DATE OF HIKE: 10/24/2015
ELEVATION AT TRAILHEAD: 8,940′
ELEVATION AT SUMMIT: 10,013′
TOTAL ELEVATION GAIN: 1,210′
ROUND TRIP LENGTH: 6.2 miles (out and back)
DIFFICULTY LEVEL: Moderate (Family & tourist friendly from late spring to early fall.)
When you arrive at the trailhead for Deer Mountain Trail (DMT) you may look up the 1,210 feet of elevation gain to the summit and think twice about your trail decision. But don’t despair! The trail’s numerous switchbacks make for a pleasant adventure without too much exertion.
Knowing that parking would be limited we headed out bright and early. We stopped to pick up sandwiches in Estes Park, and the woman making them remarked at how smart we were to head out when there was snow on the mountains. “I don’t know why everyone is always clamoring to go up there in the summer,” she said, “It’s ten times as beautiful when snow is on the mountains. The cold never bothered me anyway.” Ok so I made up that last bit, but despite being a summer-sun kind of gal I did find myself remarking at the beautiful snowy landscapes, and it made me think that full on winter might actually be just as beautiful as the summer.
The trailhead is located just inside Rocky Mountain National Park, a mere 3.1 miles past the park entrance on Hwy 36. It’s right at the junction of 36 and 34… you can’t miss it. There is a trailhead sign just off the road, and plenty of cars parked on either side to let you know where to stop.
The wonderful thing about DMT is that you don’t have to wait until you reach the end to be rewarded with picturesque landscapes. Just a few hundred yards up the trail there is a great scenic overlook which is easy to get to even if you are not even remotely athletic, there are gorgeous viewpoints from the south-pointing switchbacks, and there is almost a 360 degree view at the summit. (Set your camera-phones to Panorama!) Even the parking lot has breathtaking views of Longs Peak.
The first half of the trail had sparse trees and was open to the sunlight. It brought us through a grove of naked Aspens, (once again I must express my extreme displeasure at Aspens being deciduous,) but my disenchantment with the exposed topiary gave way to delight when we spotted RUTTING ELK!! Yaaaaay! FINALLY. Here’s a video of incredibly poor quality (sorry) to prove it:
Around 9,300′ the trees become denser, therefore it’s more difficult for sunlight to hit the ground, ergo in the fall there is snow and ice on the trail. As champions of layering and practical clothing decisions, we were prepared! Despite hiking uphill it was still a bit chilly, so I’m happy I had on a tank top, a long sleeved thermal, a non-cotton t-shirt, a down jacket, an outer shell, insulated leggings under my zip off pants, a hat, a turtle fur, and some mittens.
Andre said it looked like I was hiking Everest, but I informed him that I had an unused fleece in my pack so I wasn’t actually wearing EVERYTHING I brought. Seriously though, if you go this time of year definitely bring some layers and some solid hiking shoes/boots, regardless of the weather at the trailhead. It got icy and cold real quick.
As I mentioned earlier, the trails’ many switchbacks made for quite a pleasant hike. I actually said out loud at one point, “This is MY kind of uphill!” The trail never actually gets steep. There is no point where you look up and go “Oh crap, I have to go up THAT?!” This is probably why we saw so many tourists wearing shorts and t-shirts below the half way point, (but we didn’t see many past the snow line!)
After about 2.2 miles of climbing, the trail levels out and then actually starts to go downhill. If you didn’t read a topographical map, a guidebook, or this super informative post before you left, you might mistakenly believe you missed the turn off to the summit. But you didn’t! Keep going for another .7 miles down hill, and at mile 2.9 you will see a clearly marked trail turn off where you can either go left which will take you down to Estes Park in 4.5 miles, or go right to get to the summit in .2 miles. I highly recommend going right at this point. (Deer Ridge Junction is the trailhead you started from.)
This last .2 miles of trail to the summit is probably the most tricky, but I wouldn’t exactly call it difficult. I only used the word “tricky” because the trail, which has turned into fairly even steps at this point, was covered in ice. We were glad to have our poles for balance and some solid footwear. Many folks we passed were wearing crampons, which is probably a good idea this time of year or later.
When you come up over the ridge to the summit you are immediately greater by this view of Estes Park to the east.
You can head to your right for the most awe-inspiring view of Longs Peak you have seen yet, and jaw dropping views of the continental divide.
If you turn north-west you can see Bighorn Mountain and the Mummy Range, which may be the best name for a mountain range ever.
Despite it being super duper cold due to a high wind chill factor, we stayed up at the summit to eat our sandwiches from the “Winter Is Coming” lady at the sandwich store, and because it was just so darn gorgeous we couldn’t bear to leave. That, and our decision to take some time-lapse shots of the clouds rolling up on the mountains, which took awhile. You’re welcome.
By the time we got back to the car it was 50 degrees at the trailhead and we looked like idiots in our hats and down jackets to the people WE thought looked like idiots heading up the trail in shorts and tank tops. Let this be a lesson in preparation and layering, and layering preparation.
IN SUMMARY: This was a great hike and I would do it again in a heartbeat. I love a trail with lots of elevation, but it’s even better when tempered by switchbacks, as this was. We got a lot of elevation gain without that much effort, which is always a win for me. Best of both worlds! Go early, as parking was near capacity when we got back down, and it wasn’t even close to peak season. Being of only moderate difficulty and close to the park entrance I can’t imagine how packed this trail is in the summer time, so don’t be afraid to hit this one up later in the fall. As winter-sandwich-lady pointed out, you might think it’s even MORE beautiful right now with all the snow. We definitely thought so.
Be sure to head over to our facebook page for tons more pics!
– C. Egli