Away from the Grind

Chasm Lake

by Roger Ludwig

She told me she wanted one more hike before the snow flew. She wanted to take her friend who wasn’t sold on outdoor excursions. Her criteria were tough: 

* A destination so stunning, so gorgeous, so interesting, so grand as to be beyond words
* A trailhead within two hours drive of Cheyenne, Wyoming
* No fees but a good trail, and one with restrooms, in a wilderness area
* Challenging enough to be satisfying but not so tough to be exhausting
* A phone number to call a day ahead to make sure the trail was snow free
* No need to wear blaze orange in October (Her friend was a fashionista.)
* And could there be good restaurants nearby for a post-hike celebration?

I balked. She leaned into me and offered me a day to think about it. She was one who must be obeyed. Really.

She called the next day. I had the perfect trail. It meets all her demanding standards, and for beauty the goal is as good as it gets and the walk itself is magnificent: Chasm Lake Trail. It’s a few miles south of Estes Park, within Rocky Mountain National Park which brings all those conveniences, yet since it’s a walk-in area there is no entrance fee.

Chasm Lake is a cirque encircled by majestic Longs Peak, Mount Meeker and Mount Lady Washington, with lovely Columbine Falls cascading below. The shear face of the 14,259 foot Longs, granite burnished in reds and browns, soars above the lake. The view will enthrall any meander-thal. It is the queen of natural drama. 

Any quest for beauty is likely to take some effort and this one does. But it is eminently doable. The lake is 4.2 miles one way, with 2,400 feet of elevation gain starting at 9,400 feet and ending at 11,800. It’s a steep trail, rising about 575 feet per mile but well maintained except for the last little bit.

She should begin at the Longs Peak Trailhead, complete with flush toilets and running water, at the end of Longs Peak Road which is seven and a half miles south of Estes Park off Colorado 7. Because the first section of trail is shared by the trail to Longs Peak it is a very busy place with exhausted climbers coming back from their summit attempt. (I’m glad she didn’t ask for solitude.)

The first two miles is through a pine forest leading to cascading Alpine Brook. The timber grows shorter and shorter until it shrinks to twisted krummholz, pointing away from the prevailing winter winds. Above tree line, the light is pristine and the tundra is sublime, spiced with flowers in summer and painted russet and gold in fall. 

The mighty peaks emerge, with Longs huddled in the middle. Behind you are the Twin Sisters, blue in the distance. Yellow-bellied marmots are plentiful and almost tame.

At 3.3 miles you come to a well marked junction, complete with a privy. (Bring your own toilet paper.) Chasm Lake is to the left, Longs Peak and Granite Pass to the right. Now the crowd thins and the trail levels out. 

Coming into the shadow of Mount Lady Washington you’ll notice Peacock Pool down below, glowing blue or green like the eye in a Peacock‘s tail feather, receiving the rushing waters of Columbine Falls. 

In the spring and summer a snowfield covers the trail but it will be small or non-existent by fall. If you do take this trip in the summer remember that hundreds of boots have made their mark in this snow and by placing yours carefully in their impressions, one after another, you’ll make your way across too. Just don’t look down. 

After the snow you cross Columbine Creek, tumbling down below, and enter Columbine Meadow, well named for the abundance of large, sapphire blue blossoms. A new rock hut stores rescue gear, and if needed, rescuers, to aid troubled rock climbers. (The old hut, which lasted 70 years, was swept away by an avalanche in 2003.) There is a second privy with a fine view. (Walls are just neck high.)

Chasm lake is demurely hiding, saving the best for last. It’s up on the shelf above you. Here is where the route gets interesting. The trail gives out. It’s time to follow the rock cairns up and around the final two tenths of a mile. A few hand holds are necessary. 

Coming over the top, eureka!, Chasm Lake spreads below, a dark crystal. The 2,400 hundred foot east face of Longs Peak, known as the diamond, towers above. The sharp angle of Ships Prow is to the left. Mills Glacier, the snowfield just above the lake, is named for Enos Mills who championed the creation of the park for years prior to Woodrow Wilson’s 1915 proclamation. 

Pick a place amidst the flowers to rest awhile. Your packed peanut butter and jelly bagel never tasted so good. This might just hook her friend on wilderness.

Now it’s 4.2 miles down hill. You deserve a celebration supper at one of Estes Parks notable eateries.

When you go…

From Cheyenne, WY, take I-25 south to US 34 west at Loveland. Follow US 34 through Big Thompson Canyon toward the town of Estes Park. Just as you enter Estes valley turn left on Mall road across from Olympus Lodge, then right on Colorado 66. This will allow you to miss the downtown traffic. At the junction of Colorado 7 turn left and continue 8.9 miles. Turn right on well marked Longs Peak Road, taking it to the end.

The parking lot is often full. If needed join the other cars parked along the road. There is a bathroom with running water at the trailhead.

Don’t forget sunscreen and plenty of trail snacks. Eating every hour will keep your friend’s energy up, preventing that nasty “bonk”.

Dogs are not allowed on this trail. To inquire about trail conditions call Rocky Mountain National Park information at (970) 586-1206 between 8 and 4:30 daily.

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