STARTING ELEVATION: 9,090′
SUMMIT ELEVATION: 11,428′
ROUND TRIP LENGTH: About 6.7 miles
DIFFICULTY: Difficult (Assessed in winter conditions.)
If you’re looking for National Park level views but are too cheap to pay entrance fees, Twin Sisters is the hike for you. Outstanding views from the summit and a beautiful forest trail make this mountain worth the effort it takes to climb. The trail starts off easy enough at the Lily Lake visitors center, an area not quite officially inside the National Park. The trail runs in and out and through an annexed section of Rocky Mountain National Park and Roosevelt National Forest. Some of this area is open to hunters, so be sure to wear your blaze orange in the fall. This first section is almost two miles of beautiful, peaceful forest, gently sloping uphill, with gorgeous views of Longs Peak to the west. Lovely. Peaceful. Serene. Easy. Great views.
Then you hit the landslide.
In 2013 a huge storm swept through the area and dumped somewhere between 9-11 inches of rain on the Twin Sisters. (9 inches was measured in Estes Park, 11 inches was recorded in nearby Mary’s Lake.) The storm caused a massive amount of damage, knocking out bridges and roads, and killing 8 people. It also caused a huge slice of the western slope of Twin Sisters to dislodge and slide down the mountain. As we stopped to take photos of the devastation, I couldn’t help but wonder how loud and terrifying it must have been for the people who lived nearby.
Don’t expect to be able to follow a defined trail across the landslide, there isn’t one. Just head across in as straight a line as possible, and you’ll be able to pick up a temporary trail on the other side. The storm destroyed the next mile and a half of trail, but after you cross the landslide area you’ll want to find any hints of trail you can that generally head UP. Sometimes the trail is easy to see here, and sometimes you’ll be guessing. We found it somewhat easy to keep track of the trail as we made our ascent in winter, and just kept following tracks up, up, and up. Washed away switchbacks turned the trail into improvised climbing, and this portion of the trail is HARD. Your calves will ache. Your breathing will be labored. You will want to return to the safety of your car and watch Netflix on your phone. But just take it slow, make frequent stops, and don’t rush yourself. Up, up, up.
Hey… are you clicking on the links, which are the words highlighted in white? They’re really funny!
Around 11,000′ you’ll hit the tree line, and come upon the rock-strewn cap of the mountain. From here you can see the matching peaks of the Twin Sisters, and a radio tower settled between the two. You are aiming for the tower. But wait. Stop here for a second and take a moment to check out the sky. If you see storm clouds anywhere nearby, turn around now and head back. The summit looks deceptively close at this point, but you still have a ways to go due to numerous switchbacks.
Take a quick break from reading and check out this slideshow of the trail:
So you’ve just come out of tree-line, up over the last ridge, and you can see the summit(s) of the Twin Sisters. Ever heard of “Summit Fever?” It’s when you can see the summit or you know you are close, so you push harder and go faster, or you make the decision to continue on when you shouldn’t because you THINK you can beat the weather. But take a serious moment to consider that for the next 20-30 minutes you will be the tallest and most exposed lightning rod for miles around, and that weather can sweep across the landscape at alarming rates. If all looks good, be my guest and continue to the summit. If not, turn around and head back.
And just in case there was a storm brewing and you didn’t make it to the summit, WE DID, so you can live vicariously through us.
One last tip: Definitely bring trekking poles, especially in the winter months. Some of the steeper sections were icy or slippery. We wore spikes which definitely helped with traction, but poles were our Gear MVP on this steep and icy trail.
In conclusion, if you love those Rocky Mountain views but don’t love those Rocky Mountain prices, check out Twin Sisters. This mountain is definitely worth the challenge.
Oh hey, if you’ve made it this far in the post, that means you probably like us! You may be interested to know that we’re on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat, all @EglisOutdoors. Come find us!
– C. Egli