Peak(s):  Sprague Mountain - 12,713 feet
Stones Peak - 12,922 feet
Date Posted:  10/07/2012
Modified:  10/08/2012
Date Climbed:   10/06/2012
Author:  lordhelmut
Additional Members:   wooderson, Papillon
 Some Rocky Mountain Park Classics  

Forgotten Monarchs of Central Rocky Mountain


Sprague Mountain (12,713)
Stones Peak (12,922)


19.6 miles
5700 vertical
Bear Lake Trailhead

Resources (piggy back off of D Baker's style)

Lisa Foster's Guide to Rocky Mountain National Park
Trails Illustrated RMNP
Summitpost printouts (from Brenta)
Common Sense (though remote, the routes are straightfoward)

Rocky Mountain National Park, while not the biggest area in the state, is home to some of the most secluded peaks and drainages. Standing in the Bear Lake parking lot, you would probably think solitude is completely out of the question, but all you really need to do is make it 1 foot past the Flattop Mountain summit (not in the direction of Hallet) and you have yourself a wide open expanse of regions to explore that see very few visitors on an annual basis. This is a nice way to bag peaks, cause you spend the majority of the day nomadically wandering around Big Horn Flats and its neighboring areas with few trails and no gapers, but as a reward, you have a 3 foot wide trail on the approach and deproach.

Moraine Park could be considered a Gaper Fest, but it's the best the eastern side of the park has to offer from a campground standpoint, and the access and views are solid. Kevin, Sarah and I have used it a number of times as a jumping off point for long day trips in to the "Wild Gardens" (Lisa Foster term) of Glacier Gorge, Loch Vale and Bear Lake.

We arrived in to camp around 7:30pm, just as the campground gatekeepers were calling it a night. After figuring out overnight permits, I ask them casually when the last bear sighting was. "Two hours ago" says the ranger. "Awesome" we all respond. Of course, the one night where I could've used my mace and blade, I didn't bring either. As we quickly setup tents and a fire, we pause to hear the screams of a nearby group. We were ready for anything, but it ended up being nothing more than a bunch of young girls. After some JJ's, Happy Campers, a decent fire and some Late July Dude Ranch chips (I will pay a premium if anyone nabs these at Whole Foods when in stock), we called it a night.

We woke to rime covered pine trees and relative blue skies.

Moraine Park at sunrise

The road to Bear Lake is still abiding by the 9am-4pm road closure for repaving, so we made our way towards the trailhead for an 8am start.

Bear Lake

The trail up to Flattop went as usual, with some nice views of an early Fall coating of the surrounding peaks....

Longs Massif w/ coating of Fall rime

The winds rose and the temps dropped around Flattop. We'd be fighting one or the other, and at times, a mixture of the two, for the remainder of the day.

The hike over Bighorn Flats went quick and we peeled off for Sprague right as we reached the Eureka Ditch off the Tonahutu Creek Trail.

From there, we followed the faint trail along the ditch till we reached Sprague Pass at 11,700.

I wonder where the owner of this is right about now?

From the "pass" (it doesn't feel much like a pass), you ascend a straightforward, easy slope up to a notch that is the top of the Sprague Glacier.

Pappy and Woody straddling the Continental Divide

The glacier was a nice and welcomed surprise (especially since we didn't need to go across it, just marvel at it) and there appeared to be some fresh debris, making for a dramatic scene.

Sprague Glacier and Lake (Papillon)

Notice the hiker?

Looking straight down towards the lake

looking back at Sprague Lake and Southern RMNP

We made our way around the edge of the cirque towards Sprague's broad southern slopes, gained the summit plateau and then located the highpoint in the Northwest corner. We found a register, not many names in the last 6 years and none since Labor Day (granted registers aren't the messiah on a gauge of how many people summit peaks, but it gives you, at least, an idea of how seldom visited some are. I imagine Longs has to be changed on a daily basis, no wonder Detterline has climbed it so many times)

Summit of Sprague (Papillon)

Salt N' Vinegar Pringles were enjoyed by all (we had 3 sleeves!). Kevin took a quick nap while Sarah and I enjoyed future ops in the Never Summers and Ida region. The views of Hayden Spire were enjoyable as well......

Hayden Spire

It was around 1pm, a little past our turnaround time, but we figured if we could make good time to Stones and back and obtain Flattop by 6, we could just grunt out the deproach with headlamps. It was Saturday anyway, so we were willing to push it a tad. In my opinion, which I think was shared by all, the decision to tag on Stones was arguably the single greatest decision any of us have made in the mountains, we would find out later.

Back to the ridge run. We made way for those bunny rabbit lookin points on Sprague's eastern summit plateau and picked our way through them. The last section would prove to be the climbing crux of the day, with a semi-exposed 3rd class skootch around. Around this section, the winds and temps relented a tad. Sarah realized she was wearing everything in her pack for the past hour or so, so we took a quick break at the saddle and re-layered and fueled up.

crux on traverse to Stones (Wooderson)

We had all made recent trips to the park and commented on how smokey the region has been. On this day, it was not as hazy, but a different force of nature was at work here. Front Range cloud inversions. Anyone who has had the pleasure of experiencing one of these probably knows what I'm talking about, but this particular one was rather unique. It lasted ALL DAY. It was really cool to see mother nature at work throughout the afternoon. In the early afternoon, we noticed clouds building over the plains, then gradually being pushed up against the Continental Divide. We would then notice the waves of clouds stopping dead in their tracks in the prospective, deeply inset drainages between Stones and Longs Peak, and an Easterly flow keeping the clouds from extending any further West. They literally remained there, and kept on building, like an artist and his painting, providing us with some killer photo ops.

Cloud Inversion

After the brief hold up in the notch, we made quick work of the rest of the traverse to Stones, which I would put at no higher than a 2+.

Papillon approaching mile #9.8

Now you might recall Stephanie's (Ridge Runner) Mount Ida loop from a couple weeks ago and her mentioning a little tidbit about Forest Canyon. Anyone who has ever driven over Trail Ridge Rd has probably, knowingly or unknowingly, commented on this place. It's the huge, 2000 foot dropoff to the South of the road. I like to refer to it as a Black Bear Den. Kevin stated that if a movie was ever made for the book "Night of the Grizzly" by Jack Olsen, the following photo by Kane on Summitpost would be used in the opening credits......

The credits and music will roll similar to the beginning of the Shining and anyone in the crowd will never want to venture out in to the woods ever again.

Anyways, we were glad to be viewing that canyon from high above...

F**k that place

A little more welcoming sight was our view to the East, and its Sea of Tranquility....

Sea of Tranquility

Not to mention the view to the South getting better and better by the minute.

Getting surreal

It was getting late and unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. We probably could've sat there for days admiring that view, but the cold and the late hour had us heading home.

retracing our steps (Wooderson)

Looking back on crux of ridge

heading towards the Flats (Wooderson)

We were mainly spread out pretty far on the way back towards Bighorn Flats. I was humming Zeppelin songs in my head for a solid hour until we all took a quick water break and admired the sunset to the West......

Sunset to the West

And more inversions to our East

Mines of Moria down there? (Papillon)

We reached Flattop around 6:15, rounded the horse tie up then started making solid progress. I said earlier that adding on Stones was a great decision. Well, as we were rounding Flattop towards treeline, we were presented with an evening alpenglow of unworldly proportions. As Kevin said "Its starting to get downright psychedelic". I'll let the shots do the talking

Longs on full display

McHenry's Notch evening alpenglow (Papillon)

Taylor alpenglow (Papillon)

Simply amazing (Papillon)

I've added a human to prove these were real....

Wooderson for scale (Papillon)

This lasted for, maybe, 7 to 8 minutes, we couldn't have timed it anymore perfect. It was a real treat, we were all very grateful for the forces of nature that all occurred at the same time to make something like that possible. After numerous photo ops, we descended down towards the mist...

Reaching the mist (Wooderson)

Once we reached tree line, we entered the eerie inversion, which provided a frighteningly beautiful descent down to the car. Using headlamps was like turning on your high beams in a heavy fog, but at least we could see our feet and where we were going.

We reached the car at exactly 8pm, a roundtrip of 11 hours and 45 minutes. It was both strange and comforting seeing our car as the last one to leave the infamous Bear Lake Trailhead. We were VERY grateful we didn't need to pick up a car shuttle at Milner also.

Last stop of the evening was made at the one and only Ed's Cantina, which we made with an hour to spare. Kevin, while a couple yards ahead of Sarah and I on the deproach across Bighorn Flats, looked deep in thought. At one point, he turned around and stated "F**t it, let's just get the double order of fajitas and a gigantic plate of nachos and call it good. What do you guys say?". Well, that's what we ended up getting, and it looked like this...

Nachos (Papillon)

Double order of Fajitas. Oh man....

Another day in the park on the books and it was right up there with the best of them. Thanks for reading....

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):

 Comments or Questions

10/08/2012 03:29
We got to see those clouds roll in from Copeland yesterday, but it looks like we headed down a bit too soon. Great photos.


Awesome pics!
10/08/2012 03:29
You are right about the those alpenglow shots - wonderful.

We were at Spragues Lake early Saturday AM looking for moose and enjoyed the frosted trees as well - it was a beautiful morning.


great views!
10/08/2012 05:11
Reminds me of my mummy traverse day in august, had the same cloud sea early in the morning... will write that report eventually


Sweet alpenglow
10/08/2012 13:59
Brian, awesome pics, man, and congrats on an awesome day!


Alrighty then!
10/08/2012 13:59
That was such a cool report. Unique photos of an area I have not been to before. Very happy you shared this. And, looks like I need to hit Ed's sometime.... and Sprague.


10/09/2012 04:15
vonmackle - Did you run in to Anna and Kimo? I believe they were up there. Isolation was plan B, but I'm glad we stuck to plan A.

Alpine - Sprague Lake looks like an unbelievable area (and nasty bushwack at that). Looks like No Man's Land.

tdawg - glad you were able to experience the Frange Cloud Sea. Looking foward to checking out your TR.

JB - thanks man, hope all is well!

Barry - Thanks for reading. Definitely check out Sprague and Ed's, in that order. Enchiladas are quite amazing and they have Dale's on tap.

dehrlich101 - definitely worth a visit, thanks for the comments

Pappy - Thanks for the additions to the day that i missed. Agree 100% on Rangers, know your s**t, this isn't amateur hour at a REI retail store.

Presto - If you look closely, you can see Kevin's Dales in the Fajita smorgasbord. I can't have post climb beers, or else my car won't start! Thanks for the comments.

Floyd - now is the time for long days in the park. More you go, better chance to get cloud inversions and sunsets like this. Thanks for the comments.

Steve - I'd genuinely like to hear about that adventure in to Forest Canyon. I'd say the way we went was probably the easiest. Fern Lake looked kind of hairy. Thanks for the comments.

Wooderson - you are right, I think we all share the same viewpoints of that area, its refreshing to visit areas where everyone is on the same page. Moraine -> Day in park -> Ed's.

Chris - dreamy day indeed, that's a good way to put it.

Aaron - those last few shots of the sunset and post climb meal were for you bud. I hope you learned a lot in rock climbing class!

Richard - SNV Pringles could be used in place of wartime peace treaties. They make climbing that much more fun.

Mike - It certainly did feel like we were sitting on the Continental divide, looking out over an endless ocean. Very cool. Thanks for the comments.


10/08/2012 14:49
Excellent pictures of Longs, and the white sea. Cool peaks, definitely going on the to-do list.



10/08/2012 15:17
Another great day in the park, Brian. I'm glad we stuck to Plan A and am doubly glad we hit Stones. I don't even want to think about approaching that from Fern Lake. I think I'd rather spend the night in the bottom of forest canyon guarding a rack of ribs with no headlamp than attempt Stones from Fern Lake.

We should definitely hit Milner Pass next summer and also Desolation.

A couple of things...

1. The view of Sprague Glacier is worth 17 miles on its own.
2. NPS rangers should know the difference between a camera and an avy beacon.
3. NPS rangers should know the names and locations of every feature in the park where they work.
4. My condolences to the wombat who yardsaled his/her cheetos high up on the flattop trail.
5. I thought it was game on when those chicks started screaming in Moraine Park on Friday evening. I was ready to grab a log out of the fire if the sh-- hit.
6. Ed's was a feast.

I think we nailed everything...


Kevin took a nap ...
10/08/2012 15:32
Been there, done that. 8) Beautiful report ... kudos to all three of you. Looks like a great team effort in all respects. Thanks for the food shots. Where's the beer photos?!?! Happy trails!


Maybe should have stuck with the park
10/08/2012 15:59
Nice outing you guys! Those Alpenglow pictures are truly amazing. Good effort on the post-climb too.

Steve Knapp

Great day!
10/08/2012 17:05
Very cool, those don't get climbed too often and are a long way from anywhere. Funny comments about Forest canyon, I know people who have descended into there and it was not a pleasant experience for them. Awesome shots of the glacier calving into the lake. I've still got to do these someday and have been debating the best way. Thanks for the report!


unforgettable day
10/08/2012 17:19
Brian, it occurred to me that a disproportionate number of the peaks Kevin and I have done with you have been in RMNP. And I think thereís a good reason for that. Long days in the Park, especially in the fall, are tough to beat. Plus you always have a solid post-hike feast awaiting at Edís.

Still canít believe how lucky we were to catch that alpenglow... 10 minutes earlier or later and we might have missed it. And the cloud inversion was probably the coolest thing Iíve ever seen in the mountains. Descending into all that fog was wild... sort of felt like hiking under water.

What an incredible day. Thanks for the great write-up.


10/08/2012 17:26
Man, what an awesome day. I've only seen cloud inversion from a above once or twice, and not nearly on that scale. Hitting two long tough peaks and having that sort of scenery is a dream day for me. Well done guys!


Yep, knew I should have made this happen.
10/08/2012 18:09
So glad you guys had such a badass trip, those pictures are unreal!

You definitely had a better Saturday than me. I did notice the inversion from home and was hoping it was making for some eye candy, so glad you were able to capture it.


Nice report Brian. The deranged...
10/08/2012 18:26
salt n' vinegar Pringle addict!! (see Sprague summit photo evidence)

Chicago Transplant

Great Day
10/09/2012 02:25
Wow, looks like it was a great day up in the Park after all! As Scot said, we gave up on Iso and thought it was getting socked in all day from our vantage point. Glad to see you guys had such a great day. Those inversion pics are great, inversions are pretty cool, the rolling clouds seem like ocean waves.


So beautiful..
10/09/2012 17:23's making me rethink my distaste for walking and being out until late in the day.


Almost missed this
07/29/2013 18:29
Take a long weekend off from the site, and almost missed some amazing report! Especially, when this was pushed down the stack by some Bierstadt reports. Great pics, I've done a lot of wandering around RMNP and have never seen that cloud inversion that you did. Very cool!


10/09/2012 18:50
Bean - Is Bean 2 rubbing off on you? I'm glad this TR inspired you to start walking. You couldn't really stay out this late in the day on skis, make for shitty snow. Thanks for the comments.

49ers Rule - Keep on wandering, you'll find it sooner or later.


Game on!
10/09/2012 18:58
Strong effort for low hanging fruit but I can see why. That is some tasty fruit. We were up in Wild Basin having a good time on that same day...the clouds were fantastic. The experience really reaffirmed my love of the Park. There's a good chance I've spent more quality time in Rocky than any other ”sub-range” in Colorado, and it's for good reason, as seen in your report.

Great pictures from each of you...and hilarious story telling as always, Helmut.

In the book Deep Survival there is a chapter called ”Bending the Map” that discusses Ken Killip's story of survival while lost in Forest Canyon. As a ranger said, ”It's pretty unforgiving.” Your caption ”F**k that place” cracked me up.

And Barry...Ed's serves a mean breakfast starting at 7am on weekends. Makes a good excuse to enjoy late starts in winter...

Ridge runner

Deep Survival
10/10/2012 19:22
I've had that book on the shelf for a few years but now I have a reason to make it my next read. Then maybe read ”Night of the Grizzly”, then I'll be set to explore Forest Canyon.

Nice shots, especially with the inversion. Definitely make a trip to Desolation Peaks, you'll have some nice views of Ypsilon and Fairchild. I'm thinking a trip up to Bighorn Flats after a nice snowfall would make for some amazing scenery too.


Great Shots
10/11/2012 18:08
of the area as well as the post climb meal. For anyone who doubts the potential of RMNP 12ers, this TR should prove a point. Thanks for postin' Angus!

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