Western Ute Trail provides amazing views over a 4-mile decline

With two sets of cars, the Western Ute Trail can be an easy downhill trek in Rocky Mountain National Park that takes you through alpine and subalpine ecosystems. It’s considered a moderate hike of just over 4 miles with an elevation loss (yes, loss!) of 1,209 feet).

This hike is only available seasonally when Trail Ridge Road is open. It’s best to start early and head past the Alpine Center to Milner Pass on the west side of the park. Parking is limited. Park one car there, then head back up to the start of the trail at the Alpine Visitor Center.

The trailhead is at 11,796 feet just across Trail Ridge Road from the Alpine Visitor Center parking lot. This is a well-defined trail that begins on the rocky tundra. When we took the trek in early July, tiny tundra wildflowers dotted the landscape. We saw many different species on this part of the trail. Pika, marmots and deer were enjoying the sunshine at high altitude.

About 1.5 miles into the hike, you come across small mountain water features called tarns. The National Park Service defines says, tarn is a term derived from tjörn which is an Old Norse word meaning “pond.”

These small, scenic mountain lakes overlook Forest Canyon and are surrounded in every direction by fantastic views which are mirrored in the tarns’ still waters. This was one of my favorite parts of the hike which took us to some places that unlike anywhere else I have been in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Just past this area you come across a sign indicating Forest Canyon Pass. This is the location where the Big Thompson River begins.

At about halfway through the hike, small trees start to crop up and you begin to enter the forest in the subalpine zone. As you head downward, the height of the trees grows quickly.

At about 2.7 miles into the trail, hikers have the chance to see several beautiful mountain streams. In the early summer, this part of the trail can be a bit muddy.

At 3.4 miles into the hike, you will take a right at the one and only turn on the Western Ute Trail. It is at the intersection of the Ida Trail. You take a sharp right and start the descent down to Milner Pass and Poudre Lake.

This part of the hike has switchbacks and is fairly steep. Although we really didn’t need hiking poles for most of this hike, I was glad I carried them with me and I used them on this last portion to give myself stability.

Just before you come to the end of this hike, you will walk by a stunning geologic formation. Very tall rock spires reach more than 40 feet in height. These are ancient pegmatite dikes. According to geologylearn.blogspot.com, “Pegmatite are intrusive rocks with extreme coarse grained texture that are developed at the final stages of magma crystallization.” A dike is defined as a dike is a large slab of rock that cuts through another type of rock.

At this point along the trail, we were also able to spot some rather large elk grazing on the green undergrowth prevalent in this area. We were also treated to sights of lovely purple columbine in this area. Columbine is the state flower of Colorado.

Upon arriving back at Milner Pass, take a moment to grab that selfie at the sign for the Continental Divide. This is the continent’s separation point where water on one side flows to the Pacific and water on the other side flows to the Atlantic.

The path for the Western Ute Trail is generally smooth and wide. Pack a rain poncho since there is the occasional unexpected cloudburst this time of year.

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