Northern Explorer's 2012 Colorado Trip

We decided to go back to Colorado this year and visit some of the National parks that we missed on our 2009 trip. The main focus of almost all of our trips is finding good places to hike along with driving to remote scenic locations. This trip had plenty of both.

Our first destination was Rocky Mountain National Park. The main hike that I wanted to do in this park was Longs Peak. Since we live at about 610 feet elevation I knew that we would have to take a few days to acclimate ourselves. We decided to do a warm-up hike up Twin Sisters Peak. Twin Sisters is a relatively easy 7.2 mile round trip hike with an elevation gain of 2,388 feet topping out at 11,428 feet.

Top of Twin Sisters

The next day we decided to rest up and let ourselves acclimate some more. We stayed at the Moraine Park campground (elevation 8160 feet).

(not our campsite)

We decided to go for a drive up Old Fall River Road. This is one of the few unpaved roads in the park. Besides a few steep switchbacks, the road is a relatively easy drive.

Enjoying the view along the way
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After the drive we headed back to our campsite to turn in for the night…at 6:00pm. The next morning we were going to hike the Keyhole Route up Longs Peak and it is suggested that the hike should start anywhere from 12:00 midnight to 4:00 in the morning in order to avoid the thunderstorms that usually roll in in the late afternoon. The Keyhole Route is a 16 mile round trip hike with an elevation gain of 5100 feet topping out at 14,255 feet. We ended up getting to the trailhead at about 2:30 in the morning. To my surprise the parking lot was nearly full. This is a very popular hike.

This was the first major hike I have ever done in the dark. The elevation at the trailhead is 9400 feet. As we crossed above the tree line we could see people's headlamps zigzagging up the switchbacks in front of us. After a few hours of hiking we reached what is called the "Boulder Field" just as the sun was rising. (To follow along with my trail descriptions click here and follow the map on page 2)

Sunrise at the Boulder Field

The Boulder Field is also the base camp area for any climbers that would rather make this into a two or more day adventure.

Tents on Boulder Field (You can just see the Keyhole on the far right of this picture)

This is the area where the hike starts to turn into a climb. There is a rock hut built under the left side of the Keyhole.

Passing through the keyhole to the other side of the mountain left us exposed to a lot of wind. This is also where the path narrowed in a section called “The Ledges”. Along this section and for the rest of the climb there are yellow and red bull's eyes spray painted along the route so climbers don't drift too far off course.

Me on The Ledges

On a side note you can read about all of the recorded fatalities on Longs Peak here. Not all of them happened on the Keyhole Route.

The next section is called “The Trough”.

After the climb up The Trough is a section called “The Narrows”.

Random hiker on the narrows

Another random hiker on the narrows (picture taken on the way back)

Just past The Narrows is an extremely steep section called “The homestretch” which leads to the top.

Us at the top looking down on The Homestretch

On our way back down we ran into a herd of Elk that didn't want to move off the trail.

Total time roundtrip = 14 hours 35 minutes. We ran into a little hail coming back on the Boulder Field but no real problems.
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Our next adventure in Colorado would be a drive up Kingston Peak. This trail is rated moderate, is 6.8 miles long and tops out at over 12,000 feet.
The “Rockhouse” as it is called, is a place along the trail where people passing by are supposed to donate an exotic rock. The mailbox contained a visitor log that you could sign.

On our way up

At the top

Heading down the other side

We didn't see a single other vehicle on this road. Just the way I like it.

My cheesy attempt at making a video of this road

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We were then off to Great Sand Dunes National Park which is host to the tallest sand dunes in north America.

We drove up Medano Pass Road to find a primitive camping spot for the night. The park suggests airing down due to the deep sand which is abundant for the first 2 miles of the road. They even offer a free air up station when you return to pavement.

Our camping spot

Besides the deep sand there were 9 creek crossing. The water level was extremely low when we were there.
Another cheesy video

The next day we headed back down the road to do some exploring on the sand dune.

There are no specific hiking trails on the dune. You can explore anywhere you want.

The creek on either side of the dune helps to keep its shape.

From this vantage point we could see Medano Pass Road.

Person in the distance for size comparison

At the top
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We left Great Sand Dunes N.P. we made a stop at nearby 25 foot tall Zapata Falls. After a short hike to the river you must then wade upstream in the canyon to view the falls.

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Our last stop on our trip would be Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. We explored the southern rim making sure to stop at all of the overlooks in addition to hiking the Old Flat Trail which is located near the south rim visitor center.

Colorado's highest cliff. 1000 feet higher then the Empire State Building

We really liked this park. There seemed to be a high ranger to visitor ratio. One ranger was at an overlook fielding questions from visitors, another was outside of the visitor center using a telescope to show sun spots. If I ever return I would like to hike the inner canyon down to the river. A permit is required for this.

This trip was a bit light on off pavement exploration. I'll try to make up for it next year.:)
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Thornton Melon's Kid
Can't wait for the rest Jason! I hope to get out there within the next few years and at least run the Alpine Loop.


Expedition Leader
Congrats on your summit...all those boulders reminded me of my days climbing in the Tetons!

Your knees and legs I am sure were thankful that u were done!


Combat Truck Monkey
Great report so far! You're a braver man than I when it came to climbing Long's Peak, I could never have done that! Thanks for sharing.


Nice report!! I'm jealous of your UP travels (I really miss the UP!!!) and now I'm jealous of your Colorado travels too!! (And I've been out here two years now!)

Nice work on Longs! I did it for the first time time this summer, and I think we did it in about 10 hours, but we had been running a lot, and we moved smartly along at all times during our hike! (And we all live at 5-6k feet, not 650!) Drop me a line next year if you come out here and perhaps I can point you to some more interesting places. :)
Thanks for the report!

Mr. Leary

Glamping Excursionaire
Y'all obviously stay in excellent shape. I climbed the dunes this summer (of course coming from the lowlands), and they wore me out.