Local Estes Park trail runner, Active at Altitude owner and Event Director for the Estes Trail Ascent, Terry Chiplin shares his 'Top 5 Trail Runs in Estes Park,' giving tips and advice to make the most of the high-altitude runs and views.
1. Lumpy Ridge Loop
10.5 mile round trip / high point 9,140 feet / low point 7,776 feet / elevation gain approx 2,620 feet.
This loop trail is a great favorite for many trail runners in Northern Colorado, and beyond. The trail head is close to downtown Estes Park, situated on Devil's Gulch, with a good sized parking area, restrooms, although no water. The loop mostly lies within Rocky Mountain National Park; as the trailhead is outside the Park boundary, you don't need a park permit to access the trail. The trail, like many in RMNP, has something for every trail runner. Decent climbing, some sweeping descents, level single track trail, running water to lift your spirits and cool your legs if needed, amazing views of the Continental Divide, and wildflower decked meadows. As the elevation goes up to a little over 9,100 feet, it makes an excellent early Spring and Fall run when many of the Park trails can be covered in snow.
My personal favorite is to run clockwise from the trailhead. Head West on Black Canyon trail that rolls through some amazing rock formations and across the old Twin Owls trailhead. There is a water tap at this point (0.6 miles in), don't assume it's on though and plan to carry water with you. This is also a great spot for a picture opportunity, before another 2 miles of rolling single track trail bring you to the base of your first climb up and over Lumpy Ridge. The climb starts beyond a gate and meanders through a densely-wooded land. There are fortunately some short sections where the climb levels off and you have an opportunity to restore oxygen levels.
Around 2.5 miles later you reach the top of that first climb - take the trail to the right, and then sweep down a gorgeous descent of 1.7 miles before reaching Cow Creek Trail. This descent has a soft carpet of pine needles with several switchbacks and is a great opportunity to open out your legs after a decent climb. Cow Creek trail runs alongside Cow Creek, and the trail rolls alongside the sounds of the water rushing East. 0.8 miles later take a right on the trail to Gem Lake. The climb to Gem Lake has some sections that will really test your legs, especially after tackling the first climb! 2.8 miles also contains some teasing false summits, just when you thought you are getting close the top, the trail takes you off in a different direction! Gem Lake is a small lake surrounded by rock formations and has a small sandy beach. Head for the South side of the Lake, and take the trail down back to the trailhead. There are some steep sections at first with large step heights, so be careful on your feet going down these, especially if it has been raining, snowing, or hailing. It's around 1.7 miles back to the trailhead - make sure you take the trail left after about 1.2 miles that winds down some wooden steps and is a great, fast, downhill finish to the run! Watch out for hikers coming the other way, there are a couple of sharp switchbacks that mean you don't get much warning of anyone else on the trail!
2. Bear Lake to Flat Top
8.6 mile round trip / high point 12,324 feet / low point 9,475 feet / elevation gain approx 2,900 feet
This trail brings you to what I call the "Roof of the World" - the summit of Flat Top brings you incredible views atop the Continental Divide. Bear Lake trailhead gets extremely busy, so an early start is highly recommended to bag a spot. As half the trail up to Flat Top is above treeline, it's also a good idea on an early start to avoid the afternoon storms that can spring up! The trail is well signposted, with two splits after 0.5 miles (Bierstadt Lake trail) and 1.0 mile (Odessa Lake) to watch out for. Steady climbing gradually steepens, with thick timber thinning out at Dream Lake Overlook (1.6 miles). Forest thins out further, through Emerald Lake Overlook at 2.85 miles. The transition to treeline starts about 0.5 miles before it and views clear enough to enable breathtaking vistas if the valley carved by the Tyndall Glacier, one of 5 active glaciers in RMNP. Climbing becomes less steep as you climb through tundra - here is where you can often see pike, marmots, ptarmigan, abundant wildflowers, elk, bighorn sheep and mountain goats. The trail scales a perennial snowfield above the horse hitchrack - keep an eye on the cairns to guide you through. There is no sign to mark the summit; however, the FlatTop Trail / Tonahutu Trail junctions is generally regarded as the summit point. Interestingly, the trail closely follows a route used by the Ute & Arapahoe Indians to cross over the Divide.
Hallett Peak is close by the summit of Flat Top, and is worth the extra effort to get there! The trail is 0.7 miles, and is marked in places by cairns - take the unmarked trail south from the Flat Top / Tonahutu junction to the summit of Hallett - it is an additional 389 feet of climbing to the summit.
The return journey to the Bear Lake trailhead is the reverse of the ascent journey. Watch out for hikers on the trail, especially nearer to the Bear Lake trailhead.
3. Cub Lake Loop
6 mile round trip / high point 8,620 feet / low point 8,000 feet / elevation gain approx 650 feet
Cub Lake is another one of those trails that we mostly run in a clockwise direction. Recommend parking at the lot before the Fern Lake trailhead that has the restrooms - there are more spaces there and this lot tends to fill up second after the main lot at the trail head. Then run south on the dirt road to the Cub Lake trailhead; take a right onto the Cub Lake trail. This trail initially gives you great views across Moraine Park, a great area for elk viewing, particularly in the Fall when the rut is in full swing and the bull elk bugles carry eerily across the park! The trail rolls easily for around 1.75 miles, and then the climb becomes steeper and more technical, up to the open area that borders Cub Lake. The best place to enjoy the full panorama of Cub Lake is at the northern end of the trail, where it rises above the lake border and gives you wonderful views. From here there is a 1-mile descent down to The Pool. Sections that are more technical, and require some care, with others that are a flat out scream...at the Pool, follow the trail to Fern Lake trailhead, This is a rolling descent over 1.7 miles until you reach the Fern Lake trailhead and parking area. From there, take the dirt road back to the second Fern Lake parking area. A great run!
4. Deer Mountain
6 mile round trip / high point 10,013 feet / low point 8,930 feet / elevation gain approx 1,250 feet
Deer Mountain is a great vantage point to take in breathtaking views around RMNP. The trail's southern exposure keeps it snow-free from late Spring to early Winter. Limited parking is available on Trail Ridge Road at Deer Ridge Junction - make an early start to secure your spot.
The trail starts easily through ponderosa and aspen; there are several panoramic stops with great views of Longs Peak, Beaver Meadows, & Moraine Park. Switchbacks wind the trail towards the summit, increasing in grade and coursing through spruce and fir. The grade eases as you approach 10,000 feet, around 2.25 miles on the trail. Watch out for a split in the trail at around 2.75 miles, and take the posted trail to the summit. Take a map with you to identify the significant landmarks around you! The return journey is the reverse of the outbound.
For a longer run, start at Beaver Meadows Visitor Center - cross over to High Drive, and head to Upper Beaver Meadows. Take the single track trail that crosses Trail Ridge Road. There is a trail to the right posted to Deer Ridge Junction - the trail initially climbs steadily, then more steeply until you reach the junction. Cross over Trail Ridge Road and follow the Deer Mountain Trail. This addition adds around 6 miles to the run...
5. Chasm Lake
8.4 mile round trip / high point 11,823 feet / low point 9,405 feet / elevation gain 2,398 feet
The trail run to Chasm Lake begins from the Longs Peak Trailhead, which is home to a Ranger Station and restrooms. Parking is limited, so arrive early, especially on weekends! The trail begins with a steep climb through a thick forest. Roughly one-half mile from the trailhead runners will reach the Eugenia Mine Trail junction, and at 1.1 miles, will pass the trail entrance to the Goblins Forest Backcountry Campground. Two miles from the trailhead, runners will finally enter the subalpine zone. Longs Peak and Mt. Lady Washington can also be seen at this point. At just under 2.5 miles you'll reach the trail that leads to the Battle Mountain Backcountry Campsite. At 3.5 miles, and at an elevation of 11,540 feet, runners will reach the Chasm Lake Trail junction. From here 13,281-foot Mt. Lady Washington will be the predominate mountain towards the west. At this junction, an outhouse is available as well. From the junction, the Chasm Lake Trail travels southwest along the wall of a deep gorge that offers views of Peacock Pool and Columbine Falls. After a short and easy rock scramble, you'll arrive at the east end of Chasm Lake.
Terry Chiplin is a Brit trail runner and endurance coach now living in Estes Park, Colorado. He and his wife Jacqueline traveled to Estes Park from England to start their dream, establishing their business, Active at Altitude in 2006. Since then Active at Altitude has established a reputation for providing excellent quality training camps for trail runners, women runners, triathletes, and running vacations for individuals and groups from the USA, and Worldwide. Terry and Jacqueline deliver inspiring and life changing athletic experiences for athletes of all abilities. Terry was also the Event Director for the inaugural Estes Trail Ascent - Trail Running Conference, that took place at the Stanley Hotel in June 2013. See www.activeataltitude.com for more details, or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.