Colorado, Colorado Hikes, Rocky Mountain National Park, US National Parks

Rocky Mountain National Park Hikes: East Inlet Trail to Lake Verna and Spirit Lake

Back in June 2019, my mom and I were signed up for a summer solstice Women Who Hike group backpacking trip on East Inlet Trail, with Lake Verna and Spirit Lake as our ultimate destination. Unfortunately, the first day of summer was marked by a massive snowstorm that forced a last-minute change of plans. Fast forward to 2021 and she and I were lucky enough to secure a backpacking permit for East Inlet. And this time, there was no threat of snow. It was time for redemption!

We were on the trail by about 8:30am for our 6.5 mile (10.5 km) hike to our campsite. East Inlet Trailhead is located at the east end of Grand Lake, right at the park boundary. The trail begins with a brief climb to Adams Falls at 0.3 miles (0.5 km). This first section of trail is the busiest as it’s an easily accessible hike.

The next attraction is East Meadow at about 1.5 miles (2.4 km), a mostly flat trek that’s also moderately trafficked. Ordinarily, hiking to a view of a meadow isn’t something I would be all that enthusiastic about, but East Meadow would be the exception. It’s lush and green and so beautiful! It’s also a common place to encounter moose, although we didn’t see any.

East Meadow

Beyond this point, the trail begins to climb. We had about 1600 feet (490 m) to gain to reach our campsite, which wasn’t an easy task with 25 lbs (11 kg) on our backs. But there are many overlooks along the way where we could take a break while enjoying the view down the valley and into Grand Lake.

Though we weren’t always right next to East Inlet, we could either hear or see it for most of the hike. It’s a beautiful creek, alternating from mellow slow-flowing stream to beautiful tumbling cascades and back again.

At about the 6 mile (9.6 km) mark we reached Lone Pine Lake, the first of five on this trail. Lone Pine Lake was… okay. It’s pretty and peaceful but compared to most of the lakes in Rocky this one lacks the wow factor.

Lone Pine Lake

One more climb and we reached the turnoff to Slickrock Campsite, our home for the night. There are eight backcountry sites along East Inlet Trail, ranging in distance from 1.3-7.5 miles (2-12 km) from the trailhead. For those new to backpacking or anyone looking for something short and not too steep, the first couple sites would be good options. If you’re looking for more solitude and/or hoping to visit the East Inlet lakes, you’ll want one of the more distant sites. Regardless of which site you prefer, note that you need a permit and they are very competitive. All backcountry sites in Rocky also require use of hard-sided bear canisters from April-October. We did in fact have a park ranger come into our site to check our permit and confirm that we had a bear canister.

Given this year’s last-minute lottery system and other permit-related chaos, we got really lucky with this location; Slickrock is one of the neater backcountry sites I’ve stayed at! As the name suggests, it’s located on an outcrop of slickrock. We had a decent view of our surroundings and could just barely glimpse Lone Pine Lake through the trees. There was plenty of room for our tent and some trees we could use to tie up our rain shelter (a new addition to my backpacking gear, and one we were very thankful for on this trip). The only downside to this site is it’s not possible to pound stakes into slickrock so we had to tie things down with rocks. Be sure to pack some extra rope for this purpose.

Slickrock Campsite
Mario mushroom at our campsite… thanks to all the rain, mushrooms were plentiful in Colorado this summer
Looking down on Lone Pine Lake and Slickrock Campsite from above (can you spot our tent?)

After setting up and eating some lunch, we donned our day packs and rain gear and continued up the trail. Our goal was to make it to as many of the remaining lakes as possible. First stop: Lake Verna, about 1 mile (1.6 km) past our campsite.

Approaching Lake Verna
Lake Verna
We found a small beach at the far end of the lake

Lake Verna is long and skinny. It was a long walk along the lake shore to the other end. Also, the park stops maintaining the trail at this point. Though there is a discernable path all the way to the uppermost lake, it’s lightly travelled and receives no upkeep. We realized very quickly just how much trail maintenance the National Park Service does… there were branches and downed trees everywhere now, and our pace slowed drastically as we navigated all these obstacles.

About a mile beyond Lake Verna is Spirit Lake, which was our favorite thanks to the prominent and pointy peaks in the background.

First view of Spirit Lake
Spirit Lake handstand

Beyond Spirit Lake the condition of the trail deteriorated even further. All the rain also made the path nice and muddy. It was not the most pleasant hike.

But we made it to Fourth Lake. And honestly… it was not really worth the effort. We were underwhelmed.

Fourth Lake

Unfortunately, by this point in the day we’d run out of time, energy, and tolerable weather so we weren’t able to press on to Fifth Lake. I was a little disappointed (unlike Fourth Lake, Fifth Lake looks like it would have been worth the effort), but I also wasn’t exactly looking forward to another mile of mud and fallen trees. So we turned around here, glimpsing a moose near the Fourth Lake outlet stream on our way back. The rain temporarily let up as we walked and was nice enough to hold off until we were back to our site and safely huddled beneath our shelter with our stove and bear canister.

Back to Spirit lake, with a glimpse of temporarily better weather
Spirit Lake reflection

It rained most of the evening but we woke to clearing skies and hiked most of the way back to the car in the sunshine.

Slickrock sunrise

One thing I love about backpacking is the instant camaraderie with other backpackers. On our way in the previous day, we encountered the couple who had just departed our campsite. We stopped to chat for a couple minutes and they assured us we would love the site. On our hike out, we passed seven groups of backpackers… basically everyone who would be staying up there that night. The first person we ran into (and, in fact, the first person we’d seen in about 18 hours) was a solo backpacker; he had a nice camera with him and offered to take a couple photos of us. We then chatted for a few minutes and exchanged contact info so he could send us the photos. With his permission, I’m sharing one below.

And with that, our annual mother/daughter backpacking trip was complete!


The Important Stuff:

  • Getting there: East Inlet Trailhead is at the east edge of Grand Lake; follow signs to the boat launch. Note that you do not go through the Kawuneeche entrance station to get here
  • Fees and passes: although you don’t pass through an entrance station, the $25/car daily or $35/car weekly park entrance fee (or interagency pass) still applies. Through October 2021, you also need a timed-entry permit or overnight accommodation reservation if you arrive after 9:00 am. If you arrive before 9:00am, no timed permit is needed
  • Hiking: approximate round trip stats from the trailhead to the lakes are as follows… 11.8 miles (19 km) and 1800 feet (550 m) to Lone Pine Lake, 14.8 miles (23.8 km) and 2200 feet (670 m) to Lake Verna, 16.8 miles (27 km) and 2400 feet (730 m) to Spirit Lake, 18.8 miles (30.3 km) and 2500 feet (760 m) to Fourth Lake
  • Where to stay: there are eight backcountry sites along East Inlet Trail. All require a permit ($30 fee) and permits must be reserved well in advance
  • Other: if you hike this trail as a backpacking trip, be prepared for any and all types of weather including rain, hail, thunderstorms, wind, and even snow. Especially at Slickrock Campsite, there is minimal shelter from the elements. If you choose to do this as a day hike, start early and plan to spend the entire day on the trail; be sure to have adequate food, water, clothing, and a way to pack out any toilet paper you might use
  • For more information on the gear I carry for backpacking, I put together a list here

20 thoughts on “Rocky Mountain National Park Hikes: East Inlet Trail to Lake Verna and Spirit Lake”

  1. What a lovely place to go on a hike with your mom, Diana 🙂 I can easily see that awe-inspiring sights come easy here, and no wonder you keep exploring it as there is so much to do on a Rocky Mountain vacation that you’ll be hard-pressed to fit it all in a single vacation. Thanks for sharing and have a nice day 🙂 Aiva xx

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I can easily see why backcountry camping is so competitive here. How lovely to do that hike with your mom. That’s good that they have a ranger come out periodically to check for permits. That’s always one of my biggest fears when backcountry camping is that someone who isn’t supposed to camp there does and then we’re unable to find a site.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You’re absolutely right about the words “lush, green & beautiful” … what a splendid hike with your mom! And I agree with you about the camaraderie between backpackers/hikers – one of the reasons why we love hiking!
    Stunning pictures once again, thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I can relate to this a little, Diana because I’m willing to bet that you are validating what is a legacy of your Mom’s – I would suggest that she got you out in the wilderness when you were young and the quest for wilderness took hold.

    I did the same thing with my daughters starting when they were about six and we backpacked throughout Oregon (and as a native Oregonian, you probably took some of the same backpacks before you moved.)

    Now, they are in their thirties – both nurses and both married with young kids, who have already been hiking (too young for backpacking just yet.) Every time I see their pictures, I smile – a lot!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yep, she absolutely did! I went camping for the first time when I was just a few months old. I’m so glad my parents instilled in me a love of the outdoors at such a young age. I only lived in Oregon until I was 1 though, so I didn’t get taken on many trails there, unfortunately. But I think my parents did some hiking and backpacking there before I was born.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Wow, what a lovely location to hike Diana!

    You took some really nice photos, from East Meadow up to all the different lakes.
    The spirit lake looks like a really nice place to be and the peaks above the lake are very inviting for some climbing!

    Thanks for the nice post Diana.

    Liked by 1 person

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