This post was written by Eric after a quick solo adventure on New Year’s Eve 2020.
Sometimes when I hike, it’s easy to get so focused on the planned destination that I just put my head down and grind through the miles on the approach, paying little attention to the beauty along the way. So on New Year’s Eve a few months back, I set out on a hike with the specific intention not to reach any particular landmark on the Long’s Peak trail. I knew that I didn’t have the experience or gear to attempt a winter summit of the trail’s namesake on my own, nor did I intend to try to cross the steep ridge over to Chasm Lake without much knowledge of the conditions. I just wanted to get some miles in on a snowy trail through the woods, and pop above the tree line for as long as the typically blustery winter conditions would allow.
Below are some pictures from an absolute treat of a hike—the weather was perfect. Though the temperature was in the single digits at the trailhead, there was almost *no* wind, which again, can be quite rare on the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park during the winter months. The trail was generally well-packed, so snowshoes were not required (yak tracks were helpful). It was also wonderful to be nearly alone on one of the busiest 14er trails in all of Colorado; a stark contrast from the parade of headlamps that ascend through the early morning darkness during peak “summit season.” With no objective to achieve, I was able to just soak in the incredible surroundings and be more present for the entire adventure.
I hope to build on this memorable experience and take a “destinationless” approach to hiking more often throughout the year.
A Trip Report from Eric’s hike on CCY Route in July 2020
Chapin, Chiquita and Ypsilon summits
Last month, I got to take an early morning hike on a route that I’d been looking forward to for a long time: the “CCY Route” in Rocky Mountain National Park. The “CCY” stands for Chapin, Chiquita and Ypsilon, three prominent summits in the Mummy range in the north-central section of the park. Easy access to this hike is only available for a few months out of the year due to the trailhead location, which is several miles up Old Fall River Road. Alltrails.com lists the route as 8.9 miles round-trip, with 3,244 feet of total elevation gain. However, it’s important to note that this hike is above the tree-line for the majority of the journey, and much of the terrain is considered to be Class II rock hopping.
CCY Trailhead and Where to Park for CCY Route
An early start here is important for two reasons. First, as always, any time spent above the tree line in the summer in RMNP is best done earlier in the day before afternoon thunderstorms pop up. But second, this trailhead has very limited parking available along the side of Fall River Road, only enough for maybe 12-15 vehicles. I arrived at 5:25am and was the third car there, so had plenty of space. But as I was making the switchbacks in the dark, I was thinking what my backup hike might be, and Mount Ida crossed my mind—this is another summit on my list that also requires a journey up either Fall River Road or Trail Ridge Road from Estes Park, and it does have substantially more parking at the Continental Divide/Poudre Lake trailhead. But anyway, on to the adventure…
I had a headlamp in my pack, but there was just enough light to proceed without it as I started my hike. Just a few minutes in, you reach a clearly marked junction that directs you to the right for the CCY summits, rather than continuing on the main trail to Chapin Pass.
From here the path becomes far steeper, ascending several rock “steps” to break through the trees to the edge of the tundra. At around the .6-mile mark, another trail split appears, and the sign guides to the right for “all summits.”
I’d read that actually either way would work here but decided to follow the sign and continue on the path to Mount Chapin. At this point, the sun was starting to rise, but was hidden from my view, being on the western slopes of these three mountains. Still though, the views looking back were beautiful!
The route to Mount Chapin is easy to follow from here, despite a few small “rock crossings” along the way.
Just past the 1.5 mile mark, a side trial heads straight up to the summit of Mount Chapin, gaining approximately 400 feet of elevation in less than half a mile. The trail is faint in places, so I found myself just trying to stay on the rocks (avoiding stepping on the wildflowers!) and just generally heading up. The views at the top were great!
I didn’t stay long on Chapin’s summit, because the wind was absolutely howling, and I knew that I had two more to go, with plenty of “up and down” along the way. After retracing my way back down to the main trail, I started up the slope of Mount Chiquita.
The combination of wind, terrain, and even the bright sun ahead (hard to look up and track the route) made this section of the hike somewhat of a grind, as the route gains over 1,000 feet of elevation over the course of a mile to reach the summit at 13,069 feet. There are a few wind shelters built of rocks around the summit, which can provide a needed reprieve. It was hard to capture great photos shooting right into the sun, but the views were again great, as you could also see several of the lower-elevation lakes below.
From the summit of Chiquita, the trail is faintly marked, so I just followed what I felt was the most efficient route down to the saddle between Chiquita an Ypsilon, losing around 300 feet of elevation. The third and final summit was a bit deceptive. The terrain isn’t too tricky, and you can try to follow the occasional cairns that are placed along the way, but the true summit is hidden from view for a good portion of the ascent, which gains 700+ feet along the way.
I don’t think I carved the best path up the mountain, but eventually made my way to the top at 13,514 feet, where I joined 3 other hikers that had been ahead of me all morning. We all had a nice visit, taking in the views, and enjoying miraculously still conditions given how windy it had been just an hour or so earlier. I took a quick video of the sights:
On the way back down, rather than re-summiting Chiquita, I followed a faint path around the edge of the mountain, heading directly towards the saddle between Chiquita and Chapin. The wildflowers were particularly spectacular on this portion of the hike.
When I made it back to the saddle, I decided to follow the “other” option back towards the trailhead, which dipped slightly lower along the mountain. It was nice to see this section of trail rather than re-tracing my steps, but I also got to see some elk grazing in the valley below.
I made it back to the trailhead with a total time of four hours and 36 minutes, according to my Garmin watch that tracked my adventure. Below is a map of my route, showing the two splits I described (“to all summits” early on, to the right, and then the “Chiquita cutoff” on the way back).
I was trying to make relatively good time, as Kelly had let me slip away for this one by myself, and was back at our cabin with the girls waiting on me to go grab lunch. It was a great adventure, and a nice challenge. The class two terrain made me wish I would have brought my trekking poles for the decent(s), but other than that, I finished in great spirits and was thrilled to have had the chance to pick up three more RMNP summits all in one day. I’d definitely like to revisit this one again in the future!
This hike is ‘in the middle of nowhere’ according to my 5-year-old. In reality, Black Canyon trailhead is in the Lumpy Ridge area of Rocky Mountain National Park. The drive is less than 10 minutes from downtown Estes Park, Colorado.
Here is a map of the Lumpy Ridge trails. Lumpy Ridge trailhead begins at 7,840 ft of elevation, I believe that’s the lowest trailhead elevation in Rocky Mountain National Park.
I agree with my daughter that it feels remote here. That is probably because we didn’t see many other hikers on the trail.
If I were going to buy land someday, my dream would be for it to have a similar landscape. I find the wide-open views and rugged rock formations uniquely inspiring. Drinking coffee and looking out at this view every morning… that’s worth dreaming about. Right!?
According to AllTrails.com, this hike is 15.5 miles out and back. The trail will take you all the way to Lawn Lake.
Fifteen miles is obviously longer than we would expect to hike with young kids, so we set out with the expectation to turn around when everyone was feeling tired. The girls both did great. At 3.7 miles roundtrip, we hiked substantially farther than our first hike here. We are making progress!
We spotted wild turkeys in the grass. Farther down the trail we saw a coyote or fox (we should have brought binoculars). Lucky for the turkeys, I don’t think their paths crossed.
Between spotting animals, climbing on rocks and trees, and taking in the mountain scenery, I could not have asked for a better morning in Rocky Mountain National Park. I’m thankful for time spent ‘in the middle of nowhere’ with my favorite people.
Don’t you love a great backup plan? Our original plan for the day was to hike to Dream Lake, but when we arrived at the Bear Lake parking lot at 7:45 am it was already full. We started driving back down the mountain and found that Glacier Gorge parking was also full and so was Bierdstand Lake. We pulled into the Hollowell Park area hoping we could find a spot. We were relieved to find several parking spaces available.
On a previous trip, we hiked to the Mill Creek Basin and turned around to return the way we came. On this occation, we hiked a loop around Mill Creek Basin and then connected back up with the trail to return to the Hollowell Park trailhead.
Hike to Mill Creek Basin
The first section of the trail takes you through an open valley with views of Longs Peak. This could be a hot section of the trail during summer afternoons, but soon the path wraps around into a wooded area and follows along side Mill Creek.
We enjoyed the solitude this hike offered. Over the course of four miles, we passed less than a dozen fellow hikers.
Besides some minor complaints during a couple of the uphill sections on the trail, our 5-year-old walked the trail on her own with a great attitude. Our 3-year-old rode in her kid carrier.
A variety of wildflowers bloomed near Mill Creek and in the open fields.
Wilderness Camping at Mill Creek Basin
Half way through the hike (or 2 miles from the trailhead) we crossed into the Mill Creek Basin. There are two wilderness camping spots available in the Mill Creek Basin. The National Park Service offers a map of all the wilderness campsites in the Bear Lake area including Mill Creek Basin. Additional information about permits and regulations can be found on the national park service’s website.
If you are looking for a backup plan hike, a hike that’s less crowded, or a hike with gorgeous wildflowers, I highly recommend giving this loop around Mill Creek Basin a shot. Let me know if you do and what you think!
Want a bigger challenge? This trail connects to several popular destinations in the park including Cub Lake, Bear Lake, and Bierstadt Lake.
Trekking poles – I wish we would have brought trekking poles for the steep downhill section of this trail through the elm trees. I typically don’t have knee issues, but sometimes hiking downhill is hard on my joints and I think the poles help absorb the extra pressure. Trekking poles also come in handy if there are any snowy patches along the trail.