Hiking and bouldering at Lower Chaos Canyon in Rocky Mountain National Park

As snowy winter months quickly encroach on my outdoor climbing availability, I have been soaking up as much sunshine and mountain exploration as possible. One of my favorite autumn days was spent hiking and bouldering at Rocky Mountain National Park. Unfamiliar with the area, I was nonetheless pumped with enthusiasm at the opportunity to put my National Parks Pass to use.

The drive to the park took about two hours from downtown Denver, but the ride was enjoyed with a fantastic 80s playlist and a car full of dancing adventurers. I believe there is GoPro evidence of all the roadside merrymaking floating around on a memory card somewhere, but the footage seems to be lost for now. Our route towards the Rockies took us through Estes Park, a touristy mountain town famous for their herds of elk that take over the streets.

We pushed towards the ranger kiosk at the park entrance, exchanged pleasantries as I handed over my parks pass, then wound our way up the mountains towards Bear Lake. With the main parking lot already full of wilderness explorers, we planted the car at an overflow lot, then loaded up with crash pads and gear before waiting for the park shuttle to take us to the trail head. The shuttle ride took about 20 minutes, and the beautiful scenery of yolk colored leaves and rusty red treetops captivated my attention for the entire duration.

The thought of chalky hands and scaling boulders took a backseat as we hiked our way towards Lower Chaos Canyon. Our entire party was in the highest of spirits as we took in the piney sights and chirping sounds. I stalled every few yards to snag photos of my impossibly beautiful surroundings — the boys may have been frustrated with my slow pace, but capturing the moment was worth it.

 

Our mission to find climbing at Lower Chaos Canyon prevented us from having proper time to explore all the different side trails and lookout spots along the Bear Lake area, and I am eager to return for some new discoveries. According to the RMNP Twitter, Bear Lake is currently blanketed under 18 inches of snow – which means no more hiking for me until I invest in some snowshoes. But onward we must trek.

Things really got interesting when we forked away from the main trail and began to head towards our ultimate destination. After a quick scramble through fallen trees and other natural debris, we found ourselves positioned in the middle of an enormous rock bed half buried beneath a wide brook. Easily my favorite part of the adventure, we hopped and clamored along the variously sized boulders that sat between us and the climbs at Lower Chaos Canyon.

During this sloppy traverse, I learned a very important lesson about hiking boots: If you don’t wear your boots for years, then suddenly expect them to perform during a vigorous excursion, you may find yourself with rubber soles hanging limp from the body of your shoes. Admittedly, the last time I wore my hiking boots was about a decade ago during a hike up Mount Rainer, but I was still shocked to find the bottoms separated from the boot after leaping across a boulder. Thankfully, my buddy Rob had duct tape wrapped around his Nalgene, which we unraveled and used to haphazardly repair my shoes.

Finally, we complete our approach and made it to the bouldering area. To be honest, I wasn’t blown away by the quality of climbs in the area, although our lengthy hike in left us with little time to properly check out the crag. We stuck to the first section of routes, warmed up, noshed on beef jerky, and made the best of our remaining daylight.

The sun set sooner than anticipated, and we found ourselves rushed to make our way back to the Bear Lake trail head before darkness fell – and before the final shuttle departed. In a hurry, the return hike seemed to take only a fraction of the approach time. Even in the midst of our efforts to make it in time for the last shuttle, I managed to do what I do best: I made a sweet little chipmunk friend.