"Weekending" in Rocky Mountain NP's Wild Basin

Scott Chandler

Wildness is a necessity- John Muir
Jan 4, 2014

Back in June I had driven through Rocky Mountain National Park and been far more amazed than I had anticipated. It made me yearn for more. Some odd scheduling allowed me a four day weekend and finding ROMO’s backcountry webpage very user friendly, I secured a permit to backpack in the southeast section of the park: Wild Basin for those familar.


Getting a permit a month in advance is always obliviously awesome, but I usually find the day of starting a lot less oblivious. The questions pop up.

“Was I smart to plan this for right after a backcountry patrol at the time of the summer when my body is wearing down?”

“Why am I driving seven hours to backpack?”

“Will this change in the weather extend all the way to the park?”

“Why are the Bighorns so far away from anything else awesome?”

“Will ROMO be busier than all get out this time of year?”

Yeah, lots of questions went through my head on the drive down. But almost six hours on the dot from when I left I was picking up my permit at the backcountry office, getting lost in Estes Park, and arriving at a practically full parking lot. The sky opened up just long enough to eat lunch, collect my gear, put my car food in the trailhead bear vaults, and put on my rain gear before letting up. I quickly stripped my rain gear off and flew up the trail. I lucked out (in some ways of thinking) and got a campsite only a mile and a half from the trailhead so I didn’t have long before I was shedding gear and setting up camp.

I loved hiking along the creek. I don't do that much in the Cloud Peak Wilderness
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Having only barely tuckered myself getting to camp, I decided to check out a couple waterfalls nearby. Being late afternoon after a bit of a rain, I had the trails to myself and it was very pleasant. The park service sure knows how to make trails.

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Calypso Cascades (below)
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And Ouzel Falls
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Wild Basin has many options for day tripping, and looking at the map I thought that headed up the trail to the Lion Lakes would yield some pretty alpine scenery with some off trail spice added to get to Snowbank Lake. Sadly I awoke to poor air quality, making photography horribly shotty but it was still downright nice. Having camped out I had a head start on the throngs of day trippers and it wasn’t until I was heading back down the Lion Lake trail that I met another person (love wilderness experiences in national parks!)

The trail to Lion Lake #1 (official name) certainly climbed and only yielded a few hazy views until I reached the bowl of the lake but was certainly pretty. The forest had a nice quality. Then I popped out on the lake and it only got better. ROMO is like a combination of Glacier NP’s scale with the rock types and glacial carving of the Bighorns (I hold firm that glaciers carve differently in different rock types, thus why the Bighorns have less scale.) The mountains, all still a couple thousand feet above me, were very dramatic.

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Passing Lion Lake #1 I picked up a social trail so good it seemed like official trail and proceeded to Trio Falls. I’m not sure where the three falls are, because there were two going good, one trickling, and one gushing out of a crack in the rock like a spring. Neat none the less.

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Passing above a snowfield of decent size for August, I had a good cliff break head up to Lion Lake #2. Before I could get there though, I came face to face with some blue and white Columbines that I have fallen in love with after seeing in the Mt Zirkel Wilderness. Much geeking out and fawning preceded reaching the lake.

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Continuing past Lion Lake #2 I wandered through the krummholtz to Snowbank Lake. A stiff, frigid wind developed between the two lakes, and I didn’t spend much time at Snowbank but it was a neat spot. Sitting right above 11,500’ it was the highest I have been all summer, amazing considering I work in a high wilderness. It was also very neat to find I still wasn’t above treeline, when in the CPW I’d be in barren wastes below the first Lion Lake. And still I had thousands of feet of mountain prominence above me. Certainly a neat scale up there. Given more time (ok really just less frozen wind) I think the pass above Snowbank would have been attainable with little issue too.

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I then headed back down, checking out the falls above Lion Lake #2 and eating lunch at #1 along the way. With tons of time left I headed up the trail to Thunder Lake next. Such a nice trail. I’m not sure why Thunder Lake is named that as it wasn’t thunderous, but it certainly was windy, AND COOL! The view there is gorgeous and I could have sat there all day. Given the wind and iffy clouds forming I decided to not proceed further up to some of the higher ponds. And just soaked it in.

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And then headed back to camp. The cold wind had me in the tent early but I didn’t have the time to fit in anything else so it hardly mattered.


I woke up during the night to the pitter patter of rain. I was certainly glad it was just rain, because I was cold. In the morning I woke up to clear skies though. Quickly packed, I headed down the trail back to the car. I had a long drive ahead of me to get home and rest a little before touring again.

That said, I hadn’t had enough. I rode the shuttle to Bear Lake and did the interpretive walk around the lake. Quick and pretty. I will have to return to that valley one day because it sure was dramatic. Mmm-mmm!

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Oh yeah, the cold I felt… turns out it snowed that night. Judging from where treeline was I would say around 11,000 was the freezing mark. It was 38 at the trailhead when I got in my car. It’s hard to believe summer is nearing its end!
Looks like a nice trip. I don't head that way very often (try to avoid the Front Range area since the west slope sees less people) and have only been to Rocky Mountain NP once for a quick visit.