The Basics: 4.2 miles each way. 2,390 feet elevation change.
Rocky Mountain National Park, Long's Peak trail head
From Denver, take the Boulder turnpike through Boulder, to Lyons. Turn left. Go through Lyons to Highway 7, turn left. Go about 25 miles to the trail head. (Don't turn at the Wild Basin trail head) Or from Estes Park, then take Highway 7 south nine miles.
The Good: Great, breathtaking scenery Solid trail except last tenth of a mile Bathrooms: Flush toilets at the trail head, two privies on the trail (3.5 miles in, 4.1 miles in)
The Bad: Huge elevation gain Afternoon storms Crowded trail Bugs, both mosquitos and flies
"Do this hike." That's what one of many hiking books says about this hike. I second that. "Do this hike." I was very intimidated by the facts. While 8.4 miles roundtrip sounded very doable, the elevation gain worried me, 2,360 feet. When a friend agreed to go with me, I didn't have any more excuses.
We left early. I can't stress this enough, leave early. We got to the trail head on a Saturday in June just before 8 a.m. and got one of the last parking spaces in the main lot. There's plenty of other parking, it's just along the roadway. The later you get to the Long's Peak Ranger Station/parking area, the longer the hike is going to be.
After a stop to talk to the Ranger at the small hut, it was time to hike. This hike does not start off easy, the elevation gain begins immediately. It only took a few minutes before the long sleeved shirts were off and we were realizing we better slow down and take it easy. The trail is well made; expect areas where the trail is easily two to three people wide, with rocks lining the path and even man made stairs.
The hike is beautiful right away. The hike begins in the forest and stays in the forest until you reach tree line. There are several waterfalls along the way to view, to sit by, or at least use as a "picture stop" (my dad's phrase for why don't you take a picture, while I catch my breath). There are also lots of signs with mileages and turnoffs; expect one a half mile in, another at the 2.5 mile mark (campground turnoff) and another at the 3.5 mile mark (Long's Peak trail turnoff). If you like to camp, there are several options here, but they're more for the people attempting the 15 mile roundtrip hike to Long's Peak.
Come ready to climb and climb and climb. This is a long hike of elevation gain. I could feel each section where the trail flattened out for even a few feet. That was where I tried to catch my breath for the next elevation gain. There are lots of areas with man-made steps and stairs.
And then there's the view. After tree line, you'll soon notice the amazing cirque that includes Long's Peak. It's just beautiful. You stand there is awe knowing that people climb that mountain all the time and that you're heading to a lake right at the base of that mountain.
Stop at the sign at the 2.5 mile mark, it actually says 1.7 miles to Chasm Lake. This is a good place to take a good picture with the mountain behind you. Then continue up. You'll spend the next mile climbing quite a bit. The reward is what appears to be a popular crossroads to take a break. There's a privy here. What is a privy? Well, my best description is that it's a bathroom stall with no roof. It's a toilet with four slatted walls around it. The good news was the toilet paper. The bad news was the flies! While we used the privy, we noticed many others just sitting near the crossroads sign. This is where you have the option. Change your direction and head four more miles to Long's Peak or continue on your trail, just seven-tenths of a mile to Chasm Lake. We headed for Chasm Lake.
This is the one place where the trail gets easy. It actually goes downhill a bit. This is also where the trail delights you with even better views. Peacock Pool quickly comes into view. It's a small lake that sometimes appears quite blue to green in color. I noticed the green color more in the afternoon, than the morning. One Web site describes it as "a humble pond that lies downstream from Chasm Lake, resembling the dot on the end of a peacock feather."
Even better than Peacock Pool is the waterfall that appears next as you come around the trail. Columbine Falls feeds Peacock Pool and it's a beauty. Columbine Falls cascades 200+ feet, the source of the water is Chasm Lake and the snow fields around Long's Peak and Mount Meeker (13,911). The water from Columbine Falls then fills Peacock Pool.
As we followed the trail, enjoying the views off to the left, we didn't notice what was next: a huge snowfield to cross. From reading various guidebooks, it sounds like you may have to negotiate this snowfield most of the year, several guidebooks and even the notes in the Ranger station suggested having an ice axe. Honestly, I can see why. One misstep here and you're going to be falling down a very steep slope that ends in a field of rocks. We decided to go across with just our hiking poles and a lot of very careful steps. I can definitely understand why the Park Rangers don't recommend this and I don't either. Again, one misstep and you're going to need a long recovery, if you're lucky. Enough said, attempt this part at your own risk. As you walk this trail, you're walking around the side of another 13'er, Mount Lady Washington's peak is at 13,281 feet.
As you finish the last part of the trail, you pass the waterfall that cascades out of Chasm Lake and you spot the ranger's patrol cabin. Fortunately a ranger was at the cabin and gave us the very short tour of the inside. It's not much. A shelf of food, a two-burner stove setup with a coffee pot, lots of climbing gear for rescue work and what he said was a place to sleep. It's hard to believe anyone would want to try and sleep in that small space. Outside there were solar panels to run the lights and radio charger. The history of the patrol cabin is fascinating. A stone walled cabin sat in this spot from 1931 to 2003. Then came the blizzard of March 2003 in the city and an avalanche on the mountain. It wiped out the cabin that has sat there for more than 70 years! You can still see pieces of concrete along the trail and used in the trail if you look closely. Patrol Cabin for Long's Peak. It sits just below Chasm Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park.
After the cabin, there's one last push to the lake and it's a tough one. The lake sits above the cabin on a shelf. You can't see the lake from the cabin, you have to climb. It's only a tenth of a mile, but there's no trail, just a few cairns. Expect this last tenth of a mile to take some time because not only do you have to find the route, you'll have to occasionally stop and catch your breath.
Then we arrived at Chasm Lake. I'm not sure I have the words to describe it. It's just beautiful. This lake sits at the base of Long's Peak, so there's another 2,455 feet of mountain towering above you, right on the other side of the lake. There are plenty of rocks here to sit and enjoy your lunch. If you get here early, you may enjoy some solitude. Get here late and you'll have a lot of company. Bring binoculars if you have them, climbers of Long's Peak will put on a show for you. They climb this section of Long's Peak called "the diamond." There are numerous routes up the face of "the diamond," you can see the lines for yourself if many books or in the ranger's cabin at the trail head.
When we arrived in mid-June, we found the lake frozen with just a very small section melted. The ranger at the patrol cabin was surprised it wasn't melted yet. Even frozen, it was a beautiful site. Again, I'll repeat the advice, "do this hike."
Get here early so you can enjoy some time at the lake. This area is known for afternoon thunderstorms and while we didn't see the dark clouds over Long's Peak and the lake, we did see them when we hit that 3.5 mile sign and the storm looked like it was going to be a dozy, we heard a lot of thunder as we scrambled back down to tree line. We left the lake at 11:45 a.m. and even then we only made it back to the trail head about 15 minutes before the storm.
If you have any questions or comments about this hike, please e-mail me, firstname.lastname@example.org. I'd also love to hear your hiking recommendations.