I’ve made it a point to seek out the “Deep Cuts” from the Rocky Mountain National Park “Discography” this summer. Getting beyond the well-known, ”Greatest Hits of the Rocky Mountain National Park” tracks like Sky Pond and Long’s Peak. I’m trying to discover the hidden gems.
There are several “off-the-beaten-path” paths that are still officially maintained by the National Park Service. They’re just not tops on many internet listicles because they’re longer or less accessible. Visitors to the Rocky Mountain Park usually don’t get around to these sorts of trails. At least not until they’ve exhausted many of the other, more popular options. And without a doubt, such second-tier trails have been a part of this summer of seeking out the Deep Cuts. In this vein, I’m thinking particularly of my hikes to Bridal Veil Falls… Balanced Rock… Lawn Lake and the Crystal Lakes… a mix-and-match loop around Moraine Park and Cub Lake…
But the true Deep Cuts are the ones that don’t even have official trails. The geographic features are still listed on maps of the Rocky Mountain National Park. And they’re all public lands, open to ramble. Sketchy internet information might be available for a few of these random destinations. And you might possibly suss out some faint desire paths, if you’re lucky. But mostly, to get to these places, you have to blaze your own trails.
It’s been a fun process of discovery. So, I want to catalogue the discoveries for my own reference. While I’m at it, why not share these discoveries with others who might want to try some new hiking destinations? Consequently, I’m going to list some of these Deep Cuts below. I’m going to give each an Obscurity Rating and a Quality Rating (on a scale of 1 to 10), along with a few notes on each.
Obscurity Rating: 9.0
Quality Rating: 5.5
I’ve never heard of a single person who has attempted Beaver Mountain — even though it’s pretty central to the park. So, that racks up the Obscurity Points. But there is one trail, called the Beaver Mountain Trail, that takes you up at least part of the way. And from there, the “path” to the summit is bushwhacking over a bunch of deadwood and up some surprisingly steep sections to get to the top. It ended up being a lovely loop hike, with views of both the continental divide and the Mummy Range… But it probably doesn’t land in my RMNP Top Ten. Mostly because of all that bushwhacking and a payoff at the top that was not as great as other comparable hikes.
Lightning Peak and Thunder Peak
Obscurity Rating: 8.0
Quality Rating: 7.0
I learned about this hike in a binder at the YMCA of the Rockies’ Boone Mountain Center. So, it’s not like “uncharted territory” or anything like that. But I’ve spent four summers that I’ve spent basically at the foot of these two mountains. Still, I’ve never heard of another person making an attempt at them. So I decided Lightning Peak and Thunder Peak would be perfect hiking destinations when I was on the tail end of a mild case of COVID! And indeed, I didn’t see another soul, as I rambled free of trails, orienteering by geological features.
This area provided for some very pleasant hiking, in any event. And there were some pretty impressive views from the top, as well. After summiting both peaks and coming half-way down Thunder Peak, a genuine thunderstorm rolled in: with lightning, thunder, hail, and rain. Not scary or uncomfortable; just kind of neat that the elements matched the names of the peaks.
Ram’s Horn Mountain + Teddy’s Teeth
Obscurity Rating: 7.0
Quality Rating: 3.5
There are two ways to get to the top of Ram’s Horn Mountain, along with its dramatic rocky cliffs known as Teddy’s Teeth. Both are pretty obscure, and I’ve done them both this summer. But going up the East side of the mountain is definitely the most obscure. Maybe even illegal (as there are numerous signs posted by the homeowner’s association, discouraging hikers from passing through their neighborhood). The West side is a much more pleasant hike, for whatever it’s worth (probably a 7.0 Quality Rating and a 5.0 Obscurity Rating from that side). But I’m ranking the more obscure approach here, and it really doesn’t amount to a very nice hike. Once you get to the trail that runs up to the top of Ram’s Horn Mountain, though, hikers are greeted with beautiful ridge line views and cliffs, without extravagant physical effort.
Steep Mountain via the South Lateral Moraine
Obscurity Rating: 8.5
Quality Rating: 6.5
I’ve never heard of anyone else attempting this hike. Still, I decided to try it because it was there: within striking distance of our home base at the YMCA of the Rockies. The walk along the ridge of the South Lateral Moraine is legitimately lovely, with light tree cover providing abundant views of Moraine Park and the Mummy Range off to the right and views of Long’s Peak and the Continental Divide off to the left. But when it came to Steep Mountain, itself… Yikes, Steep Mountain lived up to its name and was not fun for the last 500 feet of elevation gain. Fortunately, things leveled off and opened up again towards the summit. And the most remarkable thing about the view from the top was a panoramic (and up-close) view of the damage from the forest fire that came through this area in 2020.
Solitude Lake and Shelf Lake
Obscurity Rating: 6.5
Quality Rating: 9.5
Solitude Lake and Shelf Lake were the primary “Deep Cut” destinations on a hike that included five lakes — and they really ended up being some of the most delightful surprises of the whole summer! They are truly spectacular lakes, and my hiking group had them completely to ourselves for over an hour.
Solitude is the larger of the two lakes, and it’s pretty impressive, at the mouth of the an intimidating (and echoing) gorge. But I personally thought that Shelf was the better “bop.” I literally yelled, out loud, “A waterfall?!?!” when I climbed over the last ridge to see the dramatic waterfalls flowing down from Solitude Lake into Shelf Lake. The deep, arctic blue of the snow and ice melting beside the waterfall was mesmerizing, too.
The day we visited, we were in and out of clouds the whole time, which accentuated the magical effect of these “secret” lakes. They’re not as obscure as some of the other destinations on this list (it’s even possible to find some maps that show the unofficial route away from the National Park Service trails, straight up a steep hill (hands-and-feet scrambling). But still, it seems like it’s only the hard-core hikers that ever visit these lakes.
Obscurity Rating: 9.0
Quality Rating: 9.5
The name says it all: Desolation Peaks. Emptiness. Isolation. My friend Tim did a lot of the research for this hike, and he described the views approaching these mountains as “evil spires of rock.” Talk about intimidation!
The names of these sister peaks appear on many maps, but paths to and through the labyrinth of sharp, slanted rock are far harder to come by. And when Tim and I made it to the site, they proved to be two of the gnarliest mountain peaks I’ve ever climbed. The gnarliest feature of all might have been the spiky “saddle” between the two peaks! It was intense. More rock-climbing than hiking for that last mile. I actually felt scared for my life, on the exposed edges of West Desolation and the saddle towards East Desolation. But at the end, I was super-proud to have done this “deep cut” hike, after surviving the experience!
If you have any Deep Cuts of your own that you’d be willing to share, I’d love to hear about them. It’s a special privilege to be able to deeply explore such a beautiful place!