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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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