Hiking Mount Ida in Rocky Mountain National Park was not a bad way to kick-off a five-week road trip in the West Coast. Although short and easy by Rockies standards, the 9.6-mile hike is not for the faint of heart.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Before any major hike, I get nervous about my skills and potential misadventures that can come my way (and this is normal!). Fortunately, the 27-hour drive from DC to Colorado left me exhausted enough that I had a good night sleep and my adrenaline powered me through the morning tasks.
I stayed at the Historic Rapids Lodge & Restaurant in Grand Lakes – minutes from the Grand Lakes entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park. The door-to-door travel time from the hotel to the trailhead was less than 30 minutes. Because of the potential for afternoon thunder and lightning storms, I started the hike early in the morning (got to the trail at 6:30 AM). Driving to the trailhead at dawn I saw many elk grazing by the side of the road, so drive slowly and stay alert for animals.
The mid-September morning was a little chilly at the trailhead (at over 10,000 feet) but a light jacket was enough to get started. The trail circles Lake Poudre before climbing quickly so I wasn’t cold for long. The hike through the subalpine forest was beautiful and pleasant. At just over a mile I made it above tree line and it was extremely windy. I definitely had to put my mid-layer back on and my windbreaker on top of it. Thankfully, I had layered up in a long sleeve shirt, so I managed to stay warm for the remainder of the hike.
Despite the wind and interspersed ups and downs, the open tundra was one of the most spectacular views I’ve seen. I had only arrived in Colorado the night before and wasn’t acclimated to the altitude, but I drank lots of water on the hike which helped me keep any effects from the altitude at bay.
I’d read from other blogs that the common mistake hikers make when they get to the boulder field right before the summit of Mount Ida is to miss the trail by not going to the right of the boulders (which is a much easier route than scrambling up boulders that I confirmed on my return trip via the trail). I followed the other hikers making this common mistake. Although more challenging, it was part of the fun and experience of hiking this beautiful mountain.
I did start to feel some of the effects of the altitude on the way back down. My face was a little swollen and I was moving a little slower (but that was also from the tiredness of the hike). The full impact of the altitude hit my hiking partner when we made it back under the tree line. Because it was only a mile to the car at that point, we made it safely, had a few snacks, hydrated, and felt better fairly quickly.
The trailhead to Mount Ida starts at Lake Poudre Trailhead at Milner Pass, which is about 15 miles from the Grand Lakes entrance. After a quick circle around the lake, the trail comes to a junction. Veer to the right to continue to Mount Ida. The trail continues to climb through the forest for a mile (and gaining about 600 feet of elevation), then emerges above tree line at the crest of this climb.
While the trail is well-defined, keep in mind there are few trail markers after this point. There are plenty of spectacular views of mountains all-around though. At just under the three mile mark, the trail will split again (a large cairn marks this). Veer to the right to continue to the summit of Mount Ida.
Just over a half-mile away is the base of Mount Ida. It is quite the spectacular view from here. While there are cairns to lead the way to the trail, it is hard to spot them or the trail. I followed the boulder field as many people do. As long as you move upward, you’ll make it to the summit even if you lose the trail.
The summit of Mount Ida (one of the highest in the park), offers majestic, panoramic views of Rocky Mountain National Park. Ida and the other nearby mountains create what looks like a circular base at the bottom of which are two sparkling, aqua green lakes. The view of the lakes alone is enough to make the work to get to the summit of Ida worth it.
I huffed and puffed to the summit and back down because the hike has uphills in both directions. Although most guides indicate the hike takes about 5.5 hours with a short lunch break, it took me 8 hours including the lunch break.
THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND
- Much of the trail is above 11,000 feet, above tree line, and exposed to the elements. Be prepared for rapidly changing weather conditions. Bring the 10 essentials, especially layers of clothing, rain gear, sun protection (sunscreen, sunglasses, and hat), and plenty of food and hydration.
- The terrain near the summit is rocky, especially if you make the common mistake of traveling through the boulder field. Make sure to have a first aid kit in case there is an injury to the ankle and know basic self-rescue skills.
- A few parts of the trail have steep drop-offs and exposure, but the trail through the area offers plenty of room. I never felt scared but be prepared with the information nonetheless.
- Afternoon storms are real, dangerous and happen routinely on Mount Ida as with many peaks at high altitude in the Rockies. Hike early and plan to be under the tree line before noon. Because much of this trail is exposed there is no cover from lightning during a storm. I have experienced lightning on an exposed summit before and it is not only terrifying but absolutely dangerous (I got lucky enough to not get injured and tell the tale).
GEAR FOR THE HIKE
- Moisture-wicking base layer and mid layer
- Rain jacket
- Down jacket (even in the summer)
- Sturdy, comfortable, and quick drying shoes
- Merino wool (or some other moisture-wicking and quick-drying) socks
- Extra pair of socks
- Day Pack
- Large enough to pack the 10 essential items, hydration, and food
- Rain cover
- Trekking Poles (handy for traveling through the rocky terrain near the summit)
The trailhead (coordinates: 40.4203, -105.8114) is at Milner Pass about 15 miles from the Grand Lake entrance and 4 miles from the Alpine Visitor Center.
Lake Poudre and Mount Ida are popular hikes in the Rocky Mountain National Park, so parking can be limited (and parking along the road is not allowed – you will be ticketed and towed).
There are no amenities at the trailhead.