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Length: 9 miles round-trip
Trailhead: Wild Basin (40.21975, -105.53441)
Why we love it: This trail explores one of the park’s quietest areas, passing through several distinct types of forest en route to spectacular views of a Who’s Who mountain panorama: 13,497-foot Pagoda Mountain, 14,259-foot Longs Peak, and 13,916-foot Mt. Meeker.
Pre-hike fuel: Heading into the park from the Front Range? Pit stop by Lyon’s St. Vrain Market Bakery for a to-go cup of coffee paired with a fresh-baked muffin, cinnamon roll, or gluten-free goodie.
Post-hike buzz: There are plenty of options for après in Estes Park, but you can avoid the chaos by hitting the road and making it back to Lyons. Spirit Hound Distillers’ tasting room serves bevvies that will help you regain some warmth in your core—and you’ll fit right in when you waltz inside in your swooshy pants and wind-burnt cheeks. There is usually a food truck parked outside for good measure.
Restrooms: There are a couple of vault toilets at the Wild Basin trailhead.
Dogs: Not allowed
Winter doesn’t have to put a pause on your alpine season. With the right gear—snowshoes, poles, and warm, waterproof clothes—you can ascend this ridge that spiderwebs southeast from Longs Peak for solitude, wildlife viewing, and, yes, epic mountain views. (As always in winter, make sure to check Colorado’s Avalanche Information Center before heading out, and pack proper equipment, too.)
Located in the outlying Wild Basin area of Rocky Mountain National Park, the Sandbeach Lake Trail begins at an elevation of 8,300 feet. The route zig-zags up a south-facing slope covered in ponderosa pines. These impressively tall trees have unusually red bark, which is even more vivid in winter, when it contrasts sharply with the snow.
About a mile from the start, the trail crests a distinct ridge, where the gradient levels out and the forest begins to change character to more subalpine species like Englemann spruce, firs, and occasional aspen groves. This spine is a glacial moraine—a long, loose pile of boulders, cobbles, and sand left in the wake of a glacier that pushed its way downhill about 13,000 years ago. As the climate warmed and that glacier began to melt away, it left behind this pile of debris, which marks the ice’s furthest reach. Typically covered in snow from October or November into June, the going is easy here on snowshoes.
Pass a series of granite outcrops, which are often partially buried in snow. About two miles from the trailhead, you arrive at Hole in the Wall, the first of several backcountry campsites along this route. Continue climbing past aspen groves and polished granite boulders where moose often hang. Cross Campers and Hunters Creeks on sturdy bridges and notice the forest change character one more time before the timberline: The aspens disappear, the spruce and firs grow shorter, and sturdy limber pines begin to crop up. From here, it’s one final, steep haul up to Sandbeach Lake at 10,283 feet.
After catching your first glimpse of the lake, draw your gaze up, up, and away to Longs Peak, the impressive fourteener rising right above you, and to the Keyboard of the Winds to the left of the blocky summit. The keyboard is a series of jagged granite blocks sitting high on Longs’ shoulder, where they’ve been naturally sculpted by the elements. Pagoda Mountain is looker’s left of the Keyboard of the Winds, just southwest of Longs. Mt. Meeker hogs the foreground; just shy of 14,000 feet, it rises just in front of Longs to the other (southeast) side.
The view toward the south is also impressive; you can see all of Wild Basin as well as Copeland Mountain, one of the park’s many peaks that rise over 13,000 feet. Behind Copeland, try to pinpoint the Elk Tooth, a “fang” that’s perched on the border between the national park and the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area.
Retrace your steps on the return.
Getting there: From Denver, navigate to Lyons, either by way of I-25 North and CO 7 west or U.S. 36 west via Boulder. From Lyons, follow CO 7 west 20 miles to the Wild Basin Area, which is accessed via a left turn just past Allenspark. After passing through the national park entrance, turn right into the first parking lot. When the entrance station is open, you must pay the daily entrance fee ($30) or display a valid annual pass, which can be purchased at the entrance or online.
Before you go: Always check winter conditions, including the local avalanche report and weather. It’s OK (and fun!) to hike in snow, but wind can make your outing miserable. Gusts up to 20 mph are perfectly manageable with the right gear.