From low-lying sagebrush flats near Estes Park and within Rocky Mountain National Park to gnarly Ponderosa pine forests at mid-level elevations to sub-alpine tundras flooded with wildflowers and overlooking beautiful lakes and towering peaks, this is a journey well worth taking for those looking to thoroughly wear themselves out.
On top of a typical hydration system or water bottles, bring a water filter to refill on water. This is a long day that gets up at altitude, so dehydration is a serious concern. Also, prepare for multiple types of weather as the weather can change quickly with altitude.
If you go counterclockwise, it is 100% dry from mile 19-29. We hit this in the afternoon on a hot sunny day and we got very dehydrated. I'd carry an extra liter for the climb up Deer Mountain
or go clockwise so you hit this section in the morning.
If you go counterclockwise, start at the Lumpy Ridge Gem Lake Trailhead just north of Estes Park and head off toward the northwest. This will be mostly flat to uphill hiking. You'll then cut left up the Black Canyon Trail
, which is a much less traveled singletrack trail that steadily climbs to higher altitudes. It will run along a stream for a significant portion of the stretch, go through some picturesque meadows, and eventually give way to excellent views of the craggy Mummy Mountain.
You'll eventually intersect the Lawn Lake Trail
. From there, take a right for an out-and-back segment that is essential for this route, offering some of the most spectacular views of the entire journey. It is recommended that you continue on through the, at times, thick willows to check out the Crystal Lakes. This section is the most technical of the entire loop as it's a bit challenging with rocks, willows, streams, and occasional moose.
After taking in the views, continue back down to Lawn Lake, but do not turn left on the Black Canyon Trail
. Instead, continue heading south on the Lawn Lake Trail
. You'll take this all the way down to Route 34. It is a long, almost entirely downhill trail that is a lot of fun to cruise down on. You'll still witness flood damage in the ravine at your right from the 1982 Lawn Lake Reservoir disaster.
You'll then connect with the Little Horseshoe Park Trail
, which is most frequented by horses, so beware of your footing. The route then continues onto the Deer Mountain Trail
, which includes a climb over Deer Mountain
. The ascent from the western approach is heavily trafficked.
On the Estes Park side of Deer Mountain
, you'll head down a considerably less traveled singletrack, and eventually find yourself in Estes Park. From there, there's a small bit of road hiking to get back to the Lumpy Ridge trailhead parking lot, and then, before you know it, your day is complete.
Overall, the number of animal and plant species are too numerous to list, but some favorite fauna include moose (near Lawn Lake), elk, mule deer, marmots, chipmunks, pika, eagles, and gray jays, and among flora, many of the typical Colorado subalpine and alpine wildflowers. The number of distinct types of habitats is pretty substantial on this route since it covers so many microclimates.