Editor’s note 3/18/21: After heightened demand for backcountry camping permits crashed Rocky Mountain National Park’s website twice this month, the park has now pivoted to an online lottery system for claiming permits. Names can be entered in the lottery system through Sunday, March 21 at 5 p.m. Find updates and more information online.
Landing your dream backpacking trip in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) isn’t quite as unlikely as winning Mega Millions—but it’s always been difficult. Peak-season permits go on sale March 1 at 8 a.m. sharp, and in a normal year, dozens of diehards would be lined up outside the park’s permit office near the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center for the in-person lottery, hoping to gain a needed edge (one the National Park Service says doesn’t exist) over the thousands of would-be adventurers booking online.
But 2021 isn’t a normal year. Not only has COVID-19 forced RMNP to suspend in-person reservations, parts of the park were devastated by the Cameron Peak and East Troublesome fires, meaning dozens of Rocky’s 270-plus backcountry campsites are closed due to fire damage.
With that in mind, Joshua Baruch, owner and senior guide at Boulder-based outfitter Colorado Wilderness Rides and Guides, says backpackers could head for RMNP’s (mostly) unscathed and less-trafficked northwest side. But with burn scars, dust, and destroyed infrastructure making for difficult conditions, Baruch says this may be the year to skip Rocky altogether. Fortunately, Colorado is filled with world-class backpacking destinations—no permit required.
If You’re Looking For…A Quick Escape
Indian Peaks Wilderness
This 73,391-acre wilderness is basically Denver’s collective backyard, so you likely know that backcountry camping permits have been mandatory since the mid-1980s. What you might not know is that no permits are needed for groups of seven or less between September 16 and May 31. Better yet, autumn sees far fewer crowds. We love the eight-mile, waterfall- and wildflower-lined climb to Upper Diamond Lake for a speedy overnight trip.
If You’re Looking For…A Thrill
Flat Tops Wilderness
Just three feet wide at its narrowest, with 80-foot-tall cliffs falling away on either side, Flat Tops’ Devils Causeway gives RMNP’s Keyhole Route a run for its money in terms of sheer pucker factor. The reward for those brave enough? Views of Little Causeway Lake, stunted basalt domes, and alpine meadows below. Baruch suggests adding it as a detour (stash your pack for better balance) from a longer multiday loop to take advantage of the area’s lakes. Easy water access means staying hydrated isn’t the chore it can be elsewhere in the state.
If You’re Looking For…An Icon
Maroon Bells–Snowmass Wilderness
If anywhere in Colorado can rival RMNP’s popularity as a hiker’s paradise, it’s this federally designated wilderness 12 miles southwest of Aspen. So it’s wild that you don’t need a permit to tackle the world-class, 28-mile Four Pass Loop, which circles the wilderness’ famous twin fourteeners. Sure, it’ll be crowded, but if you’re intent on checking a bucket-list trek off your list sans red tape, this is it.
If You’re Looking For…A Comfortable Campsite
Lost Creek Wilderness
“Cozy” isn’t a word you’d expect to hear describing a hiking trail, but that’s the adjective Baruch uses for the Goose Creek portion of the 28-mile Lost Creek Loop. “It’s not some stark alpine zone,” he says. Expect to see an evergreen forest dotted with meadows, aspen stands, and granite outcroppings and arches. The lower elevation also means it’s a good option for early- and late-season excursions when snow blankets other hiking spots.