenty seconds before the elk stepped aside and continued eating. While enjoying breakfast at the lake, a bald eagle flew in and circled the lake for about five minutes (hunting unsuccessfully) before returning to a tall pine. Then, on to The Loch, and later Emerald Lake which was still frozen!
On Wednesday, I hit the trailhead to Flattop at daybreak. After about twenty minutes up, the trail was basically nonexistent. Older tracks were useful for a little while, but recent crazy weather soon left me simply guessing. Some of the snow was hard, but there was more postholing than at Quandary. Once I got past treeline, I continued up and realized I had drifted too far to the left. No big deal, it just meant some extra scrambling with great views before getting back on track. The conditions were extremely windy. Once at the “summit post,” I really wanted to go on and bag Hallett while I was there. However, despite the fact that it was only 11:00, the sky to the west was getting dark quickly. I decided to save Hallett for another day and headed down. I was fortunate with my decision. While still slightly above treeline, it started snowing with some sleet mixed in. About ten minutes below treeline, the wind and thunder increased in intensity and it hailed forcefully for about fifteen minutes. Once I was about twenty minutes from Bear Lake, the hail became a steady rain. In typical Colorado fashion, the drive out Bear Lake Road was completely dry by the time I reached Morraine Park. A quick shower and over to “The Rock Inn Mountain Tavern” to treat my liver 🙂
As usual, the return from such an enjoyable trip has left me wanting more. Thanks again for all the great suggestions! Your insight is always appreciated.
With sincere gratitude,
Sounds like you had a great adventure! Glad to hear it. Thanks for filling me in. Get in touch anytime.
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