This past July, my friend Sarah and I embarked on a most epic backpacking and camping trip in Rocky Mountain National park (RMNP). She and I both have insane schedules, so to be able to coordinate an entire week together over the summer would take some solid planning. A year ahead of time, we set out to find a trip with the perfect mix of adventure, wild landscapes, and relaxation. A successful trip takes the right amount of planning; they don’t often fall into place without some forethought and execution. Seeing as how RMNP is one of the most visited National Parks in the summer, our planning goals were two-fold: Escape the crowds (because this is our M.O.), and book early enough to ensure that we got kick ass backcountry permits and campsites to maximize our trip.
True to form, I hit the books to seek out some of the most epic and remote locations in the park that would meet our backpacking goals. I stumbled upon a Roots Rated article about RMNP that caught my eye: “Secrets of the park” it said in the text. Okay, I’m interested…
“….but there is much more to see beyond the well-traveled road. On the eastern side of the park, Wild Basin is something of a local’s secret. Waterfalls, pristine lakes, peaceful camping, and inviting summits await from this special region of the park.”
Safe to say, we were SOLD. And so, the plans unfolded from there; it didn’t take any more convincing. Six months out, on the day the permit window opened, we had our permit plan submitted in the hopes we would get our desired itinerary. Planning ahead paid off because we got our permits! Our excitement for these plans was reinforced on our arrival by a salesman at the Estes Park Mountain shop who said that Wild Basin was his favorite spot in the park, and the ranger who gave us our permit who said much of the same. If the locals love it, we knew we would too.
Bear canister in pack (rules, rules, rules) and permit in hand, we set off an a very cold and rainy July morning. Being fore warned that the parking lot can fill up early in the morning, we arrived at the trailhead shortly before 8 am (on a weekday).
H@H TIP: If you are heading here, make sure you have a National park permit already since this area sits oddly outside the main entrance and the park booth at this entrance was unmanned when we arrived. Also make sure that you have picked up your wilderness permit at the Beaver Meadows Wilderness Office by the Visitor Center before you head out to Wild Basin. You can do this the day before if you plan to get an early start.
Take the long dirt road all the way to large parking lot at the end of the road. The trailhead for Thunder lake departs from this parking lot. There are a couple of cool water falls very close to the trailhead that seemed to attract a lot of day hikers. Never fear; about 3/4th of a mile in, the crowds fell behind us and the solitude awaited us.
Taking the Thunder Lake trail, we made quick time of the miles past the insanely overflowing North St Vrain Creek. From the amount of water on the creek we knew we would be in for a load of snow melt higher up the trail. It’s 6.6 miles from the trailhead to Thunder Lake over a steady incline but overall a pretty reasonable climb. Thunder lake sits at 10,675 ft and the temperature change from the trailhead here was palpable.
Having hiked in torrential rain all day, the weather Gods gave us a 20 min break from the rain to set up camp before the rain started back again. Suffering a touch of jet lag and feeling travel weary, we spent the afternoon playing Yahtzee, watching the thunder clouds roll in over the mountains and having an afternoon siesta.
We were slightly disappointed with the campsites themselves at Thunder Lake. I think we were expecting some good views from camp but the 2 individual camp sites are a good walk back from the lake. To get access to the lake you must walk down a giant hill (and then climb back up to get home). There are A LOT of downed and sketchy looking trees and smooshy wet ground, so finding a spot to pitch the tent was a gamble.
What this site lacked in aesthetic appeal and views, it made up for in wild life. Each evening, family of deer (mama, papa and little fawn) would forage in the trees around our campsite. We would be sitting in peace and quiet to turn around and see one standing ten feet behind us in the most magical way.
H@H TIP: If spending time at the campsite doesn’t appeal to you, do note that there is a large flat rock down by the trees behind the ranger cabin that makes an amazing spot to set up kitchen and enjoy dinner overlooking the lake and the mountains and take in sunset.
The rain had its way with Day 1 but blessed us with perfect weather for our big climb on Day 2. The sun on Thunder Lake the following morning changed our perspective and a less than perfect campsite was soon forgotten as we started exploring the area. Thunder Lake itself is jaw dropping ! Be sure to spend some time by the lake taking it all in.
My research led me to find that Thunder Lake was the perfect place for a little off trail exploring and summit seeking. Although it’s not marked on the official trail map, there is a trail around Thunder Lake that cuts up a drainage towards an alpine meadow, and beyond that, a high alpine lake and Boulder-Grand Pass. The trail was obvious and worn; complete with wooden logs placed over streams and creeks. Due to a late-May snow fall, there was a considerable amount of snow beyond the tree line. Thankfully we came equipped with poles and microspikes which really helped the accent and descent of the snowy slopes.
The trail was a bit tricky to navigate where the snow had hidden the path, but if you continue straight up the drainage you will see the trail ahead soon enough. After a long climb we came upon a lush alpine meadow with some excellent views. You can see over to the falls above Lion Lake and down to Thunder Lake as well.
The alpine meadows were in FULL BLOOM; marmots were running over the rocks, streams were gushing, the grass was long and green. It was hard to believe that a few feet earlier we were slogging up a snowfield.
One final (and relentless) climb above the meadow and you emerge at the MOST perfect alpine lake. Lake of Many Winds sits at 11,610 ft, is flanked on three sides by massive mountain walls and snowfields, but is perfectly still and serene; an ideal place to fuel up before the big scramble up to the Boulder Grand Pass.
A near vertical scramble along side of the snowfield above the lake is tough but short. When you feel like you are reaching the precipice at the lip of the pass, you’ll be surprised once you pop up at the top to see that Boulder-Grand Pass (12,061 ft) is a huge flat expanse.
You can see for miles to both the west and east. For the more adventurous, you can easily summit Pilot mountain from the pass which gives fabulous views of the other lakes in the Wild Basin area (Falcon lake, Lion lake to name a couple). The effort to get up the pass was worth the scrapes and sweat and the early am wake up call. The expansive views were some of the best we had on the trip and we saw no one on the trail with us for the whole day. Plus, we got to say that we climbed up to stand on the Continental Divide !
It was hard to leave Thunder Lake on Day 3. We saw very few people and it felt like a secluded slice of nature heaven. But we had one more night in Wild Basin and we wanted to explore more trails, so we set off towards Bluebird lake. We had to back track a bit until we veered off on the Blue Bird lake trail. It was 6.5 Miles from Thunder to Blue Bird. On the Blue Bird Lake Trail, we felt like we were in an entirely different part of the park. The landscape was way more open, with lots of burned and downed trees; which mean it was really hot and dry for most of the hike.
But this meant the views were great the entire way and just kept improving. It’s not until the last half a mile or so that you start to get some tree shade to cool off but this is where the trail starts climbing more aggressively. After crossing a large pile of moraine we arrived at the side trail for our campsite, Upper Ouzel Creek.
We did not know what to expect and thought this site would be back in the woods like our last site at Thunder Lake. Boy were we wrong. Once you veer off the main trail and climb for a few minutes, you will be on a wide open rock shelf with mountain views in every direction; waterfalls and the creek roaring in the background and a perfectly placed bench on the rock for start gazing or dinner cooking. It definitely goes down as one of my top ten backcountry sites. This was the only site here so we had no neighbors for miles.
After setting up camp we set out for Blue Bird Lake, another 0.5 miles beyond our campsite and another hell of a climb. There was actually a lot more snow here than Thunder Lake, requiring us to strap our spikes for the final snowfield before the lake. There isn’t much that can prepare you for the massive views at Bluebird. It’s the perfect spot to relax and unwind for the afternoon, which is exactly what we did. A herd of elk snuck quietly passed us, and a marmot spied on us all afternoon. This is a very special and energizing place which I recommend as a must see on a trip to RMNP. You could even come here as a day hike if you wanted (12.6 Miles Rtn).
After spending 4 days in this area of the park, we decided that Wild Basin is in fact the perfect name for this very special spot. From the abundance of wildlife we saw to the huge variety of beautiful flowers and trees that were in full show during our visit. The ferocious rivers, the raging waterfalls, the wicked mountains, the untouched landscapes and complete solitude; it was indeed wild. And I would return in a heart beat.