Ever since moving to Colorado, I’d been itching to go backpacking in the gorgeous, rugged Rocky Mountain National Park. Not just hiking, which my boyfriend and I do pretty much every time a friend or family member visits, but honest-to-goodness backpacking, in the backcountry, with backpacks. You get it. I was also drawn to the idea of dipping my soon-to-be-blistered toes into section hiking the Triple Crown trails (the AT, PCT, and CDT), partly because my brother had an amazing time thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and partly because I read Wild at least once a year. The second I read about Rocky Mountain National Park’s Continental Divide Loop, I knew I wanted to hike it.
Thankfully, living in Colorado means no shortage of outdoorsy, adventurous coworkers who were all too eager to sign onto this CDT section hike! What started as three of us, turned into four, then turned into six. We got our permits for one of the last weekends of decent weather before the rocky mountains (can) get sketchy, and had an awesome time.
Here is our Rocky Mountain National Park backpacking itinerary on the Continental Divide Loop trail, and everything you need to know about hiking this awesome backcountry trail. It was seriously one of the coolest backpacking experiences I’ve ever had, and the fact that it’s a part of the CDT, an epic cross-country trail, really does make you feel like you’re a part of something special!
The Basics of the Continental Divide Loop and Backcountry Hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park
The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (also known as the CDNST, or simply the CDT) stretches 3,100 miles from Mexico to Canada along—spoiler alert—the continental divide. It is a common final thru-hike for those going for their Triple Crown, who’ve already thru-hiked the AT and PCT. This is because the CDT is the least-traveled, generally most difficult, and arguably more dangerous than the others.
For around 30 miles, depending on which backcountry campgrounds you hit, the CDT passes through the Colorado Rockies in Rocky Mountain National Park. The CDT loop combines two longer park trails—the Tonahutu Creek Trail and the North Inlet Trail. At any point on the loop, you’ll be on one of those two trails. They meet at the actual continental divide at Flattop Mountain, an elevation of 12,324 feet (according to the National Park Service’s website).
Because the Continental Divide Loop is, obviously, inside Rocky Mountain National Park, there are some extra rules and regulations you need to follow when reserving campsites and hiking in the backcountry. I’ll get into more detail on those, plus our actual itinerary, shortly!
Is the Continental Divide Loop difficult?
This section of the CDT is roughly 30 miles, gaining almost 4,000 feet in elevation. The lowest point in the trail is still well over 8,000 feet, which is enough for many folks to experience elevation sickness. Plus, over 5 miles of the hike are solidly above the tree line, which can pose a lightning/generally sketchy weather risk, particularly in the afternoon.
So, yes, the Continental Divide Loop is difficult. That said, it wasn’t ridiculously difficult. I mean, I could do it, and while I’m in decent shape I definitely do not spend much time at that elevation—let alone carrying a backpack with all my gear. I think it was a good starter Rocky Mountain National Park backcountry hiking trail; it kicked my butt, but not so much I wasn’t craving more. Plus, as far as navigation goes it was extremely well-marked, and there were also plenty of water sources!
Proper preparation, knowing your body, and never underestimating mother nature are key.
Planning tips for backcountry camping in Rocky Mountain National Park
The first big question you’ll need to ask yourself, taking into account everything above, is how many days you’ll need to do the hike. We did it in 2.5 days (I can’t honestly say 3, which you’ll understand once I get into the itinerary below). I think you’d have to be in bonkers good shape to do it in any less. Which brings me to my next point…
This should go without saying, but I’m definitely guilty of getting caught up in the excitement of making a trip happen and setting thoroughly unrealistic goals. We had to grapple with what was and wasn’t realistic on this trip, when it became clear we’d have to have a long day of elevation gain, right in the middle of the hike because of backcountry campsite availability. Ultimately, we made a firm, realistic game plan, including not sleeping in and keeping a decent pace, and pulled it off.
Being realistic includes everything from being honest with your hiking partners about your fitness level, to asking yourselves if you really can commit to getting on the trail by 8AM, to packing enough moisture-wicking socks because you always forget how cold your feet get when camping and it is worth the extra pack weight.
Reserve your backcountry campsites early.
I learned this one the hard way! Turns out, even in the shoulder season, the Rocky Mountain Continental Divide Loop trail is fairly popular. Fortunately, there are only 1-2 sites in each backcountry campground, and people must stay in these sites, so even on “popular” dates you still barely see other hikers. This serenity comes at a slight cost, since those 1-2 sites fill up super quickly.
For that reason, I recommend planning your trip as early as humanly possible so you can get your first choice in backcountry campgrounds. It’s totally up to you how you want to break up the trail miles that way, rather than being forced into a crazy long day of the most difficult parts of the trail because there were only a couple of sites left! Better that than nothing, as the challenge was pretty fun, but still, would’ve been nice to have slightly shorter Day 2!
You must propose an itinerary to the backcountry rangers at Rocky Mountain National Park via their online form. They look it over, and approve or reject it. If they approve it, you’ll be charged a small fee (for us it was $30). I doubt they’d ever reject an itinerary, just be a little harder on those who gave themselves tougher hikes (*cough* like us *cough*). The rangers will grill you a bit when you pick up your permit, so know basic stuff like how far the bear box needs to be, how far away from water sources you need to camp, etc. You will also definitely impress them by having a good Rocky Mountain National Park hiking map. The National Geographic topo maps are favorites of park rangers.
The Continental Divide Loop is just one of the park’s epic trails—check out my picks for best Rocky Mountain National Park hikes!
Make a packing list.
If you’re anything like me, you do this anyway to prepare for any trip no matter what. Still, I think it’s worth noting! Write down everything you’ll need, erring on the side of being conservative. See how everything fits in your pack, and then add other “optional” things if you have extra room.
The reason I think a packing list is absolutely necessary for this kind of multi-day backcountry camping trip in particular is if you forget something, you’re royally forked.
I took my Osprey pack on this trip, but it was a toss up. If you’re trying to decide on your perfect pack, check out my comparison of Osprey vs Gregory backpacks!
Watch the weather.
My biggest concern with this trip (or any trip with miles above tree line) was weather. Specifically, I’m thoroughly paranoid about afternoon lightning. This was especially true because we did the Continental Divide Loop towards the end of the summer season. Depending on how soon winter comes to the mountains that year, a late hike can be pushing your luck!
We were checking the weather all week leading up to the hike. In the same vein as being realistic, we accepted if weather looked hairy we’d have to change plans or at least change up the gear we were planning on bringing.
I think that covers everything—let me know if there’s some crucial piece of trip-planning advice I’ve left off here!
Day 1: Green Mountain Trailhead to Lower Granite Falls Backcountry Campground
Total distance: 5.1 miles
Total elevation change: +960 ft
This was the shortest trail day for us. To be honest, it was more of a trail evening. We left Boulder after work at around 4 on a Friday, rushing to Estes Park to get to the Rocky Mountain National Park backcountry office before they closed.
Worried we weren’t going to make it in time, I called them on the drive and explained the situation. After a little phone quizzing, the ranger said they’d make an exception and leave the permit outside the office. They hate to do this, and honestly I’m not sure if they would’ve if I hadn’t told them I was a park ranger myself and understood the policies, how to read a topo map, etc.
After grabbing our backcountry permit, we still had to get to the West side of Rocky Mountain National Park for the Continental Divide Loop. By the time we drove the hour through the park, it was officially past sunset. I don’t particularly recommend doing what we did, but with work schedules it was our only option.
Green Mountain Trailhead Parking Lot to Big Meadows via the Green Mountain Trail
Elevation change: +600 ft
As I mentioned, we did this section almost entirely in the dark. It passes through dense forest, a bit spooky at times. At one point we heard a large herd of elk crashing through the trees, disconcertingly nearby. It was more cool than terrifying. We did the hike during the elk rut, so they were bugling left and right the entire time.
Starting at Green Mountain Trailhead means you’ll start with a decent uphill climb up some manmade wood steps. It was actually a good workout after a full day of work! I was huffing and puffing with my pack on until I got into a rhythm. Overall, it was not too hard, though.
Happily, we did this section in daylight on the way back, so I’ll speak on it at the end of this post.
Big Meadows to Lower Granite Falls via the Tonahutu Creek Trail
Distance: 3.3 miles
Elevation change: +360 ft
Green Mountain Trail meets up with the CDT loop at Big Meadows, and then the loop truly begins as it heads northeast along Tonahutu Creek Trail towards the Continental Divide at Flattop Mountain. If you’re doing the hike clockwise, this is the last easy stretch before elevation really starts to kick off.
Leaving after work on a Friday, Lower Granite Falls was a decent stopping point. By the time we reached the sites, we’d been night hiking a couple hours. We were ready for a quick dinner and bed.
Unfortunately, we did this section of the CDT after nightfall—I didn’t get to witness whatever Rocky Mountain National Park had to offer. I’m sure it was swell. I will say, it was very rocky. Instead of wooden steps like on the Green Mountain Trail stretch we were climbing up more boulders.
This section of the hike went by quite quickly, and wasn’t too difficult either.
Heading south? Check out this awesome podcast all about the best outdoorsy activities in Colorado Springs!
Day 2: Lower Granite Falls to Twinberry Backcountry Campground via the Continental Divide
Total distance: 15 miles
Total elevation change: -1,080 ft
Today was, as the kids say, a doozy. Don’t let the net elevation loss fool you; we climbed a straight up mountain to well over 12,000 feet before heading down to our second backcountry campsite. It definitely felt like a lot more than 15 miles (I think we calculated 18 with the elevation), but I’m going off the Rocky Mountain National Park website and All Trails site.
Lower Granite Falls to Flattop Mountain via the Tonahutu Creek Trail
Distance: 5.1 miles
Elevation change: +2,510 ft
Lower Granite Falls was lovely in the morning. Having made camp in an exhausted daze at 10PM, I was 0% aware of my surroundings (I know, just what you want in the rugged wilderness). We walked the 200ft to hide the bear boxes, but besides that hadn’t explored the area. However, it’s a nice spot, nestled in some pine trees with a creek immediately beside it. Lower Granite Falls backcountry campsite pro-tip: we didn’t realize this in the dark, but a fork in the trail separates the two Lower Granite Falls sites. We didn’t notice this, and found spots to camp near the site that was already taken that night. Oops. To be fair, it was all kind of open and there was plenty of space, but both parties would’ve had more privacy if we went to the other, empty backcountry site.
Anyway, we intended to break camp as early as possible so we wouldn’t hit the high elevations during the afternoon, when lightning is most common. That said, we dawdled in the morning and went slow through most of this section, stopping by a waterfall to chill and take pics.
If I could sum up this section of hike: elevation is no joke, guys! As far as pushing my body, this was hands down the toughest section.
The hike up to Flattop Mountain is going to be the most strenuous section, elevation-wise, clockwise or counterclockwise. You’ll see an intimidating sign telling “the mountains don’t care” once you’re approaching the tree line, and another on the other side on your way back down. This is a stern warning not to underestimate mother nature.
As far as views go, as you start climbing out of the forest things start to get ridic. Also, the vistas provided excellent excuses to take, ahem, photo breaks. I always huff and puff like this when I’m taking pictures, don’t mind me.
As you approach the top of Flattop Mountain, you’ll get into the bare marmot-ful tundra. We were sad we didn’t see any moose in the forested meadows and ponds below. However, the abundance of marmots and pika in the high mountains more than made up for it. They’re delightful.
Flattop Mountain to Twinberry Campground via the North Inlet Trail
Distance: 9.9 miles
Elevation change: -3,590 ft
If the previous section of the CDT loop was a strenuous climb, this section will challenge you in a different way. Specifically, trudging downhill on rocks carrying a pack will wreak havoc on your knees, friends. I didn’t feel it as I was doing it, but boy, was this the low key most taxing part of the hike. My hamstring and left knee were feeling this descent for weeks.
Besides being beautiful and other-wordly, the above-tree line parts of Rocky Mountain National Park are insanely, borderline hilariously windy. Because I’ve had the (dis)pleasure of living in North Dakota, this did not bother me much, but it was bad. Have your warm clothes ready, no matter how sunny and hot it was 2,000 feet down.
Ultimately, we knew Day 2 would be a huge push. The only part of the hike I felt more negative than positive was the very end of Day 2, when my hamstring was bothering me from going downhill for 10 miles and we were night hiking the last few miles to the Twinberry backcountry campsite. But, with the support of an awesome group of people, we all powered through.
Day 3: Twinberry to Green Mountain Trailhead
Total distance: 9 miles
Total elevation change: -1,550 ft
From Twinberry backcountry campsite, we headed west along the North Inlet Trail to Grand Lake. The North Inlet and Tonahutu Creek Trails meet at Grand Lake, and the latter heads north back towards our vehicle. I know, I know, it’s a lot of trail names, but looking at a map it’s actually super simple. Says the woman who just understood most of this while writing this post…
This section of the CDT loop showed off some of Rocky Mountain National Park’s meadows and pine forests. It also lulled us back into civilization, passing within a stone’s throw of Grand Lake where plenty of day hikers start their journeys. The lack elevation gain was quite pleasant, so those last 9 miles back to the car shot by!
Twinberry to North Inlet Trailhead
Distance: 3 miles
Elevation change: -140 ft
Funny story—I broke camp early to get a head start out of Twinberry, because I was worried my sore hammy and wonky knee from hiking down the mountain would slow the team down. I did this section of trail totally alone, which was actually awesome. I forgot how much I f*cking love solo backpacking.
Still, as I got closer to Grand Lake there were definitely more day hikers. I imagine this section of trail is really pleasant for day hikers; a lot of pretty meadows, mellow elevation gain, and (on days that tragically were not this day) moose sightings.
There was some up-and-down on the way to Grand Lake/North Inlet Trailhead, but the most noticeable climb was just out of Twinberry backcountry campsite back to the trail.
North Inlet Trailhead to Big Meadows via the Tonahutu Creek Trail
Distance: 4.2 miles
Elevation change: -810 ft
Funnily enough, the spot on the trail I felt most disoriented was in the parking lot near Grand Lake. I knew I wanted to find the Tonahutu Creek Trailhead, so just kind of kept walking past the initial parking lot into a sort of second parking lot…? Anyway, there were giant trailhead maps and tons of people around so I wasn’t going to get too lost.
The section from Tonahutu to Big Meadows was very similar to the hike earlier that day: some up-and-down, but overall pretty chill. The only non-chill parts of this portion were 1) the abundance of bear scat, and 2) the creaking pine trees. The forest here was a bit creepy. Along with the constant sound of the creek, which had accompanied us for almost all of the CDT Loop, there was constant rickety creaking noises coming from the surrounding trees. They leant precariously on one another, and some had clearly recently fallen. Whenever I heard a particularly big crack or creak, I literally ran.
This portion of the hike was perhaps the most repetitive, in my opinion, but it was easy hiking compared to the rest of the trail and went by quickly. I didn’t even realize I was in the Big Meadows when I hit a big meadow, because it didn’t feel like I’d come that far. It was only when I decided to stop for a rest, still waiting for the rest of my pals to catch up, and checked my map did I realize the hike was almost over.
Big Meadows to Green Mountain Trailhead (see Day 1, part 1)
Distance: 1.8 miles
Elevation change: -600 ft
I am so, so glad I was at Big Meadows in the daylight, because it’s really spectacular. I am frankly shocked there weren’t at least a half dozen moose romping around, as it looked like prime moose territory, but alas.
Our group relaxed at the meadow for a while, put our feet in the creek, and relished the thought of a short, easy couple of miles back to the vehicle. It was the same stretch of trail we’d done in the evening/night on Day 1, so we knew it’d be mostly downhill and not particularly challenging. My only word of caution about this section: watch out for the roots. They tripped me up more than once both night and day hiking here!
RMNP CDT Hike Highlights and Takeaways
The Continental Divide Loop of Rocky Mountain National Park is kind of perfect. You can argue with me if it’s possible for a hike to be perfect, but this one seriously rocks (National Park geek puns, huzzah)!
First of all, it’s drop-dead-gorgeous. My photos don’t come close to doing it justice, which is saying something because these photos are pretty darn epic. The most jaw-dropping views occurred above tree line, but there’s a lot to be said for meadows, pine forests, streams, and waterfalls along the way.
Second of all, this hike is the ideal amount of strenuous to kick your ass a little bit without making you miserable or requiring a ton of prior training. I felt sore and deeply proud of myself. It was an accomplishment, while still being a ton of fun. It was hard, without requiring special mountaineering gear or experience. So, if you’re looking to push yourself while still having an enjoyable weekend in nature, I strongly recommend this hike.
The only thing I would’ve done differently would be book it sooner, i.e. not the week before! We could’ve probably had a better pick of backcountry campsites. The distance and elevation between Lower Granite Falls and Twinberry made for a long Day 2. The campsites themselves were great, but I’m sure campsites a mile or two closer together would’ve been fine, too 😉
Pardon the humblebrag but, if anything, we were over-prepared. That’s exactly how you want to be on a backcountry hike in Rocky Mountain National Park!
Well, there you have it! I tried to cover everything, but inevitably left some stuff out. If there is any—ANY—information you wish I’d included, please comment below! I will do my best to respond quickly, and update the post accordingly!
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You seem to be such a serious hiker for these trails seem strenuous. I loved the pics of the tall trees lining the path on either sides 🙂