Friday, December 11, 2015

Trail crosses Continental Divide in Rockies

The Milner Pass Trail crosses the Continental Divide.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.
Topo Map, Milner Pass Trail.

Route connects
Milner Pass
to Fall River Pass

Day hikers can place their feet on both sides of the Continental Divide when hiking the Milner Pass Trail at Rocky Mountain National Park.

The 4.1-mile one-way trail makes for a long round-trip hike, but the route can be shortened or treated as a point-to-point trail. Because of the high elevation, the road to the trailhead often is closed in winter, so July through September is the narrow window hikers have to hit this route.

To reach the trailhead, from Estes Park drive west on U.S. Hwy. 34/Trail Ridge Road. Park at the Poudre Lake Trailhead at Milner Pass, which sits 10,759 feet above sea level.

The Great Divide
Before beginning the hike, walk the fenced path northeast to Poudre Lake. The lake is the headwaters of the Cache La Poudre River that flows east into the Platte River.

The Continental Divide runs across two continents from the Bering Strait to the Strait of Magellan. All water west of the divide ultimately drains into the Pacific Ocean while water east of it heads into the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea. At Milner Pass, the divide is southwest of the Poudre Lake shore and marked by a large sign. The Milner Pass Trail crosses the Divide three times.

From the parking lot, head south on the narrow but obvious trail that cuts through the grass and evergreens. The route is initially steep as it passes Sheep Rock, which is on the Divide’s Pacific side. After a hairpin turn, the trail gradually veers northeast, recrossing the Divide to its Atlantic side.

At 0.6 miles, the trail reaches a junction with an unmaintained path to Mt. Ida. Continue heading straight/northwest. The terrain quickly levels out as the trail heads through thinning patches of subalpine forest the rest of the way.

In the meadows, Specimen Mountain, at more than 12,400 feet, towers over the north and west side of the Cache La Poudre River. To the south and east are twin 11,880-foot peaks, which Poudre Lake sits at the base of.

Bring a binoculars. Elk and deer often can be spotted in the middle portion of the hike. Bighorn sheep also sometimes can be seen on the mountain slopes while moose sometimes feed in the alpine ponds and meadows.

At two miles from the trailhead, the route reaches Forest Canyon Pass. Widening to the southeast, the canyon is where the headwaters of the Big Thompson River forms.

Several scenic ponds dot the flats. But at Forest Canyon Pass, perhaps the most impressive view requires you to pause and turn around. Never Summer Ridge is now visible in the west. Ten distinct peaks top out at above 12,000 feet in the range.

Open tundra
About three miles from the trailhead, breaks in the treeline allow views of Cache La Poudre River to the north. The trail soon splits; the route on the right heads to Gore Range Overlook, while going left/northeast is the Milner Pass Trail.

For the last 0.6 miles, the trail largely crosses open tundra on a west-facing slope. The grade increases here but is fairly moderate.

About 4.1 miles from Milner Pass, the trail arrives at Alpine Visitor Center. The elevation at the center, which sits along Trail Ridge Road at Fall River Pass, is 11,796 feet.

With these high elevations throughout the trail, always pace yourself and drink plenty of water. Be on constant alert for altitude sickness.

Sometimes this route is referred to as Ute Trail on maps. It technically is part of that trail, of which two disconnected sections exist in the national park.

Learn more about the park's day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at Rocky Mountain National Park guidebook.