| Some Rocky Mountain Park Classics
Forgotten Monarchs of Central Rocky Mountain
Sprague Mountain (12,713)
Stones Peak (12,922)
Bear Lake Trailhead
Resources (piggy back off of D Baker’s style)
Lisa Foster’s Guide to Rocky Mountain National Park
Trails Illustrated RMNP
Summitpost printouts (from Brenta)
Common Sense (though remote, the routes are straightfoward)
Rocky Mountain National Park, while not the biggest area in the state, is home to some of the most secluded peaks and drainages. Standing in the Bear Lake parking lot, you would probably think solitude is completely out of the question, but all you really need to do is make it 1 foot past the Flattop Mountain summit (not in the direction of Hallet) and you have yourself a wide open expanse of regions to explore that see very few visitors on an annual basis. This is a nice way to bag peaks, cause you spend the majority of the day nomadically wandering around Big Horn Flats and its neighboring areas with few trails and no gapers, but as a reward, you have a 3 foot wide trail on the approach and deproach.
Moraine Park could be considered a Gaper Fest, but it’s the best the eastern side of the park has to offer from a campground standpoint, and the access and views are solid. Kevin, Sarah and I have used it a number of times as a jumping off point for long day trips in to the “Wild Gardens” (Lisa Foster term) of Glacier Gorge, Loch Vale and Bear Lake.
We arrived in to camp around 7:30pm, just as the campground gatekeepers were calling it a night. After figuring out overnight permits, I ask them casually when the last bear sighting was. “Two hours ago” says the ranger. “Awesome” we all respond. Of course, the one night where I could’ve used my mace and blade, I didn’t bring either. As we quickly setup tents and a fire, we pause to hear the screams of a nearby group. We were ready for anything, but it ended up being nothing more than a bunch of young girls. After some JJ’s, Happy Campers, a decent fire and some Late July Dude Ranch chips (I will pay a premium if anyone nabs these at Whole Foods when in stock), we called it a night.
We woke to rime covered pine trees and relative blue skies.
Moraine Park at sunrise
The road to Bear Lake is still abiding by the 9am-4pm road closure for repaving, so we made our way towards the trailhead for an 8am start.
The trail up to Flattop went as usual, with some nice views of an early Fall coating of the surrounding peaks….
Longs Massif w/ coating of Fall rime
The winds rose and the temps dropped around Flattop. We’d be fighting one or the other, and at times, a mixture of the two, for the remainder of the day.
The hike over Bighorn Flats went quick and we peeled off for Sprague right as we reached the Eureka Ditch off the Tonahutu Creek Trail.
From there, we followed the faint trail along the ditch till we reached Sprague Pass at 11,700.
I wonder where the owner of this is right about now?
From the “pass” (it doesn’t feel much like a pass), you ascend a straightforward, easy slope up to a notch that is the top of the Sprague Glacier.
Pappy and Woody straddling the Continental Divide
The glacier was a nice and welcomed surprise (especially since we didn’t need to go across it, just marvel at it) and there appeared to be some fresh debris, making for a dramatic scene.
Sprague Glacier and Lake (Papillon)
Notice the hiker?
Looking straight down towards the lake
looking back at Sprague Lake and Southern RMNP
We made our way around the edge of the cirque towards Sprague’s broad southern slopes, gained the summit plateau and then located the highpoint in the Northwest corner. We found a register, not many names in the last 6 years and none since Labor Day (granted registers aren’t the messiah on a gauge of how many people summit peaks, but it gives you, at least, an idea of how seldom visited some are. I imagine Longs has to be changed on a daily basis, no wonder Detterline has climbed it so many times)
Summit of Sprague (Papillon)
Salt N’ Vinegar Pringles were enjoyed by all (we had 3 sleeves!). Kevin took a quick nap while Sarah and I enjoyed future ops in the Never Summers and Ida region. The views of Hayden Spire were enjoyable as well……
It was around 1pm, a little past our turnaround time, but we figured if we could make good time to Stones and back and obtain Flattop by 6, we could just grunt out the deproach with headlamps. It was Saturday anyway, so we were willing to push it a tad. In my opinion, which I think was shared by all, the decision to tag on Stones was arguably the single greatest decision any of us have made in the mountains, we would find out later.
Back to the ridge run. We made way for those bunny rabbit lookin points on Sprague’s eastern summit plateau and picked our way through them. The last section would prove to be the climbing crux of the day, with a semi-exposed 3rd class skootch around. Around this section, the winds and temps relented a tad. Sarah realized she was wearing everything in her pack for the past hour or so, so we took a quick break at the saddle and re-layered and fueled up.
crux on traverse to Stones (Wooderson)
We had all made recent trips to the park and commented on how smokey the region has been. On this day, it was not as hazy, but a different force of nature was at work here. Front Range cloud inversions. Anyone who has had the pleasure of experiencing one of these probably knows what I’m talking about, but this particular one was rather unique. It lasted ALL DAY. It was really cool to see mother nature at work throughout the afternoon. In the early afternoon, we noticed clouds building over the plains, then gradually being pushed up against the Continental Divide. We would then notice the waves of clouds stopping dead in their tracks in the prospective, deeply inset drainages between Stones and Longs Peak, and an Easterly flow keeping the clouds from extending any further West. They literally remained there, and kept on building, like an artist and his painting, providing us with some killer photo ops.
After the brief hold up in the notch, we made quick work of the rest of the traverse to Stones, which I would put at no higher than a 2+.
Papillon approaching mile #9.8
Now you might recall Stephanie’s (Ridge Runner) Mount Ida loop from a couple weeks ago and her mentioning a little tidbit about Forest Canyon. Anyone who has ever driven over Trail Ridge Rd has probably, knowingly or unknowingly, commented on this place. It’s the huge, 2000 foot dropoff to the South of the road. I like to refer to it as a Black Bear Den. Kevin stated that if a movie was ever made for the book “Night of the Grizzly” by Jack Olsen, the following photo by Kane on Summitpost would be used in the opening credits……
The credits and music will roll similar to the beginning of the Shining and anyone in the crowd will never want to venture out in to the woods ever again.
Anyways, we were glad to be viewing that canyon from high above…
F**k that place
A little more welcoming sight was our view to the East, and its Sea of Tranquility….
Sea of Tranquility
Not to mention the view to the South getting better and better by the minute.
It was getting late and unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. We probably could’ve sat there for days admiring that view, but the cold and the late hour had us heading home.
retracing our steps (Wooderson)
Looking back on crux of ridge
heading towards the Flats (Wooderson)
We were mainly spread out pretty far on the way back towards Bighorn Flats. I was humming Zeppelin songs in my head for a solid hour until we all took a quick water break and admired the sunset to the West……
Sunset to the West
And more inversions to our East
Mines of Moria down there? (Papillon)
We reached Flattop around 6:15, rounded the horse tie up then started making solid progress. I said earlier that adding on Stones was a great decision. Well, as we were rounding Flattop towards treeline, we were presented with an evening alpenglow of unworldly proportions. As Kevin said “Its starting to get downright psychedelic”. I’ll let the shots do the talking
Longs on full display
McHenry's Notch evening alpenglow (Papillon)
Taylor alpenglow (Papillon)
Simply amazing (Papillon)
I’ve added a human to prove these were real….
Wooderson for scale (Papillon)
This lasted for, maybe, 7 to 8 minutes, we couldn’t have timed it anymore perfect. It was a real treat, we were all very grateful for the forces of nature that all occurred at the same time to make something like that possible. After numerous photo ops, we descended down towards the mist…
Reaching the mist (Wooderson)
Once we reached tree line, we entered the eerie inversion, which provided a frighteningly beautiful descent down to the car. Using headlamps was like turning on your high beams in a heavy fog, but at least we could see our feet and where we were going.
We reached the car at exactly 8pm, a roundtrip of 11 hours and 45 minutes. It was both strange and comforting seeing our car as the last one to leave the infamous Bear Lake Trailhead. We were VERY grateful we didn’t need to pick up a car shuttle at Milner also.
Last stop of the evening was made at the one and only Ed’s Cantina, which we made with an hour to spare. Kevin, while a couple yards ahead of Sarah and I on the deproach across Bighorn Flats, looked deep in thought. At one point, he turned around and stated “F**t it, let’s just get the double order of fajitas and a gigantic plate of nachos and call it good. What do you guys say?”. Well, that’s what we ended up getting, and it looked like this…
Double order of Fajitas. Oh man....
Another day in the park on the books and it was right up there with the best of them. Thanks for reading….
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):