Snow-capped mountains fill the horizon. Deep valleys dive into thick green forests below. The air is clean and cool. There are no cars, crowds or noises. Only the sound of running water and wind in the trees. There are no schedules, deadlines or obligations. Only you, the trail and the will to explore. You are your own boss in these mountains. You're calling the shots. This is your adventure.
There is no greater escape than to lose yourself in the wilderness of Rocky Mountain National Park. Strength, confidence and a new-found sense of freedom are all a testament to the thrill and adventure of backpacking in the Rockies. It's the ultimate outdoor experience.
Backpacking is an extremely versatile adventure sport. Unlike rock climbing and white water rafting, backpacking lets the person control the pace. The energy and intensity is up the hiker. It can go from adrenaline-pumping action to casual stroll all based on the hiker's approach.
It's no surprise backpacking is growing in popularity. It's simple, affordable and packed full of experience from beginning to end. One of the greatest things about backpacking is the reward completely outweighs the cost. More importantly, it doesn’t take a professional to do it. All it takes is some gear, a trail and some common sense.
Traditional vacations call for overpriced hotels, restaurants and rental equipment. At the end of the trip, the money is gone, and there's nothing left to show for it. Backpacking, on the other hand, is a one-time expense. Once you buy the gear, it's yours forever. You'll never have to worry about overpriced hotels or rental gear ever again. It’s the most affordable way to experience the world.
But cost isn't the only reason more people are trading in beaches for mountain trails. Many people find that trekking the wilderness is a way to disconnect from the hustle and bustle of daily living and reconnect with a simpler way of life.
"For me it's all about the solitude," said John Laughlin, head trail guide at The Warming House in Estes Park, Colorado. "The physical activity and fly fishing are great too."
Some value backpacking for the challenge and personal accomplishment. "Speaking from a sports background, backpacking combines the outdoors with traditional sports," said Nick Lowe, avid backpacker from Tucson, Arizona. "It's a competition against the mountain and against yourself."
When it comes to hiking, Rocky Mountain National Park is unmatched. This slice of Colorado has everything an outdoors enthusiast could ask for: Wide open meadows, green valleys, rugged hikes and craggy peaks shape the landscape.
According to Laughlin, no other place compares. "Our staff at The Warming House has hiked all over the world," he said. "We've backpacked in places like Germany, France, England and Switzerland. None of them beat the scenery of Rocky Mountain National Park."
The most renowned backpacking trail in the park is the Tonahutu/North Inlet Loop, also known as the Continental Divide Loop. It stretches 40 miles along the Continental Divide -- the backbone of North America. It crosses thick pines, rocky tundra, deep valleys, open meadows and crystal clear rivers.
"It's definitely the best trail I've every hiked," said Lowe. "It's awesome from start to finish."
This route can be accessed from the east or west sides of the park. The eastern side starts heavy with an intense hike up the side of Flattop Mountain. The western access point starts smooth and gains intensity as it goes. It's all up to the hiker.
Either path guarantees an amazing hike. Both routes cross the colossal churning water of Cascade Falls and the towering heights of Hallet Peak. The view goes on for miles from the summit of Hallet Peak. Many other mountain ranges are so dense, the climber can only see from one mountain to the next. The peaks along this trail rise above the horizon and paint a vast, vivid landscape of mountains, rivers and lakes as far as the eye can see.
When it comes to hiking, nothing is more boring than a lifeless trail. Without birds, bees and the occasional big game animal to liven things up, scenery gets old. The entire Tonahutu/North Inlet Loop is full of wildlife.
According to park rangers, elk and other wildlife travel down the mountains in late August to escape the harsh oncoming winter. On remote stretches of the trail, hikers are just as likely to see an elk or a mountain goat as they are another person.
This loop may be one of the most interesting hikes in North America, but the scenery isn't the only thing that makes it an excellent route. The trail is extremely hiker friendly. Navigation is simple. The path is clear. Dozens of campsites dot the trail, and running water is always close by.
The Rocky Mountains are iconic of the American west and the age-old notion to explore. Nothing says freedom like forging a path through the wilderness, and nothing says adventure like topping the Rocky Mountains after miles of endless trail.
Whether you're looking for a peaceful getaway or an in-your-face adventure of a lifetime, backpacking is the sport for you, and Rocky Mountain National Park is your destination.
But the journey doesn't end there. Thousands of trails run through mountains and forests across the United States. The Rockies make up only a small part of an endless list of backpacking destinations. Every wilderness, every mountain, and every trail is another chance to experience the world in a different way.
"It's not about the destination, but about the experiences along the way," said Corporal Chase Patton of the 42nd Infantry Division, New York National Guard. "Backpacking is about self discovery. Throwing a bag on your back and going," he said. "So what’s my destination? Anywhere and everywhere. That's what backpacking is all about."
The next time you decide to take a vacation or plan a road trip, consider a trail instead. But be warned: Once you feel the earth beneath your feet, wind on your face and see the snow-capped mountain in the distance, you'll be hooked for life.
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