Rocky Mountain: North Inlet/Tonahutu Creek Loop

Three days, two nights, 28 miles, 6000 feet of gain. What an adventure. Parts were terrifying, parts were so exhausting, parts were depressing, but most of all, it was exhilarating.

We took off from Grand Lake at about 10:30 on Friday morning. The first seven miles had a gradual incline. This was perfect, as it gave us time to adjust to our heavy packs. It was the first time of the summer we’ve had to carry them and it definitely took adjustments to make sure they were positioned in a way to cause as little pain as possible. That’s not to say it was comfortable. Anything but. When you’re carrying your home, bed, and all the food for a few days, it’s heavy!

One of the final miles was a steep switchback area. It was really challenging for us all. We had already been hiking for hours and the added weight made it difficult. We finally got up those 1000 or so feet and had a more gradual ascent to our campsite. Zoe and I had a second burst of energy so went ahead to start setting up tents. Ellie and Zak were a few minutes behind us.

We were just about done setting up camp, when Zoe exclaimed, “MOOSE!” About forty feet away from us were two gigantic bull moose. I’ve read enough Gary Paulsen books to know that being freaked out is an appropriate response. They were both munching away on the grasses near our tents. One at a time, they’d look up at us, establish mutual respect, and keep eating. I couldn’t get over how huge their antlers are. I’m shocked they can keep balance and don’t tip forward and fall over all the time. They slowed gnawed their way closer to us, never being spooked by us. They hung out for about an hour. It was just magical to be a part of their evening.

It stormed overnight and everything was wet when we woke up. We attached the wet stuff to the outside of our packs hoping it would dry as the day went on. That was a cute idea.

The morning hiking started with an incredible incline, and views. As we made our way upward the skies slowly darkened. We had planned on summiting Flattop and Hallett, but decided to cancel those plans with the skies. We were about 600 feet and 1.2 miles from the summit of Hallett and only 150 feet and 0.3 of a mile from the summit of Flattop. It was hard to be soooo close to the summits, but not do them.

We snapped a few pics at the saddle and turn toward the trail. All four of us gasped. I have never seen a storm stampeding so quickly. It was like those time lapse photos of storms moving in, but that fast speed was the real life speed. We hoped to get as low as possible before it hit us. Within minutes the rain started and just minutes after that, the downpour was ferocious. The thunder was getting closer and we realized we weren’t going to make it low enough.

We decided the best place to be was in a tent, protected by the lightning protection they can provide. In the downpour, completely drenched, and absolutely freezing, we threw up a tent. The process took a few minutes and lightning struck scarily close at one point. We all screamed, both girls started crying, and Zak and I hastily ushered them into the tent, with me following. Zak stabilized the tent and we huddled close together in the center. If lighting struck the poles, we were not touching anything metal, so hoped we’d be okay. Another strike happened incredibly close and the fear in both girls eyes is not something I ever wanted to see. Over the next few minutes, we timed the period between lightning and thunder and realized the storm was moving past us. The rain continued for a long time, but the thunder had moved beyond us. We were all shivering and there was a break in the rain, so Zak got out of the tent and grabbed us warmer clothes from our packs. Through the door we saw round two of the storm approaching.

Sure enough, the rain started to plummet again, but all the thunder was east of us. After an hour in the tent, the rained had slowed enough and we decided we should move on, try to get below treeline before any more storms came in. We were all drenched, head to toe, and it was so cold. My fingers were numb by the coldness and none of us could get warm. We swore (mostly me) as we chucked our heavy packs onto our backs again.

The rest of the hike was downhill, but it wasn’t easy. We were tired, stressed, and hungry (none of felt like eating lunch during the storm.) We didn’t make it to our campsite until 5 and were all exhausted! We all rested, ate an early dinner, and we’re in tents for bed before sunset.

This morning we got back up early, filtered  water, and were on the trail before 9. We had a little over 8 miles to do and it was mostly downhill. The miles dragged on, but we were back to the car just after noon. What a heck of a trip it was!

Most of the first and all of the last day was through the burn of the East Troublesome fire in October of 2020. This fire burned 30,000 acres, about 10% of the park, and was the largest fire in the park’s history. What we hiked through was devastating. We could still smell the smoky ash. It really was just so sad. But, once we looked past the burnt tree stumps, we noticed the forest floor was just covered with beautiful wildflowers that wouldn’t have had as much sun to flourish otherwise. We noticed teeny, tiny new pine growth. Animals we’re clearly still living and thriving in their altered environment. The forest was still very much alive. Nature is just magnificent. Unfortunately, the fire was caused by humans and nature shouldn’t have to go through all this work to rebuild itself from human foolishness.

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