Trip overview: The Continental Divide Loop is a ~45 mile backpacking loop that traverses over 20 miles of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail within Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. This route starts and ends at Bear Lake, though it can also be started at Grand Lake. +/- 11,600 feet of elevation with a starting elevation of 9,500 feet and a peak elevation of 12,300 feet. Highlights include expansive views of Continental Divide, large grassy meadows, and abundant wildlife. We completed this trip over 5 days in August of 2016. If you are unable to attain permits for this trek, the Four Pass Loop in the Maroon Bells Wilderness is a good alternative.
- High resolution USGS topographic map download links part 1 (pdf) and part 2 (pdf)
- Links to buy Trails Illustrated Topographic map (here)
Jump to Day 1: Bear Lake Trailhead to Haynach Lakes Campsite
Jump to Day 2: Haynach Lakes Campsite to Summerland Park Campsite
Jump to Day 3: Summerland Park Campsite to Pine Marten Campsite
Jump to Day 4: Pine Marten Campsite to Lake Nokoni and Lake Nanita
Jump to Day 5: Pine Marten Campsite to Bear Lake Trailhead
Click here to read more about Permits
Permits: to backpack and camp in the backcountry at Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP), you need a permit. The permit costs $26 and you can find the link to apply for it here if you are camping sometime between March 1st and October 28th. Unlike some other parks, RMNP requires you to specify on your permit where you will camp each night. Before applying for a permit you will want to check out the wilderness campsite map and the latest campsite availability list so you can decide where to camp. You can also find somewhat detailed information about all the campsites here. The popular campsites full up pretty fast in the prime season, so it is best to get your permit early.
Click here to read more about Logistics
Logistics: You must pick up your permit at either the Headquarters Wilderness Office near Estes Park, Colorado (next to the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center on Highway 36) or the Kawuneeche Visitor Center (on Highway 34 near Grand Lake). The latest you can grab your permit is Noon on the 1st day of your trek. I would advise grabbing your permit the day before your trek, if possible, so you can start the hike early in the morning. If you do not have a car, there is a shuttle that runs from the Wilderness Office to the Bear Lake Trailhead. If you have a car, you can park at the Park & Ride lot (or maybe at the Trailhead).
Click here to read more about Weather and Trail Conditions
Weather and Trail Conditions: You will want to make sure to check the weather before setting off on the trek. In the Colorado Rockies it often storms in the afternoon and lighting is a big concern in Rocky Mountain National Park. On the first day of the trek you must go over Flattop Mountain and Big Horn Flats and you are expose at high elevation for a couple miles. If there are any storms expected, you definitely want to get this part of the trek finished early in the morning to avoid any issues.
Click here to read more about Difficulty
Difficulty: Doing this trek over 5 days made for a manageable pace. There are some significant climbs, but the trails are all well marked and maintained. However, you need to be comfortable with high altitude hiking, and it is a great idea to acclimate to the altitude for a day or two before starting tour trek.
Supplies: There are black bears in the park, so you need to bring a bear canister to protect your food (and to protect the bears). I also recommend pre-treating your hiking clothes and tent with permethrin spray repellent. This repellent keeps mosquitoes, flies, and ticks away. The permethrin treatment stays on your clothes for up to 7 washes, so it helps reduce the amount of spray you need to put on your skin.
The temperature can be quite cold at the higher elevation campsites in the evening and mornings. I highly recommend having some warm wool-based clothes for camp. Wool is great because it doesn’t pick up funky stenches as fast at cotton or synthetic clothes and also because it dries out quickly if you get caught in the rain. I had all wool layers for camp and didn’t have to wash any of my camp clothes for a full trek. You also want to make sure your hiking clothes are made of synthetic (or wool) fabric that will dry out if you get caught by a thunderstorm and get wet. That last you want is to be drenched in cotton clothes that will stay wet and keep you cold.
Below is a list of the gear I brought on this trip in Rocky Mountain National Park:
- a lightweight hiking rain jacket (North Face Venture 2 Jacket)
- fast drying synthetic hiking pants (prAna Zion Pants)
- a quick drying long sleeve hiking shirt (Columbia Silver Ridge L/S Shirt)
- wool outer socks (People Socks Moreno 4-pack)
- thin blister preventing base socks (WrightSock double layer Coolmesh)
- quick drying synthetic boxer briefs (ExOfficio Give-N-Go)
- Gore-tex hiking shoes (adidas Outdoor Terrex Fast R Gore-Tex Shoe)
Clothes for camp
- wool leggings (Minus33 Merino Wool Kancamagus Midweight Bottom)
- wool base layer shirt (Minus33 Merino Wool Chocorua Midweight Crew)
- warm wool overshirt (Pendleton Long Sleeve Classic-Fit Board Shirt)
- lightweight down jacket (Patagonia 800-fill Down Jacket)
- lightweight camp shoes (Xero Z-Trail lightweight sandal)
- topographic map (Trails Illustrated Rocky Mountain topographic map)
- trekking poles (Black Diamond Trail Ergo Cork Trekking Poles)
- 2 liter hydration bladder (Platypus Big Zip Water Reservoir)
- 65 liter backpack (Osprey Atmos 65 Liter pack)
- water filtration system (Platypus gravity filtration system)
- strong tent with rain-fly (Alps Mountaineering Chaos 2 Tent)
- inflatable sleeping pad (Therm-a-Rest Trail Pro Sleeping Pad)
- sleeping bag (REI Co-op Igneo 25 Sleeping Bag)
- inflatable camping pillow (Ultralight Inflating Pillow)
- lightweight backpacking chair (Helinox Chair Zero)
- lightweight lantern (MPOWERD Luci Outdoor 2.0)
- headlamp (Black Diamond Cosmo Headlamp)
- multi-tool with knife (Gerber MDime Mini Multi-Tool)
- Ursack (Ursack Major bear bag) or bear canister (BearVault BV500)
- lightweight stove (MSR PocketRocket 2)
- lighter (BIC plastic lighters)
- 2 liter pot (GSI Outdoors Halulite Boiler Pot)
- coffee cup (GSI Outdoors Glacier Stainless Cup)
- lightweight spork (Snow Peak Titanium Spork)
- small, quick drying towel (REI mutli towel mini)
- wet wipes (Stall Mates individually wrapped wipes)
- mole skin for blisters (Blister medic kit)
- lightweight trowel (GSI Sanitation Trowel)
- small amount of duct tape for gear repairs
- chapstick and sun screen
Food and drink
- a variety of my favorite dehydrated meals
- electrolyte replacement (NUUN Hydration Tablets)
- quick snacks (Clif Shot Bloks and Clif energy bars)
- instant coffee (Starbucks VIA)
- small plastic water bottles filled with whisky 🙂
Day 1: 10.2 miles: +3,700 / -2,500; Bear Lake Trailhead to Haynach Lakes Camp.
Before setting off on this backpacking trip in Rocky Mountain National Park we stayed at friend’s house near Denver, Colorado. This allowed us to acclimate a bit to the altitude and let us stop at REI to buy supplies. The morning of the trek we got a ride from our friend and were dropped off at the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center. We arrived at about 8:00 am and promptly walked down to the Backcountry Permit Office to get our permit. The Ranger immediately told us that we should have started our hike an hour earlier and said we were likely to get stuck on Flattop Mountain in the afternoon when thunderstorms are likely. At this point we did not really have a backup plan, so we just decided we would hike as fast as possible to get up and over Flattop Mountain before the storms.
Since we didn’t have a car, we planned to take the free park shuttle from the Visitor Center to Bear Lake. Unfortunately, we narrowly missed the Hiker Shuttle Express at 8:30 am and were forced to wait an hour until the next shuttle came at 9:30 am. This shuttle only runs hourly from 7:30 am to 11:00 am, so plan accordingly. It might be more wise to get a ride to the Park & Ride since you can grab a shuttle to Bear Lake from there at 7:00 am and get an early start (plus the Bear Lake shuttle runs more frequently). You probably would need to get your permit the day before though as I am not sure when the Backcountry Office opens in the morning.
So, we got on the 9:30 am Hiker Shuttle, took that to the Park & Ride, and then hopped on the Bear Lake Shuttle. The Bear Lake Shuttle runs every 10-15 minutes and takes you all the way to the Bear Lake Ranger Station and Trailhead. We got off the bus and immediately started rushing up the Flattop Mountain Trail.
We set off on the hike between 10-11:00 am (I don’t recall the exact time anymore). The hike begins with a short flat section as you walk by Bear Lake. Then, there is a ~4 mile climb up to the top of Flattop Mountain. The views along the way are really nice and you can see several lakes and mountain peaks. This hike is pretty popular with day hikers, so you will likely encounter many other hikers unless you leave quite early.
Once we got to the top of the climb (in what seemed like record time), we took the Tonahutu Creek Trail. This section of the trail goes across Bighorn Flats and is really exposed. It is a beautiful trail, but is a terrible place to be during a thunderstorm because there is zero cover.
We picked up our hiking pace even more here because the ranger said this would be the dangerous part of the hike for us. As we were hiking, the sky started turning dark and we began to hear thunder. Fortunately, we made it across the first 2.5 miles of the Tonahutu trail before the weather really started to look nasty, but we were still in a very exposed area. We decided to just run for a small group of trees and then went and sat down in the trees for ~1.5 hours until the storm had passed (this may not be the best strategy to avoid lightning, so do not take this is as advice). Note that some of these pictures are borrowed from the cited sources, because I was too busy running to take pictures…
Eventually the storm passed, and we felt comfortable enough to briskly hike another mile down the trail until we reached the the part of the trail that is surrounded by tall trees. At about the 8.5 mile mark you will see a sign for Haynach Lakes Camp and turn off the Tonahutu Creek Trail. We went up the trail, found the developed campsite, and dropped off our gear.
By this point, the weather was fine and we decided to leave our gear at camp and hike up to Haynach Lakes to explore. We were pretty tired after running up and over Flattop Mountain, so we didn’t actually make it to the main lake. It’s about a mile and up a few hundred feet in elevation to get there. We went about 0.5 miles up the trail and then decided to head back and make dinner. The scenery along the way was nice though and we came across some cool wildlife.
Day 2: 11.4 miles; +700 feet / -2,900 feet; Haynach Lakes Camp to Summerland Park.
Despite being ~11 miles long, this hike was relatively easy since it was all down hill. Along the way, the hike alternates between going through forests and through Meadows. A couple miles into the hike we came across the first meadow and then encountered granite falls, which provided a nice spot for a water break and some pictures.
After the falls, we hiked through some more dead forest. This section of the trail had some wildflowers which provided nice color.
Next, the trail leads into the aptly named Big Meadows. This section of the trail was really nice and provides great views of the meadow and the Tonahutu Creek running through it. We were surprised we didn’t see any animals here though.
After hiking through Big Meadows we went through another pine forest (this one alive) before reaching the trailhead at Grand Lake.
Here we followed signs that led to the North Inlet Trail that goes to Summerland Park. If you needed to freshen up or buy a real meal, you could hike down to the developed area on the North side of Grand Lake. We chose to just continue on to Summerland Park.
We encountered a fair number of people on this section of the trail. It seems to be a popular spot for day hikes. This section of the hike is a flat leisurely hike along side the Summerland Park meadow with views of the North Inlet creek. After a couple miles we came across a sign for the Summerland Park campsite. The site is a 5-10 minute walk into the meadow from the North Inlet trail, which is nice because it provides privacy from the popular trail. We couldn’t find an easily accessible walk source right near the camp, so ended up getting water from a small creek that crosses the North Inlet Trail near the turn off for the campsite. This was a bit annoying because it took 15 minutes to go get water. But, the campsite was really nice overall and is a great spot to see moose.
Day 3: 6.4 miles; +1,900 feet / -800 feet; Summerland Park to Pine Marten site #2.
This trek involved a moderate climb, but was overall short in distance. We had considered scrambling up to Bench Lake before going to camp, but decided against. A ranger had told us that it required a lot of bushwacking to get there and that you had to get wet along the way. We enjoyed the short day though and had a good time relaxing at our campsite.
Day 4: 6.6 miles; +2,200 feet / -2,200 feet; Day hike to Lake Nokoni and Lake Nanita.
On the 4th day, we jut did a day hike up to Lake Nokoni and Lake Nanita. It was great to not pick up camp and it feels great to hike without a full pack on. The lakes are really nice and the hike is not too difficult. It’s tough enough that you feel tired, but does not burn you out or anything. As usual, we left pretty early in the morning, which was necessary because it stormed pretty hard around 2 pm after we got back to camp. Thankfully our tent held up fine in the hail and we didn’t get wet at all.
Day 5: 10.1 miles; +3,100 feet / -3,300 feet; Pine Marten Camp to Bear Lake Trailhead.
We started our hike at 6:00 am on the last day because we didn’t want to get stuck on Flattop Mountain during a thunderstorm again. The climb in the first 4 miles of the hike is pretty tough. Along the way the fog was pretty dense and unfortunately blocked most of the views.
As we got higher up in elevation, the foliage changed pretty dramatically. The trail was surrounded by small brush and red and yellow grass and moss. With the fog, the area looked pretty unusual. Visibility was only about 20 yards.
After about another mile or so, there start to more and more snow on the ground. It was fairly cold as well. We were not really expecting this kind of weather in late August, but I guess at 12,000 feet you are never really safe from any type of weather. I was really excited for this part of the trail because the views from the Continental Divide are supposed to be great. But, we wouldn’t have been able to see through the fog and we didn’t want to go off trail in the low visibility. I was especially hoping to scrabble over to see Andrews Glacier and Andrews Tarn, but it just didn’t work out this time.
Eventually we reached the junction with the Tonahutu Trail. Within ~30 minutes of arriving here, the skies start to clear and we were able to eat lunch and take some nice pictures of the area. This was great because we didn’t explore the area much on the way up since we were in a hurry.
The hike down to Bear Lake from Flattop Mountain is fairly easy. You get some nice views of the area and it is all downhill. When we got down to the lake, we went up to the water and took some pictures. Then, we headed to the Ranger Station, hopped on the Bear Lake shuttle, and took that to the Park & Ride lot. From there, we got on the Hiker Shuttle and took it to the Estes Park Visitor Center. We freshened up a bit in the bathroom there and called our friend to pick us up.
While waiting for our ride, we walked over to Village Pizza and grabbed a pitcher of Dale’s Pale Ale and a couple pizzas!
Note: I really wanted to take the following alternate route on the last day, but the conditions just didn’t allow for it. It involves a scramble up to and down Andrews Glacier and follows the Loch Vale Trail to Bear Lake. We had cell phone service at our Summerland Park campsite and called the Ranger Station to ask about the condition of Andrews Glacier. They said the snow was really soft and we would likely go knee deep in snow if we tried to walk in our hiking boots. So, we decided it wasn’t safe to go down the glacier without any snow shoes or ice axes. Even if the conditions of the glacier were great, we probably wouldn’t have done it anyways given the fog we encountered on the trail the next day.
Alternate Day 5: 9.8 miles; +3,200 feet / -3,500 feet; Pine Marten to Bear Lake.
Here are some example pictures of the area this hike goes through.
Here are some similar trip reports!