If you are in Rocky Mountain National Park and you are having trouble finding the yellow-bellied marmot look no further than the Mount Ida Trail. Not to say that marmots are the only thing to be seen on this amazingly beautiful alpine trail, but they are extremely prevalent. We saw no less than 30 of the fluffy creatures on this 9-mile hike along the continental divide. Other highlights when hiking Mount Ida include some of the best 360-degree views in Rocky Mountain National. A birdseye view of several unnamed alpine lakes as well as epic views of the Never Summer Mountain Range.
Hiking Mount Ida Stats
- Class: Moderately Strenuous (For Colorado)
- Trailhead: Milner Pass (10,758′ elevation)
- Total Elevation Gain: 2,131′
- Trail Distance: 4.5 miles (one-way)
- Best time to hike: Morning
Hiking Mount Ida is an amazing 4.5-mile out-and-back trail. While it has less hype than others inside Rocky Mountain National Park, it is no secret. It is amazingly beautiful and well-traveled. Jennifer and I arrived at 7:30 AM on a Saturday to a full parking lot. We had to park along the edge of the lot and were lucky to find that. Others arrived immediately after us and they had to park along the side of Trail Ridge Road. Not recommended as the park rangers don’t appreciate this and you may end up with a ticket.
Where to Start Hiking Mount Ida
Hiking Mount Ida could start from the Alpine Visitor Center at the top of trail ridge road adding about 3.5 miles one-way to the trip. A great option if the lot at Milner Pass is full. We, like most hikers, decided to start our hike at Milner Pass. The trail begins on the southern edge of Poudre Lake. The lake is a favorite for fishermen and is located adjacent to Trail Ridge Road. There is a sign posted about 15 feet from the parking area indicating the direction and distance to Mount Ida. This sign says that it is 4 miles… this is a lie. I clocked the distance to the top and got 4.7 miles (one-way). Given that the route towards the summit becomes a little vague I decided to go with the more internet reliable 4.5 miles, but I would say over the distance most hikers will exceed 9 miles total.
The trail from the parking area at Milner Pass climbs quickly through an evergreen forest for the first mile. It provides some elevated views of Poudre Lake, before leading hikers deep into the forest. About half a mile in the trail intersects the one coming from the Alpine Visitor Center. We took the right turn and continued towards the summit. The trail throughout the woods is well maintained and easy to navigate. Emerging from the trees we were rewarded with our first three marmot sightings and exceptional views of the Never Summer Mountain Range.
The Real Danger When Hiking Mount Ida
After the trail leaves the safety of the wooded area it is another 3.5 miles of exposed terrain to the summit of Mount Ida. This is a 7-mile round trip of treeless alpine terrain. I can’t stress enough how dangerous this is should a thunderstorm roll in. Start early on this trail and if the forecast calls for thunderstorms… find another hike. Colorado has one of the lowest populations of any state in the U.S., but the second highest amount of lighting related fatalities.
The Marmot Latrine
Once we had finished playing with the first three marmots we turned and headed up a steep incline. At the top of which we found a huge rock formation with even better views of the Never Summer Range and a family of five marmots. These rocky outcroppings looked to be the collective toilet for the marmot hoard that calls this place home. I have never seen so much animal excrement clustered in one location.
More Marmot Sighting
We once again continued down the well-worn path as it descended slightly. I am not exaggerating, we saw 7 more marmots frolicking on the mountain grasses before reaching a ninety-degree turn in the path where 3 marmots were wrestling. We stopped once again mere feet away and watched as they body slammed and bit at one another in a playful way.
Following the Continental Divide
The path once again begins to climb steeply at this point as it follows the Continental Divide. Yes, there were more marmots to be seen over the next mile before their numbers eventually tapered away and gave way to the land of the pika. The trail itself moderates slightly on its climb through the mountains. The path paralleling the Never Summer Mountain Range across the valley. This section of the hike is very nice.
Eventually, the path climbs once again sharply and then begins a slight descent as it follows the Continental Divide’s ebb and flow. This downward slope is appreciated at the moment but less than ideal on the return trip. Once the path reaches the low point of this saddle it once again starts to climb. This time the path is along the edge of the cliff and Mount Ida’s summit can be seen tauntingly high above.
Traversing the Boulder Field
The path enters into a boulder field where cairns help distinguish the path forward. However, the cairns are hard to distinguish between all the other rocks in the field. Jennifer and I discovered that there are many paths that lead through this terrain. We followed one well-worn path up and a different well-worn path down. Hard to say where the correct path lies, but so long as hikers minimize their impact on the alpine grasses and aim the general direction of their ascent towards the summit everything should be fine.
Ptarmigans Amongst the Boulders
The path we took from here lead straight up over two false summits and onto the cliff edge of the Continental Divide as it climbed up to Mount Ida. In this area, the marmot population seemed to diminish, but there were still a few sightings. The pika came out and chirped at the intruders (us) invading their homes. The highlight of this transit, however, was spotting a few well-camouflaged ptarmigans crossing the rocky terrain. I’ve run across these peculiar birds a few times in the past and they crack me up every time. At first, they slow their movements to a sloth-like motion as if I can’t see them even though I’m standing mere feet away. Once they figure out they have been spotted they begin to chirp at me. I assume this is an attempt at trying to scare me away, but all I can do is laugh.
The Final Climb
Leaving the ptarmigans behind we finished our accent with one last push up the final incline. The trail tapers at the top before ascending a cluster of boulders that make up the summit. Here we found a dozen or so fellow travelers who had taken on and conquered the hiking of Mount Ida.
Mount Ida’s Peak
The views from the top are some of the best in Rocky Mountain National Park. There are half a dozen or more small alpine lakes surrounding the steep cliff walls on three sides. This is a rugged and amazing landscape. We stayed on the peak entertaining ourselves with the views and yes even a few marmots. One of which was very curious and came within inches of me and several other hikers. When he decided to figure out what my camera bag tasted like, I decided that was enough and I ran him off.
The Way Back
We then returned back the way we had come… or close as we could. As I said, our path from the summit wasn’t the path we had arrived on, but both were well-worn and easy to follow.
Hiking Mount Ida is an amazing journey. Many consider it one of the best hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park and I can’t disagree. It is definitely a favorite of mine. I would say if sweeping views of mountainous terrain is what you are after then give this trail a go. It is much easier than any 14er I’ve ever climbed and the views from the summit rival them all. However, be prepared for the altitude… this shouldn’t be your first hike in the park if you aren’t acclimated to the altitude!