Summiting Mount Ida turned out to be a ‘third time is the charm’ type situation for us. We wanted to climb it our first summer in Denver, but forest fire smoke severely limited visibility for much of the summer and we weren’t about to walk along the Continental Divide and not be able to see anything. Our second planned attempt was in mid-June 2019, for which I made campground reservations nearby so we wouldn’t have to leave Denver at 3:30am to get to the trailhead. But thanks to the never-ending winter of 2019, there was still 3-4 feet (1-1.3 m) of snow obscuring the trail a week prior to our planned hike, so we cancelled our plans.
Finally, on the last weekend in June 2020 – which also happened to be my birthday – we made it! And in addition to conquering this hike, I’m fairly certain Mother Nature knew it was my birthday because Colorado really went out of its way to make it an amazing weekend!
We had a great lake front campsite.
Then a massive thunderstorm rolled in and spent the next hour threatening to blow our tent away while we hid in the car. But then it cleared up and by the end of the evening, the sky put on quite the amazing show!
On Saturday morning, we saw 9 moose on our drive to the trailhead. And as if that wasn’t already a ridiculous number of moose to see in one day, we saw 14 more on our drive back to the campground that afternoon!
But anyway, Mount Ida.
The trail begins on the Continental Divide at Milner Pass, which is approximately equidistant from Estes Park at the east end of Trail Ridge Road and Grand Lake at the west end. Because most of the trail is above tree line and completely exposed, it’s very important to start early and turn back at any sign of storms. Colorado summer afternoon thunderstorms are no joke, and there’s absolutely nowhere safe to hide if one rolls in and you’re in the middle of the tundra. The weather forecast was for a mostly sunny day with minimal chance of storms but we started early nonetheless, stepping onto the trail just after 6:30am.
The first mile (1.6 km) of this trail was the hardest part for me. It’s steep as it climbs past some unique rock spires on its way up to tree line. While granite is the predominate rock type in the area, these spires are made of a colorful, coarse igneous rock called pegmatite. Pegmatite contains many of the same minerals as granite, but the crystals are much larger; this accounts for both the color and the coarseness. Geologically speaking, these pegmatite spires are dikes, formed when molten sediments and minerals seeped into cracks in the surrounding granite and were pushed upwards.
After about a mile, the trail forks. For Mount Ida, stay right and continue through the remainder of the forest and out into the tundra. Hiking above tree line is one of my favorite things. I love the tiny tundra plants and flowers. I love the expansive skies and wide open landscapes. I love the fluffy marmots and especially the adorable pikas, and we saw a bunch of each. I spent the next three miles (4.8 km) taking dozens of photos.
About a mile from the summit, the trail begins to peter out in the rocky landscape. We were still able to kind of follow a vague path, but as long as you stick to the rocks (rather than stepping on the delicate tundra plants) and keep walking toward the summit (which you can see), you’ll get there eventually. At this point in the hike, we also found ourselves closer to the ridge; we now could see over to the east and down into an alpine valley dotted with lakes.
As Pat and I rock hopped our way up a particularly steep section, we ran into Chelsea who – coincidentally – had texted me a couple days earlier asking if I was free to hike that weekend. I’d told her I couldn’t since we’d be camping, and neither of us mentioned the hikes we were planning. And yet here we both were, so it turned out we got to hike together after all! Sometimes the world really is very small.
After catching our breath, the three of us made our way to the summit and found it occupied by only one other person and a handful of marmots. They didn’t seem to mind our presence but they also didn’t attempt to steal our food, so all of us were able to coexist peacefully. While much of hike had been windy – not unusual at this elevation – the summit was remarkably calm, so we spent quite a while taking photos and enjoying the 360° views, including some of the hidden Gorge Lakes which can only be seen from this vantage point.
This area of Rocky – a substantial portion of Rocky, actually – burned in the recent fires that have ravaged our state. Much of the terrain between our campsite and this trailhead was in the path of the flames, and in one location the fire jumped the mountaintops and burned down two drainages on the other side of the park. I haven’t been back to this area of Rocky to see the aftermath, but I have to assume that the views from Mount Ida look quite different now. I’m thankful we were able to complete this hike before the fires, but heartbroken at the amount of destruction Colorado has suffered these past few months.
At some point on the hike back, we got completely off trail. I think. It’s easy to do, given the relative lack of trail near the summit. But we could see where the actual established trail was off in the distance, so we just picked our way through the rocks until we caught up to it again.
From there, it was a straightforward hike back to the trailhead. Multiple people and a handful of internet lists designate Mount Ida as the best hike in Rocky. I still really love Chasm Lake, but Mount Ida has definitely solidified its place near the top. The views are second to none, and it was definitely a beautiful place to celebrate my birthday!
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: the Mount Ida trail departs from Milner Pass/Poudre Lake just west of the summit of Trail Ridge Road
- Fees and passes: there is a $25/car daily or $35/car weekly entrance fee to RMNP; interagency annual passes are accepted. From May-Oct 2021, if you arrive after 9am you will also need a timed entry permit to access this trailhead
- Hiking: 9.8 miles (15.8 km) round-trip with 2522 feet (769 m) of elevation gain; strenuous due to the elevation
- Where to stay: there are 5 campgrounds in the park and dozens of lodging options just outside in Grand Lake and Estes Park; while backpacking (permit required) is also an option for many parts of the park, there are no backcountry sites on this trail
- Other: as mentioned above, the majority of this hike is through the tundra with absolutely no shelter from the elements, so pay very close attention to the weather and be prepared to turn around if storms approach