Incredible Backcountry Trails
by David Day
Incredible Backcountry Trails
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Distance: 11.4 miles (round trip)Walking time:
day 1: 3 1/2 hours
day 2: 41/2 hours
Elevations: 1,900 ft. gain/loss
Allenspark Trailhead (start): 8,940 ft.
Finch Lake: 9,912 ft.
Pear Lake: 10,582 ft.
Trail: Easy, well marked and well maintained trail
Season: Midsummer through mid-fall. There is usually snow on the trail from mid-November through June.
Vicinity: Rocky Mountain National Park, near Estes Park
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Finch Lake is a popular destination among people looking for an easy overnight hike with a campsite in heavy timber next to a pretty alpine lake. The one-way distance to the lake is only 3.8 miles over a well maintained trail, and there are several fine campsites on the north side of the lake. If you want more privacy you can walk another 2.0 miles up the trail to Pear Lake where there are also several backcountry campsite.
In my opinion Finch Lake is a nicer place to spend the night than Pear Lake, but as scenery goes Pear Lake is the most dramatic. From Pear you can enjoy an exhilarating view of Elk Tooth Ridge 0.8 mile to the south and Mount Copeland 1.0 mile to the west. The rugged, cliff-strewn slopes of the mountain rise abruptly from the waterís edge in an uninterrupted ascent to the 13,176-foot summit. Ogalalla Peak (13,138 ft.) is also visible further up the valley where Elk Tooth Ridge meets the Continental Divide.
Many people begin this hike at Finch Lake Trailhead near the Wild Basin Ranger Station, but starting there will add 1.5 miles to the round trip distance and 460 feet to the elevation gain. The 11.4-mile walk from Allenspark Trailhead described below can easily be completed in a single day, but Finch Lake is such a pleasant place to camp it would be a shame not to stay for a night. Campsites at both Finch and Pear Lakes can be reserved by calling the Backcountry Office of Rocky Mountain National Park at (970) 586-1242. Sometimes camping permits can also be obtained without reservations at the Wild Basin Ranger Station, but only if there are sites available. The cost of a camping permit is $15.00/night.
Day 1 (3.8 miles)
From the Allenspark Trailhead the route begins by climbing gradually through a forest of limber and lodgepole pines along a very well maintained path. After 0.7 mile you will come to the first trail junction where another well marked trail branches off to the right toward the Wild Basin Ranger Station. From there the path continues another 1.0 mile to the next junction where two more trails branch off to the right toward the Wild Basin Ranger Station. Again this junction is well marked with signs, but there are four trails leaving this intersection and if you arenít paying attention you can easily take the wrong one. If you start going downhill you have taken the wrong turn.
As you leave the second trail junction you will notice that you are skirting along the edge of an old burn area. The trees in this area were burned by a forest fire that started in the northern part of Wild Basin in 1978. For a while the fire threatened the town of Allenspark, but fortunately it was stopped before it got that far. The trail enters the burn area a short distance beyond the trail junction and stays there for about ten minutes.
It is encouraging to see how fast the forest is coming back after the 1978 Wild Basin fire. A dense stand of young lodgepole pines, 15-20 feet high, now covers the area, and healthy populations of squirrels, chipmunks, and birds have found homes among the burned trees. The fire also opened up some impressive panoramas of the northern mountains that cannot be seen inside the mature forest.
0.4 mile before arriving at Finch Lake the trail crosses a small unnamed stream on a log bridge, then a short distance later it begins a 250-foot descent to the lake. You will first see the lake glinting through the trees on your left before the trail bends around its north side where the backcountry campsites are located.
Day 2 (7.6 miles)
Before returning to the trailhead be sure to take the side trip to Pear Lake and back. The round trip distance to Pear is only 3.9 miles, an easy walk if you leave your backpack at your campsite, and you will be well rewarded. The trail continues west from the camping area for 0.2 mile before coming to another log bridge across Cony Creek. It then begins a long gradual climb up the valley toward Pear Lake. In all you will gain about 650 feet over the next 1.7 miles.
0.3 mile before reaching the upper lake the trail comes to another log bridge where it crosses Pear Creek. You will also see a sign here directing you to the Pear Creek Campsite. Then just a few minutes beyond Pear Creek the trail ends on the east side of the lake.
Pear Lake, being closer to timberline, is much more open than Finch Lake, with unimpeded views on all sides. The landscape is dominated by Mount Copeland, and it is easy to see how glacial ice grinding its way down the slopes of the imposing mountain once gouged out the bowl that would later become Pear Lake. Many older maps refer to Pear Lake as a reservoir, and indeed it was once dammed to store water for farms on the east side of the Front Range. The old earthen dam has been breached for many years, however, and now the lake is almost as pristine as it ever was.
The walk from Pear Lake back to Finch Lake takes about an hour, and from there it is another 2Ĺ hours back to the trailhead. The way back is all downhill except for a 250-foot elevation gain as you leave Finch Lake.
If you are interested in a supplemental map of the Finch and Pear Lakes area
Rocky Mountain National Park (Trails Illustrated, map #200)
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