A Backcountry Trip To Rocky Mountain National Park

An overnight backpack trip in Rocky Mountain National Park has been on my bucket list for a few years now. This year, I decided to make it happen.

By Courtney Johnson
Explore Ambassador

An overnight (or two) backpack trip in Rocky Mountain National Park has been on my summer bucket list for a few years now, but the trip always seemed to get overlooked or replaced with other trips. This year, I decided I wanted to make it happen. So, I began researching backcountry site details on the Rocky Mountain National Park website to help in selecting a site.  

Arch Rock is an area we are familiar with, as we had hiked the Fern Lake Trail before. Rocks on trails have always been an attraction for my rock-climbing daughter, so I knew we would have instant entertainment for her at this backcountry site. According to the wilderness guide, the 20-year snow-free date is May 13 for Arch Rock. Since I booked the permit in early March, I was looking for a place that most likely wouldn’t have snow in early June and wasn’t too far in distance, as this would be our first backpacking adventure. Without lightweight gear, we would mainly be using what we use for our typical car camping. We had hiked (snowshoed) into a hut a few times, but a backcountry campsite was new for us. 

Reservations for backcountry campsites/permits need to be purchased through Recreation.gov for Rocky Mountain National Park. I booked one night at Arch Rock for the beginning of June with fingers crossed that the weather would work out. 

Some late snowstorms came this spring, causing the snow to last longer in the park than usual. Wet and cold conditions in the park made me make the tough choice to cancel our June trip and scramble to find an alternate date. Since reservations opened up in March, there weren’t many dates that would work with fall soccer and other commitments. I was able to find a Thursday night opening at Arch Rock a week into school starting. Not ideal, but there is much to be said about what you can learn out in the natural world.

Just like we risked the snow-free date, we would now be risking thunderstorms at the park. Afternoon thunderstorms are common at the park in the summer, but I intently watched the weather forecast for the week leading up to our trip. At one point, I made the decision to order waterproof pack covers for our packs, seeing that the forecast said periods of downpour. We can’t have a campfire at this site, so I didn’t want to risk having wet clothes, etc. 

During the days leading up to the trip, I familiarized myself with how to open the bear canister, researched meal ideas and slowly gathered our gear. I made sure to tell several people our plans for the trip (including the estimated time we would return) since there is spotty-at-best cell service within the park. I downloaded an offline map of the Fern Lake hike through onX Backcountry and added a few photos of the campsite to my photo album. 

One last gear check (and weather check), and we were on our way to the Wilderness Office just outside the park to pick up our permit and car tag. I didn’t want my daughter to miss two full days of school, so that had us heading out during the typical window of rain in the park in the summer. It rained on our way up the canyon and through Estes Park. When we reached the office at 3 p.m., the rain had stopped and the sky was a mix of blue and clouds. 

Timed-entry reservations are needed to enter the park this year from May 27 to Oct. 10. If you are camping at one of the designated campgrounds at the park or have a backpack permit, that serves as your timed-entry reservation for the day. Our backcountry site falls under the Bear Lake Road corridor timed-entry location that requires a pass from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m. 

Our trip happened to fall on the 106th anniversary of the National Park Service. Rocky Mountain National Park is one of 35 national parks and monuments that were established before the National Park Service was created. Arch Rocks is located in a lodgepole pine forest about 1.6 miles off the Fern Lake Trail. While no one knows for sure how the rocks came to be at the location, there is speculation that the rocks broke off from the cliff towers above and landed in the spot they are currently in. 

The whole trail is a 7.5-mile out-and-back and takes you to The Pool of the Big Thompson River just 0.1 mile from our site. There happens to be a backcountry site at this location, aptly called Old Forest Inn. From 1917 to 1952 or so, this location was the home of the Forest Inn. The trail also takes you to Fern Falls. In 2012 and 2020, the Fern Lake fire and the East Troublesome fire scorched parts of the area. Evidence from the fires can still be seen almost from the start of the hike. Scorched trees show the path of the fire. We all agreed that many of the trees resembled something out of a spooky/Halloween movie or book. 

Our hike in was fairly flat with about 90 feet of elevation change. Elk, moose, deer and Abert’s squirrels are a few of the animals that call the habitat home. Water can be collected from the Big Thompson River that runs near the site. We packed a Sawyer Squeeze to filter water for cooking. 

The trailhead only had four other cars in it when we began the journey to our site. The skies were getting darker, and thunder rolled away in the distance. We decided to try to take advantage of the rain-free window and make our way to our campsite. However, about 20 minutes into the hike, our window closed. Some scrambling later, our packs were fully covered, with the contents staying dry. One point for me for buying those pack covers, even if it was kind of last minute. 

The rain came down at a steady pace as we spent the next 40 minutes along the trail. At one point, we noticed two birds making their way under some rocks for cover. We couldn’t identify the birds, so we took a few photos of them to download to the Seek app when we got service again. Note: The birds were dusky grouse. 

We passed through Arch Rocks, and after a climb, we saw the wooden sign on the right-hand side that said Arch Rock Campsite. A short trail led us to a set of many large rocks and a clearing obviously designated for where to set up a tent. A silver arrowhead sign also marked the spot. The rain had basically stopped as we set down our packs under some lodgepole pine pairs where we found some dry real estate. We hung our raincoats from some tree branches to dry and began to pitch the tent. 

AJ and Emma worked on the tent while I looked for a good area for cooking at least 100 feet from our tent and a good place to put our BearVault some 200-plus-feet away from everything downwind. Tent up and secure, it began to rain a bit again. Emma and I jumped in the tent with the packs and began filling up the Therm-a-Rest air pads and situating everything. It was a tight squeeze, but we were able to get three air pads in, along with our packs and other items. AJ and I took the wider head of the tent, while Emma took the narrower side with her feet in between us. 

Soon afterward we got another break in the weather. Emma wanted to explore the rocks of the scree field above us, so we headed up the side of the cliff through the field. We realized very quickly how slippery the moss-covered rocks were and decided not to head up too high. Scrambling back down, we headed back to the Fern Lake Trail and hiked on up to The Pool. We had a couple of stick races and splashed some water on our faces before the sound of thunder in the distance caused us to head back to camp. 

Everyone was hungry at this time, so AJ and I worked on dinner while Emma explored the rocks in our designated cooking area. The overhang of rocks and pines kept us dry as another round of sprinkles began to fall again. It was a little harder to open the bear canister at the altitude of 8,240 feet. A few attempts later, I got it open and retrieved the pepperoni and pasta I had precooked. Protected, we enjoyed the sound of the rain hitting the leaves of the trees and trickling down the rocks. 

Our bellies full of pasta and pepperoni, I worked on cleaning up while AJ spotted Emma climbing an area of dry rocks. I wished I had packed her climbing shoes as there were definitely some great footholds and some cracks she could have wedged her feet into if she had on her climbing shoes. Mental note: Carabiner her climbing shoes to her pack next time. 

The sun sets earlier in the park with the cliff walls. Soon the mosquitos were munching and a cloudy evening set in. We were hoping to see an elk or other animals at dusk, but we guessed that the rainy, cooler weather caused the wildlife to hunker down. AJ and Emma set out to put the BearVault in a safe spot. Then, we retreated to the tent to read and play some games of Spot It! It wasn’t long before the sound of the Big Thompson River lulled us to sleep. 

I woke up early, as I usually do. It was still dark, so I rose from the tent to catch a glimpse of the sunrise. The layers of clouds created a cool effect as I took it all in on some tall rocks close to our campsite. I had about 10 minutes or so to myself before my daughter came and joined me. It was a special moment for just the two of us. As she gets older, these moments take more effort to create. It was at that moment I made a silent promise to myself to always make the effort to find time for these moments. 

(Photo: Courtney Johnson)

About 10 minutes later, a grumbling from the tent said, “Start some coffee.” Emma and I set out to find the BearVault. We used the markers that Emma and AJ made note of to locate the vault. My daughter insisted on finding it and carrying it back to camp on her own. We had a little bit of the water we filtered from the night before. It was enough to make coffee and one bowl of oatmeal. After some sips of joe, AJ and Emma headed down to the river and collected some more water to filter for breakfast and the hike out.  

We ate breakfast while enjoying the scenery and beauty around us. Emma commented on how this experience was much better than a day in school. I sure wasn’t missing the backyard project waiting for me at home or the work I needed to get done. I could tell AJ was enjoying being away from home and work commitments, too. 

However, it was those other commitments that had us soon packing up our gear. We broke down the tent fairly quickly and were on the trail back to the car around 9 a.m. A few hikers passed us on the trail, some asking about the backcountry sites along the trail. There were no major animal sightings on the way out, but we did see a snail slowly moving across a rock. 

For a one-night trip, it took quite a bit of planning, packing and other tasks to make sure we were prepared, especially with the potential for rain. But as we walked out and back to the trailhead, we all agreed that we would like to do another one- to two-night backpack trip next summer. In the meantime, I will be researching how to better pack a BearVault and looking for lighter gear. 

We finished our trip with a stop at YA YA Farm & Orchard for cider and apple cider doughnuts. I am a bit of a cider and apple cider doughnut snob, having grown up in the Midwest. This place happens to have pretty comparable ones to what you can find in the numerous orchards in Michigan and Wisconsin. We gave each other cheers with our doughnuts for a successful first backpack trip. 

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