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North Inlet Trail, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

North Inlet Trail
Photo by Ladybugblue via flickr used through creative commons license

Rocky Mountain National Park offers many scenic trails for the enrichment of the visitor. The North Inlet Trail, located on the west side of the Rocky Mountain National Park, offers visitors a grand view of lakes, forest and mountains while offering campsites along the way. Beginning in the subalpine ecosystem around Grand Lake, the trail gradually climbs upward. Below the timberline, waterfalls, thick coniferous forest and a rushing creek border most of the trail. Above the timberline the trail passes through exposed tundra. The length of the mail trail is 11.5 miles, and arrives at the destination of Flattop Mountain or lakes Nokoni and Nanita. Built of earth, local rock and wood, and allowing views of North Inlet, Summerland Park, Big Pool, Cascade Falls, Hallett Creek, Lake Nokoni, Lake Nanita, and Flattop Mountain, the North Inlet Trail is considered part of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. Sharing a trailhead with the Tonahutu Creek Trail, which starts at 8,500 feet, the North Inlet Trail does follow the actual North Inlet as far as North Inlet Junction. From there, the trail turns northeast into the drainage of Hallett Creek and ascends the Continental Divide. Backcountry campsites are located all along the way, including Summerland Park, various spots along the inlet, the junction with the trail to Lake Nokoni and Lake Nanita, and the small park on Hallett Creek just at the timberline. Only the exposed section of trail above timberline has no backcountry camping sites.

[Photo] Bighorn ram on North Inlet Trail at 12,000 feet
Photo by George Ulrich flickr used through creative commons license

Historically important for its association with recreation and landscape architecture, the trail design reflects National Park Service (NPS) Naturalistic Design of the 1920s through the 1940s, specifically in the improvement of the trail design of NPS architect Allsion van V. Dunn and trail creek supervisor Bert L. Moses. Arapaho tribal elders stated in 1914 they did not use this trail, but used instead the Tonahutu Trail, but it is likely the Ute and other Native Americans did. In 1868, a party led by Major Wesley Powell and a group of students and associates climbed up to Longs Peak following the drainage of the North Inlet. By the end of the 19th century, tourism blossomed around Grand Lake and lodge owners desired a pathway for their guests. In 1897 they cleared seven miles of trail along the North Inlet, initiating two decades of tourist industry-managed maintenance on the route. In 1915 the newly formed Rocky Mountain national park assumed responsibility for the North Inlet Trail. In 1926 the park initiated an improvement project that lasted until 1931, working on every section of the trail below timberline. In 1929, Allison van V. Dunn, a NPS landscape architect with trail building experience at Carlsbad Caverns, oversaw the final years of the North Inlet Trail’s reconstruction. Dunn staked out a new rote and showed the crew how switchbacks were to be built. In 1939, a Civilian Conservation Corps unit received instructions to eliminate certain small switchbacks, install footbridge/ford combinations at creek crossings, and keep the grade below 15 percent when possible. This work perpetuated NPS Naturalistic Design-and reinforced a trail that has survived, relatively unchanged, until the present. This trail offers the easiest climb over the Continental Divide within Rocky Mountain National Park.

Sections of the Trail
Photo from National Register of Historic Places collection

The trail starts out flat along a dirt road for a mile before narrowing into open, grassy Summerland Park, remaining flat for another mile. Now at about 8,600 feet, the trail gradually ascends through the timber for the next 4.7 miles, closely following the inlet a sit swoops northeast, then east, and then southeast. Crossing only tributary creeks and coming close enough to the inlet to see Cascade Falls and Big Pool, this section ends at 9, 200 feet. North Inlet Junction marks the end of this junction, bringing travelers to a cluster of backcountry campsites. From this junction, a new trail marks a direct route to Lake Nokoni and then Lake Nanita. The North Inlet Trail turns northeast at the North Inlet Junction, climbing away from the actual inlet and skirting above Hallett Creek. The pathway becomes abruptly steeper and hemmed in by trees. Extensive, long rock walls support several sharp switchbacks. At a point 2.2 miles further and 1,600 feet higher, the trail reaches a little peak just below timberline. The park harbors a corral and several backcountry sites. The trail then moves along the trees and up more steep switchbacks on the southeast side of the park. The switchbacks are steep and the altitude, ranging from 10,600 feet to almost 12,000 feet before the trail jogs back along the eastern rim, heading north for 2.2 miles toward the junction with Flattop Trail and the Tonahutu Creek Trail on the Continental Divide. Large and evenly spaced cairns mark the way, intended to make the route as obvious as possible when dense clouds settle upon the mountains. The end of the North Inlet Trail is only half-way to the end of any trip. Here, at Bigfoot Flats, the hiker or rider has three choices: return to Grand Lake along the North Inlet Trail; take the Flattop Trail spilling down toward the east side of the Continental Divide toward Estes Park; or take the Tonahutu Trail wrapping north and west to finish back at Grand Lake. At over 12,000 feet, the crossroads represents a major passing area of prehistoric and historic travelers and recreational hikers. The North Inlet Trail was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on March 5, 2008 and is part of the Rocky Mountain National Park Multiple Property Submission which covers the manmade historic sites in the park.

Read our entire file on this property: North Inlet Trail

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