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Hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park: East Inlet Trail to Lone Pine Lake

East Inlet Trail
East Inlet Trail
Deb Stanley

When I look at my highlighted map of Rocky Mountain National Park marking the trails I have explored, there's been one big gap -- East Inlet.

Lone Pine Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park
Lone Pine Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park
Deb Stanley

Lots of blogs and articles rave about the beauty of the lakes, meadows, wildflowers and scenery here, so it was finally time to make the commitment.

Why is East Inlet a commitment? Because while it is home to a string of five beautiful lakes, you have to hike a minimum of 11 miles roundtrip just to see the first lake. Tack on another two miles or so if you want to see the second lake and so on. For most visitors I talked to on the trail the goal is simple -- "the first lake" is what many told me. The first lake is Lone Pine Lake.

The East Inlet Trail is near Grand Lake in the town of Grand Lake on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park (directions below). While you'll be hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park, there's no fee or park pass required to hike here.

Depending on what time you arrive, expect the parking lot to be packed. Don't worry, all those visitors aren't going to Lone Pine Lake. I'd say 80 percent of the visitors are there to visit Adams Falls, a nice waterfall that can be seen in a hike of about 0.6 miles roundtrip. It's a hike I took my own dad on several years ago. Now, it was time to see more.

From the trailhead, start on the dirt path lined with decorative fencing. Just a short distance away, the trail begins to climb a bit as it enters the forest. About 0.3 miles from the trailhead is the first signed turnoff for Adams Falls. A short distance away, there's second signed turnoff for the same loop trail. For those heading to Lone Pine Lake, continue going up the trail.

As you hike through the trees here you'll notice that while there are a few dead trees here, most look much healthier than those around Grand Lake.

After hiking about a half mile through the forest, we got out first glimpse of the East Inlet Valley and the East Inlet meadow. This is a beautiful spot -- lush grasses surround a stream running through this forest-lined meadow.

After a quick photo stop, we continued on, knowing we'd see more of the meadow as hiked. One of the best views came at 1.25 miles from the trailhead when we stood on a rock slap between the trail and the meadow and soaked in the views of the incredibly, scenic valley. One hiker said he always see moose or deer or elk in the meadow, but they weren't visible on the afternoon we visited.

One writer said the first two miles of the hike are fairly flat. With a heavy backpacking pack, I strongly disagreed with his assessment of the trail. However, my GPS registered just about 275 feet of elevation gain in the first two miles of the trail. Though there were some small ups and downs in that first two miles.

After crossing the first bridge at two miles in, the trail began to climb above the meadows and valley. Soon you'll notice the trail getting thinner because it's been cut into the rock walls. And then there's the stairs. A big thank you to the trail workers who have done so much work along this trail, but those stairs can be tough as you climb up the East Inlet Trail. One ranger said he had only gone as far as the "Devil's Staircase" on the East Inlet Trail. Quite honestly, I'm not sure which of the staircases that was, because there were a lot of them!

Thank goodness the scenery here is breathtaking. When you need a break -- stop and admire the valley, admire the trail work and examine the rock walls. Every so often you may hear the loud roar of a gushing waterfall below you. Most can not be seen without an off-trail, and possibly dangerous, adventure.

However, about 3.5 miles from the trailhead, the rock steps drop about 100 feet in elevation and make a big left turn at the creek. Take a few steps off-trail and you should spot one or two cascades. Here the creek is squeezed down into a chute, creating two small waterfalls. On the topo map, this is just listed as "falls."

After taking a break here, it was time to hike the last two miles to Lone Pine Lake. At this point, you've conquered about 750 feet of elevation gain and you've got about that much more to do.

In this next section of trail, you'll be hiking in the forest, crossing several bridges and you should see a few nice cascades. Watch for signs as you hike and you should spot the turnoffs for the Cats Lair and Gray Jay backcountry campsites.

Soon after the Gray Jay camp, the trail turns right, then left through an avalanche area. Look around you. You should see the remnants of a powerful avalanche -- a large area where trees were snapped 1-2 feet of the ground and piles of debris.

Finally, 5.5 miles from the trailhead, there's one more important sign along the trail -- it says Lone Pine Lake.

You've made it! Lone Pine Lake refers to the rock island a short distance from the shoreline. Nowadays it has nearly a dozen pine trees on it, but I guess at some point it had just one.

There's a large rock outcropping between the sign and the lake that makes a great picnic spot for lunch and maybe even a nap. After a break, you should consider walking a little further along the lake shore.

If you have extra energy, consider hiking up the valley another half mile or so to a viewpoint overlooking the lake or hiking another 1.2 miles from Lone Pine Lake to Lake Verna. But be aware, there's 5.5 miles back to the trailhead with another 335 feet of elevation gain on the way out.

Details: The hike to Lone Pine Lake and back is about 11 miles roundtrip with 1835 feet of elevation gain.

In the area, don't miss Crater and Mirror Lakes, the North Inlet Trail to Cascade Falls and Timber Lake. Find more great hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park and across Colorado in this list of 200+ hikes across the state. Don't miss any of my trip reports, sign up for an email alert by clicking on subscribe at the top of this page and follow me on Facebook.

Directions: From I-70, take the U.S. 40/Winter Park exit. Travel over Berhtoud Pass, through Winter Park and Granby. At the west sid eof Granby, turn right on Highway 34 to Grand Lake. At Grand Lake, turn on West Portal Road. Remain on West Portal Road 2.35 miles to the East Inlet Trailhead, just across from the boat launch on Grand Lake.