Top Ten Day Hikes in the Rocky Mountains

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Picture of Oregon's Wallowa Mountains
The Rockies of the West: Oregon's Wallowa Mountains  (Purestock/getty)

10. Torrey Lake
8.5-mile loop in Torrey Mountain Wilderness, Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, MT
Tranquil and trout-rich Torrey Lake is cradled between a pair of 11,000-foot monoliths in southwest Montana's hugely underrated East Pioneers. Solitude is the selling point here, as the remote range west of Dillon sees about as much foot traffic as a nuclear waste dump, despite its reputation as a bastion for wildlife. Find the trailhead at the Mono Creek Campground, about 15 miles north of Polaris, off MT-278. The 8.5-mile trail gains only moderate elevation in its first 6.5 miles, following two wooded creeks and opening up into a dramatic canyon. To the east, towering 2,000 feet over the canyon floor, a fortress-like granite ridge is a constant companion, culminating above the lake at the crest of Tweedy Mountain. At 11,154 feet, it's the highest in the range, beating out neighboring Torrey Mountain by a mere seven feet. The trail climbs 1,000 feet in its last two miles to reach the base of these twin giants. Bring a fishing rod and a pair of binoculars. Elk herds are common in the summer, and the Pioneers are a stronghold for snarly and ultra-rare wolverines, one of the most threatened predators in the Rockies.

9. French Pass
6-mile circuit in Pike National Forest, CO
Six miles northwest from Jefferson, Colorado, on County Road 54, the three-mile trail to French Pass actually begins as an old mining road—broad and gentle, great for families who want mountain scenery without too taxing of a hike. Since the trail starts out at about 10,600 feet, hikers are surrounded from the get-go by alpine wildflowers and snow-covered peaks. After two miles, the trail starts climbing to the pass, a steep 600-foot rise that pays off with views of the Tarryall Mountains to the south and distant Breckenridge to the north. You can soak in the scenery and then head back to complete a six-mile round-trip, but if you're feeling ambitious, a mile of scrambling will take you to the top of adjacent Bald Mountain. At 13,684 feet, the peak is one of Colorado's easier "13ers." Track up the grassy slope just west of the saddle, then follow a series of cairns through a scree field and over a small saddle to the marked summit. The higher you get, the farther the surrounding peaks seem to stretch.
Check out our profile of French Pass—and add to it—in our Trail Finder Wiki

8. Maxwell Lake
7-mile circuit in Eagle Cap Wilderness, Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, OR
Technically, northeast Oregon's Wallowa Mountains are an anomaly—not geologically related to the Rockies, but closer in both distance and likeness than they are to Oregon's central and western ranges. Hell's Canyon separates the 600-square-mile Wallowas from Idaho's equally rugged Seven Devils Mountains, and the range's isolation contributes to the surprisingly low density of hikers, even in midsummer. To reach a half-dozen trailheads along the Lostine River, head 85 miles southwest of Lewiston, Idaho (through Washington), on state highways WA-127 and OR-3, then ten miles west on OR-82. The 3.5-mile hike to Maxwell Lake is an aerobic one, zigzagging for 2,400 vertical feet through spruce, fir, and wildflower meadows. The latter can be stunning in July, when blooming lupine, balsamroot, and Indian paintbrush drench the high Wallowas in primary colors. The trail's last mile is its burliest, a steep and exposed climb that shows off the surrounding granite domes. By the time you reach the cirque, you'll probably be ready for a nice cold dip. If you can handle Maxwell's chilly waters, consider dog-paddling to one of the two tiny and picturesque islands. Don't forget your fishing rod.
Check out our profile of Maxwell Lake—and add to it—in our Trail Finder Wiki

7. Goldbug Hot Springs
4-mile circuit in Salmon-Challis National Forest , ID
There are prettier hikes in central Idaho—the nearby Sawtooth Range, for example, is unbeatable for multi-night backpacking—but if you're just looking to kill an afternoon, it's hard to top the two-mile walk to Goldbug Hot Springs. Park at the end of an unnamed road at mile marker 282, 23 miles south of the outdoor-rec outpost of Salmon, Idaho. The first 1.5 miles are a flat and mellow jaunt, following cottonwood-lined Warm Springs Creek through a sagebrush canyon. Up ahead, the peaks and ridges of the Lemhi Mountains are crawling with elk and relatively light on humans. The trail crosses the creek once at the trailhead, then twice more on well-maintained wooden bridges before ascending steeply in its last half-mile. Ice makes for rough travel in winter and spring, but summertime visitors can scramble across a small talus to reach a fourth bridge. The trail itself keeps heading up, but cross the bridge to find one of the finest thermal soaks in the American West. The pools are tiered, offering a bit of privacy and views of the verdant Salmon River Valley. You'll have your pick of steaming pools earlier in the day, but you're not likely to be alone on weekends or during the evenings. Nudity is commonplace at Goldbug, so leave your modesty at the trailhead.

6. Sepulcher Mountain
12-mile loop in Yellowstone National Park, WY
At 9,642 feet, Sepulcher Mountain offers a taste of Yellowstone's alpine nooks without steering hikers too far into the backcountry. Head out along the Beaver Ponds Trail near the base of the lower boardwalk at Mammoth Hot Springs, near the park's north entrance, then follow the signs for five semi-steep miles to Sepulcher's summit. Don't be alarmed by heavy traffic for the first mile or so—the route to the top is comparatively untrammeled. Watch for some of the area's copious elk while climbing through burned forest. Higher up, the trail switches back through several stands of lodgepole, then winds past clusters of gnarly whitebark pine near the crest. After taking in views of the Absarokas and the aptly named Paradise Valley to the north, return the way you came or head down Sepulcher's south face to make a 12-mile loop via the Clagett Butte Trail. On a clear day, you can spot the distant Tetons from this "back" side of Sepulcher, and moose occasionally haunt the Glen Creek drainage at the mountain's base. The loop option makes for a longer day, but with an early start, you can still make dinner reservations at Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel's art deco dining room.
Check out our profile of Sepulcher Mountain—and add to it—in our Trail Finder Wiki

Published: 14 Mar 2011 | Last Updated: 2 Oct 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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