If Not Longs Peak, Then Chasm Lake

Longs Peak Boulder Field

Longs Peak Boulder Field

Longs Peak is a beautiful climb, but it is a very trying, sixteen-mile, round-trip hike. It takes a lot of energy to gain some 5,000 vertical feet from Longs Peak Campground, which is over 9,000 feet, up to the summit at 14,256 feet. If you’re not quite in the mood to go so high, but you do want a good hike with fabulous views, I’d suggest a hike to Chasm Lake 3,000 feet directly below the summit.

Since neither my son nor I had hiked to Chasm Lake and I had reached the summit of Longs three times, I thought this lake might be just the right medicine. During our drive from Laramie in the early morning hours before sunrise, I reflected on my ranger days in Rocky Mountain National Park back in the late 1950s and early sixties. In those days, I had hoofed along many a trail, including over Flattop Mountain from Bear Lake to Grand Lake (seventeen miles one-way), and across the tundra from Fall River Pass to Mirror Lake beneath Comanche Peak (over eight miles one way). Although, somehow, I had missed going up to Chasm Lake.

side trail down to Chasm Lake

side trail down to Chasm Lake

We pulled into Longs Peak Campground just before 8:00 am and shouldered our packs filled with energy bars, raisins, nuts and oranges and, of course, bottles of cold water. We couldn’t have asked for a more crisp and brilliant day. Every granite ridge stood out sharp and clear. We bounded up the trail through a sun-spiked lodgepole pine forest along a fairly straight but steep trail above the valley between Longs Peak and Twin Sisters. These were the old haunts of Rocky Mountain National Park’s founding father, Enos Mills, author of numerous books on the Rockies, including Rocky Mountain Wonderland (1915). Melancholic squawks of stellar’s and Canada jays resounded through the forest aisles and blended with the distant roar of a cascading stream.

Chasm Lake itself

Chasm Lake itself

Lodgepole pines (so called by Ute Indians because these trees made perfect tipi poles) yielded ever so slowly to higher altitude firs and spruce, which harbored occasional clusters of Colorado columbines and bright blue chiming bells. The trail wound its way up through sub-alpine meadows and afforded us glimpses of Mount Meeker and Longs Peak. Even though it was late July, we had to cross a rather extensive snowfield, which fingered its way down to the forests of 10,000 feet. We reached tree line at 11,500 feet within an hour and a half—a land of twisted pine and dwarf spruce interspersed with arms of lush green tundra. Marmots scurried about the rocks, whistling to one another in the thin air. Longs Peak, streaked with cloud-like snow under a crystalline sky, loomed above us. When my son Rich and I sat on some flat boulders to eat fresh oranges, I told him about an old Ute Indian, who tapped me on the shoulder one day when I was a ranger, and said with gleaming eyes: “Will you look up at old Longs Peak standin’ way up there!” His intonations expressed far more than his words. You could sense the Indian’s awe and joy of just staring at the mountain. Rich, too, expressed his own wonderment, but he was anxious to get on up to the lake.

Longs Peak from Chasm Lake.

Longs Peak from Chasm Lake.

We zigzagged along the tundra trail, noting the delicate alpine-forget-me-not flowers, then turned off the main trail up to Longs and descended a side trail into a deep gorge at 12,000 feet. This led us to a series of rather vertical snowfields that were stained with a red algae. It smelled just like watermelon, but it’s totally inedible, as it’s poisonous to humans. Marmots squeaked with the high-pitched calls as we crossed a gushing stream tumbling out of this glacial basin. We couldn’t help but notice glacial striations along a flank of Mount Meeker.

 We ambled up to a ranger patrol cabin and then climbed a steep, rocky face for about 200 feet until we stood on a ridge overlooking glistening Chasm Lake—just shy of 11,000 feet. We munched on energy bars, raisins and nuts while chattering all the time about the sheer immensity of this place. Yet, once we stopped talking, we quickly became aware of the overwhelming silence of the wilderness. We hiked down to the shoreline itself to see several greenish icebergs afloat at the far end of the lake—they had a mesmerizing effect on both of us. On our return hike to the car and on our drive back to Laramie, all we could talk about was the unique spirit of a place called Chasm Lake.

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