How can you make a little backpacking part of your family vacation? Go to Grand Lake, Colorado and try the Lower East Inlet Trail. A short scenic drive from Denver or Boulder, it is a fantastic destination. A lovely tourist town with quaint hotels, colorful shops, and a variety of restaurants, it also has access to an easy to moderate trail that can show anyone what hiking in the wilderness has to offer.
Twenty-seven years ago East Inlet was the first trail I hiked in Colorado. Lower East Inlet campsite was the first place I camped in Rocky Mountain National Park. The switchbacks leading up to Cats Lair and beyond to Lake Verna, the first time I marveled at the mountain vista my feet had brought me to. It is a place where I still return.
It is a popular trail for day hikers out of Grand Lake, or in from cities on the Front Range. Most only make it to the western end of East Meadow, some hike as far as the Lower East Inlet camp, and a few go as far as Cats Lair or Lake Verna. East Inlet trail is a perfect choice to introduce children or reluctant adults to the pleasures of backpacking. Make a two or three day reservation and tempt them with a relaxing time in the town of Grand Lake when you get back. It works for me.
The trail is predominantly easy with a short moderate section to Lower East Inlet so pack some luxuries. It is a well maintained; easy to follow trail that will alleviate any fear of getting lost. No campfires are allowed, so take a stove. Be prepared for light to moderate rain at least one afternoon. There will be ample opportunities for photographing wildlife and scenery. Take plenty of film or an extra memory card for your camera.
The trailhead is off a gravel parking area at the eastern edge of Grand Lake, the largest natural lake in Colorado. Take time to enjoy the view. Red squirrels will chatter at you from the pine trees. Watch for wading birds like the Greater Yellowlegs and Blue Herons along the shore.
There is a short rocky climb just after the trailhead. In .3 miles a wooden trail sign points right to Adams Falls. There is a stonewalled viewing area that offers unobstructed sight of the waterfall.
The trail parallels East Inlet Stream before curving around East Meadow. Broad across to the slope of Shadow Mountain it is edged with clumps of young Aspen trees and Ponderosa pines where moose can be seen grazing. Be aware that moose are unpredictable so do not approach them. The wildflowers blooming will depend on what month you choose to hike. Pink Twinflower, yellow puffs of Salsify, and purple Aster are common. East Inlet stream meanders through the meadow. In the crystal clear water you can see brown trout darting around.
Tall pines shade the trail for awhile as it slopes gently up. It opens up with a long reaching view near sixty feet above East Meadow. Flat rock invites you to sit and take in the vista. Here is where you are sure to meet the bolder of the wildlife. Golden Mantled Ground Squirrels populate the area and some show no fear of people. They will beg for food as you nibble on GORP, and try to burrow for food in packs. Do not feed them no matter how cute they look. Teach others that not feeding wildlife is a way to leave no trace that you were there.
The trail begins to climb with a few switchbacks. It may cause some grumbling in the novice, or young backpacker but keep them watching for moose, mule deer, or signs of other wildlife. Volunteer rangers walk the trail frequently and are happy to educate hikers about the area. It will not take long to reach the Lower East Inlet campsite so take frequent breaks.
A wooden trail sign proclaims you have reached it. Turn right and down the trail you will find the campsite situated by East Inlet stream. Nestled in a draw it is fairly isolated from the main trail, has easy access to water, a shallow swimming hole, and a flat clear spot for your tent.
Relax in camp on the first morning. Across the stream is a steep slope of rock decorated with hundred year old circles of lichen and lined with pines. American Dipper birds are commonly seen on the rocks. The stream is easy to wade across if you want to explore. Later take a day hike farther up the trail.
Rocky switchbacks make the climb to Cats Lair a memorable one. You do not have to go all the way there to get awe-inspiring views of Mounts Bryant, Wescott and Craig. Along the way expect to see many species of birds. Bright blue Stellars Jays, familiar Chickadees, and ebony Ravens are common. It is not unusual to spot Turkey Vultures or Red-tailed Hawks soaring with the air currents off the slopes.
Ground squirrels and chipmunks live in the rocks all along the way. Mount Enentah rises to your left in steep faces of rock, or cut with ledges overgrown with Aspen and Pine. Rarely mountain goats are seen and mule deer often graze on them. Neon red Indian Paintbrush, butter yellow Cinquefoil, and purple Columbine, the Colorado State Flower, are a few of the plants that grow in the area.
Hiking and camping on the East Inlet Trail is a great introduction to backpacking. It is a way to see the beauty that Rocky Mountain National Park has to offer. Book a hotel in the picturesque town of Grand Lake for something to look forward to after your days in the mountains. Enjoy the shops, restaurants, and take time to sit on the shore of Grand Lake. You, and your family will have pictures to show and stories to tell when you get home from your adventure.
For your next adventure, you can get you own gear at The PNW Waterproof Backpack.