Overland’s Best Day Hikes: Lone Pine Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park, near Grand Lake, Colorado (updated 4.2.24)

Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado has some beautiful day hikes. If you’re headed to RMNP, and want to get out on a great day hike, then read on!

The Lone Pine Lake day hike is always one of Overland’s favorite hikes in the Rockies. This post gives you a first-hand account of the hike from the point of view of two Overland leaders, Dylan Kotlowitz and Maggie McDow. Dylan and Maggie each led three Overland groups of kids and teens on this hike during the summer of 2023.

Table of Contents

  • Part One: Lone Pine Lake Day Hike, Information at a Glance 
  • Part Two: Lone Pine Lake Day Hike, Overview 
  • Part Three: Report from Overland Leaders Dylan Kotlowitz and Maggie McDow 
  • Part Four: Lone Pine Lake Day Hike, Helpful Basics 
  • Part Five: Area Map (courtesy of Gaia GPS
  • Part Six: Topo Map and Elevation Profile  (courtesy of Gaia GPS
  • Part Seven: Lone Pine Lake Day Hike Trailhead Information
  • Part Eight: Additional Resources

Part One: Lone Pine Lake Day Hike, Information at a Glance 

  • Location of trailhead: East Inlet Trailhead, just outside of Grand Lake, Colorado
  • Difficulty level: Moderate to Challenging
  • Round trip miles: Approximately 11 miles roundtrip
  • Elevation gain: About 2,500′
  • Typical duration of the hike for Overland groups: Approximately 5-6 hours (not including stops)

Part Two: Lone Pine Lake Day Hike, Overview 

The Lone Pine Lake Day Hike starts in a dusty, bumpy parking lot and plods along a wide path for about three miles. It follows the valley floor, and after about two miles the trail comes to a bluff overlooking the valley, the stream running out of the lake, and the mountains at the back of the valley.

When we came to this bluff on my first trip, one of our students came up next to me and said: “It looks like Switzerland.” And it does, or at least what I’d expect Switzerland to look like; sweeping views of dramatic granite cliffs, snow-topped distant mountains, vibrant green carpets, and a cascading, crystal blue river. The views only get better as we got closer to Lone Pine Lake, and after the third mile the trail begins a steep incline that it’ll only increase for the next three miles. The incline is worth it though, and as we spiraled up the surrounding mountains the view outwards, of the turquoise Grand Lake and the snowy peaks of RMNP, took our breath away. The trail flattens out around a quarter mile from the top, and we knew we’re close when we began to hike parallel to a rushing, frigid stream. We practiced our backcountry drinking water techniques at this trail, inching out on an overhanging rock as students fire-line water bottles to and from our progressively wet and freezing hands. We cautioned our group not to drink the stream water until it was purified—and we made a game out of waiting for the Aquamira to do its magic (and until we reached the lake we kept an eagle eye on their bottles!). 

Once we reached the lake, all thoughts of giardia were driven from our minds as we saw Lone Pine Lake for what feels like the first time, no matter what trip we’re on and how much sleep we’ve gotten the night before. Slanting, barren granite walls slope down on three sides to a lake gleaming in the sun, dotted with marshes and small, rocky islands. We were never able to identify the lone pine, because craggy, mottled pines have worked their way into most islands and peninsulas around the lake. We dropped our packs on a rocky protrusion into the lake, laid our heads back, and by group consensus took a short catnap. The students waded in, we helped them strain their bottles, and one by one each student began to smile and laugh, and lean against one another and point at the snow on the peak next to us, to the mini waterfall below us, to the candy blue sky above us. 

After what felt like far too little time, we packed up, swept the rocks around us for any micro trash, and started the trip down. It went by in a blur, with trail games and promises of ice cream in town keeping our students going, and before we knew it we we’re back at the van.

Part Three: Report from Overland Leaders Dylan Kotlowitz and Maggie McDow 

This past summer, we took three groups on this hike. It was clear to us by the third trip that Lone Pine Lake was like a group-bonding magic spell. It was our second day hike on our second full day, and as a result the group was still not familiar or entirely comfortable with one another. We became firm believers in the magic of the lake: wading in the frigid water brought out the most daring and inspired in our students, and encouraging others to take off their socks, put on their Crocs, and dip a toe in brought out the most supportive and genuine in them. Air-drying on the rock with the sun beating down on their tired and dusty limbs prompted introspective and authentic conversations, and I was constantly amazed by my students’ ability to be honest, open, and loving with one another on their second day hike. Persuading them to put their packs on was a different story (!), but the hike down always sped by as we laughed, chatted, and played games. Afterwards, we either took them into Grand Lake for ice cream or back to the campsite for watermelon and lemonade. These treats capped off what always seemed like a near-perfect day, and for the rest of the trip the name Lone Pine Lake brought smiles to our students’ faces. We love the hike because it felt like magic, from start to finish; the scenery was breathtaking on the way up, the lake almost ethereal, and the frigid water seemed to forge bonds amongst our students that no amount of “Where the West Wind Blows,” with no disrespect to that classic game, ever could.

The wonders of Lone Pine Lake were usually obscured by Mt. Elbert or Kelly Lake by the end of our Overland Rocky Mountain Expedition trips, but our students called it the perfect day, called it the most beautiful lake they’d ever seen, called it the best ice cream they’d ever tasted, but one high and low stand out to me from our second trip. A student who had struggled with the altitude on both our first and second days gave their low, as we expected, to the altitude and the difficulty of the hike. Their high went to “their Overland family” – in their words – for wading in the freezing water with them. This seemed to us like a great metaphor for the Overland experience. Together we ask students to wade in the freezing water of transcontinental flights by themselves, of their first-time backpacking, of deep pots of mac and cheese, of bear boxes, bear hangs, and bear spray, and of the terrifying experience of being in a new place with new people doing entirely new things. We also give them a family, a group of eleven other students who are there to wade in that water with them and to cheer them on as they do it, and when they leave the water to dry on the sunbaked rocks together. Lone Pine Lake may not have been the hardest, most scenic, or most exotic hike we did but to us it felt like the start of our family, and the start of our adventure together.

Overland Leader Profile: Dylan Kotlowitz

A quote from Dylan’s co-leader: What made Dylan so awesome was that he would always make it a point to check in with me personally—every day. He noticed when I hadn’t slept much the night before, if I hadn’t eaten enough that day, and if I was stressed about something –and he would take action to help all of those situations. I felt really cared for and valued as a co-leader, and always tried my best to do the same for him. I can’t imagine not leading with Dylan next summer. There are so many more places I want to explore, kids I want to meet, and meals I want to make with him.  I loved our commitment to having FUN on our trips with the kids most of all, and I hope we can bring that to new groups of Overland campers next summer!

Overland Leader Profile: Maggie McDow

A quote from Maggie’s co-leader: “I have never before led with someone who I trust so entirely. She is incredible at comforting students and helping them find the bright side of tough situations. She is a very logical thinker and I trusted her 100% to always do what was best for our students even in times when we disagreed.”

Part Four: Lone Pine Lake Day Hike, Helpful Basics

Over the course of five miles up, you get to see a lot of different kinds of terrain: it starts out dry and sandy—almost desert-like—then turns rocky and ends up at a beautiful lake among the trees. You get such a huge variety of views and vibes over the course of not too many miles. The way down is fun, too, because you get different and still amazing views. The lake has a great spot to hang out and eat lunch, and there are lots of lovely spots to stop along the trail for breaks, too. If you decide to or need to turn around early, you will still get some amazing views (one of my favorite views came only a mile in!).

Part Five: Area Map (courtesy of Gaia GPS)

Part Six: Topo Map and Elevation Profile  (courtesy of Gaia GPS)

Part Seven: Lone Pine Lake Day Hike Trailhead Information

The hike starts on a more highly trafficked and relatively flat trail then takes a turn up into the mountains. There isn’t any rock scrambling and most of the trail itself isn’t too steep.

Part Eight: Additional Resources

Rocky Mountain National Park

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    Tom Costley

    When Tom Costley founded Overland in 1984, he sought to create experiences for young people that were fun, where new friendships could grow, where natural beauty was embraced, where there were real and varied challenges, and where Overland’s students would achieve something of importance to them. Overland’s focus on small groups, carefully crafted trips, and superlative leadership has made it a leader in the summer camp world. Overland’s commitment to excellence in everything it does has led to its success: over the past four decades, Overland has served 40,000 students and 5,000 trip leaders. Tom writes about the outdoors and travel from Williamstown, Massachusetts.

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