Length: Up to 9 miles roundtrip and 2,000 vertical feet
Difficulty: Hard
Why we love it: This trail explores one of the park’s quietest areas, passing through several distinct types of forest enroute to spectacular views at the end.
Pre-hike buzz: Stop by Lyon’s St. Vrain Market Bakery for coffee paired with muffins, cinnamon rolls, and gluten-free goodies
When to go: December through mid-April
Restrooms: Vault toilets at trailhead
Distance from Denver: About 70 miles from Denver
Dogs: Not allowed

The Sandbeach Trail is located in the outlying Wild Basin area of Rocky Mountain National Park. From the trailhead, located at an elevation of 8,300 feet, the route begins by zig-zagging up a south-facing slope. As you ascend, you’re quickly immersed in a quiet ponderosa pine forest. These impressively tall trees have unusually red bark, whose color is even more vivid in winter, when it contrasts sharply with the snow.

About a mile from the start, the trail crests atop a distinct ridge, where the gradient levels out and the forest begins to change character to more subalpine species like Engleman spruce, firs, and occasional aspen groves. This ridge is a glacial moraine—a long, loose pile of boulders, cobbles, and sand that accumulated at the front of a glacier’s snout as it 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 extent.

You soon pass a series of granite outcrops, which are often partially buried beneath the deepening snow. About two miles from the trailhead, you arrive at “Hole in the Wall,” the first of several backcountry campsites along this route. As you continue to climb, the trail takes you past aspen groves and polished granite boulders, near which—if you’re lucky—you might even catch a glimpse of a moose!

Once the gradient levels off again, you’ll cross Campers and Hunters creeks on sturdy bridges. In this area, the forest begins to change character again. The aspen disappear, the spruce and firs grow shorter, and sturdy limber pines begin to appear. After the creek crossings, there’s just one final, steep haul up to Sandbeach Lake (at 10,283 feet).

After catching your first glimpse of the lake, your eyes are immediately drawn upward 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.

The view towards 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. To the left of Copeland, you can also spot the Elk Tooth, a “fang” that’s perched on the border between the national park and the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area.

As always in winter, make sure to check Colorado’s Avalanche Information Center or call the Park Rangers at 970-586-1206 before leaving to make sure the conditions are safe. Be sure to bring plenty of food, water, and a first aid kit, too.

Getting there: From Denver, take U.S. 36 west through Boulder to Lyons and then turn left onto Highway 7. Follow this road southwest for 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 ($25) or display a valid annual pass ($70), which can be purchased at the entrance or online.

Terri Cook
Terri Cook

Terri Cook is an award-winning freelance writer based in Boulder. More of her work can be found at down2earthscience.com.