Rocky Mountain Double Traverse

One of the coolest things about running or mountaineering is that I am forced to challenge my perceived limitations. I look up at a mountain and think I can’t climb it. But then I do. Those accomplishments stemming from self-doubt are the ones I remember the longest and change me the most.

Several years ago – before all the running and climbing – I attended Lighthouse Writers’ Retreat in Grand Lake (a must-do for all writers!). Our cabin was near a trail called the North Inlet. It climbed into Rocky Mountain National Park, following one of Grand Lake’s tributaries. I was exhausted within a few miles of the hike. When I passed signs listing mileages to the waterfalls and lakes ahead, I was incredulous. Ten miles? To a lake? No way, I’ll never see those, I thought.

Oh, but of course I would. I remember those kinds of thoughts and eventually, I’m compelled to debunk them.

My motivation to return to the North Inlet Trail increased when I discovered how far into Rocky Mountain National Park it extends. It’s so long, in fact, ultra-runners use it and a few others to complete what they call a double traverse of Rocky Mountain National Park. They start at Bear Lake on the east, Estes Park side, ascend the Continental Divide via Flattop Mountain, drop to the West side to Grand Lake, then return. A double crossing of the National Park.

I failed at my first three attempts of the Double Traverse, thanks to floods, early season snow, and torrential rains. This week was the perfect time to try again. The snow was now passable, and with my 100-mile ultra quickly approaching in two months (yikes!), it would be an ideal training run. Off I went, more than a little nervous…

 

The route highlighted in green

The route highlighted in green. I started on the left then completed the loop counter-clockwise.

Bear Lake at 5 a.m., the starting point

Bear Lake at 5 a.m., the starting point

My first ascent of Flattop Mountain. Looking south along the Continental Divide, Hallett Peak is in the front, right; Longs Peak in the back, left.

My first ascent of Flattop Mountain. Looking south along the Continental Divide, Hallett Peak is in the front, right; Longs Peak in the back, left.

Looking east from Flattop Mountain. That’s Grand Lake in the distance, the goal. Once I dropped down this west side of the Continental Divide, I would be committing to a return ascent no matter the weather or how tired I got. A little daunting! I had to summon my confidence.

Looking east from Flattop Mountain. That’s Grand Lake in the distance, the goal. Once I dropped down this west side of the Continental Divide, I would be committing to a return ascent no matter the weather or how tired I got. A little daunting! I had to summon my confidence.

4Burnt Forest

Back under tree line, now on the west side of Rocky Mountain NP. I love finding abundant life in burnt forests.

Tonahutu Creek was spectacular. This creek feeds into Grand Lake, the start of the Colorado River.

Tonahutu Creek was spectacular. This creek feeds into Grand Lake, the start of the Colorado River.

Moose!

Moose!

Grand Lake, the half-way point. The cabin on the left is Shadowcliff, where I stayed for my writers’ retreat six years earlier. I was carrying a credit card in case I was too exhausted at this half-way point to return, but I resisted the temptation to bail-out.

Grand Lake, the half-way point. The cabin on the left is Shadowcliff, where I stayed for my writers’ retreat six years earlier. I was carrying a credit card in case I was too exhausted to return, but I resisted the temptation to bail-out.

It was a long journey back from Grand Lake to Flattop Mountain. The beautiful trail and wildlife helped to distract me. Here’s girls’ night out for the elk.

It was a long journey back from Grand Lake to Flattop Mountain. The beautiful trail and wildlife helped to distract me. Here’s girls’ night out for the elk.

In the last mile to the summit, I noticed a thunderstorm about ten miles away to the north. I started counting the seconds between lightning and thunder, and realized it was quickly approaching. I had two choices: descend immediately back to the tree line even though I would be on the wrong side of the mountain from my car, or race the storm to the summit. I chose the latter and ended up tying with the storm. I had a scary few minutes as I ran the trail, lightning hitting the mountain around me. It’s humbling to realize I made the wrong choice.

In the last mile to the summit, I noticed a thunderstorm about ten miles away to the north. I started counting the seconds between lightning and thunder, realizing it was quickly approaching. I had two choices: descend immediately back to the tree line even though I would be on the opposite side of the mountain from my car or race the storm to the summit. I chose the second and ended up tying with the storm. I had a scary few minutes as I ran the trail, lightning hitting the mountain around me. My forehead tingled with current. It was a humbling incorrect choice.

Finally, the storm cleared as I descended to Bear Lake. I was soaked, cold, famished, and exhausted. But I made it.

Finally, the storm cleared as I descended to Bear Lake. I was soaked, cold, famished, and exhausted. But I made it.

 

The Double Traverse of Rocky Mountain National Park was technically a training day for my upcoming 100-miler, but really it was a journey in its own right. The route is phenomenal – one of my favorite Colorado loops, probably one I will return to again and again. Hopefully without the lightning next time.

Here are the details:

Bear Lake –Flattop Mountain Trail – Flattop Mountain – Tonahutu Creek Trail – North Inlet Trailhead – North Inlet Trail – Flattop Mountain – Bear Lake

Approximately 36 miles

Want to backpack this loop? Head to rockymountainnationalpark.com

 

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