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Colorado: Exploring the Ute Trail

Escape to the high country of Rocky Mountain National Park

A bull elk resting in a cool breeze on Trail Ridge, overlooking Ute Trail.

Story and photos by Kim Fenske

Rocky Mountain National Park is a major tourist destination. Recognition of that fact alone has been enough to deter me from visiting the area during the summer season for decades. But this year I decided to to spend a few early summer days with some friends at the Moraine campground.

Trapped in the valley between Trail Ridge Road and Longs Peak with temperatures soaring above a hundred degrees in the lowlands east of the Front Range, I was committed to any plan that took me to the highest elevation available.

The Ute trailhead.

During the first day, I led the charge from Longs Peak Trailhead at the southern boundary of the park to Chasm Lake, 4.5 miles and two thousand feet above the trailhead. I continued to the Key Hole, 8.4 miles from the trailhead at 13,170 feet, and enjoyed a cool, strong breeze blowing across the high boulder field.

When I looked north, I saw the white cloud of smoke over the High Park Fire, covering the skyline like a nuclear explosion. Then, in the valley below, I saw a new black column of smoke rising from a fire near the Beaver Meadows Entrance. By the time I returned to the campground, the valley was filled with a hot layer of smoke that seared my throat through the night.

The smoke-filled valley below Windy Gulch.

Next morning, I fled the valley with my friends and drove up Trail Ridge Road.  Proceeding west past Rainbow Curve, I found the trailhead for the Ute Trail.  Crossing the cool, open tundra of Trail Ridge at 11,450 feet, I passed dozens of clusters of ground-hugging alpine flowers. The path was fairly flat and smooth along the ridge, providing an overlook of the Big Thompson River in Forest Canyon to the south.

About two miles from the trailhead, the path dropped steeply through Timberline Pass.  Passing through the krumholz at the top of Windy Gulch, I felt my pace getting slower and the temperature getting warmer.  Southeast across the valley, I saw Longs Peak cloaked in a thick shroud of smoke. I hoped to find the stream that appeared as a thin blue line on my map as I took the last remaining sip from my water bottle.

Nearly two hours into my descent, the first ditch that I saw was a dry gulch lined with sunbaked rock. I sustained hope that a brook would emerge soon out of the rock and was not disappointed. At 9,500 feet, 3.6 miles from the upper trailhead, I arrived at a lush expanse of green wetland plants with a gurgling stream of water and knew that I had found Ute Meadow.

Parry’s clover growing in Rocky Mountain National Park.

I rested beside the stream and filled my water bottle, then soaked my shirt and had no complaints about the cold cloth against my skin. The verdant meadow was  a reminder that wetlands are the concentrated focus of life in high country forests.

Continuing my journey, I stayed with the dusty path as it turned away from Windy Gulch and aligned with the edge of the cliffs above Moraine Park. The trail cut through a dry stand of lodge pole pine over the next half-mile, then met the Beaver Mountain Trail. Holding a straight course, I dropped below 9,000 feet over the next mile of trail.

Bearing right at the next few junctions with local side trails, I arrived in Moraine Park, another thousand feet down through dry, sandy fields of ponderosa pine.  Returning to the scorched valley floor at the end of a seven-mile trek, I fled to Estes Park and bought sixteen pounds of ice to join bottles of cold beverages and boxes of ice cream sandwiches in my camp. The warm summer evening in Rocky Mountain National Park was blissful.

Yellow paintbrush.

Alpine phlox.

Longs Peak from Moraine Park.

Mule deer buck grazes in the evening light.

Golden mantle ground squirrel makes a meal out of a pine cone.

Mule deer buck grazes in Moraine Park.

Kim Fenske is a former wilderness ranger, firefighter who has hiked thousands of miles in the Colorado mountains. He has served on the board of directors of Friends of the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area.

Fenske has authored several hiking books filled with hundreds of photographs of Colorado wildlife, wildflowers, and scenery. His books are enjoyed by thousands of outdoor enthusiasts. His current electronic book titles are published on Amazon for Kindle, as well as Barnes and Noble for Nook. Search for these titles: “Greatest Hikes in Central Colorado,” “Holy Cross Wilderness Area,” and “Eagles Nest Wilderness Area.”

Spring excursions:

Kim’s winter 14er series:

Autumn hikes:

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