View from the summit of Mt. Ypsilon (William J. Hunter)
Not every hike turns out great, even in Rocky Mountain National Park. I am glad I climbed Mt. Ypsilon. From our lodge at the YMCA of the Rockies, its peak is a prominent feature of the skyline. It called to me. Perhaps because of that, my expectations were too high. That is not to say there is nothing good about the hike. The view from the top is spectacular. But the trail is very rocky, indistinct at times, and exposed to the elements. You can very easily twist an ankle. Windy days are brutal. For a better experience, do this hike on a sunny, calm day and realize that you will have long stretches where the view is monotonous.
Getting to the Mt. Ypsilon trailhead was easier than I expected. It is located inside Rocky Mountain National Park, so you will need to pay for a pass. From the east entrance to the park, head toward Old Fall River Rd., the precursor to Trail Ridge Rd. It is a dirt road, but is easily passable without a 4-Wheel drive, as long as you are not bothered by potholes and exposure to heights. After about 20 minutes on Trail Ridge Rd. you reach the Chapin Pass Trailhead. Both Mount Chiquita (13,069') and Ypsilon Mountain (13,514') are accessible from the trailhead, which has very limited parking.
Trail Highlights (and Lowlights)
You start climbing almost immediately. Despite the high elevation, there are mosquitoes. Luckily it is so cold that I bundled up and there is very little exposed skin for them to attack. The trail goes in and out of the forest, giving you some nice views of the valley and the distant peaks off to the north and west.Credit: William J. Hunter (2016)
Near tree line on trail to Mt. Ypsilon (William J. Hunter)
When you get above the tree line, the wind picks up. Too windy for the mosquitoes but now I am cold. I don a hat and gloves and soldier on. At this point the trail is still well-defined and wide enough for you to avoid tripping over rocks. But soon I realize that the view, though nice, is limited. The trail approaches Mt. Ypsilon from the moderate grassy and rocky talus slopes of the western ridge. Views are great to the west, from the Never Summer Range to the Medicine Bow peaks in Wyoming. But, unless you take a side spur over to the ridge line, you can’t see anything in the other direction.
I see several pretty wildflowers that are surviving despite the stiff tundra winds, but if I look at them while walking, I inevitably trip on the talus and boulders that increasingly obscure the trail. Even though the trail is hard to see, you generally follow the ridge up and trust your intuition.Credit: William J. Hunter (2016)
Wildflowers on western ridge of Mt. Ypsilon (William J. Hunter)
After just over 2.7 miles you reach the summit of Mt. Chiquita. Standing at an elevation of 13,069 feet you'll finally have views of Longs Peak, assuming the day is clear. On my hike, it was hazy. My view was less like a high-definition broadband view and more like a grainy analog view.
From the summit of Chiquita you continue downhill towards the saddle between Chiquita and Ypsilon. The trail by now, is imaginary. The trail drops to the saddle, before ascending to reach the summit of Ypsilon Mountain. Depending on how direct your route, you have hiked about 4.3 miles. Enjoy the view of Spectacle Lakes, far below.Credit: William J. Hunter (2016)
Spectacle Lakes from the summit of Mt. Ypsilon (William J. Hunter)
Take the same way back, which can be tricky. Because the trail is vague, you will be tempted to take what you think are short cuts, but they just get you off the “trail” and lead to more scrambling and back-tracking over the talus and boulder fields. More chances to sprain an ankle.
Though the hike has its moments, there are other hikes in the park that offer more variety of views with far less effort (and less discomfort on cold or windy days). But if you like the openness of a tundra hike and are not bothered by occasional scrambling on talus, this hike does reward you at the end with good views.