As Rocky Mountain National Park trails go the path up to Thunder Lake is middle of the road in difficulty. I am used to RMNP shelling out some of the most strenuous terrain but with the most picturesque landscapes in the lower 48 states. Hiking Thunder Lake is tough and would be strenuous for anyone not acclimated to the altitude. However, when compared to other trails found in the park, I found this one to be a good mix of moderate terrain with a few steep spots mixed in. The path has a lot of beauty in the first mile and half or so, but then it is mostly relegated to dense forest until travelers reach the lake. However, if you choose to add on the Lake of Many Winds to your itenerary then be prepared for a true mountain hike with strenuously steep terrain and a stunningly gorgeous landscape.
We hiked the trail up to Thunder Lake as part of a 3-day backpacking adventure. Our first day on the trail was the hike to Thunder Lake with the added Lake of Many Winds. We returned to the St Vrain backcountry campsite to give us a total of just over 11-miles of hiking on our first day, 2.8 of which was with full backpacking packs.
Hiking Thunder Lake Stats:
- Location: Wild Basin Area of Rocky Mountain National Park
- Rating: Moderately-Difficult
- Distance: 12.2-miles (round-trip)
- The signage in Rocky Mountain has different distances listed, but that is if you take the trail via Ouzel Falls.
- Type: Out & Back
- Elevation: 8,510’ – 10,676’
- Elevation Gain: 2,166’
- Trailhead: The Wild Basin Trailhead
- Permits: Needed if Backpacking
Hiking Lake of Many Winds Stats:
- Location: Wild Basin Area of Rocky Mountain National Park
- Rating: Strenuous
- Distance: 14-miles (round-trip)
- Type: Out & Back
- Elevation: 8,510’ – 11,610’
- Elevation Gain: 3,100’
- Trailhead: The Wild Basin Trailhead
- Permits: Needed if Backpacking (Recommended)
Trip Report for Hiking Thunder Lake
Parking at the Wild Basin Area
Jennifer and I started out at The Wild Basin Area on the southeastern side of Rocky Mountain National Park. We arrived in the late morning to find that all the parking in the Wild Basin Area was taken and that the park had closed the area to any new traffic. This wasn’t good as the dirt road from the Wild Basin gate to the end where the Wild Basin Trailhead is located is over 2-miles long. This could have potentially wrecked our plans for making the 11-mile hike up to the lakes and back to our site today. Luckily, the park gives priority to those with backcountry reservations. Permits are required to stay in the backcountry overnight. Having our permit, the rangers directed us to the next available spot which happen to be the best spot in the lot. It was directly in front of the trailhead.
As we drove down the dirt road we actually picked up a ranger and took her to the end of the road with us. She was very nice and this gave us some time to ask questions about the conditions of the trails. It was early July and we were mostly concerned about packed snow and if we should take our micro-spikes with us. She assured us that the trails were mostly clear and we shouldn’t have any issues… for the most part she was right.
The Wild Basin Trailhead
Upon arriving at the Wild Basin Trailhead parking area (8,500’) we promptly started hiking Thunder Lake by heading up the clearly defined and wide trail. This section of the Wild Basin Area has a ton of day hikers flooding into the woods. Some of these hikers had already hiked most if not all of the dirt access road. Most day hikers to this area are headed to Ouzel Falls as that is a favorite day destination in the Wild Basin. The terrain at the start of the trail is a mostly well worn dirt path with a gentle accent following the North St. Vrain Creek. About 0.3-miles in is the first of several small waterfalls known as the Copeland Falls. From here the trail steepens slightly as it follows the flow of the creek.
Ouzel Falls and the Unimproved Trails Intersection
After a mile and a half on the trail we came across the first backpacking site known as Pine Ridge. It sits near the intersection for the trail leading left to Ouzel Falls and beyond to Bluebird Lake as well as the Unimproved Trail to the right which is the path we were looking for. The Pine Ridge site in my opinion would be a horrible place to camp as there is far too much foot traffic in this area.
The Unimproved Trail
At the intersection we proceeded to the right towards Thunder Lake. The sign here only indicates the direction towards the different campsites as really either direction could be taken to arrive at Thunder Lake. Having taken the left path before towards Ouzel Falls it would be prettier, but also about a mile longer.
The Other Backcountry Campsites
From the intersection the Unimproved Trail has some of the steepest sections found when hiking Thunder Lake as it climbs towards the various campsites. The trail travels through a relatively dense forest and over a rocky path. It has little descriptive features. We passed Tahosa and Aspen Knoll Llama campsites as we climbed towards ours known as the North St. Vrain. Neither of the other two campsites impressed me and I was elated with the position of our site when we arrived.
The North St. Vrain Wilderness Campsites
The North St. Vrain campsites sit about 2.8-miles in from the Wild Basin Trailhead. It is located at a less traveled intersection making it a great spot to explore a lot of the Wild Basin Area. At this intersection a left turn takes hikers down to a small unnamed cascade falls and then onto the intersection for the trails to Ouzel Falls and Bluebird Lake.
Back at the four way intersection we took a right which almost immediately splits to two different campsites; North St. Vrain #1 & #2. We decided to take #2 as it was closer to the North St. Vrain Creek and we could here the rushing water from our tent. We did however arrive to a hammock tent that was packed in its bag and hung from the stake that indicates the campsite. I figured this was the resident’s from the night before and that he or she would return for it later in the day so we left it where we found it.
We setup our site, had lunch and then headed back to the intersection where we took the path towards Thunder Lake still 3.3-miles away. Almost immediately we arrived at the Siskin Site. Jennifer had found a permit for the backpackers staying at this site on the trail up and we proceeded to return it to them. North St. Vrain is a better site.
The Lion Lakes Intersection
From the Siskin Site the trail continues a moderately steep incline for another mile as it make its way towards the lakes. With 2-miles left to Thunder Lake the trail comes to the intersection for the Lion Lakes. We we take on this trail tomorrow so for now we stayed straight and continued our climb towards Thunder Lake.
Thunder Lake Campground
The last mile or so of the trail becomes less steep as it approaches the Thunder Lake campground. The intersection for the campground is about a quarter of a mile from Thunder Lake. Upon arriving at the intersection we took the left turn towards the lake and descended sharply to the lake’s shore.
Thunder Lake (10,574’) is probably one of my least favorite lakes in RMNP. It has a ranger patrol cabin that adds some mystique to the spot, but on a whole the area while still beautiful isn’t what I have come to expect from this amazing park. The mountain views that accompany most of Rocky Mountain National Park’s lakes is obscured here by the dense forest that surrounds the lake shore.
Continuing to the Lake of Many Winds
We took in the lake and then decided to press on in an attempt to make it to the Lake of Many Winds (11,610’). While the Lake of Many Winds (to which I added my own wind :)) is a much prettier lake than Thunder Lake the elevation gain is staggering in places. If you aren’t acclimated to the altitude, I wouldn’t recommend the attempt. It is less than a mile between the two lakes, but the trail climbs over 1,000’ in that short distance. Almost half of that elevation gain comes in the final quarter mile.
Hike to the North End of Thunder Lake
Heading towards the Lake of Many Winds the trail becomes much more narrow as it skirts the northern side of Thunder Lake. At the northwestern corner of the lake the path crosses over the flowing creek coming from the unseen Falcon Lake before following closely the creek flowing from the Lake of Many winds. This area is gorgeous and if Thunder Lake is your final destination I would at least recommend hiking to the area where the creeks flow into Thunder Lake. It is very pretty with a vast array of wildflowers not seen on the trail until this point.
Following the Flow
The trail climbs sharply as it follows the creek on its cascade from the Lake of Many Winds above. The path tops the ridge and enters into a rocky area as it climbs a bouldery outcropping. For us hiking in early July there was a large amount of snow still left to the right of the trail, but it didn’t cross onto the trail itself. The creek was hidden under the mass of snow.
The High Alpine Basins
I thought for sure the lake would be at the top of the next ledge, but instead we found a small alpine basin where the creek is once again revealed as it cascades through it. There was another hill to climb on the other side and once again I was optimistic that the lake was at the top. This time we topped the hill to reveal a much larger swampy basin. Beyond this basin was a much rockier and steeper terrain that led up the mountain side, far up which we could see the creek flowing over the ridge. This is where Jennifer called it quits. She was out of energy. She kept the bear spray and all the gear and I proceeded on covering the last of the climb with only my camera.
The Final Climb
It is just as well that Jennifer stayed in the basin as the remaining climb was very strenuous. From the top, the basin where I left Jennifer appeared to be located just under half way back down to Thunder Lake. I would estimate this final push being about 450’ of elevation in a quarter of a mile. Towards the top I could hear the local residents (Pikas) calling out “Steep! Steep!” to which I replied, “No kidding.”
Lake of Many Winds
Upon reaching the top, the views of the lake with the rugged, rocky peaks protruding from the lakes edge are stunning. The views back over the terrain towards Thunder Lake are also exceptional. These views made the entire slog up the mountain worth the climb. This lake also holds true to its name. From the time I topped the trail and the lake was revealed the winds were relentless. I highly recommend hiking to the Lake of Many Winds if you are in shape and acclimated for it.
Return to North St. Vrain
After exploring the lake thoroughly I headed back down the mountain side and rendezvoused with Jennifer. We were now hustling back the nearly 4.3-miles to our campsite at St. Vrain before the dark set in. As is usually the case the path back was much faster. We arrived at camp with time to filter water, make dinner and climb into the tent before the light of dusk was fully extinguished. We needed the rest as tomorrow is another adventure and a grueling hike to the Lion Lakes.
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Things to Know for Hiking Thunder Lake & Lake of Many Winds
- Backpacking permits (Wilderness Camping): Required (May 1st – Oct. 31st).
- Permits are available starting March 1st. Permits book up fast, especially for weekend trips.
- There is a privy (toilet) located at the North St. Vrain Campsite.
- Bear Canisters are required in all RMNP backcountry sites.
- Camping is permitted only in designated campsites in the Wild Basin Area of Rocky Mountain National Park.
- Expect snow cover on the trails from October thru late June.
- The Wild Basin Area has lots of water flowing through it for filtration purposes.
- Be a good hiker and use Leave No Trace practices when in any wilderness area.