Backpacking | Thunder Lake Trail, CO
We showed up to Estes Park, CO expecting to spend a couple days traversing the Longs Peak trail. We had no intention of backpacking to Thunder Lake. Due to a snow storm we had to change plans, but we could not have found a better alternative. As it turns out, Thunder Lake was the #1 trail in backpacking magazine that year.
Trail: Thunder Lake
Length: 11.6 miles roundtrip
Trailhead: Wild Basin Trailhead (near Estes Park)
When we arrived at the Ranger Station, we had fully intended on hiking Longs Peak. This is a 14-er (14k elevation) with a roughly 5,500ft ascent and 14.2 miles roundtrip (with a few switchback options). Longs Peak is a featured hike on the REI App, which we thoroughly studied before our trip.
According to the Ranger, Longs Peak is an extremely difficult trek for the avid backpacker, even on a good day, never mind the blizzard that was approaching. Apparently the REI App has mislead many backpackers into believing this hike was not as rough as it is. The REI App is a great resource for finding trails and photo-worthy spots, but be sure to do additional research.
The Ranger led us to the Thunder Lake Trail option, and we acquired two wilderness sites for camping. We were leaving the station a little late so we hiked roughly 2 miles in, stayed the night at the Tahosa campsite, hiked the remainder of the trail the next day (arriving about midday) and stayed the night, then headed back toward the trailhead the 3rd day.
We went in October when the bears were preparing for hibernation and were very active. We rented a bear can (required) to pack our food and scented products -- it was much larger and heavier than expected. After moving all our food into it and then stuffing the bear can in hubby's 65L pack, there was literally no more room. It took up a lot of space - so be prepared if making a multi-day trek in the fall or spring months.
Thunder Lake trail itself is absolutely wonderful. Full of wildlife, beautiful waterfalls and cascades. Around midday when we nearly reached Thunder Lake it began to flurry, and by the evening it was a full snow storm. I am not sure if this is regular for the first week of October, but always remember to check the weather before departing.
Our first campsite at Tahosa was a single site - private and secluded. It sat on a cliff with a gorgeous overlook. The Thunder Lake campsite was also beautiful (with 2-3 other campsites nearby) and sat below massive pine trees. The wind whipped through the pines with the snowstorm blowing in. It was amazing to fall asleep to, although we were a little nervous.
You can take the same trail to-and-from Thunder Lake; but I encourage on your return trip to hike a connecting trail that will take you by Calypso Cascades and Ouzel Falls, and back to the trailhead.