Is there a hike within a 1.5-hr drive of Denver that offers solitude and a magnificent alpine experience? The Hutcheson Lakes / Cony Basin in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) represents a resounding “yes” to that question. This is the “anti-Brainard Lake” destination in that the swarming crowds of more familiar Front Range hikes are non-existent just a couple miles beyond the Wild Basin trailhead. When I completed this hike on a sunny mid-July day, the wildflowers alone made the effort worth it and therefore I am proclaiming this hike the best wildflower hike in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Meet Bryce, Contributing Author
Bryce is a Contributing Author and the Dad behind Raising Hikers. In his “abundant” free time, he either hikes or does the next best thing, which is planning future hikes. His first backpacking trips were in RMNP where he had the privilege of working one summer during college. Later he completed a one-month NOLS mountaineering course in the remote Waddington Range in British Columbia. While starting a career in Washington State he took the alpine climbing and rock climbing courses in the Seattle Mountaineers. With friends from NOLS and the “Mounties” he summited Forbidden Peak, Liberty Bell, Glacier Peak, and Mt. Rainier, Shuksan, Baker, Hood, Adams, St. Helens, and Shasta. The births of his children inspired him to take up “safer” pursuits like long-distance backpacking trips in the Canadian Rockies, Sierra Nevada, Wind Rivers, and Glacier National Park. Right now he dreams of taking Em and Walker to remote backcountry destinations in the San Juan mountains of SW Colorado.
The Finch Lake trailhead is accessed from the Wild Basin region in Rocky Mountain National Park near Allenspark, CO. I did this as a dayhike, and my particular route ended up being a loop that included additional destinations beyond Hutcheson Lakes. I started at the Finch Lake & Pear Lake trailhead in Wild Basin and passed through the Hutcheson / Cony basin up Cony Pass to the summits of Ogalalla and Ouzel Peaks. From just north of Ouzel Peak I descended scree from the Continental Divide down to magnificent Pipit Lake, and then I bushwhacked lower to Bluebird Lake. From there, I took the formal trail past Ouzel Lake, Calypso Cascades, and Copeland Falls to the main Wild Basin trailhead (which is in very close proximity to the Finch Lake trailhead where I started). The total mileage was 21.7 mi and elevation gain was 6,170 ft. An alternate dayhike route would be to complete an out-and-back route to Cony Basin from the Finch Lake trailhead. But to truly maximize your enjoyment of this remote corner of the park, I recommend obtaining an overnight permit for the Pear Lake backcountry campsite — at the base of the southeast face of 13er Copeland — and dayhiking to the basin from there.
best wildflower hike – Hutcheson Lake to Bluebird Lake Stats
- Miles: 16.0 miles round trip for the upper Hutcheson Lake from Finch Lake Trailhead (4.4 miles one-way to Finch Lake and 6.3 miles one-way to Pear Lake backcountry campgrounds); my specific route that included Hutcheson Lakes, Ogalalla Peak, and Bluebird Lake was 21.7 miles round trip
- Elevation gain: Net gain from Finch Lake trailhead (8,400 ft) to upper Hutcheson Lake (11,200 ft) is 2,800 ft; for my route the gross elevation gain was 6,170 feet
- Difficulty: Difficult
- Type: Out-and-back for Hutcheson Lakes
- Time: 8 hours and 22 minutes of moving time, and 11.5 hrs of total time on the “trail,” including snack breaks and water filtering stops
- Dog friendly: No, due to National Park boundaries
- Bathrooms at trailhead: No! Please practice Leave No Trace principles – including packing in and packing out and disposing of human waste
- Picnic tables at trailhead: No
- Stroller Friendly: No
- Cost: Entrance fee for Rocky Mountan National Park is $25 for one-day pass per car, $35 for one-week pass per car
- Map: I recommend the Nat Geo Trails Illustrated Topographical Map for this hike and other amazing hikes in RMNP
I started walking at 3:10am in perfectly clear weather after leaving my house in South Denver at 1:15am. Early? Yes. Crazy? No. The purpose of my early departure was to ensure I could catch morning alpenglow on the east faces of the Continental Divide and to summit Ogalalla Peak (13,138 ft) before the potential for thunderstorms to develop. As I walked westward on the trail in utter darkness I couldn’t help to keep looking back through the trees at extraordinarily bright Venus, which was not too far above eastern horizon in the ecliptic. Of course there are no grizzly bears in RMNP, yet I employed my Canadian Rockies bear “safety” tactic of yelling HEY BEAR regularly for the first hour because the thought of even black bears in that darkness is a little scary (you do indeed feel vulnerable when you are solo in the darkness in the forest). But it did not take long for twilight to boost my courage and I was able to turn my headlamp off a few minutes before 5am. I made good time through the boring lower trail and arrived at Pear Lake just before dawn. The views of Copeland Mountain here were not as stunning as I expected, and perhaps that was due to early light conditions. From Pear Lake I followed the unmaintained, faint Hutcheson Lakes trail. Fortunately the trail was fairly easy to follow in the woods, even in low light. It was a joy to break out of the trees and catch my first view of morning light on Elk Tooth and Ogallala Peaks. The wildflowers were glorious along the granite shelves that were also peppered with krummholz and willows. The splendor of the flora here proved to be true for the rest of my time above treeline. I had to bushwhack through krummholz when I lost the faint trail – but better to lose the trail here in relative openness than in the denser forest.
After passing the lower Hutcheson Lakes I paused for a JetBoil instant coffee break about 6am on the alpine lower slopes of Copeland, looking west at the largest and uppermost of the Hutcheson lakes under alpenglow-clad Ogalalla Peak. To reach the top of Ogalalla I would need to pass upper Hutcheson and Cony Lakes and then climb Cony Pass, which looked impossibly steep and loose. But I knew the slope would “lay back” once I got to it. And from the top of Cony Pass I would need to scramble up another 100 vertical feet in a steep gulley to gain the Continental Divide and then complete an easy tundra walk for a half-mile to the summit.
With my already sky-high excitement amplified by caffeine, I climbed higher in the valley toward Cony Pass. Just past the last stand of stunted trees I interrupted the breakfast of a beautiful bull moose. He had seen me first and was not sure whether to be scared of me. This gave me the impression that he was unfamiliar with humans, furthering my sense that this valley is seldom hiked. I gave Bullwinkle a wide berth and then gained a beautiful ridge above the lake via a snowfield for which I was glad I packed my shoe spikes and ice axe. At the top of this feature I had the pleasure of filtering and refilling my water in a pleasant cascade fed by fresh snowmelt. Water refilled, I then experienced the thrill of walking among some of the most pristine and vibrant wildflower meadows I had ever seen.
And tucked within these meadows there were countless bogs and tarns reflecting Ogalalla. At that point I had the feeling that any joy ahead would simply be house money as these meadows alone were worth the anticipation. I could have stayed there all morning to witness the changing of the light in these sublime meadows. Even the glacier-polished boulders had beautiful colors and stripes that made them intriguing. This ephemeral intersection of the proper time (July) and place (high altitude montane) yields an experience that I yearn to experience every year.
But I had higher ambitions to indulge and so I headed up Cony Pass. This climb was not as steep as my original, distant view would have one believe. Loose rock and gravel dictated the terms underfoot except for up close to the ridge wall, where I had some solid ground and hand holds to work with. The wildflowers were surprisingly profuse even in this precarious environment. And it was here that my eyes imbibed the visual nectar of a remarkably dense collection of columbines. I spent more time taking in the flowers than I did Cony Lake below, which was rather austere given the absence of vegetation there.
The 100-ft scramble up the gulley on Ogalalla massif’s north side was fun and adrenaline-inducing. The rock slabs that were loose heightened my alertness. I could have taken the lower-gradient gully to the south, but its loose gravel was less desirable than the slabbier granite that I chose. Breaking out onto the tundra of the Continental Divide and seeing 14er Longs Peak to the north was jubilation for me.
What I initially thought was Ogalalla’s summit was a false summit, and it ended up taking longer than I expected to top out. Regardless, I was ebullient from being able to stroll on the gentle tundra slopes of the Continental Divide with 360-deg views in perfect weather. The summit register showed only two entries for the year to that point. After peering over the sheer edge of the summit into the imposing St. Vrain Basin thousands of feet blow, I turned my sights toward Ouzel Peak (12,716 ft). The walk down to Ouzel Peak from Ogalalla is 1.4 mi, and it is some of the most enjoyable walking you can experience.
I descended into the Bluebird Lake basin above Pipit Lake about halfway between Ouzel and Isolation Peaks. The slopes immediately below Ouzel’s summit are too steep for such a descent, so walking north on the CD for about 10 minutes is necessary. The descent required me to travel down scree and some grassy and gravelly patches to a snowfield where I got my ice axe and dawned my yak trax to traverse over to a trickling cascade of snowmelt. Drinking ice cold, fresh mountain water (albeit filtered with my Sawyer) is a unique pleasure of these trips. From above, Pipit Lake did not appear extraordinary. But when I arrived at its shores I was pleasantly surprised by its supreme beauty, which rivals that of Black Lake in Glacier Gorge.
The lake is encircled on its south, west, and north by Ouzel, Isolation and Mahana Peaks, which at that time all sported green and white stripes of alpine vegetation and snow. Of course there were also wildflowers along the shore, which made the experience that much more enjoyable. I had a snack and water there, basking in the glory of this charming basin and magnificent high country weather.
There was a party of three there, the only people I had seen all day so far (but there would be MANY more on the trail down below). They seemed to be awestruck by the beauty as much as I was. Departing the lake about noon was disappointing, but my Pipit enchantment would continue as I walked eastward to Lark Pond through jaw-dropping meadows laced with gurgling brooks and Indian paintbrush.
But the descent from Lark Pond to Bluebird Lake at the base of Mahana Peak was less straight-forward than I had envisioned. There was hardly a trail, and the sparse trail-marking cairns were difficult to find. I had to bushwhack through willows while descending over steep boulders – bad combo. Battling these willows was an unwelcome contrast to my easy meadow-rambling of just a few minutes earlier. Bluebird Lake was not nearly as spectacular as Pipit, so the effort to get there from the Ouzel trailhead is worth it only if Pipit can be reached.
To further my bushwhacking exasperation, I was surprised to find that I had to drop down to the outlet stream of Bluebird Lake within its miniature canyon. And then I had to cross the raging stream on small boulders to climb up the opposite canyon wall on a rugged “trail.” But at last I reached official national park trail, the first I had trodden since about 6am at Pear Lake. The NP stock trail was steep and narrow and dusty. This steep section stands in the way between the official backcountry camp at Upper Ouzel Falls and Bluebird Lake itself (i.e., there is still some effort involved to dayhike from the Ouzel Falls camp to Bluebird Lake). I booked it out of there in the hot sun that was pretty intense through the burned-out section that had no cover (wildfire of 1978 from lightning strike). Camping at the Ouzel Lake backcountry site there would not be pleasant given the lack of tree cover and the marshy nature of the lake. I imagine mosquitoes there are abhorrent in the summer. High crowds were present at Calypso Cascades and Copeland Falls, so I had no inclination to savor those gems. But these will be great destinations for a family hike in a future summer.
Note: Pear Lake is the closest designated backcountry campsite to Hutcheson Lakes and enables an overnight trip to the area. I would recommend against camping at the NPS designated backcountry campsites Upper Ouzel Creek and Ouzel Lake. The former does not offer great views and getting to Bluebird Lake from there is still a big effort. Ouzel Lake is marshy and in the forest fire zone far below Bluebird Lake.
HOW THE WILDFLOWER HIKE AT HUTCHESON LAKES BASIN STACKS UP AGAINST OTHER COLORADO HIKES
- Absence of crowds (except at popular sites closer to the Ouzel trailhead such as Calypso Cascades, Copeland Falls)
- Good potential for breaking up the route to Hutcheson Lakes into kid-appropriate segments by using designated backcountry campgrounds at Finch Lake and Pear Lake
- Meadows, wildflowers, lakes, streams, and imposing summits in Hutcheson Lakes / Cony Basin offer top-notch Rocky Mountain tableau that is seldom experienced by others
- Hutcheson Lakes / Cony Basin lights up beautifully in the morning sunlight
- Wildflowers galore in Cony Basin
- Finch Lake backcountry campsite does have a privy, but Pear Lake does not
- Inaccessible until late June or early July at the earliest given the high elevations and remoteness of the area
- Much of the route is in dense forest, which precludes views of the high peaks until the tree-line is reached
- Very few distractions (i.e., waterfalls or streams) for kids, unless the main Wild Basin / Ouzel Trailhead is used (which passes Copeland Falls and Calypso Cascades with modest backtracking to the Finch Lake trail)
- Reservations and bear-proof food storage container required for backcountry camping (lottery system for summer backcountry camping permits is executed mid-March of each year, with undefined portion of slots retained as walk-ups)
- Strenuous hike at high elevation, which can be challenging for little hikers and for parents carrying kids’ overnight gear. This is the type of hike I would consider training for, so see Kristin’s Training Plan for Hiking Season –Build Strength for Carrying Kids on Your Back.
WAS HIKING HUTCHESON LAKES WORTH IT?
Yes. Hands-down, this is one of the top three most scenic hikes I have completed in Colorado. I think this would still be true even after the wildflowers subside.
WOULD I GO BACK TO HUTCHESON LAKES / CONY BASIN FOR THIS WILDFLOWER HIKE?
Yes. For a repeat experience, I would bring my family and target late July for peak wildflower bloom. We would apply for wilderness permits at the Finch Lake and Pear Lake backcountry campsites to break up the route into manageable segments for kid hikers.
TIPS FOR HIKING THE BEST WILDFLOWER HIKE IN ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK WITH KIDS
- While I didn’t bring the kids on this particular hike, it can be done as a backpacking trip with an additional day built in in order to decrease the mileage per day.
- One option with kids would be to camp at Pear Lake and day hike to Hutcheson Lakes.
- Start early! There are very few parking spots at the Finch Lake trailhead. The main Wild Basin trailhead for Copeland Falls and Calypso Cascades has more spots but is extremely busy.
- This would be done with kids as a full backpacking trip, but the dayhiking items in what to pack for a hike with kids is a good starting point for the essentials.
- Assuming that the trail is snow-free by its normal melt-out date (July 12 for Pear Lake per NPS website) this hike is best planned for mid-July through early August in hopes to see Cony Basin covered by wildflowers.
- This hike is extra challenging given the elevation, especially if you are not acclimated to the Colorado mountains. It starts at 8,400 feet and tops out at 11,200 feet—a 2,800 feet gain,
- Storms can move in quickly, so watch the weather reports and be ready for severe mountain weather any time.
- Be prepared with hats, sunglasses, and sunscreen.
- There is no water at the trailhead so bring water purification so you have plenty of water on the trail. All water should be treated for giardia.
- PLEASE practice Leave No Trace principles – including packing in and packing out and disposing of human and dog waste
- Teach your kids these first 5 things about hiking before you hit the trail!
Overall, I was delighted with my selection of this route after spending weeks debating Hutcheson versus other destinations like RMNP’s Lost Lake or the Sawatch or San Juan ranges. I worked for a summer in RMNP during college as a cash register operator at Trail Ridge Store, which allowed me to explore much of the park. But I had lost sight of its superlative beauty after years of trying to complete as many hikes as possible in more renowned places like Glacier National Park, the Wind Rivers, and Canadian Rockies. This was my first time in Wild Basin, and I now understand the appeal that it has to so many others. It held its own against those other backpacker bucket list locations. If nothing else, I was reminded how wild and beautiful Denver’s figurative backyard is.