Every year Rocky Mountain National Park attracts tourists from across the globe — and for good reason. It’s one of the wonders of the High Country.
But for a less-traveled, more serene alpine experience, its smaller neighbors to the south are worth considering, especially when traveling with man’s best friend. While Arapaho National Recreation Area and the Indian Peaks Wilderness share a border with their famous counterpart, they offer an experience that might just feel a little more off-the-grid.
On a busy summer Sunday, it’s still possible to get away from the crowds and feel like the only ones on the trail. And unlike national parks, wilderness and recreation areas allow pets on trails. Start a weekend getaway at Roaring Fork Campground, near Monarch Lake, on the quiet southeastern corner of Lake Granby. The area offers a number of hiking options that can lead to either high-alpine backcountry or more grounded terrain around Monarch Lake.
Where to camp
Find the right spot at Roaring Fork Campground and you’ll have a view of a rugged Rocky Mountain skyline in one direction and a quiet corner of Lake Granby in the other. A number of spots at the campground are lakefront, others are perched on a small hill with views in all directions. With a lengthy drive down a mostly dirt road, the whole area feels far removed from Highway 34, the main artery through Rocky Mountain National Park. Two other nearby campgrounds also seem to distract the less-savvy camper from this tucked-away gem. The campground offfers accessible to several hiking trails, including the Roaring Roaring Fork Trail (described below). Monarch Lake and the Indian Peak Wilderness trail network are also nearby.
Cost: $19 per day plus $5 day use pass for Arapaho National Recreation Area.
Where to hike
The Roaring Fork and Cascade Creek trails offer two excellent hike options that have a backcountry feel.
Cascade Creek Trail — Definitely the easier of the two, this trail starts at Monarch Lake. It travels along the northern edge of the lake, before turning up a valley and heading toward high-alpine Crater Lake. It’s an out-and-back route with a few picturesque high-volume waterfalls along the way. Even in late July, Cascade Creek has a strong flow. It’s a fairly taxing, nearly 15-mile round-trip, should you elect to go all the way to Crater Lake. A shorter option, roughly 5 miles up the trail (10-1/2 round-trip), brings you to the largest waterfall on the creek and an open meadow with views of the surrounding mountain ridges. The full trail climbs close to 2,000 feet, but the shorter option to the big waterfall climbs about half that, without a steep grade. There are two designated backcountry camp spaces along the trail.
Roaring Fork Trail — Leaving straight from the Roaring Fork Campground, this hike kicks it into high gear early with a steep initial ascent along switchbacks. The beetle-kill trees provide little protection from the summer sun. But after the initial climb the trail joins Roaring Fork Creek, where the sharp grade decreases substantially. The health of the forest also improves dramatically, with a nice shady canopy as the trail parallels the stream. There are some big rocks in the trail. So while the grade flattens, it still makes for a challenging climb. As the surrounding mountain ridges start to encroach on the trail, it steepens again and divides. Staying on the Roaring Fork Trail leads to a steep final ascent, this time with more shade from healthier pines. For those top physical condition, the payoff is huge. As the trail crests on the summit it opens to a large meadow with views fit for a remake of “The Sound of Music.” It makes an ideal spot for lunch. All that work on the ascent makes for a speedy return hike. This rugged climb gains around 3,000 feet of elevation. It is 12 miles round-trip.
How to get there
Roaring Fork Campground, Monarch Lake and the Indian Peaks Wilderness are tucked off of the southeastern corner of Lake Granby, bordering the south end of the Rocky Mountain National Park. From Summit County the more scenic route would be to head east on I-70 then up Highway 40, toward Granby. Then follow Highway 34 and turn off at the entrance to Arapahoe National Recreation Area. Take the road along the south side of lake to reach the campground. Be sure to pass the first two campgrounds; Roaring Fork is much more scenic.