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

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.

DAY HIKE BASICS: LONE PINE LAKE DAY HIKE IN ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK

  • 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)

DAY HIKE FIRST-HAND ACCOUNT: LONE PINE LAKE DAY HIKE IN ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK

Author: Overland Leader Dylan Kotlowitz, Summer 2023

PART ONE: What It’s Like

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 TWO: Why We Loved It

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.

PART THREE: Anything Else That Is Memorable

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

  • Hometown: Hanover, New Hampshire
  • College, Major, Year of Graduation: Bard College, Politics, 2025
  • Summers on Overland staff: 2023, 2024
  • Overland trips: Rocky Mountain Expedition (2023) and Iceland Expedition (2024)

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!

DAY HIKE FIRST-HAND ACCOUNT: LONE PINE LAKE DAY HIKE IN ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK

Author: Overland Leader Maggie McDow, Summer 2023

“My take on the difficulty is that it depends on your comfort/acclimation to altitude. For active, acclimated people, I’d say it’s medium difficulty; for those who have just arrived in Colorado, it will be a bit more of a challenge. 

PART ONE: What It’s Like

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 TWO: Why We Loved It

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 THREE: What Our Kids Thought

Our kids (15- and 16-year-olds) found it pretty challenging since they had just flown in the day before, but they found the views and environment a distraction from the challenge. Every trip (we did this hike three times), a group of kids would go stick their heads in the cold lake as a refresher after a sweaty hike on the way up.”

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.”

A third Overland leader, Xander Evans, shared these thoughts on the Lone Pine Lake hike:

“Wow, what a hike! This route is two-pronged in its utility — on one hand, it’s a wonderful experience that serves enjoyment for basically everyone in the group. On the other, since it’s relatively challenging, it helps leaders decipher who within their group needs more support for the remainder of the trip. This is a great Day 1 hike for Rocky Mountain Expedition groups since it offers immediate scenic gratification and draws the students into the allure of the beautiful Rockies right off the bat. In the 5.5 miles during the ascent to Lone Pine Lake, you experience flat sections near beautiful marshes and rivers, bridges to cross waterfalls, steeper inclines carved right into the side of the mountain, and more. Virtually every spot on the trail is a great choice for a snack break — if your group is moving slower, then you’ll also have a wide selection for good lunch spots in case your “summit push” is doubtful.

I particularly love this route for its “open air” nature, especially towards the top of the route. Many other day hikes are nestled in dense woods, under significant canopy — not this one. Lone Pine allows for big views the entire way — rain or shine, since we experienced both. Seeing the vast size of the mountains all around you embeds a subconscious feeling of accomplishment for weaker and stronger hikers alike. For comparison, the Shadow Mountain Lookout hike is also challenging, but a hiker may not feel as proud during that one since it’s under tree cover for most of the route.

I think I answered this part in the previous two sections, but I’d like to reiterate its utility in bringing a group together. Everyone feels proud to get to the top, and, even on the first day, students encourage one another to keep going.

Final detail: the lake itself is an AMAZING lunch spot. Many rocks are close enough together to *safely* reach, which creates a sort of enclosed area for students to explore after eating lunch. Also, it’s downright beautiful.”

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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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