Chasm Lake

      by Gordon S. Novak Jr.

Chasm Lake is my favorite moderate hike in the Park. It requires 4.2 miles of moderately steep hiking at altitude, but takes the hiker through a spectacular mountain cirque to a beautiful deep lake at the base of the east face of Longs Peak. It doesn't get any better than that.

The hike begins at Longs Peak ranger station (9500' elevation). It's worth a stop inside to see the interesting exhibits: antique climbing hardware, the jacket of someone hit by lightning, a model of Longs Peak and its surroundings. There's a box for contributions to the Search and Rescue group, a worthy cause. Outside is a trail register where climbers can list their departure times and destinations. The trail starts out climbing fairly steeply; it doesn't get any steeper than this, but later it will be at higher altitude. Half a mile up the trail it splits, with the left branch going toward Longs. Another half mile takes you south to a good rest stop by Alpine Brook at about 30 minutes from trailhead.

The trail heads back north, then switchbacks south and curves around to the west, now heading toward Longs. It passes the Goblins Forest campsite (I haven't seen a goblin, but have seen a porcupine here), then rejoins the stream for a couple of switchbacks. The small meadows here are filled with wildflowers in early season. Near the top of the switchbacks is a log footbridge over a creek and a sign warning hikers of the dangers of lightning above timberline. This is a good second rest stop at 1:20 hours.

Snow may be seen just above this creek crossing in early season as the trail rises southward above timberline and gains the ridge top. There is a good view of Twin Sisters to the east as well as Meeker, Longs, and Mt. Lady Washington. The trail reverses and touches the creek again (last place to get water if climbing Longs), then heads to a visible corner where the left slope of Lady Washington meets the ridge at left. The trail used to climb and follow the ridge (called Lightning Ridge) until somebody figured out that walking on Lightning Ridge isn't smart, and they moved the trail below the ridge. The altitude begins to be felt, and one can't go as fast as in the beginning. Look for marmots, pikas, and weasels along the trail.

In good weather, this relatively flat field of boulders looks benign. However, I have seen the summer weather here change from sunny and warm to stormy, with cold, strong winds, lightning, and snow pellets, in five minutes. Lightning and snow pellets is very exciting, and not something I wish to experience again. Taking a jacket and retreating in bad weather are mandatory.

At about 2:30 elapsed time, you reach the Y where the trail splits, the left branch heading to Chasm Lake and the right to Longs Peak. There's a horse rack here, and a privy just up the ridge. The going is easier from here on.

Marmots are here hoping for a feast from the hikers; they are used to humans and show little fear. I have had one of these marmots steal my sandwich out of my backpack and run off with it. I chased the marmot down and took the sandwich back, but tore off the corner of the sandwich it had bitten, so the marmot did get some reward for its theft.

Beyond the Y, the trail levels out considerably, and hiking is no longer a struggle. Peacock Pool, lovely and aptly named, lies in the valley below. The trail clings to the side of Mt. Lady Washington.

Early in the season, the trail crosses a snowfield at perhaps 30 degrees, with rocks below. It would not be good to slide down it. However, by the time you arrive, you will find a narrow but level path across the snow. Thousands of hikers have crossed this snow field with no equipment beyond hiking boots, and you can too.

Columbine Falls flowing over rock slabs greets you as you enter a broad green valley floor, Chasm Meadows, with the stream running through it. This is a magical place.

Chasm Lake lies to the right, behind a massive rock wall: one last bit of climbing. At the base of the wall was a stone hut, once used by hikers, then used to store rescue equipment for assisting climbers on the east face of Longs, with the door armored and locked. The hut was destroyed by an avalanche in 2003.

Follow cairns near the hut and climb the rock wall, being careful of loose gravel and sometimes slippery rock. At the top of the rocks, you are struck by the beauty of Chasm Lake with the east face of Longs Peak rising dramatically above. There is no finer sight in the Park.

Time from start to Chasm Lake: about 3:20. Time to return: 2:15. Water consumed: 1.5 quarts per adult.

Rocky Mountain National Park: The High Peaks