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Rocky Mountain Chapter

Two Easy High Alpine Hikes - Ute Trail, RMNP

By Mike Whiteley

One of the best things I like to do during the hot summer months is to hike above the tree line where, not only are the views spectacular, but it is always cooler. In Colorado we are fortunate to have relatively easy access to numerous high altitude locations. Although many of these sites require a lot of work to get to - up long, steep trails - the Ute Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) has one of the easiest accesses to high alpine terrain that I have found as you can drive above the tree line to the trail’s beginning, saving yourself the effort of hiking there.

Ute Trail, RMNP


Because of the ease in reaching the trail, and because it is located in RMNP, this can be a very busy place. I like to do this hike late in the evening close to sunset, after the storms and most hikers have passed. By choosing unusual times to hike you can have the trail mostly to yourself. This leaves you with a different and unique outing that includes stunning vistas, high alpine tundra, and forests all set alive by the light of the setting sun.

The trail itself is full of history. Possibly one of the oldest trails in the state, it was once used by the Native American Ute Tribe as a way to cross the Continental Divide. As you walk along the path, you can think of its amazing past, of who has gone before on this simple trail. Most of what was once the Ute Trail is now Trail Ridge Road - the highest continuous road in the United States and a wonderful and very popular drive by itself - but it is great to get off the road and onto this original old trail.

Two sections are still left as a trail; the first starts at the Ute Trailhead on Trail Ridge Road 2 miles west of Rainbow Curve, or 0.8 miles east of Forest Canyon Overlook. The second starts at the Alpine Visitor’s Center on Trail Ridge Road.

Ute Trail, RMNP - 2The first section takes you downhill on a one-way, 6.1-mile hike to Beaver Meadows. This trail passes through three alpine zones - alpine, subalpine and montane - and drops 3,000 feet in elevation. If you choose to do just the downhill hike, you will need to do a car shuttle. You can, of course, hike both ways but the middle section is quite steep, not hard descending but a lot harder ascending. Hiking only the downhill part is about as easy a trek that you can find with this much diversity. It is also a great introduction to hiking in the high alpine tundra.

The second section of the trail starts at the Alpine Visitor’s Center on Trail Ridge Road, just across the road from the entrance to the parking lot. This trail is even shorter, at 4.2 miles with about 1,800 feet of elevation loss, as it winds its way down to Milner Pass and Poudre Lake. Hiking through alpine tundra and subalpine forest, you will see beautiful scenic vistas of RMNP’s peaks and great wildflowers during midsummer. You will need a car shuttle to hike downhill, or you can go down and back up, as this section is not nearly as difficult. You can also connect this trail with the Mount Ida Trail to add another 10 miles or so to make a long and challenging hike.

These two hikes can be very easy but will still get you high enough to experience the world of the alpine tundra up close and personal, with stunning views, elk, Big Horn sheep, wildflowers and best of all - cool summer temperatures.

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To learn more about upcoming Sierra Club Outings in Colorado see the outings page of the RMC website at http://rmc.sierraclub.org/outings/index.asp. You can also have your name added to an email list serve that comes out once a week with all of the latest outings by contacting Mike Whiteley at mgwhiteley@q.com.


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