August 20, 2021. Three days before the start of fall semester. For the first time in 16 months, I would be back in the classroom. I would be teaching one class I’ve taught before… and two new ones. Suffice it to say there were some nerves and anxiety.
Fortunately, we had a Rocky backcountry permit for the weekend. Initially, I’d worried that going backpacking the weekend before the semester started was terrible timing. In actuality, it was exactly what I needed. Two days in the mountains, as far as could be from work and reality and civilization. And when we came home on Sunday, we were completely exhausted. So exhausted, in fact, that I didn’t even have the energy to be nervous for the first day of classes.
Pat, our friend Kaylyn, and I arrived at the trailhead around 8:00am Saturday morning and right off the bat, things got interesting. We were at the car, making final preparations, when I noticed movement in the trees about 15 feet (5 m) away. Naturally, it was a moose.
I’ve lost count of the number of way-too-close moose sightings I’ve had in the last year. Suffice it to say it’s been far too many and I’m over it. Fortunately, the car was between us and the moose. He also couldn’t have cared less about us. He just kept munching away. Nonetheless, we hastily finished loading up our gear and set off, putting some much-needed space between him and us.
Our backpacking permit was for one night at Pine Marten Campsite, about 8 miles (12.9 km) up North Inlet Trail. North Inlet is an area that was very heavily impacted by the East Troublesome Fire that burned through the park in October 2020, scorching many thousands of acres. The first 3.5 miles (5.6 km) of the trail passes directly through the burn area.
It was both heartbreaking and interesting to observe this area up close. Interesting because I’d never seen such a recent aftermath of a forest fire; we could see and smell it everywhere. Heartbreaking because everything was blackened. A combination of drought and the many beetle-killed pine trees in Colorado means that forest fires burn hot, incinerating the landscape and sterilizing the soil.
However, it was also encouraging to see some early signs of recovery. Though less than a year had passed, some grasses and flowers were already growing back. The contrast between the black and green was striking.
Aside from the fire remnants, not a lot stands out about this first 3.5 miles (5.6 km). It’s a fairly easy hike with only about 400 feet (120 m) of elevation gain. We spotted a second moose grazing in one of the pockets of newly grown grass. And by the end of this stretch, we found ourselves at Cascade Falls.
We ate a snack here and then continued on, the landscape surrounding the trail now intermittently burned. In the unburned sections, we could see what the area had looked like before the fire; it was lush and green. And, as with most of Colorado in 2021, teeming with fungus thanks to the ridiculous amount of rain we received. (The good news is that we are at least temporarily no longer in a drought.)
Some of the more bizarre fungi are pictured below. I don’t know their actual names, so I’ve captioned them with the names we made up based on their appearance. (Tap the photos or hover your mouse over them if the captions aren’t visible.)
Seven-point five miles (12 km) and about four hours after leaving the car, we reached the junction with the Lake Nokoni/Nanita Trail. The North Inlet Trail continues up to the Continental Divide. We, however, branched off toward the lakes. Our campsite – Pine Marten – was about 0.5 mile (0.8 km) up this trail on North Inlet Creek.
There are two sites at Pine Marten; we chose the second one. It was more open with better views, but with a slightly steeper path down to the creek as compared to site #1. Upon arrival, we encountered a deer. She regarded us cautiously for a couple minutes before moving on, and we didn’t see her again.
After eating lunch and setting up camp, we loaded up our day packs and continued up the trail toward Lake Nokoni and Lake Nanita. This was the steepest and most challenging part of the hike, made more tiring by the fact that we’d already hiked 8 miles (12.9 km) with a lot of weight on our backs. All three of us were struggling as we ascended the many switchbacks up to Lake Nokoni. But at long last we finally arrived, and it was absolutely worth the effort!
From Lake Nokoni, more elevation gain awaited us. We were not enthusiastic about this in the least… but we’d come this far so we were determined to press on to Lake Nanita. We followed the trail up the shoulder of Ptarmigan Mountain, over, and down into a bowl on the opposite side.
We were almost certain we’d get rained on given the never-ending parade of grey clouds, but the weather held off and by the time we departed Lake Nanita, the sun had returned. It did end up raining on us overnight, but by that point we were snuggled up in our sleeping bags staying warm and dry.
We woke to fast-moving clouds and spent the entire hike back to the car in alternating sun and shade. It was one of those days where I was taking my sunglasses on and off every five minutes. Our hike ended with about a quarter mile (0.4 km) of uphill back to the car, which was absolutely the most brutal way to end a weekend in which we’d hiked 22 miles (35.4 km) and gained 3865 feet (1180 m) of elevation.
But we did it.
Another beautiful Rocky backpacking trip in the books!
Read about my other day hikes and backpacking trips in Rocky here.
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: North Inlet Trailhead is at the east edge of Grand Lake; 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: roundtrip distance to Lake Nokoni is 20 miles (32 km) with 3250 feet (990 m) of elevation gain; add 2.2 miles (3.5 km) and 600 feet (185 m) for Lake Nanita, for a total of 22.2 miles (35.7 km) and 3865 feet (1180 m) of elevation gain
- Where to stay: there are multiple backcountry sites along North Inlet Trail, although some are currently closed due to fire damage. Staying at any of these sites requires a permit ($30 fee) and permits must be reserved well in advance
- Other: this would be an extremely long and challenging day hike and I would only recommend attempting it as such if you are fit and acclimated to the elevation. 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 (or buy a kula cloth)
- For more information on the gear I carry for backpacking, I put together a list here