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Hike of the Week: Continental Divide Loop

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Welcome to Paria's “Hike of the Week” series. Each week, we share one of the best trails North America has to offer. For us, just reading about a great trail is enough to get us inspired to go out and see it for ourselves!

This week we're highlighting the Continental Divide Loop Trail in the ever-popular Rocky Mountains National Park in Colorado.

Featured Photo: Flattop Mountain (Photo by Brendan Bombaci)

Why This Trail?

If you've ever wanted to check out the majesty of the Continental Divide, but aren't up for the 3,000+ mile trek along its long-distance trail, you're in luck. This much-more-attainable loop through RMNP offers waterfalls, lakes, towering mountain peaks (including views of Longs Peak, the tallest in the park), subalpine forests, and tundra.

  • 28 miles
  • Rated as difficult
  • 3-day, 2-night trip
  • Elevations ranging between 8,000 and 11,500ft
  • Breath-taking views of the Continental Divide
  • Best time to go: July through September
  • Several different trailheads to choose from
  • Numerous designated campsites along the trail 
  • Many areas above the treeline, affording great views of the surrounding lakes, mountain peaks, and more
  • Many lodgepole pines, spruce, and fir forests in the lower elevations
  • May see elk, bears, coyotes, and smaller critters, such as marmots and pica
  • Several creeks to filter water along the route
  • Highlights of the route include Cascade Falls, Granite Falls, Hallett Peak, and views of Longs Peak in the distance

Before you go ...

  • Keep the high altitude in mind. Even at the lowest point of the trail, some people may experience minor altitude sickness. Some altitude acclimation before you set out might be a good idea if you're not used to it. 
  • Be sure to check closures due to wildfires, fire bans, etc on the NPS page before your visit.
  • Campfire usage is sporadic and only in designated fire rings when it is allowed. Check before you head out. 
  • Bear canisters are required.
  • Keep an eye on the weather above treeline! (Especially afternoon thunderstorms.)

How Do I Get There?

If you will be flying in, the Denver International Airport is the closest major airport to the Green Mountain Trailhead, where you will begin. From here, head south on Terminal Road and Pena Blvd for about 10.5 miles. Use the left two lanes to merge onto I-70 W. Continue 52.4 miles before taking exit 232 toward U.S. 40 W. Follow the signs to stay on U.S. 40 W for 46.5 miles. Make a right onto U.S. 34 E and continue another 19 miles. The Green Mountain Trailhead parking lot will be on your right. Total drive time is 2.5 hours and 130 miles from Denver International Airport.

Map

The following map outlines our recommended route. For more detailed mapping, including being able to print a copy for yourself, we recommend opening the map in CalTopo.

  • Day 1 - Green Mountain Trailhead to Granite Falls Camp (5 miles)
  • Day 2 - Granite Falls to Summerland Park (16 miles)
  • Day 3 - Summerland Park to Green Mountain Trailhead (8 miles)

Trail Description

Your first challenge presents itself in the form of some steep wooden stairs as you depart the Green Mountain Trailhead. Other than that, the elevation change isn't too bad to start off with. Keep your eyes open for moose and bear as you pass through the open fields of Big Meadows. You'll also finally be on the loop trail now via the Tonahutu Creek Trail. Elevation gain continues to stay minimal, but you will find yourself scrambling over some boulders before reaching Granite Falls camp in a little over 3 miles after Big Meadows. Make sure to enjoy the falls in the evening because you'll want to get an early start the next day!

Hopefully you got a good night's sleep because today is a big push, even for experienced hikers. Be sure to filter some more water from the creek before heading out. The hike to Flattop Mountain is particularly strenuous as you steadily climb closer towards the Divide and above the treeline. Speaking of which, you'll notice a couple “Mountains Don't Care” signs at either end of the exposed several-mile stretch above the treeline. Again, avoid this area during inclement weather and keep an eye out for changing weather. Lightning is a very real threat up here!

Weather warnings aside, the views get better and better the closer you get to Flattop Mountain. You'll enter the tundra area of the trail, which is filled with little marmots and pika. Although the trail continues mostly downhill from Flattop, you may find hiking downhill over rocks just as difficult and hard on your knees as climbing up! Enjoy a well-deserved rest when you hit Summerland Park for the night.

Fortunately, the trail is much easier on day 3 for the journey back to your car. Although you won't be climbing any mountains today, the views of the abundant open meadows and rising, pine-covered hills in the distance are spectacular in their own way. You'll come across more and more hikers the closer you get to Grand Lake, another popular starting point for this loop trail. Once back on the Tonahutu Creek Trail, you'll pass through lodgepole pine forest before once again reaching Big Meadows and heading west via the Green Mountain Trail back to the parking area.

What Will I Need?

Although the best time to hit this trail is in late summer, you should be prepared for the colder temperatures in the higher altitudes along this route. Average highs range between 59° and 69°F and lows between 38° and 45°F. Make sure you wear layers and have a sleeping bag with a low comfort rating to keep you warm at night.

Of course, we always stress the importance of having a high-quality sleeping pad with a high R-rating as well to help insulate you from the cold ground even more. You'll want a lightweight, but durable tent as well to protect you from the elements and critters at night.

Given the name Rocky Mountains, you can bet some trekking poles will come in handy for the steep, rocky sections of the trail.

Paria Outdoor Products Tri-Fold Carbon Cork Trekking Poles

A pair or lightweight trekking poles like our Tri-Fold Carbon Cork trekking poles can be a lifesaver on steep climbs along the Continental Divide Loop trail.

As mentioned, campfire usage can be finicky along this route, so it's best to plan on using your camp stove and cooking pot for meals. If you don't have some already, invest in some long-handled titanium eating utensils. They're relatively cheap, last forever, and are super light. Plus, no more messy hands from those deyhrated camp meals!

Last, don't forget your bear canister! For a comprehensive list of items to consider for your trip, head over to our Ultimate Backpacker's Packing List and print out your own copy to check off as you gather your gear!

Do I Need a Permit?

Backcountry permits are required. You can find more information on these on the park's website. It's also worth noting that these can be difficult to obtain, so plan your trip well in advance.

Resources

Latest Park Conditions
Continental Divide National Scenic Trail through RMNP

Conclusion

For one of the best trips to immerse yourself in the most spectacular scenery Rocky Mountain NP and the Continental Divide have to offer, you can't beat the CD Loop in RMNP. Have you done this loop or any other trails in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado? What are your favorites? Let us know in the comments below!

Hike of the Week Rocky Mountains

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