How’s a weekend in the wilderness backpacking Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) sound?
Three days and two nights, alone with your best friends, with only what you carry in on your backs. Sounds like a great getaway, right?
It’s also thrilling, beautiful, and… a great way to burn calories!
Choosing Your Adventure
There are plenty of popular backpacking trails within the expansive Rocky Mountain National Park, which covers about 415 square miles. The eastern half of the park by Estes Park is preferred by most visitors. It has a distinct – if a bit “touristy” – charm.
However, we decided to head for the western side of the park — the Grand Lake area. The plan was to hike RMNP’s North Inlet Trail. What a treat! Grand Lake has that sleepy little mountain town vibe. Additionally, the bonus of smaller crowds makes it feel more like an escape, even during the busy season.
After living in Colorado for nearly 10 years, this was our first time ever visiting the western half of the park. Boy were we missing out!
Preparation for Backpacking Rocky Mountain National Park
This was our very first backpacking trip. After a ton of research, we pared down a few of our camping essentials to more modest levels. After all, we had to make them fit into a couple backpacks that we’d rented from Outdoors Geek.
By the way, renting gear is a great way to test out backpacking if you don’t want to invest in the whole kit and caboodle right away. In addition to the packs, Outdoors Geek provided us with most everything we’d need. (We have no affiliation with Outdoors Geek, but simply enjoy their service and recommend them for backpacking rentals).
As with most National Parks, it’s recommended you get back country permits ahead of time. We chose the North Inlet trail because it would be easy for newbies like us. Permit requests were sent by mail (though now you get permits for RMNP online), and later approved via a phone call.
With rented gear and permits approved, we were ready for our first backpacking experience.
Generally, car camping is what we’d been used to, and it’s a different animal. You don’t have to worry so much about weight. (Space, maybe… if you drive a mini cooper like we do).
As it turns out, we still made the typical newbie mistake of over-packing. We’d feel the weight of this decision, further down the trail.
Getting to Grand Lake and the North Inlet Trailhead
From Denver, it’s a scenic drive to Grand Lake. Once there, make sure you pick up your permit first from the back country office at the Kawuneeche Visitor Center. Then, we recommend a good breakfast at the Fat Cat Cafe before hitting the trail!
Be aware of the size of the North Inlet Trail parking lot. It’s not huge, and it fills pretty quickly. So balance this knowledge with your need for a hearty meal (and coffee!). Stopping for breakfast might put you at the trail head a little late.
In our case, we had to park down the hill a bit. One kind Park Ranger saw us late-comers climbing the hill with our heavy packs and offered up his prime parking spot.
With stuffed backpacks, we were prepared to take on whatever the park had to throw at us! Looking at the pictures now, I’m amazed we carried all that gear in. It’s a wonder – honestly – we didn’t go tumbling, top-heavy, into the riverbed!
Hiking along the North Inlet Trail
All the trails we’ve hiked in RMNP are beautiful and offer great views and/or some cool water features. The North Inlet Trail was no exception.
You have to get past the initial hike through the first mile of fenced off private land before you get to the really good stuff. The trail cuts through a valley with wide-open views of the surrounding mountains.
Summerland Park follows, and is a popular grassy spot where deer come to cool off and graze. There are several meadows in the area and the trees provide some nice cover.
For the most part, though, the trail follows a river. Small tributaries to the North Inlet river sometimes cross the hiking path. The more established of these are marked by cool little wooden bridges going over these small streams of runoff.
Terrain varies from packed earth to spongy loam to rocky bits. The trail takes you through a variety of forested slopes and rocky outcroppings. Canyons, waterfalls, and incredible mountain views commingle with grassy plains and woodlands. The woods are dense in spots, but sparse in others.
For the backpacker, the variety along this trail is nice. Pushing on through an entire weekend of hiking is a great way to break up the uniformity you find with some of the shorter day hikes at RMNP.
Twinberry Campground (3 miles from North Inlet TH)
For our first night along the trail, we’d reserved a true “diamond in the rough” type of campsite.
Twinberry is a pretty remote spot a few hundred yards off the main path. It stands alone on a forested cliff, with a couple steep paths that lead down to the river. We setup our tent in the prepared area — marked by an arrowhead, just as we’d been told to expect.
Replenishing our water was easy, thanks to the hand-pumped filter we’d rented. A quick trip down to the river, and we were all good on the water front.
Twinberry is a newer site and is relatively untouched. With no neighbors, we were able to spread out and enjoy the solitude… mostly.
Some Good Eats & Occasional Company at Twinberry
Twinberry doesn’t have a fire pit and in fact has a stoves only policy. If you want a hot meal at least once a day, a little propane stove and some camp cookware comes in handy. This definitely adds some weight to those packs, though!
Hikers in the area do seem aware of the convenient (and cooling) riverside cliff at Twinberry. For this reason, we saw a few people pass through during our stay. Some moved through without a word, while others said a quick hello.
Our main companions were the large (and loud) birds and huge swarms of ants that appeared to nest in the logs littering the area. We also had a surprise tent-side visit from a fox just before sunset. It was clearly not expecting us to be there; the fox was no more than 15 feet away when it spotted Sarah. The fox stared Sarah down as she gave out a yelp before it dashed off.
We retreated into our tent and watched the light fade. With the tent fly pulled back, we caught the fox going about its business as it circled around us. After the first day of backpacking through RMNP, we fell fast asleep very quickly!
Morning Hike along Cascade Falls
We started our hike bright and early, knowing we’d have some of our steepest inclines to conquer before getting to our next campground.
Located less than one hour’s hike beyond the Twinberry campsite, Cascade Falls is a popular destination for day-hikers (3.4 miles from the TH). Its unique and spectacular beauty is hard to capture in photos due to how long it is. The falls cut through steep rocks and gather in small pools before rushing down the slopes in a white and cooling mist to more pools.
After stopping to enjoy the view, we began the hike upward nearly 1000 feet in elevation gain to our next campsite. Our reward for this most grueling bit of backpacking came in a variety of forms.
We hiked alongside churning white-water and climbed to the top of tumbling waterfalls with views that must have spanned miles below us. Also, RMNP offers up some of its nicest meadows at high elevations. The tiring climb to Porcupine campground was well worth the effort.
Porcupine Campsite (6.8 miles from North Inlet TH)
The campsite where we’d stay for our second night was a far more established one. We even had neighbors within view! They were distant enough for privacy, but the area certainly had a more established and civilized feel. It’s also one of only a few sites in the park that allow campfires.
With that said, getting to Porcupine itself still involved a trek away from the main path.
After climbing upward for most of the morning, you then have to clamber down a steep incline and cross the river by way of narrow log bridge. All pretty thrilling!
This bit wasn’t easy with over-sized backpacks, but if we could manage… any newbie can. For the more experienced backpackers? Piece of cake, I’m sure…
In our case, we’d intentionally got to Porcupine early, dropped our packs, and set up camp. With much lighter packs, the promise of the North Inlet waterfall and Lake Nokoni was only a short day-hike away from Porcupine.
North Inlet Falls & Rain Delays
Don’t fret if the weather puts a bit of a… (*cough*) damper on your plans.
It did for us, to some degree.
We were actually forced to turn back on our afternoon hike – despite feeling lighter on our feet. Before reaching the more spectacular elevated lakes for our day hike, the afternoon showers began moving in. The rain really started to pour before we got back to Porcupine.
The sites we did get to see along this trail were totally worth it, though. Most notably, the North Inlet Falls, which is located along the route heading up to Lake Nokoni and Lake Nanita. This path branches off of the North Inlet trail to the south around 7.5 miles from the trail head.
You can easily take a short trip to see the falls without going far off of the North Inlet trail itself. The sight of the waterfall and relative solitude were welcome. Even the rain was kind of relaxing and cooled it down quite nicely as we returned to camp.
I do have to admit — not being able to get a fire started at the Porcupine site due to wet kindling was a little disappointing. Still, nothing beats a good camp stove meal and falling asleep to the sound of rain pouring down – warm in your sleeping bag and under shelter of a good tent.
The Long Trek Back to North Inlet Trail Head
Overall, backpacking in RMNP is a tiring but invigorating experience!
Our final day hiking back to Grand Lake was a long haul (6.8 miles) but at least it was mostly downhill. I’m not gonna lie — we expected it to suck, and… it did not disappoint.
On your third day of backpacking — if you aren’t conditioned for it — every ounce in your pack seems multiplied.
Overcoming all obstacles and arriving back to the trail head, however, is an amazing feeling. Knowing you pushed through, survived the wilderness in spite of any hardships, and came out the other side a little stronger is one of the great rewards of backpacking in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Beware the widowmakers! These are dead trees that often fall over due to the high winds in the area. Unfortunately, trees like this claim lives in RMNP every year — thus the name.
If the winds are high – especially after a couple days of rain showers – it’s possible to find a felled tree blocking the hiking path. During the final stretch of our return journey, trees were audibly creaking under high winds, and we had to climb over/go around three different trees that fell during the previous night’s storm.
It was along the final stretch we discovered first hand that the so-called “widow makers” are a real threat!
We had to take off running along one rocky cliff, when the creaking of a tree gave way to a loud CRACK and a tree came rolling down towards us. Thankfully, we were saved by our quick feet, adrenaline, and… a bit of luck.
Trees with stronger roots managed to catch the one that fell, killing its momentum before it killed us. After taking a moment to realize we were safe, we headed back to civilization.
Finally returning to the car and to the comforts of civilization was, honestly, a little bittersweet. Solitude in nature is a great way to hit the reset button.
But, so is a good meal.
BBQ & Beers — Treat Yourself!
The town of Grand Lake has a number of touristy little shops, but – after a few days in the wilderness – we highly recommend the Sagebrush BBQ & Grill. Here, you can get your fill of delicious barbecued proteins and every table gets a bucket of shelled peanuts. The wooden floors here are covered in their shells… which you’re encouraged to just discard this way. The selection of locally-brewed beers also make a nice reward.
After three days and two nights getting away from it all, returning to this sort of treat is a fantastic way to round out a long weekend!
If you would like to plan your own backpacking trip in Rocky Mountain National Park, here are some resources that could help you out. If you have any questions about RMNP or backpacking, feel free to ask in the comments below!
Resources For Backpacking RMNP and North Inlet Trail
Location: North Inlet Trail Head – Grand Lake, CO
Back Country Information: RMNP Permit Instructions (varies by season)
Backpacking Gear Rental: Outdoor’s Geek
NPS Website: Rocky Mountain National Park
Curious about other National Park and Historic Site fixtures in Colorado? Check out our day trip guide to Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. It’s only a short drive from Colorado Springs!