Colorado, famous for its outdoor adventures right on your doorstep and 54 fourteeners. Since I had neither been to Denver nor the Rockies before, I signed up for another trip to backpack Rocky Mountain National Park with REI.
Even though the actual trip began Friday morning, the group of participants and the guides met up Thursday night at the gigantic REI Flagship store in Denver for a trip briefing, which included a quick overview of the trip, some helpful packing tips and dividing up group gear. I was pretty surprised at first that every participant was assigned a bear canister to carry.
On my previous backpacking trips, we usually carried 1 canister for 2 to 3 people, which would always be a tight fit, but we worked it out every time. However, since there were 8 of us (6 clients plus 2 guides), I quickly realized that because of the amounts of food that we would be bringing in, as well as trash and any other scented stuff, e.g., toiletries, quickly can take up a lot of space. After repacking, I squeezed everything in my pack, which was heavier than I had anticipated.
We departed on our adventure from the Hampton Inn (the REI-recommended host hotel) in Denver at 8am and made our way to the North Inlet Trailhead located at Grand Lake, about 100 miles away from Denver. In the parking lot, we unloaded our gear, put on a good layer of sunscreen, shouldered our packs, and started off on the North Inlet Trail at around 11am.
Trailhead to Campground
The trail to our camp at North Inlet Group Campground turned out to be pretty flat for the first half of the hike and more rolling hills in the second part, with an elevation gain of 1,200 feet over the course of 6.4 miles. On paper, this looked pretty easy, however, the weight of the packs and the altitude (we started at 8,500 feet) needed to be factored in. We had our first more extensive break at Cascade Falls for lunch at 8,900 feet, where we were able, for the first time, to enjoy the beauty of the environment, with a great view down the valley carved by the North Inlet Creek.
We continued at a steady pace after lunch. We reached our campground by 2.45pm and set up camp (we used REI Quarter Dome T2 tents) and enjoyed some delicious dinner, prepared by our guides Chris and Tobi. The conditions at night turned out to be pretty warm, so I had to leave my sleeping bag unzipped to not overheat.
Day hikes to adjacent lakes
We left our backpacks at camp the next day and instead headed for 2 lakes, Lake Nokoni and Lake Nanita. Leaving at 9am, we crossed Ptarmigan Creek and then traveled south at the North Inlet junction. After crossing over North Inlet Creek again and taking in some views of North Inlet Falls, the grade picked up significantly. We were pretty glad we had only packed lightly for the day. On the way up to the top of the saddle separating us from Lake Nokoni, we not only saw some Columbines next to the trail, but also had an encounter with a pretty well-fed marmot.
Once at the lake, we rested our legs for about half an hour and took in the beauty of the view. Crystal clear water, blue and sunny skies, and the mountains in the background reflecting on the surface of the lake. Very inviting to take a swim, but I decided to wait until our lunch break at Lake No. 2, where I would have more time to dry off afterward. After a chat with a ranger, who wasted no time in telling us that there might be bears or moose in the area, we headed on to Lake Nanita, which we reached about thirty minutes later.
Lake Nanita presented itself to us in equally beautiful lighting and setting, with the weather still playing along well (for now). Chris and Tobi again prepared lunch, and soon after, I knew why our backpacks must have been so heavy: we enjoyed brie cheese, hummus, cucumber, sliced sausage, salami, crackers, smoked salmon, and even cookies for dessert. We were, indeed, treated well. Since I was a bit worried about dark clouds rolling in, I decided to take a dip in the lake while the weather still held up. And how nice it was, pretty chilly but oh so refreshing.
Pretty soon after I got out of the water, the weather turned for the worst. Luckily, it started raining not too heavily, but enough for us to cut our lunch break and time at Lake Nanita short and head back to Lake Nokoni first. Since it didn’t get much better, we decided to head back to camp and figure out what to do for the rest of the day. Back in camp, it was immediately noticeable how bad weather can affect the mood of a hiking group. We were glad, however, that the rain finally stopped, and Tobi suggested doing a little excursion to find War Dance Falls, which was close to our campground.
It did not take long to locate the falls, and since we still had some hours of daylight left, we decided to hike/scramble up next to the falls in search of Bear Lake. The further up we went, the terrain got more and more difficult and any stones became more slippery. I questioned whether it was a good idea to attempt this without assessing the conditions and the experience of the group first, but anyhow, up we went.
At some point, though, it was getting too late in the day, and almost at the crest, we decided it would be best to turn around and make our way back down the slippery slope. We made it back down ok, even encountering what seemed like a deer skeleton along the way. Back in camp, our guides decided to not serve us a custom meal today but instead go for Mountain House freeze-dried food, which I had had before and had never been disappointed.
Packing up and heading out
Sunday marked our departure day, which meant taking down the tents and packing our gear. But luckily, we did not leave without made-to-order blueberry pancakes made by Chris, with brown sugar, chocolate chips, and cranberries optional. They had also thought about maple syrup. Totally delicious. Combined with Starbucks Via, a helluva way to start your Sunday in the woods.
We had everything ready by 10am and headed back down where we came from. Thanks to the hiking speed of Tobi in front, we made incredibly good time, stopping at Cascade Falls again for a little breather and water break. We held off on our actual lunch break until we had reached the meadows about a mile from the parking lot, where we had our last chance to enjoy the charm of the area. It took us only 3 hours to get back to the van and start our drive back to Denver, slightly delayed by some heavy traffic caused by other Denverites pursuing their outdoor addiction. Regardless, we made it back to the Hampton Inn by 5pm, which gave me plenty of time to catch my flight back to the Bay Area at 9pm.
From my trip with REI the previous year, I had pretty high expectations regarding professionalism, courtesy, and the general quality of the trip. And I am happy to say that REI did not disappoint. Chris and Tobi did an excellent job guiding us through the woods and entertaining us with stories. They very much made sure that the group functioned as a whole and that, in the end, everyone, including me, had a great time. One could argue that you could put a trip like this together for much cheaper than the $700+ I had to put down if you did it yourself. Still, on the other hand, you have to realize what you are getting for your money:
- Professional guides who can tell you more about the area that you might be able to learn otherwise
- Companionship with other, like-minded people
- Reduced hassle of finding “the right” trail or “the right experience” for a weekend of limited time
Compared to when you are doing everything yourself, that kind of adventure travel seems a bit pampered. Still, at least the two trips I did with REI did not necessarily cross that threshold where it is too much for me. It was also strenuous enough (especially with the packs) that I had to work to earn that experience.
In contrast, I would never want to sign up for a trip where essentially everything is taken care of, and the only things I need to worry about are showing up and setting one foot in front of the other. It has to be a little uncomfortable for me to feel that I am part of an adventure and experience. And as long as that is the case, I will certainly sign up for more trips in the future.