Emily and I acquired a walk-up permit to camp at Thunder Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park for one night. Walk up permits are just as they sound, you walk up to one of the wilderness offices, and see what’s available. Another option, but not concrete, is to check Recreation.gov for potential walk up sites that are available the night prior. We’ve had pretty good luck with this lately.
Before you walk up to the wilderness office it’s best to
- Have a recreation.gov account and a smartphone
- Have a card to pay for the $36 fee (per night)
We saw availability for an individual site at Thunder Lake. When we arrived at the wilderness office around 9am, the site was still available, as was the stock site. The stock site was bigger and closer to the lake so we picked that one. From the wilderness office near Beaver Meadows we headed to the Wild Basin trailhead. There was a line of 10 cars or so, and they were turning people around because parking was full. They don’t turn around those that have wilderness camping permits though. You still have to pay the entrance fee, the wilderness permit is your timed entry fee. We drove down the dirt road to the Wild Basin trailhead, circled for about 20 minutes until a car finally left and we got our parking spot. Finally!
Video of Our Camping Trip at Thunder Lake
The hike from the trailhead to Thunder Lake is about 6 miles with 2,200 ft of elevation gain IF you take the unimproved trail by the campsites. This will bypass Calypso Cascades and Ouzel Falls but will save you about 1 mile (one way). We arrived at our campsite, dropped our heavy packs and set up camp. Donned our day packs and headed out for a short, but challenging hike up to Falcon Lake.
Hiking to Falcon Lake
Falcon Lake sits at the base of Pilot Mountain and that pointy unnamed peak that is a prominent landmark when viewed from Thunder Lake. From the ranger cabin on the north side of Thunder Lake, we followed the worn footpath. Crossed the creek via the single log bridge and keep on the Boulder Grand Pass trail until roughly 10,800 feet. This is where we split north off the trail and head towards Falcon Lake.
Since there is no trail, it’s highly recommended to have a compass and map, and some type of downloaded offline map to get there (my preferred method, but electronics can fail). I chose Caltopo as the phone map as it’s more reliable than Alltrails when hiking off trail. The bushwhack wasn’t bad at all and never felt like we were ‘lost’. To us it was pretty apparent where the lake was even though we didn’t follow the drainage up, which is what we usually do when looking for remote alpine lakes.
This was a very awesome lake and we of course had it all to ourselves. One of my favorite reasons to reach places like these. Its shore is lined with small boulders, and as long as you don’t mind hopping boulders, it isn’t that difficult to navigate around the lake.
There was little to no wind when we there. Emily enjoyed a nice rest lounging on a big boulder with the sun shining down on her. I climbed up a few hundred feet to get a better look at the lake and surrounding area.
It was a pleasant visit. Thunder was rumbling off in the distant and you can’t really see weather incoming, so we decided to head back to the campsite.
Back at the Campsite
After taking a few sips off the whiskey flask I decided that I wanted to head down to the lake and take a swim. The rocks at the east shore of Thunder Lake are covered in algae and incredibly slippery, so I eased my way into the lake until I could take off. The water was cold, but not freezing cold. Maybe 45 degrees or so. I found a way onto the prominent boulder that sits in Thunder Lake, although it wasn’t easy. Just needed a few good hand holds. Got onto the rock and just took in the views. As the sun warmed me up, I knew I had to get back in the cold water to get back to shore. Of course I didn’t pack extra shorts and the shorts I had on would still be wet the next morning.
Looping Around Tanima Peak
Woke up at 4:45am and was on the trail by 5:15am. With a half-moon out it wasn’t that hard to hike in the dark with the aid of some good headlamps. Watched the sunrise as we were approaching Lake of Many Winds.
The Lake of Many Winds definitely lived up to its name, as the wind there was constant. We didn’t really spend much time there because we wanted to make our way up Boulder-Grand Pass.
Hiked along the north side of the Lake of Many Winds and picked the path of least resistance of the incredibly steep slope of loose talus to the top of the pass.
Hiking up Boulder-Grand Pass
There were some decent sized rocks flying down so best to not to be close to your partner if your traveling in a group. The hike up Boulder-Grand Pass I would consider a difficult Class 2 because of the loose rock and how steep it is. It’s only around 400 feet of elevation gain so nothing too crazy.
I don’t use hiking poles that often but they were extremely helpful going up. There is no definite path, there are cairn’s here and there, but not sure how helpful they are. We tried to stay on the north side closer to the solid rock. Holding onto a solid piece of rock felt great in this area.
Once we reached Boulder-Grand Pass the wind was really blasting. We didn’t have to be up here that long though. Was tempted to hike to the summit of Tanima Peak which wouldn’t have been to difficult, but, my main goal was to get to Indigo Pond and return back home at a decent time. We hiked south towards The Cleaver, where we would see our route down into the rocky valley that was home to Indigo Pond.
There’s really not a best path down to Indigo Pond from the pass. Just be sure to spread out if your hiking in a group, the rock is loose, and saw some decent size rocks tumble 100 feet or so. This is also an extremely remote area of Rocky Mountain National Park. Meaning that goats and other wildlife are more commonly seen here than other hikers.
Goats can knock down rocks as well. After 30 minutes of scree-surfing down about 600 feet, we were near a snowfield with a few house-sized boulders. I looked into the snow field and saw something running, geez, what a huge marmot I thought. Then I realized it was a bear running across the snowfield. It paused and looked at us, then continued up the rocky valley, covering ground at an incredible pace. This was my third time seeing a bear in Rocky Mountain National Park. The park rangers say there are only 20-30 bears within park boundaries.
We made it to Indigo Pond and it was, ok. It’s in a remote area and you sure to have to yourself. Really wished we would have visited hear a few years ago when we climbed up to Frigid Lake, as it would have only been an hour or less round trip from the valley floor. It still turned out ok because it gave us an excuse to hike up Boulder-Grand Pass and do a loop hike. We navigated the small to house-sized boulders surrounding Indigo Pond and followed the drainage down to the unnamed pond. Last time we were here this was more of a mud puddle. The bushwhack from here to Eagle Lake is nothing insane. Don’t expect any kind of social trail though. Just like before, we had to skirt the shore of Eagle Lake to get back onto the social trail.
Eagle Lake > Box Lake > Thunder Lake
This is a more traveled path over some worn trail, and paths over granite that are less evident. There are many cairns that can aid you. Both of these lakes are pretty cool and worth the visit if you like hiking off trail. Eagle Lake is surrounded by dense vegetation and can be difficult to navigate if your not comfortable bull-dozing through thick krummholz. About half of Box Lake can be navigated around but the other half are steep cliffs that make it difficult. All of this territory is still backcountry hiking. No maintained trails or signage. Cairns are very helpful most of the time.
Once we got to the social trail near the north side of Eagle Lake we knew the hardest parts were far behind us. Got back to the Thunder Lake campsite in just 5 hours, and we had ‘hiked’ about 5 miles. Now we just had to pack up our tent and hike 6 miles back to the Wild Basin trailhead
- Really glad we got to see three new lakes and Boulder-Grand Pass
- Day-of walk up sites are an amazing way to camp and explore Rocky Mountain National Park backcountry
- Day-of walk up sites are usually limited to stock or group, and one night, I really think 2-3 nights camping is the sweet spot
- Wild Basin is as popular as ever on the weekends, even with the timed-entry system
Alltrails Route – https://www.alltrails.com/explore/recording/afternoon-hike-at-lake-of-many-winds-bf424cb