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Hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park: Spirit Lake, Fourth Lake and Fifth Lake

East Inlet Meadow
East Inlet Meadow
Deb Stanley

After years of hiking at Rocky Mountain National Park, I have seen most of the destinations wiithin five miles of the trailheads, now it's time to start hiking further into the backcountry. The East Inlet Trail featuring five lakes deep in the backcountry is a great backpacking trip or day hike for people who like long treks.

Fifth Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park
Deb Stanley

To see the chain of five backcountry lakes, start at the East Inlet Trailhead 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 Lake Verna. 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. Another 10 percent or so will likely hike to the Easy Inlet Meadows. But less than 10 percent of these visitors will venture up to the backcountry lakes area.

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 Lake Verna, 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. Suddenly, about a half mile from the trailhead 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 flowing 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 where we stood on a rock slab 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 valley, 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 begins 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 of the cascades 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. On the topo map, this is just listed as "falls." Here the creek is squeezed down into a chute, creating two small waterfalls.

In the next two-mile 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 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.

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

Lone Pine Lake is the first of the five lakes on the East Inlet Trail. "Lone Pine" 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.

After a photo stop, it's back on the East Inlet Trail as it follows the south side of the lake. At the other end of the lake, the trail soon begins its next climb. Here you'll be passing more scenic cascades, crossing several bridges and climbing up the end of this section of the valley. About a half mile from Lone Pine Lake, you'll take a big left turn into the upper part of the East Inlet Valley. However, just before the turn, look right and you should have a nice overview of Lone Pine Lake.

After a photo, head into the upper valley. Here you'll follow a creek-side trail to Lake Verna. Enjoy the views of the mountain range above the creek as you hike the often flower-lined trail. From the turnoff, it's less than a mile to Lake Verna.

Lake Verna is the first of the tree-lined lakes in the upper valley and each has incredible scenery.

Lake Verna has fascinating peaks above tree line on the south side of the lake and to the east is the Continental Divide towering over the end of the upper valley. Lake Verna is so large, it's hard to take a photo with all of the mountain cirque.

As you continue on the trail along the shoreline, you'll pass a sign that warns, "Unimproved trail beyond this point." That means expect places where the trail is faint or non-existent and expect lots of fallen trees that haven't been cleared or cut. As you hike the trail, you may find there are two trails. One in the forest and one closer to the shoreline. We chose the one closer to the shoreline. It had smaller ups and downs and we liked hiking closer to the water.

At the east side of Lake Verna we found a sandy beach. This is a great spot for lunch or just a break as you look down the valley and the entire lake.

Leaving Lake Verna's beach, it's less than a half mile along the trail to the first view of Spirit Lake. Once again, the trail follows the shoreline of the lake giving you plenty of places to stop and enjoy the scenery.

All of the hikers in my group agreed that Spirit Lake was our favorite. Here the peaks above the lake are more jagged and interesting. The scenery is even better than at Lake Verna. While Spirit Lake is smaller than Lake Verna, it's still a large alpine lake and again, the scenery was just incredible here.

As we walked the Spirit Lake shoreline in early August, we stepped into flower-filled meadows, creating nice foreground for our mountain peak photos.

From the east end of Spirit Lake to the first view of Fourth Lake it was again less than a half mile. Fourth Lake is different from Lake Verna and Spirit Lake in that it's in a grassy meadow. The lake is smaller, but it still has some towering mountain peaks above it.

As we left Fourth Lake, we saw a marshy area at the lake's east side. A marshy area filled with purple wildflowers. The trail turns south here, winding around that marshy meadow before turning east again and climbing up the east end of the valley. This area is where the wildflowers were putting on the best show we had seen in the valley. There were Columbine, paint brush, bells, daisies, bistort and so many more.

Here the trail got very faint. We found ourselves following the trampled down plants more than a dirt trail. Part way up the valley, we crossed the stream and luckily found a faint dirt path that went east, then turned south to climb up to Fifth Lake. The dirt trail travels left of the rock-filled gully and to the right of the boulder-filled creek.

About 9.7 miles from the trailhead we arrived at Fifth Lake in a dramatic cirque below the Continental Divide and Isolation Peak. I wish I had words to describe this spectacular place. It's just stunning and a fabulous treat to see it in person. As a friend of mine says, "worth every step."

Details: The hike up the East Inlet valley to Fifth Lake is about 19.4 miles roundtrip, depending on how much exploring you do, with about 3,000 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.

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