|Trail Features:||Outstanding Views, Alpine Tundra|
|Trail Location:||Ute Crossing|
|Roundtrip Length:||4.0 Miles|
|Trailhead Elevation:||11,430 Feet|
|Total Elevation Gain:||405 Feet|
|Avg. Elev Gain / Mile:||203 Feet|
|Highest Elevation:||11,660 Feet|
|Trail Difficulty Rating:||4.81 (easy)|
|Parking Lot Latitude||40.39333|
|Parking Lot Longitude||-105.69537|
Never doubt the old adage that weather in the Rocky Mountains can change quickly….
Trying to figure out where the Ute Trail is located can be a little confusing. One section runs from the Alpine Visitor Center at Fall River Pass down to Milner Pass near Poudre Lake. The other section, completely unconnected, begins from the Ute Crossing Trailhead located roughly 9.9 miles west of Deer Ridge Junction (Highways 34 and 36) on Trail Ridge Road (or 2 miles west of Rainbow Curve). This hike begins from a very small parking area with enough room for only four vehicles (there's another small parking area about a quarter-of-a-mile further up the road). With the exception of an historical information kiosk, the trailhead is unmarked.
The kiosk explains that the trail was used by Arapaho and Ute Indians on their way between winter and summer hunting grounds on the Great Plains. According to Rocky Mountain National Park: A History, Native Americans likely traveled across the national park using several east-west routes, including Forest Canyon, Flattop Mountain, Fall River and this route, known as Trail Ridge.
The hike that begins from the Ute Crossing Trailhead allows hikers to enjoy expansive views and alpine tundra scenery without having to do a lot of climbing. Trekking entirely above tree line you'll have panoramic views along the entire route. This relatively flat hike has two short climbs as you cross Tombstone Ridge; the first at the very beginning of the hike, while the second begins at roughly the one-mile mark. At this elevation hikers should expect a lot of sun and wind, as well as the possibility of afternoon thunderstorms.
Alpine tundra begins where trees cannot survive the extremes of snow, cold, wind and a short growing season. In Rocky Mountain National Park this zone roughly begins at elevations between 11,000 and 11,500 feet, depending on exposure.
Much of the alpine tundra in Rocky Mountain National Park is covered with dense turfs of sedges and grasses that support various animals. The rich soils of the tundra also support a variety of wildflowers, including the alpine sunflower, which only grows in the Rocky Mountains. Only a few animals, such as pikas, ptarmigans and marmots live all year at these elevations. Others, such as ravens, hawks, coyotes and elk, will migrate onto the tundra during the summer months.
On our most recent hike we passed a herd of elk near the trailhead, and then another at roughly the half-way point. Both herds, numbering roughly 20 in size, were a good quarter-of-a-mile off the trail. You should also keep an eye out for bighorn sheep and mountain goats.
After climbing the second hill the trail tops out at roughly 11,660 feet, and then begins to gradually drift downhill for the remaining portions of the hike. From this point forward you'll have commanding views of Longs Peak towards the south, the highest mountain in the park. On your right, looking towards the southwest, is Forest Canyon and the Big Thompson River. Eventually you'll see a large rock outcropping almost directly ahead of you - just off to the side of the trail. Known as Timberline Pass, this spot also marks the final destination for this hike.
At roughly two miles from the trailhead you'll finally reach Timberline Pass. Most hikers opt to end their hike at this point. From this location you'll have outstanding views of Longs Peak, Moraine Park and Estes Park. Beyond the pass the trail makes a steep descent through Windy Gulch as it makes its way down to Beaver Meadows in Moraine Park.
In the fall of 2012 a wildfire scorched 3500 acres just south of Timberline Pass and Windy Gulch. It's believed the fire was sparked by an illegal campfire on October 9th. Although it was a low intensity fire, and remained under control for the most part, it still forced the closure of almost all the trails in the Moraine Park and Bear Lake Road areas for several weeks. That all changed on November 30th when a fierce wind storm brought 70 mph gusts that pushed the fire 3 miles in just 35 minutes, and more than doubled its size as it raced across Moraine Park. At its peak more than 600 fire fighters were assigned to the blaze. The fire wasn't fully extinguished until heavy snow arrived in mid-December. The Fern Lake Fire is now the largest wildfire in Rocky Mountain National Park history.
On this particular day we began our hike under beautiful cobalt blue skies. As the day progressed, however, clouds began to build. At the turnaround point the clouds began to darken a little, and by the time we were half-way back to the trailhead the clouds were looking downright threatening. I thought for sure we were going to make it back to our car before the rain would start. Our luck, unfortunately, didn't quite hold out. It started to drizzle, then sleet, and then we started getting pelted by small pea-sized hail. When the wind started whipping up, faces and exposed legs began stinging!