Despite feeling familiar with Rocky Mountain National Park, I have only visited the side West of the Continental Divide a few of times. Compared to the popular Bear Lake Corridor – closer to Estes Park – the west side sees far fewer visitors. The trails on this side are also often longer, warranting an overnight stay to truly feel acquainted with them. One of these trails is the East Inlet trail outside of Grand Lake, and my only prior experience here was visiting the first of a series of lakes in this basin, back in 2020. At the time it was late May, and snow prevented any exploration past this first lake. I remember being impressed then, and made a mental note to one day hopefully return.
Scoring a Backcountry Permit
I have a college friend named Adriana, who I met over a decade ago at the University of Florida. We became friends through the College of Engineering, where she pursued an Environmental background, and myself an Electrical one. She was one of the first friends I met, as a Freshman trying to get involved in clubs in any way I could. We have remained friends ever since, and really only began exploring our mutual interest in the outdoors after graduating. We were both living and working in Texas at the time (her in Houston, and me in Dallas), and had planned a trip to Portland, Oregon. We did a hike near the iconic Multnomah Falls, and it was during that trip that we identified each other as easy travelers together, as well as hiking partners.
Later that year Adri had read about a place called Havasu Falls in Arizona, within the Grand Canyon. One day at work, Adri called me on the phone, explaining that she was in touch with someone on a reservation that could grant us permits to these falls, if she were to accept and pay for them. Quickly, I did a Google search for Havasu Falls and the beautiful photos alone were enough to convince me to day yes. Little did I realize then that a backpack (and ten mile canyon hike) would be required to reach this area, and these were details that we figured out together later. That spring, Adri and I learned to backcountry camp, together, in one of the most coveted places in the United States. It is a trip I will never forget.
Six years later we would backpack again – this time in Colorado! Adri had arranged to work remotely for a few weeks, and during this time she would stay with me in Denver. I knew we would want to something adventurous while she was here, and so I thought something in Rocky Mountain National Park could be a promising bet. It is one of my favorite places near-ish to Denver, and is one of the reasons I moved out West in the first place. After chatting with her, we decided to try and snag a backcountry permit for RMNP. Knowing how difficult it can be to secure permits in the park, and remembering how (relatively) less popular the West side is, I specifically looked at the wilderness map for sites in the East Inlet Basin. Based on what I saw, I determined that it would be ideal to find a site about halfway into the basin (past the first lake I had previously visited), and then spend a day wandering back to the last lake in the basin.
Permits for Rocky Mountain historically have become available to reserve on the first of March each year (link to the reservation page under the “Resources” section of this post), and like many other national parks, Rocky Mountain has moved to Recreation.gov. People will complain, but the old system was incredibly janky. Posted on the NPS website was a huge PDF listing each backcountry site on a row, and dates in the columns. You could submit a request for sites that were marked available, and every week the park rangers would update the PDF. It was far from perfect, but did the job. This year, I logged on to Recreation.gov at 8:00AM sharp, and was able to reserve two sites close to each other in the East Inlet – Slickrock and Solitaire.
Getting to Camp
We took a Friday off from work in mid-July, and that morning we headed to Estes Park to pick up our permits. Note that all permits have to picked up here, regardless of which area they are assigned. Our plan was to pick them up, grab a bite in Estes, and then drive to Grand Lake via Trail Ridge Road. It is always a treat driving 10,000 feet in the sky, and this time was no exception. We arrived in Grand Lake around noon, and began our hike.
The hike in to Slickrock, our first campsite, might have been six miles. The early section where you can see the meandering of East Inlet (the first photo in this series) is gentle and mild, but things start to pick up in elevation as the valley begins to narrow. We passed Lone Pine Lake, the first of five lakes and the furthest I had ventured last time being in the valley. I am surprised writing this that I did not get any pictures there, as it is a beautiful lake in its own right. But we had much more to see that weekend. We finally made it to our campsite, and relaxed a bit before enjoying golden hour at Lake Verna, the next in the series of lakes.
I particularly enjoyed this campsite for the view it had downstream toward Lone Pine Lake, and its proximity to waterfalls right next to the campsite. There is something tranquil about falling asleep to the sound of water crashing on rock. That evening the lighting was also excellent, so Adri and I took turns taking portraits of each other, and I really like how they came out.
Day Hike through the Basin
Due to the position of our campsite, morning came to camp much earlier than the sun’s rays. Because I am an early bird (when camping), I woke up with almost an hour to spare before catching any warmth from the sun. Despite these moments being uncomfortable, they are some of my favorite. I grabbed my sleeping bag from the tent, and awkwardly wore it while making coffee in my camping chair. I listened to some music, and had a personal moment while Adri was fetching water. The main theme during this moment was gratitude. First and foremost – for having working legs and the physical health to do something like backpacking, and second – the mere fact that places like this exist for humans to wander and appreciate, and for wild things to call home. I explained this to Adri, and she laughed at me.
Today would be our most adventurous day, as we would be hiking the full length of the basin to Fifth Lake – the final in the series. But before we could do that, we had to move our campsite; thankfully in the direction of the trail (and less than a half a mile). The new campsite at Solitaire was also nice, but that first spot was something special. We also wanted to have some leisure time before doing our hike, so we wandered around Lone Pine Lake, the first lake, during the morning.
We finally set off on our day hike, revisiting Lake Verna but traveling further this time. The last backcountry site is at Lake Verna, and past that is a sign that reads “unimproved trail ahead”. I didn’t think much of it at the time, as I figured the trail up the basin was well worn. And while it was never difficult to find, it was full of obstacles – fallen limbs, muddy pockets, unusual detours. At the end of Lake Verna, however, is this amazing beach. I had read about it in Lisa Foster’s Rocky Mountain hiking guide (linked in the Resources, below), and so it was something I was looking forward to. It is apparently one of the longest natural sandy beaches in the park, and it really felt like being transported to a real beach, like in Florida where I grew up. We didn’t spend too much time here, but I would briefly return the next day, before the long hike out.
Things became a notch more dramatic once we arrived at Spirit Lake, the third lake in the basin. What really impressed me about this lake was the several granite domes that dominated the shore opposite of the trail. Some were rounded, and others were more sharp. They stood like sentinels around the lake, and at the time I liked to think they were the namesake of the lake. Later I would learn that the name “batan-naache” (Spirit Lake) was actually the name that native people gave to Grand Lake. Legend has it that a supernatural buffalo emerged from the middle of the lake when it was mostly frozen over. I’m unsure about a connection to this lake, despite it literally draining into Grand Lake.
We passed the fourth lake (called Fourth Lake, go figure), and met a beautiful, small waterfall in this verdant grove. There was a log perfect for resting on, and so Adri and I sat and admired the waterfall before the climb up to the final lake. It is a memorable moment because this waterfall was just so perfect. It wasn’t huge, but was very close to the trail. It had an almost Pacific Northwest vibe to it, as if it was a fairy’s grotto.
Almost immediately after passing this waterfall, we made it to probably my favorite areas on the trail. Suddenly the trees parted, and we were in a large meadow rounded by jagged, imposing peaks. This alpine meadow was covered in wildflowers of many varieties, and columbines dominated the scene. Among the other varieties were paintbrush (red and magenta), bluebell, alpine lily, and more. It was simply gorgeous, and was something I was not expecting. Rocky Mountain is beautiful, but I don’t typically consider it a wildflower destination. Yet this meadow was one of the more impressive wildflower displays I would see this summer. It was a welcome treat before the final climb up to Fifth Lake.