Rugged paths lead to the best views.
But if you’re new to the Rocky Mountain wilderness, it can feel intimidating or downright scary to grab a backpack and venture into the mountain terrain.
Even with a guidebook and GPS, it’s easy to take a wrong turn. If you’re unfamiliar with the trails, you don’t know which might be closed or the significance of different landmarks and vegetation. Not to mention the scat and scratch marks on trees; unless you’re trained in wilderness survival, you probably don’t know the warning signs for black bears and mountain lions.
That’s why guided hikes exist. Not only for practical reasons -- these guides know how to get you there and back safely -- but also for fun. Trail guides are typically trained on the vegetation, animals and history of the area, and can teach you something, while you get some exercise, too.
One of the newest outdoor programs is the REI Basecamp, which opened this summer, out of the famous Stanley Hotel in Estes Park. This is REI’sfirst outdoor program in the world, and this is its first year.
Here’s how program representatives explain it: “Imagine if a hotel created an adventure concierge; stocked it full of expert local guides and master outdoorsman; gave them their own base camp on-property; filled that camp with top-of-the-line equipment; and opened it to guests and the general public.”
You don’t have to be a guest at the Stanley to take advantage of the program.
More than 100,000 people stay at and visit the Stanley every year. It’s a giant mansion (which also claims to be haunted and was featured in Stephen King’s “The Shining”).
The program features a long list of activities in both the winter and the summer, from hikes to survival and First Aid training -- all kinds of guided, educational outings.
You’ll find daily hikes and speciality classes, such as “How to Climb a Fourtneener” and “Phone Photography.” Or sign up for camp cooking classes with respected chefs or relaxed campfire socials.
“The Stanley’s focus to be a health and wellness center complements how the co-op and REI Outdoor School inspire an outdoor lifestyle,” said John Sheppard, REI divisional vice president of Outdoor Programs, in a written statement. “From day outings that give hikers a fresh perspective about one of the country’s beloved national parks to sessions where participants can master the art of s’more making at a roaring campfire, we look forward to offering classes and events for all outdoor interests.”
Pick an event that matches your interests and schedule and meet at the big, outdoor REI tent in front of the hotel. Beforehand, your confirmation email will include what to wear and pack, so you won’t show up unprepared.
At the tent, experts will check your gear and fill in the holes if needed (such as providing trekking poles, if you need a pair but didn’t pack one). Then, hop in a shuttle that drives you straight to the national park -- thereby circumventing the need to buy a park pass, maneuver your vehicle on the winding, narrow roads and find parking (which, on busy weekends, can be quite literally impossible).
The van drops you right at the trailhead, and the trained guide leads the way to the destination. Some trails are popular hikes, whereas others are a little less known. Some hikes wind around waterfalls, or explore one of the park’s oldest trails through a thick forest. Our favorite is the intermediately difficult hike to Lake Haiyaha.
The Lake Haiyaha hike
It starts on a well-known and well-trodden path that winds up to Nymph Lake, but as the nearly four-mile path continues up higher elevation -- with an ultimate elevation gain of 865 feet -- the crowds thin out. By the time you reach the sprawling Lake Haiyaha (which means “boulders” and is named for the large boulders that stack the shores), you’re one of only a handful of hikers left -- if you’re not completely alone.
On the banks of this beautiful, mountain-lined lake stands the Rocky Mountain National Park’s oldest tree.
Along the hike, you can also get perfect views of Long’s Peak, one of the Front Range’s most beloved Fourteeners (mountains that surpass 14,000 feet in elevation) -- even the back side of Long’s, which is a rare view. The lake itself sprawls out at the base of Chaos Canyon.
Also, hikers can’t miss Hallett Peak and Otis Peak (and you won’t miss them, because the guide will point them out).
With the REI hike, you are provided a gourmet sandwich lunch, which participants refuel on at the lake, before heading back down. The descent is always the hardest part, but at least it goes quicker.