Crossing the Divide any time between late June and early September can be a gamble, with the crusty snow still settled into the cirques and with the rushing waterways footing is never truly solid but once you get above tree line you are exposed to an entirely new dynamic of rapidly loading electrical storms. With these considerations in mind most high alpine trips start before dawn with hopes of reaching the highest points well before any threat of afternoon storms, which is why we were at the Wild Basin trailhead before 5 am. The plan of the day was to hike from one side of the Divide to the other covering roughly 17 miles of trail with a bit of backcountry navigation to connect the two primary trails; the Thunder Lake trail to the East Inlet trail. This hike was set up and guided by Veterans Expeditions as a shake down hike for the upcoming Grand Teton hike on Sept 11th. Vet Ex is an awesome non-profit group whose mission is to:
Reintroduce veterans to the great outdoors and help them connect with fellow vets from multi-generations and give them a positive, safe space to be who they want to be without judgment.
Guided by Nick Watson, a former Army Ranger and all around great outdoorsman, we were sure to have a blast as we headed into the hills. Departing the TH shortly after 5 am the six of us heading by light of head lamp off into the wilderness. Walking in the crisp, early morning mountain air the feeling through out the group was definitely eager for a long day with no expectations other that to have a blast and a few laughs. And since none of us had ever met before you never know what to expect, but I have to say that all of the folks were phenomenal people and everyone seemed to exude confidence and calm.
The first few miles of the hike took us from our start at 8500' gradually higher into the mountains where the once dense forest opened up to beautiful vistas of the valley and ridge to our south and beautiful Mt. Copeland to our southwest. The sounds of the rushing north St. Vrain Creek accompanied our silence and seemed to open the door to the wilderness all around us. The trail was level with limited rocks and roots and was very well maintained and given the sheer number of Moose and Elk sign this was no doubt a major highway for these awesome animals, but no we did not catch a glimpse of even one! After 4 miles of easy hiking we came to our first junction that took us through a few camp sites and then back onto our new trail the Thunder Lake trail which we followed up for a few miles until we reached an awesome valley and patrol cabin on the shore of Thunder Lake at the base of Tanima peak. Nick mentioned to us that the shore of the lake had risen since that last time he had been down there due to all of the snow melt so unfortunately we did not get to experience the sandy shores of this beautiful alpine lake.
After a short break to take photos and really soak in the beauty of this place we left the established trail for the first time in nearly 7 miles to skirt the north side of Thunder Lake. I guess I should say that there was an established trail for about a half mile after the patrol cabin but it was pretty difficult to find with all of the snow still loaded up in the shade. Once we leveled out at the base of what would be our first true push up the pass we sat for a quick snack and to visit with each other. Talking with the group it became apparent that these hikers had experienced a wide variety of military service and brought to the table a mixed bag of insight into not only the pending hike but also life in general. Everyone had a fair amount of experience in the backcountry and all in all we were all well matched for pace and enthusiasm.
As we headed up the draw skirting the southside of an unnamed 11,635' peak we gained elevation effortlessly and soon found ourselves walking across crusty snow drifts and rapidly flowing waterways. After just a short time on the snow we all put on our Kahtoola MicroSpikes which had been donated by Kahtoola to VetEx and man were we stoked to have them! With the ascent angle approaching 50° we easily maneuvered up the slope by using them and I think with out them we would still be up there battling the one step forward three slides back. In just under a mile we hiked from the 10,574' Thunder Lake to the 11,500'(ish) Lake of Many Winds and were amazed by the bright crisp blue waters that seemed more in place in the Arctic with icebergs than at elevation. From the lake we were finally faced with our short and most technically challenging bit of climbing up a cirque to the top of the Boulder-Grand Pass.
Shooting up the cirque we buddy climbed up three separate lines as to mitigate rock fall injuries. Each pair climbed together and stayed close together so any inadvertently loosened rocks would not have the chance to gain enough momentum to cause serious injury. Although this cirque was a bit dicey I don't feel that any pro was needed although those nervous about unsure footing and a slightbit of exposure might be more comfortable should a static line be provided. We topped out to an awesome plateau that gave rise to the beautiful lake spotted valley leading west towards Lake Granby and the headwaters of the mighty Colorado.
I was blown away by the rugged beauty of Isolation Peak (13,118') to which I decided I will have to come back and explore in the near future.
Atop the pass we ate some snacky cakes and lunch then everyone settled onto the beautifully lush grasses for a bit of a nap before our descent along East Inlet trail and four of the five beautiful lakes it borders. To get to the trail we bushwhacked down the west side of the Divide following the obvious sign from the mountain critters that travel this trail-less route. Once we hit the main trail on the north side of the creatively named Fourth lake we stopped for a quick swim and to soak in the beauty of ridge line between Isolation Peak to our southeast and Mount Craig to our southwest. The trial from Fourth Lake to Lake Verna was spotty at best and we were often splashing through creeks and avoiding muddy bogs at all expense. The rest of the hike was smooth sailing with tons of nature to gawk at and a really well maintained trail from Lake Verna on to the East Inlet TH some 7 miles to the east. Towards the end of the hike we enjoyed open valleys and marsh lands, steep rocky switchbacks and a never ending views.
By the end of the day Vet Ex had successfully guided our rag tag band of adventurers almost 20 miles from one side of the Continental Divide to the other all with out injury or anger. The hike was truly amazing and I think this was a perfect example of what good work Vet Ex is doing for our Veteran community. Especially since I was waiting for a sermon or psycho babble nonsense to creep into the adventure as happens all too often when you get an organization bent on helping vets. I can truly say that what Vet Ex does is EXACTLY the right thing for our veterans by taking good hard working patriots out into nature for a great time.
And if you are not a Vet but still want to find a great organization that can take you there and get you back in one piece try looking into Colorado Wilderness Rides and Guides to which Nick is also a founding member!
If you are looking for a map for this and other hikes in RMNP check out the National Geographic Trails Illustrated map #200