After much anticipation, it was time to start preparing for our three day camping adventure in Rocky Mountain National Park. With quick planning we were fortunate to score a dispersed site at the Pear Lake Campground, a 7 mile hike from the Finch Lake Trailhead.
We spent the last month gathering the necessary gear and planning our day hikes. Visiting the Hutcheson Lakes and Cony Lake were a must, and we discussed scouting a route to summit Copeland Mountain.
Preparation for back country camping at Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park requires special gear for dispersed campsites; for example, we needed to have a bear canister. The canister is bulky and difficult to carry in a pack, but we made the best of the situation.
We were required to pick up our camping/parking permit in person; I hiked the Lawn Lake and Crystal Lake Trail in the morning, then made my way over to the Beaver Meadows visitor’s center for the paperwork.
Epic Video of our 3 day camping trip in Rocky Mountain National Park at Pear Lake campsite
If it’s your first time camping in Rocky Mountain National Park, you are required to watch a 7 minute safety video. When I got the back country camping permit it was accompanied by a rudimentary map of the area. The ranger on duty expressed how lucky we were to be camping at Pear Lake, but warned that most of the campsite was covered in snow. We would make sure to pack our snow gear.
Excitement was building, and we began to divvy up gear into our packs.
Our Wilderness Gear for Backcountry Camping in Rocky Mountain National Park
|✅ Bear Canister |
✅ Food and Peanut Butter Whiskey
✅ Sleeping Bag
✅ Sleeping Pad
✅ Inflatable camp pillow
✅ Extra hiking sneakers
✅ Camera/GoPro gear
✅ Portable Chargers
✅ Head Lamps
✅ Tent poles and spikes
✅ Hiking poles
✅ First Aid Kit
|✅ Tent |
✅ Sleeping Bag
✅ Sleeping Pad
✅ Inflatable Camp Pillow
✅ Hammock and suspension system
✅ Water filtration system
✅ Portable chargers/charging cord
✅ Day Pack
✅ Insect Repellent
Hiking to Pear Lake Campsite from Finch Lake Trailhead
Day 1 Camping in Rocky Mountain National Park – Sunday June 28th
Finally the day was upon us, we were up and out the door by 4:30AM. The entrance in Allenspark is a 12 mile drive from downtown Estes, but coming from the Denver direction it was quicker to take route 7 instead of 36 North. It was roughly an hour and a half drive. Rocky Mountain National Park operates on a timed entry system from 6AM to 5PM at all entrances but we were exempt from this today as our camping permit counts as our entry pass, and we arrived just after 6AM.
The gate was unmanned. Wild Basin in Rocky Mountain National Park differs from the Glacier Basin area as the roads are narrow and unpaved. The road is accessible to low clearance vehicles but is slow moving. We spent 10 minutes along this dirt road before reaching the Finch Lake Trailhead. There are also no bathrooms available to visitors here.
It was our first time hiking with our heavier packs and we vowed to take it slow if needed. Made our way uphill through a wooded area, which eventually gives way to a grove of Aspens surrounded by green grass and wildflowers.
The abundance of flora was a treat and quite colorful. Directly following this, we traveled back into the woods and began ascending a flight of rocky steps. It was here that we met a group of five; the first hikers we’d seen on the trail. Carrying weight on your back certainly makes an impact; usually we hike around 20-25 minute miles, today we were around 30 minute miles.
Mount Meeker Overlook
After reaching the two mile mark we were rewarded with a magnificent overlook of Mount Meeker. We stopped for a break and had a snack. The backpacks were putting a lot of strain on our shoulders and we were unsure why. Fiddling with some straps at the top to redistribute the weight of the pack helped immensely and we were ready to get underway.
The next section of the trail continues through the forest and is predominantly flat. Here we passed the trail junction for a Ranger Station, Calypso Falls and the Allenspark Trailhead. We chatted with a group of people who were returning from the Finch Lake campground.
They remarked that there was also a decent about of snow. Just before reaching Finch Lake we hiked downhill through a few switchbacks and set our packs down on the grassy banks. The camera and tripod were retrieved to capture the scenery. True to form, we had been recording the hike so far on the GoPro 7 and 8 as well as on AllTrails.
Finch Lake (Elevation: 9,912′) at Rocky Mountain National Park
At Finch Lake we had another snack and shared the view with a pair of hikers, then it was time to continue on. We had hiked 4.5 miles to reach the first lake, and still had 2 more to go.
The trail between Finch Lake and Pear Lake was considerably more pleasing to the eye than the first four miles. We crossed over several creeks and there was an unnamed pond blanketed with lily pads that was especially delightful. There was no shortage of photo opportunities as we made our push to Pear Lake.
Hiking to Pear Lake in my opinion was preferable to hikes in the Glacier Gorge area of Rocky Mountain National Park because there were no crowds, we saw perhaps 10 people the entire time. A tenth of a mile out from Pear Lake we began to encounter snow; sometimes it was avoidable, other times we had to walk over it. Although the elevation gain seemed moderate, it clocked in at almost 2,500 feet of gain.
Pear Lake Campsite in Rocky Mountain National Park
Pear Lake was a vision and we were immediately pleased with our decision to book a campsite there. The lake is bordered by Copeland Mountain on the right hand side and Elk Tooth cropping up on the left. In order to reach the campsite, we hung a right, crossed over a bridge and followed a path that ran parallel to the lake. As per the ranger, we were to look for a silver triangle on a post and set up camp as close as possible.
The Pear Lake campsite was snowed in as predicted, but we managed to find a clear spot to accommodate our three person tent. Whether this happened on its own or if a previous camper dug it out is a mystery but either way we were ecstatic. The Pear Lake campsite itself was in an ideal location; two huge rocks bordered adjacent sides, while pines rose up on the others. Though we could hear the wind we were largely sheltered from it which was perfect.
Setting up Camp
By now we had gotten a feel for setting up the tent in an efficient manner, and soon our campsite was coming together. We dumped our bags and had a quick lunch; by now it was noon and we were anxious to explore. Recently I purchased a compact day pack and I was glad I did; it was extremely useful to us the next few days. We loaded that up and were on our way.
The traditional trail continues along the left bank, but since we were camping on the right bank we decided to continue in that direction until we met back up with the trail; it wasn’t our best idea. We ended up bushwhacking a fair amount traveling along the bank of Pear Lake – in fact, bushwhacking seemed to be the theme of the trip henceforth.
There were two small but mighty waterfalls we needed to cross as well. Just getting around the lake took the better part of an hour and we found ourselves doubling back several times to find a better route.
Cony Lake Trail
Eventually we reconnected with the Cony Lake “trail.” This is not a maintained trail in Rocky Mountain National Park, this was further evidenced by a plethora of trees that had fallen and had not been removed. It was all too easy to get off trail.
It wasn’t too long before we had reached Lower Hutcheson Lake, the first of three. This lake was surrounded by wildflowers and exceedingly beautiful; it’s clear that the lakes above Pear Lake do not see much foot traffic.
Lower Hutcheson Lake
We stopped just long enough to snap some pictures along the bank, then headed onward. After Lower Hutcheson Lake the trail becomes even less defined. We spotted two or three small cairns along the way, but other than this the trail was unmarked. One wrong turn became a nightmare of trudging through snow, boulder hopping, or (the worst outcome in our opinion), crashing through brush, pine trees and thorns. Dave’s poor exposed legs were taking a beating.
After struggling through endless bushwhacking we arrived at the middle Hutcheson Lake, a small diamond shaped gem. It was impossible to get close as the brush around it was impenetrable, though it did make for a good aerial view.
Just before the Upper Hutcheson Lake the marked route on AllTrails indicated that we needed to cross the creek to the other bank. We wrestled through a great deal of brush and trees to get down to the bank, then we needed to scope out a good crossing. The only way across was to hop from boulder to boulder through the creek and despite our precautions our feet got wet. The banks surrounding the mouth of Upper Hutcheson Lake were marsh-like and damp.
Watching the weather come in
Immediately after crossing, we noticed dark weather rolling in fast. It’s hard to predict weather changes in the mountains and today was no different. Furthermore, our line of sight to future weather was blocked by the saddle between Elk Tooth, Ogallala and Copeland Mountain; we had no idea if the storm would last three minutes or three hours. Despite our proximity to Cony Lake, we decided not to risk a potential thunderstorm and turned back. This was a wise decision on our part because even though the storm passed quickly, it would have still taken over an hour one way to reach Cony Lake.
Returning to the Campsite
While the storm was approaching we hustled as best we could back to Pear Lake. It was stressful and frustrating because the trail was so easy to lose; we feared a bad thunderstorm and all the metal camera gear did not help the situation. The wind was gusting hard but the rain passed us by. We were able to relocate Lower Hutcheson Lake and make our way back down the trail. It’s amazing the difference we felt upon reaching tree line, and soon we could see Pear Lake through the trees to our left; a welcome sight.
The hike was by no means over when we saw Pear Lake, it was an additional twenty minutes to return to camp. By this time the sun was back out and shining, the clouds had scurried away and it was hot out! Not reaching our destination was a bummer, but hearing thunder above treeline is scary. Better safe than sorry, the lake isn’t going anywhere.
We reconvened at camp and noshed on some trail mix. The change of weather brought on the flies and mosquitoes in full force, we drenched ourselves in bug spray and set up the portable repellant. They didn’t seem to be much help.
Exploring around Pear Lake campsite in Rocky Mountain National Park
Still considering a summit of Copeland Mountain, we decided to forge our way up to an unnamed pond above our campsite to get a better look at the slopes. We brought along only the GoPro, camera and tripod. The pond looked close on the map but it certainly was not easy. First we encountered considerable boulder hopping, followed by more bushwhacking. We got turned around several times and consulted the map often. Thankfully after a half hour the pond loomed into view to our left and we made our way over.
This unnamed pond was gorgeous and had a cool looking shape. I can’t imagine many people had made it there and we were in awe of its isolation. A few pictures were taken but we didn’t linger, it was super buggy. We followed a creek flowing from the pond back down to Pear Lake. This route required less bushwhacking and we were satisfied. Nonetheless, this “short” hike drained us and we were eager for dinner.
Dinner Time at the campsite
Neither of us had cooked a dehydrated meal before, nor had we used a camp stove. No fires are allowed in RMNP dispersed camping so if we wanted a hot meal a stove was compulsory. Tonight’s menu: chicken broccoli casserole and meatball stew.
We had a fuel canister that would make 6 meals and our stove could boil 12 ounces of water. Despite all the odds and ends the stove was straightforward and user friendly. It took less than 3 minutes to boil the water, then we had to wait an additional 10 minutes before the food was rehydrated. The meals were satisfying enough for eating out of a bag, at least they were warm!
Sunset Photography at Pear Lake – RMNP
The last event of the night of course was the sunset. The golden hour hit between 7:55-8:55PM and we had just enough time to set up a composition. There were some logs in the water separating the lake and the creek which we moved to achieve better photos (sorry if they were placed there purposefully!) At first the sunset was lackluster, but all of a sudden the sky became a lovely shade of pink. The wildlife in the lake itself was also entertaining, the fish were jumping right out of the water.
During the sunset a group of three hiked up to the lake, I was surprised to see other people on the trail so late in the evening, but I’m glad they got to witness a nice sunset. The colors faded quickly and all too soon we were packing up and heading back to camp. It was an exhilarating but exhausting day and we couldn’t wait to hunker down and sleep.
Sleeping gear was not unpacked, so we quickly inflated the mats and rolled out our bags. I had been considering getting a new sleeping pad for quite some time and this trip solidified my decision. The sleeping pad had no visible leaks but would deflate during the night. The ground was freezing and I was chilled despite the cold weather bag. I wore two pairs of pants and my coat to bed.
Day 2 Camping in Rocky Mountain National Park – Monday June 29th
The alarm sounded at 4:30AM. No rest for the weary while camping, it was time for a sunrise. We made our way back down to the bank of Pear Lake and began to scout compositions. Birds were already singing their lungs out. When the sun began to rise it lit Copeland Mountain nicely, but I think the sunshine through the pines over the creek was more scenic.
In no time the sun was up and we were raring to get another crack at Cony Lake. If we were feeling ambitious we would try for a summit of Copeland Mountain from that direction, but we were making it to Cony Lake at any cost. The previous day was an indicator of our planned bushwhacking and we were sure to wear pants to prevent our legs from being sliced to ribbons.
Back on the Cony Lake Trail
We started along the left bank of Pear Lake and made our way upward. In our haste yesterday we missed a small pond along the trail; it was pretty but we didn’t waste time on this one, we had bigger fish to fry. Hutcheson Lake came easy enough and we recalled most of the route we took previously. At any rate we spent much less time fighting the bushes.
It wasn’t long before we returned to the spot where we turned back yesterday. From here it was uncharted territory for us and we skirted close to Upper Hutcheson Lake. Roughly halfway around the late we ascended a boulder field; it made for slow hiking as several of the rocks were loose and we obviously wanted to avoid injury.
For a while we alternated clambering across boulders and walking over grassy areas. Just before reaching Cony Lake we were forced to cross a snowfield. While the hike up the snow was manageable, the hike down would be dangerous, good thing we packed the spikes! Above the snow it was continued boulder hopping with the occasional stretch of grass to Cony Lake.
Cony Lake (Elevation: 11,512′) Rocky Mountain National Park
Upon arrival we were overcome with our accomplishment. Cony Lake was pristine and still partially frozen. Ogallala and Copeland mountains soared on either side of us creating a beautiful backdrop. It was wild to think that we were part of a handful of people who reached this lake and we were proud of ourselves. Though we were in no danger we heard avalanches rumbling on the other side of the mountains, and we witnessed a very tiny one coming down the very left of Elk Tooth.
The hike up left us with little energy and a summit of Copeland Mountain was out of the question. This three mile one way trip took us about two hours. We needed momentum enough to make it back to camp so we turned around. Looking at the options up to the saddle of Copeland Mountain were not particularly friendly as I originally thought.
The boulder hopping back from Cony Lake was endless and it was apparent we didn’t return via the same route through the rocks. After a time we made it back to the shores of Upper Hutcheson Lake and crossed the creek back over to where the path was a tad more characterized. During our hike up we weren’t panicked about the weather, but it was windy, cloudy and colder. The trip back brought less wind and more sun – I was thankful because I had still not warmed up from the previous night sleeping on the cold ground.
Back at the Pear Lake Campground
It was 11:30AM when we reentered camp. The temperature had noticeably warmed and we were hungry. We grabbed the bear canister and toted it down to the edge of the lake (despite the number of trips we made to the lake, we had yet to find a route from the campsite to the shore without bushwhacking. Sadly, I don’t think we found a good one by the end of our trip). There were three other hikers sunbathing on the rocks across the lake, but we had this side all to ourselves. Lunch consisted of beef jerky, trail mix and energy bars then we relaxed and digested on the rocks.
Jumping into a freezing cold alpine lake
It’s not lake camping unless you do a suicide polar plunge, and Dave dove into the lake for a quick swim. It looked freezing and the Ray Bans were a casualty, but it made for great GoPro footage.
Neither of us got much sleep last night; it was nap time. The tent temperature midday was boiling hot, go figure, but we were so spent we got in forty winks anyway. The flies were annoying buzzing around under the rainfly; no matter what we did they were persistent.
Some of our energy was restored and we decided to take a walk down to Pear Creek in the direction of the Finch Lake Trailhead. There was a sign at Finch Lake indicating a campground along Pear Creek but we didn’t see any signage for it on our way up. Either the snow was covering the sign or it’s no longer a campground (in fact, when we checked up on this the next day the campground was marked as N/A for the entire season on the RMNP website. Peculiar.)
Dinner time at the Pear Lake Campsite
Supper was in order before the final sunset of our stay; again we fired up the camp stove and boiled water for a chicken broccoli casserole and a coconut chicken curry. Since it was our last night we munched on the rest of our snacks, save for two energy bars for the return trip. For future trips we need to work out a different system for trash; on this trip we were sealing it all in a gallon sized Ziploc but it didn’t have the best outcome. The bear canister in general was a pain; when not in “active use” it needed to be sealed and kept 200 feet (70 adult steps) from the campsite. Guess it’s a good way to keep from overeating.
In typical Colorado fashion, just as the golden hour was hitting, clouds obscured the sky and it began to rain. We grudgingly packed up the gear and went back to camp. It was 8:30PM but we fell asleep almost immediately. There was no alarm set for tomorrow; we figured if we woke up after sunrise then so be it. It was less cold this night, but the mattress pad still deflated overnight. It can rot in hell for all I care.
Day 3 – Pear Lake Campground – Tuesday June 30th
We slept until 5:30, a solid half hour after sunrise, oops! A glance at the sky indicated that it may not have been a good morning for a sunrise anyway. The clouds covered the sky again and the wind persisted while we packed up camp. Broke down the tent, stuffed our backpacks, and filled up on water before heading out. 6:50AM and it was time to leave camp.
The walk back to the trailhead was largely uneventful. The sky remained cloudy but it only rained for a short spell. We passed a few groups of hikers on their way up, but were alone for the majority. With a mile left to go, we saw a huge rainbow through the trees, it was quite a sight! I don’t think I’ve ever seen a rainbow in the woods before. Despite carrying heavy packs we were averaging 23 minute miles. Returned to Finch Lake trailhead at 9:30AM, just under 3 hours for a 7 mile hike.
We hopped in the car and began the drive back to Denver. Already we were consulting our schedules and the RMNP website for a return trip this summer, hopefully we can make it happen! I would love to stay in the Wild Basin area again, there is an abundance of lakes and a general lack of foot traffic. The Finch Lake parking lot was barely half full when we returned! That would not be the case in Glacier Gorge.
Only one aspect of the trip left me despondent, and that was I still did not see a moose. Dave thought for sure that we’d have a moose sighting, but I suppose it wasn’t in the cards this trip. Someday!