It was the first weekend of July, and the first National Park to backpack in on this adventure was Rocky Mountain National Park… of course. I intended to be solo on this part of the trip to do a quick trial run of all of my gear before hitting the road to backpack in the other National Parks. If I discovered that I was missing something or had some kind of malfunction, at least I was close to home! I’ve spent so much time in RMNP over the years that going solo wasn’t a big deal at all, either. This park feels like a second home to me, with each curve of the roads as familiar as the comforter on my bed, and the feel of the trail under my feet as recognizable as my morning coffee ritual.
Now, the trick was to get a backpacking campsite. It was the weekend of the 4th of July, and a four day weekend for everyone with the 4th landing on a Monday. It was one of the busiest weekends for outdoor enthusiasts heading into the backcountry. Timing was also tricky as there were flash flood warnings that delayed the trip a day.
With my gear and car packed the night before, I hit the road early to make it to the Wilderness Office to see what kind of walk-in sites were available. It was risky since there was a high chance of all backpacking sites being full.
The RMNP rangers at the Wilderness office were awesome. Since I was super flexible as to what site I got, they pulled out the backpacking map with mileage details and compared the permit availability to their computer system. I got one of the last available sites – Golden Banner off the Lawn Lake Trailhead on the Mummy Range side of the park. It helps when you’re not particular about where you go! Flexibility was a key trait in the success of this bucket list trip.
Rocky Mountain National Park is exceptionally protective of the small black bear population living in the area, so they take bear awareness very seriously. I had purchased an Ursack for my bear-proof container, and as it turned out, that was not an approved container since the bears have figured out how to get into them (as I was told by rangers). It’s not an approved container in any of the parks I visited for the whole trip. So it was off to Estes Park Mountain Shop to rent a bear-proof container and then get going on the hike.
I had never hiked this trail before. For as much as I hike in that park, and for how much it feels as comfortable as my backyard, I still have so much more to explore. But this trail? This trail is beautiful. Dense, lush green forests with blankets of wildflowers covering the forest floor, and the sound of the roaring river soothing your soul with each booted step.
There’s a good elevation gain at the start (1,060 ft total), but once you get to the Roaring River/Ypsilon Creek overlook, it’s easy breezy going from there. The hike to Golden Banner is super short, clocking in at only 2.5 miles. It’s perfect for beginners, families, or people with short time schedules.
What I loved most about this site is that it is pretty secluded. It’s off from the main trail with the roaring river in between the trail and the campsite, and there’s only one other campsite in the area with a good buffer of trees between the two. And they share a privy, which is nicer than digging a cat hole in the backcountry.
The sound of the river is perfect white noise to lull you asleep at night, there are plenty of wide open sandy spaces to sprawl out and soak up the sun, and the campsite is large enough that there’s a whole lot of sky to stargaze. While I didn’t see any, there were moose tracks everywhere, too.
I was thrilled to have spent some time, albeit a short amount, in this section of the park and I can’t wait to come back. It felt so freeing in that area.
The next day I packed up my gear around 8am to get out of there in time. Much like hotel stays, National Park backpacking permits require you to leave sites by 10am. It was a little awkward that the next permitted backpackers got there early and just hung out while I packed up. This is something to consider when you have a park permit – showing up early is just as impolite as staying in a site too long.
The hike down was just as gorgeous as the hike up, although search and rescue teams had been deployed to help an injured hiker farther up the trail, creating an ominous feeling and providing a clear reminder that even though RMNP feels safe to me, the Colorado outdoors is inherently risky. My Wilderness First Aid training will only help me so much. I had no idea what happened to this particular hiker, although there was trail chatter about a broken leg from a fall. Each person I hiked passed would ask, “Hey, do you know what happened?” and when I’d reply that I wasn’t near the incident, they’d relay what they heard from other hikers. It was like the outdoor version of telephone.
“As much as I don’t like seeing you on the trail because something has gone terribly wrong, I’m really thankful you’re out here,” I told the second half of the rescue team hiking the litter stretcher up to the injured hiker, with the parking lot full of rangers and ambulances.
I silently hoped I’d be safe for the rest of the trip, far away from home and in Grizzly Country…