The Rocky Mountain National Park encompasses 415 miles of terrain in north-central Colorado, the state famous for it’s outdoor adventures right on your doorstep and the 54 fourteeners. Since I had neither been to Denver nor the Rockies before, I signed up for another trip with REI to backpack in this outdoor wonderland.
Even though the actual trip began Friday morning, the group of participants and the guides met up Thursday night at the gigantic REI Flagship store in Denver for a trip briefing, which included a quick overview of the trip, some helpful packing tips and dividing up group gear. I was quite surprised at first that every participant was assigned a bear canister to carry. On my previous backpacking trips we would usually carry 1 canister for 2 to 3 people, which would always be a tight fit, but we worked it out every time. However, since there were 8 of us (6 clients plus 2 guides), I quickly realized that because of the amounts of food that we would be bringing in, as well as trash and any other scented stuff, e.g. toiletries, quickly can take up a lot of space. After some repacking, I managed to squeeze everything in my pack, but it was heavier than I had anticipated.
We departed on our adventure from the Hampton Inn (the REI-recommended host hotel) in Denver at 8am and made our way to the North Inlet Trailhead located at Grand Lake, about 100 miles away from Denver. In the parking lot, we unloaded our gear, put on a good layer of sunscreen, shouldered our packs and off we went on the North Inlet Trail at around 11am.
Day 1: Trailhead to Campground
The trail to our camp at North Inlet Group Campground turned out to be pretty flat for the first half of the hike and more rolling hills in the second part, with an elevation gain of 1,200 feet over the course of 6.4 miles. On paper, this looks pretty easy, however the weight of the packs and the altitude (we started at 8,500 feet) needs to be factored in.
We had our first bigger break at Cascade Falls for lunch at 8,900 feet, where we were able, for the first time, to enjoy the beauty of the environment, with a great view down the valley, carved by the North Inlet Creek.
We continued at a steady pace after lunch and reached our campground by 2.45pm, set up camp (we used REI Quarter Dome T2 tents) and enjoyed some delicious dinner, prepared by our guides Chris and Tobi. The conditions at night turned out to be pretty warm so I had to leave my sleeping bag unzipped in order not to overheat.
Day 2: Day Hikes to Lake Nokoni and Lake Nanita
We left our bigger bags in camp the next day and instead headed for 2 lakes, Lake Nokoni and Lake Nanita. Leaving at 9am, we first crossed Ptarmigan Creek and then made our way south at the North Inlet junction. After crossing over North Inlet Creek again and taking in some views of North Inlet Falls, the grade picked up significantly and we were pretty glad we had only packed lightly for the day. On the way up to the top of the saddle separating us from Lake Nokoni, we not only saw some Columbines next to the trail, but also had an encounter with a pretty well-fed marmot.
Once at the lake, we rested out legs for about half an hour and took in the beauty of the view. Crystal clear water, blue and sunny skies and the mountains in the background reflecting on the surface of the lake. Very inviting to take a swim, but I decided to wait until our lunch break at Lake No. 2, where I would have more time to dry off afterwards. After a chat with a ranger, who wasted no time in telling us that there might be bears or moose in the area, we headed on to Lake Nanita, which we reached about thirty minutes later.
Lake Nanita presented itself to us in an equally beautiful lighting and setting, with the weather still playing along well (for now). Chris and Tobi again prepared lunch and soon after I knew why out backpacks must have been so heavy: we enjoyed brie cheese, hummus, cucumber, sliced sausage, salami, crackers, smoked salmon and even cookies for dessert. We were, indeed, treated well. Since I was a bit worried about dark clouds rolling in, I decided to take a dip on the lake while the weather was still holding up. And how nice it was, pretty chilly but oh so refreshing.
Pretty soon after I got out of the water, the weather turned for the worst and it started raining, luckily not too heavily, but enough for us to cut our lunch break and time at Lake Nanita short and headed back to Lake Nokoni first. Since it didn’t get much better, we decided to head back to camp and figure out what to do with the rest of the day then. Back in camp, it was immediately noticeable how bad weather can affect the mood of a hiking group. We were glad however that the rain finally stopped and Tobi had the suggestion of doing a little excursion to find War Dance Falls, which was located pretty close to our campground.
It did not take us long to locate the falls and since we had still some hours of daylight left, we decided to hike/scramble up next to the falls in search of Bear Lake. The further up we went, however, the terrain was getting more and more difficult and any stones more slippery because of the wet conditions. I questioned whether it was a good idea to attempt this without assessing the conditions and the experience of the group first, but anyhow, up we went. At some point though, it was getting too late in the day and almost at the crest we decided it would be best to turn around and make our way back down the slippery slope. We made it back down ok, even encountering what seemed like a deer skeleton along the way. Back in camp, our guides decided to not serve us a custom meal today, but rather go for Mountain House freeze-dried food, which I had had before and had never been disappointed.
Day 3: Packing up and heading out
Sunday marked our departure day, which meant taking down the tents and packing up our gear. But luckily we did not leave without made-to-order blueberry pancakes made by Chris, brown sugar, chocolate chips and cranberries optional. They had also thought about maple syrup. Totally delicious. Combined with Starbucks Via, a hell o fa way to start your Sunday in the woods.
We managed to have everything ready by 10am and headed back down the way we came from. Thanks to the hiking speed of Tobi in front, we made incredible good time, stopping at Cascade Falls again for a little breather and water break. We held off on our actual lunch break until we had reached the meadows about a mile from the parking lot, where we had our last chance to enjoy the charm of the area. It ended up taking us only 3 hours to get back to the van and start our drive back to Denver, which was slightly delayed by some heavy traffic, cause by other Denverites, pursuing their outdoor addiction. Regardless, we made it back to the Hampton Inn by 5pm, which gave me plenty of time to catch my flight back to the Bay Area at 9pm.
From my trip with REI last year, I had quite high expectations with regards to professionalism, courtesy and general quality of the trip. And I am happy to say that REI did not disappoint. Chris and Tobi did an excellent job, not only guiding us through the woods, but also entertained us with stories. They very much made sure that the group functioned as a whole and that, in the end, everyone, including me, had a great time. One could argue that you would be able to put a trip like this together for much cheaper than the $700+ that I had to put down if you did it yourself, but on the other hand you have to realize what you are getting for your buck:
- Professional guides who can tell you more about the area that you might be able to learn otherwise
- Companionship with other, like-minded people
- Reduced hassle of finding “the right” trail or “the right experience” for a weekend of limited time
That kind of adventure travel, compared to when you are doing everything yourself, seems a bit pampered, but at least the two trips I did with REI did not necessarily cross that threshold where it is too much for me. It was also strenuous enough (especially with the packs), that I felt I had to work in order to earn that experience. In contrast, I would never want to sign up for a trip where essentially everything is taken care of and the only things I need to worry about is showing up and setting one foot in front of the other. To me, it seems it has to be at least a little bit uncomfortable for you to feel that you are really part of the adventure and experience. And as long as that is the case, I will certainly sign up for more trips in the future.
Gear Lessons Learned
- If you can hang it outside your pack, do it. In order to save some space, I opted for bringing a smaller sunscreen bottle this time, outfitted with a little carabiner that I was able to just clip to the outside of my pack. One less item to stuff inside.
- Starbucks Via. On previous trips, I would bring tea bags or cocoa mix to make hot chocolate, but the prospect of getting that shot of caffeine in the morning is just too good to miss out on upcoming trips.
- REI Rocky Mountains Backpacking (trip info page)
- Trip photos on Flickr
- Rocky Mountain National Park (NPS page)
- Hampton Inn & Suites Denver-Speer Boulevard (on TripAdvisor)