Thursday, September 10, 2009

Hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park: Chasm Lake

This last Sunday I embarked on a 8.4 mile hike with a group of friends in Rocky Mountain National Park. The destination: Chasm Lake. This trail offers everything a hiker could ask for: wildlife, creeks, waterfalls, wildflowers, a gorgeous lake and spectacular views. When hiking at elevation it is always important to be prepared. The weather can change quickly in the mountains, and a lovely summer day can turn to a hypothermic rain, snow or hail storm in minutes. Be sure to pack some warm layers and plenty of water. And definitely bring rain gear. Get below tree line if a storm is on its way. Lighting danger is very real! And remember to tell someone where you are hiking and when you plan to be back, so if you don't show, someone will know to call the authorities and look for you!

The Chasm Lake hike begins at Longs Peak Ranger Station on the east edge of the national park. The cool thing about this trailhead is you don't have to drive all the way up to Estes Park (a nearby town and the general gateway to RMNP) and you don't have to pay to enter from this area! There are restrooms near the trailhead in the camping area, and it would be wise to use them before setting out. The trailhead is located at 9400 feet with an elevation gain of 2360 feet over the 4.2 miles to the lake. This puts the lake at 11760 feet in elevation. This can put an amazing strain on the lungs and legs if you are not acclimated to the elevation. Luckily, living in nearby Boulder that sits at around 5600 feet, the elevation is not too crazy. But you can definitely feel it!

Yay water features!

We started on the trail at around 10:00am, though later we wished we had embarked a bit earlier to have more time to enjoy the lake at the top. The hike begins with a steady climb on a nice wide trail through pine trees and boulders, with the occasional squrrel in the trees. While winding up through the pine trees hikers pass near several creek and waterfall areas, as well as a few creek crossings with convenient little foot bridges. The areas near running water are green, mossy, and cool, and make excellent rest spots to catch your breath.

Pretty little waterfall!

After hiking through the trees, and a cascading creek crossing, hikers are greeted by a lighting warning sign! When you see this sign you know you are about to bust out above treeline. It is important when hiking to be sure you are below treeline if a storm begins to move in. With lighting it's one strike, your out!

Warning! Lightning Danger!

As you come above treeline the pines and evergreens get shorter and stumper, and are eventually replaced by shrubby groundcover and windswept rock. The first view of Long's Peak as it bursts over the horizon is stunning. I can't wait to hike to the top of that monster!

The first view of Long's Peak

A meandering but nevertheless strenuous trek across the open boulder-field brings you the the Long's Peak trail junction. Here there is a hilarious little solar powered bathroom that desperate hikers can take advantage of before continuing down the trail another .7 miles to Chasm Lake, or branching off to head up a grueling 10+ miles to the summit of Long's Peak.

Crossing the boulder field

From this point forward, the trail is dizzyingly spectacular. A wide singletrack contours the edge of a steep slope. The Diamond on Long's Peak (a famous granite rock face for climbers and mountaineers) looms in the background, while the forground is the cascading Columbine Falls. Look for Blue Columbines, the Colorado state flower, when you near the falls and the waterways that follow.

The goal is in sight!

Beyond the falls lies a wetland area filled with ponds and streams. Watch for marmots and pikas near the trail. They make for an adorable photo-op! There is another solar powerd toilet in this area located near a picturesque emergency ranger hut if the need arises. If you are hiking late in the season this area is easily negotiated, but in the earlier season it can be packed with snow and ice, so tread carefully!

Blue Columbines line the trail

After a short yet lung busting scramble up the final leg of the trail you are greated with the site of Chasm Lake spanning before you at the base of the Diamond. This vista is massive. The scope of the peak before you is hard to grasp.

Chasm Lake with Long's Peak in the background.
I couldn't fit the whole thing in the shot!

Here we sat in the shadow of the mountain, eating our lunches and chatting, when the clouds started coming in. We made a quick exit as hail started to fall, and made it down below tree line well before the lighting and rain kicked in. Luckily we had all packed rain gear and some warm layers. Our hike back through the pines was a wet one, but what an experience! I definitely recommend Chasm Lake to anyone looking for a little morning adventure. I can't wait to hike Long's Peak one of these days!

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful hike. It is hard to imagine what the vistas must look like in real life, although after reading this article, I think I can smell the clean, brisk air. Especially love the pictures of the author and the columbine. What a beautiful day. :) :)