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Forest Canyon, Trail Ridge, RMNP, Sept 18, 2010

November 10, 2010


On Saturday, Sept 18, 2010, I took what was to be my last hike (well, that I know of : ) for the year.  I didn’t know that at the time, but I did make a great choice.  When I got up that morning, the sky was overcast in Fort Collins and there was a fine cold drizzle falling.  Lovely.  I ran back in the house and checked the weather for the day on the Internet.  Specifically for RMNP (Rocky Mountain National Park).  Hmmmm.  Sunny.  Okaaaaaaaaaaay then.  Right.  Went back outside.  Still drizzling.

Before I go any further in the trip’s description, here is my standard comment. Please check my photo galleries here for all the larger and higher quality photos for this trip. The photos in the gallery are a quantum leap in size and quality compared to the little teaser photos I put in this site’s trip narrative (and there are more of them). In addition, I have two other links that will help locate the area if you are interested in making the hike yourself. A Google Earth map can be found here. You will need to use the scale bar on the left side of the Google map to help zoom in or out to help locate the area based on where you live. (If you want to see all my trips, this link will direct you to a Google map that shows ALL my trips.) In order to help you with the actual trail itself, you can use this link to view a topo map (care of the great National Geographic TOPO program( ) that one of my sons purchased for me : ) of the Forest Canyon Pass trail. Please note that all links open a new browser window.



In addition to the Google map link above, below is a Microsoft Live map. The red tack shows the general location of the trail from Fort Collins, CO. You can click on the map to bring it up in a “live” mode and zoom in or out (and move the map around) to get more detail.

Map picture


Back to the day.

Hey, some times you just gotta take a chance.  So, up the Big Thompson canyon I headed (after grabbing a large americano and cranberry scone from the local Starbucks, of course).  By the time I was half way up the canyon to Estes Park, the sky was showing lots of blue.  By the time I got to Estes Park, a lovely autumn day was to be had.

Now, so far this summer I hadn’t really done a lot of above timberline hiking.  So, when I got to the visitor’s center at the top of Trail Ridge road (I was headed west to a vague idea of hiking to Timber Lake or going up some trail out of Grand Lake), I stopped to “check” the situation.

Nice trail available here?  Check. I’d been wanting to hike along the continental divide and Forest Canyon for a long time.  Ever since my eldest son Conor and I had done a survey hike in the same area years ago.  At that time we had started from Milner Pass.


Nice weather?  Check.  Just a mild breeze (it can be rather windy : ), sunny, almost cloudless.
Warm?  Check.  It can be a little chilly up this high.  Particularly in September.
Pretty photo ops?  Check, check, and triple check.  Done.  It was a go.

So, I headed on down the trail.  Specifically, this was the “Milner Lake” trail.  Which is about a 4 mile (I think) hike down to Milner Lake situated on Milner Pass.  Now, this area is a trifle confusing because it looks like your on top of the world here, but for the first part of the hike you are going “down” to the continental divide (Trail Ridge is down and to my right in those trees).  And, you start off on the east side of the continental divide.

The continental divide gets a little confused in this area.  It zigzags to Milner pass, and then heads “northerly” along that ridge in the distance.  Not the farther rocky looking ridge (which is the Never Summer range), but the closer looking ridge that has trees going almost up to the top.  Yeah, it follows that ridge to my right to the top of the Colorado River drainage, then curves around and heads almost straight south (now you can look at the rocky ridge in the distance).  About halfway down that it all of the sudden heads west towards the Rabbit Ears pass area and then north along the Zirkels before petering out in the red desert area where it kinda gets very confused (some maps have it splitting in two for a while : ) before ending up in the Wind River mountain range in Wyoming.  Whew.



Looking back behind me, I can see the headwaters of the Poudre River heading north to intersect with the Poudre Canyon off to the north (a 20 mile, or so, hike I want to do some day).


Anyway, quite lovely views everywhere.  And, it just kept getting better the further I went.  Up ahead I could see some small ponds.  Somewhere around this point my hat tried to fly off my head and go where ever the wind was headed.  I’ve got it set up so that it can’t really go anywhere, but it did cause me to go through some gyrations to get it back on my head (meanwhile trying to hold my camera in a position to take a world famous photo, of course).  Got myself all put back together just in time to see a, uh, very nice girl ranger go walking past me laughing.  Darn that wind : )


If I zoom in a little, you can see the area above that I want to go hiking into a little better.  So, my idea was to hike along those far hills.  Sorta right under that far little snow bank on the right and then hike over to those two snow banks further to the left.


Zoom just a fraction more.  Yeah, what I wanted to do was look into that valley just to the left of those two snow banks.


As can be seen, I can’t just walk straight there due to a rather large valley that’s right on the other side of that little pond. It’s upper Forest Canyon.  I’ll show that in another photo later.

Zoom a little more.  I did get over to that ridge that is just below that lower patch of snow on the right.  But, from there you can see a large valley that kept me from going any farther (got tired : )  Getting to be some nice fall colors.  It was a lot prettier than this photo is able to show.  At this range there is a little moisture/whatever in the air that makes it not look as clear as it did to me standing out in the open taking it all in.


Here is the view from Forest Canyon pass.  Moraine Park is way down there somewhere.  Interesting that there is no trail (maintained) that comes up Forest Canyon (there is one that follows along the upper part of the valley for a short distance).  It’d probably be close to a 10 mile hike down to the Fern Lake trail.  Quite a few canyons and lakes off to the right of the canyon that, I would imagine, get very few visits from people.


Here is a view of the whole area.


Zoom on the sign.


So, I was facing a classic issue.  I see where I want to go, but I’m not sure of how to get there.  : )  There is no trail marked on any of my maps.  I knew that I wanted to go to the country off to the left of that big hill in the distance.  What I didn’t know at that time was, if I keep following this trail, will I eventually come to some sort of a trail that will cut off to the left to where I want to go?  Or, will I just keep hiking down the trail and miss the best route?  Even, should I just get off the trail now and cut directly towards where I want to go?  Because, well, you know, it “looks” pretty flat.  Not many trees.  Yeah, sure.  I know better.  All that nice flat looking area is really bushy, tussock filled, water holes, and no trails.  In this case, as in many, the shortest route was NOT the best route.  So, I kept heading down the trail.


I eventually got to a place where I could look out to my right down at trail ridge road close to Milner pass.  Yep, the continental divide crosses the road down there, and then follows that closest ridge back to my right and out of site.  Then the divide switches direction and head back down that far rocky ridge in the distance (at least, for a while before turning away from that ridge and to the west).  But, the most interesting part of this photo is that it shows the Specimen Mountain trail.  It’s close to the  far right of the photo below.  Right where you can see a little peak sticking up from behind the bare ridge.


Here I’ve shifted the camera more to the right and pointed at where you can see the Specimen Mountain trail as it works itself above timberline.  It heads to the “notch” and then continues up the mountain (Specimen) to the right.


Zoom in on that.  I think, but I’m not positive, that section of the trail that continues up Specimen Mt. to the right is closed to travel.  But, there are people hiking up the first part of the trail so that they can peak down over the other side for mountain sheep and goats.  You can actually see the hikers on the better photos at my smugmug site.


But, I’m really not interested in Specimen mountain per se.  What I am interested in is the country to the north of it.  It looks, um, empty.  Therefore, I find it of interest.  And, it appears that the specimen mountain trail may offer a route to that part of the park.  You don’t actually travel up Specimen mountain, so the park may allow people access.  Or, the whole area may be protected, in which case I’ll just have to skip it.  Here is the area I’m interested in.  Basically, off to the right and around the back side of specimen mountain.  If you look close, it appears to be a trail that follows just above the tree line.


Zoom.  Here you can see it faintly (again, easier to see on my smugmug site).  One of these years I’ll approach the park service about the area.


And then, magically, I was on that far slope that I had been gazing at from Forest Canyon pass.   Well, ok, it was a little more involved than that.  I actually had to bushwhack my way for a short time until I found a “trail” to follow.  Part human, part animal, it got me headed in the right direction.  I’ll point out how to get on it when I head back.

One interesting thing about this area is how remote it seems.  I mean, even thought Trailridge road is just over there on top of that far ridge, you had to really look hard to notice it.  I never heard any of the vehicles.  And, when you are on the road, you would never notice a person standing where I was now.  Possibly if I had on fluorescent orange and was running someone might see me.  If they were looking hard enough.  Then again, probably not.


Anyway, remember that photo of I took saying “that’s where I need to be, just under that snow field” (or, something similar) a ways back?  Well, here is looking back the other direction.  I was right up on the ridge sorta on the right side of the photo below.  You can see the trail in the photo below easily on my smugmug site.  Anyway, that was one big half circle I made way over to the left out of sight, and then back around to this spot.  Gee, look how nice and smooth and flat it looks.  I should have just walked straight across.  NOT.  It’s a mess down there.  How do you know that, Geoff?  Well, decades of trying to take the short straight across routes and learning the hard way, for one.  Another is that from here I saw 3 hikers walking right below me through that “nice” looking mess. Yeah, they decided to take the easy route : )  I could see that the brush was up past their waists.  And they were moving pretty slow.  REAL slow.


So, I kept moving along the game trail until it looked like it was heading down into Forest Canyon, then I split off to the right and kept my altitude (mostly).  The hiking was a little slow (possibly somewhat due to the altitude), but not bad.  And the views were incredible. I wanted to head towards those 2 little snow fields in the distance because just beyond them was a really nice valley with some small lakes.


Zoom some after hiking a little further (there is a bit of a valley or two between me and that ridge right before the snowfields).


Zoom some more.  Yeah, it’s a pretty nice chunk of country just beyond those snowfields.  That’s funny, seems to be a bit of a dip before the snowfields.  Oh well, can’t be that bad.


And then I got to that ridge right before the snowfields.  To where I could actually see what that little dip looked like.  Oooops.  Little bit of a valley to travel through to get to that other larger valley beyond the snowfields.  Hmmmmm.  Yeah, that’s the thing about these sweeping vistas.  Things are a little bigger and further away than they look like at first.  And, it makes a big difference when there is no trail to follow.  You end up doing a fair amount of zig zagging over not flat ground (luckily, at this time of the year it was all pretty dry).

Yes, just a little bit of a valley to get across in order to see the far larger valley past those snow fields.  That’s probably a minimum of a 30 minute hike if you went very fast.  I was not going very fast.  So, approximately 1 hour for me to get to the ridge.  And then one hour back.  So, two hours (at least) added to my current hike.  Hmmmmm.  Nope, not gonna happen today.


So, that decision made, I just took a break, munched on a balance bar, drank some G2, and thoroughly enjoyed the scenery.  Believe me, it was better than this looks in my photos.  The weather was perfect.  There were no bugs.  And, I had the place to myself.

Or.  Did I?  That’s funny, did someone just whistle at me.  Damn, there it was again.  Almost a shriek.  Ghosts?

Well, it really didn’t take me that long to put 2 and 2 together, especially since I’d heard the same noise many times before.  In fact, I knew it right away.  The sound is distinctive.  Almost genetically embedded from generations before.  The elk males were in rut and bugling for some nice female elk to come over and visit.  Or, something like that : )

The elk were going at it constantly and they weren’t too far away.  I just had to slowly check out the surrounding country until I spotted them.  So, that’s a little easier said than done because there was a lot of country out there and even elk can look pretty small at a distance.

So, I started working my vision back up the valley below me.  I could tell they weren’t down towards Forest Canyon, so all I had to do was just scan all the rest of the country in the other direction.  The tricky thing was, until you see the first one, you don’t know exactly how small the distance is going to make them look like.  I mean, were they going to be just a tiny dot?  Or, should I be looking for something that I could see had four legs?


And then I saw them.  So, this is max zoom on my current lens.  If I had an extra $600 just laying around, I could buy a lens that would really make the elk quite a bit larger.  But, even with my bare eyes, it was nice to see them down in the meadow and hear them whistling away (you really need to view these at my smugmug site).


They all moved into the timber eventually. Possibly because I spooked them, but maybe they were just going to rest for a while. The  photo on smugmug lets you  enlarge this photo enough  to see that this bull elk (very close to entering the tree line)  had close to a trophy set of antlers on him.


Just to prove I was there.  Although, good photography says that you should not cut off the feet in your photo : )


Yes, it was time to head back.  I’d seen some great country, enjoyed a bit of lovely fall weather, listened to the elk playing their mating games, and learned the ropes on getting further towards a valley some time in the future.  There was just one small little problem, and that was having to hike back to where I started from.


That said, it was a very nice hike back to the car.  Looking back down Forest Canyon.


Some of the NeverSummer range poking up on the other side of Specimen mountain.  There is some very interesting country back that way.  I saw a little bit of it on an earlier hike this summer (still to be documented : )  Good place to spend some more time.


Of course, one of the “findings” for this hike was the best route to getting to the area.  I mean, you start off on a nicely maintained trail, but the trick is deciding just where to leave that nicely maintained trail without bogging down in a marshy and/or brush filled section of land prior to getting to the area I ended up in.  Or, it is important to me.  I suppose some people (perhaps several decades younger than myself) would think nothing of just do the straight line approach.  And, there is nothing “technically” wrong with such an approach.  However, it can lead to poor hiking experiences.

So, let me review how you can get to where I went with the least amount of trouble.

What you are doing is hiking along the main trail from the Trail Ridge visitor’s center (where I parked). You go past the sign that says “Forest Canyon Pass.”  Probably another half a mile or so.  You’ll get to a part of the trail where it starts to go downhill towards the Milner Pass trailhead.  You’ll see a little clearing along a small stream (depending on the time of year, there may not be any water).


Now, if I zoom some on that area, you can actually see a small foot (four foot and two foot animals : ) trail.  You could just cut across to it from here and head to the left (towards the area I was hiking around on).  However, during part of the year that stretch of ground will be quite “wet”.  If you head down the trail a little ways, you can intersect the foot trail seen here.


So, here I’ve gotten past that small meadowy area. (Only about 50 yards or so.).  Right up ahead just before that small little tree on the left side of the trail is where that foot trail takes off (heading to the left).


Now I’ve gone past that little tree (the one that is only about 3 feet high), and turned around 180 degrees,  so that I’m looking back up the trail.  You can see the little foot trail taking off at a slant to the right.

Just take off following the little foot trail.  You will see several other little trails along the way that seem to be paralleling the one you are on.  That’s just the way old trail systems/game trails are.  They have a tendency to multiply over the years, but they all head pretty much in the same direction.  Just stay on the one that seems the most traveled and continues in the direction you need to go.


Eventually the trail reaches a sorta “split”.  I think all the splits come back together again beyond those ten or so trees kinda bunched together directly ahead in the photo below.  Basically just want to maintain this direction (so, acting as if those trees weren’t directly in our line of site).  You should be able to see the trail meandering off along the side of that low mountain.  However, eventually you will probably (well, depends if you go the direction I went : ) run out of game trail to follow and just need to do what is called “cross country” hiking.  Just make sure to stop every so often and look around to get your bearings.  You should be able to look down Forest Canyon, see Trailridge road snaking along the distant ridge, etc.  That said, unless you are extremely experienced, this would not be a good place (off the main trail) to be hiking after dark or in a bad storm. Not only would it be difficult to keep track of where you are, but since you are so exposed, lightening is a real threat. There are no real bad cliffs to worry about (where I was, at least), so children should be ok.  Just keep an eye on them at all times.  Close at hand is best (although a lot of it is above timberline so you can keep track of them pretty easily if they wish to get a little ways in front).  Since there is no trail, it’s very easy to just kind of wander around and end up not really knowing were you are.  So, I’ll repeat, if you have children with you, keep an eye on them at all times.  The general rule is, whether it’s children or adults, stay together.  Always.


And, here is what I had to look at as I hit the last mile or so of trail back to the parking lot in the distance.  Quite nice.


Great hike.  A very fitting end to the summer.

A funny aside to the trip, on the way back down Big Thompson canyon the sky went back to being fully overcast and the temperature dropped about 10 degrees.  When I got back to town my son Will told me it had been overcast and cool all day.  Hard to believe the difference.

– Geoff Weatherford

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    July 11, 2014 9:31 pm

    Awesome read about a place not easy to find information on. It’d be great to hear from you about other places in the area

    • July 13, 2014 6:30 pm

      Hey, thanks for the comment.  I’ve got quite a few more trips to add (real life has kept me too busy to keep the site updated as regularly as I would like).  This link should show you all the trails in Colorado that are posted on that site.

      Lots of hiking is available in northern Colorado.  And southern Wyoming.




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