Hikers looking for a beautiful, solitary hike above the tree line in Rocky Mountain National Park might overlook Mt. Ida. That would be a shame. Although not well-known, and lightly travelled as a result, Mt. Ida provides some of the best views in the park. If you are comfortable with high elevation hiking and exposure to the elements (sun, wind, and potentially storms), you should consider this hike.
Starting the Hike
The trailhead to Mt. Ida is at Milner Pass, off Trail Ridge Road. Even though a sign near the trailhead claims only 4.0 miles to Mt. Ida, the true distance is closer to 5.0 miles. In addition, the summit is a 2,100 ft climb, at nearly 12,900 ft. Because the route meanders up and down a bit, you will actually climb over 3,000 ft during the hike. The first half mile of the hike climbs, steeply at times, through a beautiful forest that provides several clearings and small streams along the way to break up the climb. Look for wildlife here as deer and elk favor this area. I surprised two large elk on this trail when rounding a bend, and from only 20 feet away, carefully detoured around them.
Elk on Mt. Ida Trail (William J. Hunter)
Climbing Above the Tree Line
After about a mile, you reach the tree line. To your right are long expanses of open meadow, where bighorn sheep and elk frequent. To your left, a ridge line that takes you to Mt. Ida. For a short diversion, you can take a side hike up to the ridge, for a view toward Trail Ridge Road.
Unless it is an unusually calm day, the wind will be blowing strongly above the tree line, and as you climb higher, the temperature will drop. The resulting wind chill is often quite cold, even in summer. A this point, you will be thankful you brought gloves and a hat.
The rest of the hike is above the tree line, so keep a close eye on the sky. Storms develop fast and you might have a long hike down to reach safety. When you consider that you are the tallest object for miles around, you realize how vulnerable you are to lighting strikes. In August of 2014, lightning killed two hikers in this area just two days apart.
Mt. Ida Trail at Tree Line (William J. Hunter)
Staying on the Trail
The trail undulates along the ascending ridge line for a couple of miles, providing even better views of the mountain ranges on both sides of the Continental divide (Never Summer Range to the west, and Gorge Lakes basin to the east). Some tundra trails that climb long ridge lines can get monotonous as the view doesn't change for long periods of time. Climbing talus makes this effect worse. But on the Mt. Ida trail, the view changes as you progress up the ridge line and though the trail at times is faint, it is not that rocky. Keep watching for cairns to keep you on the trail and avoid damage to the sensitive tundra.
Finding Shelter from the Wind
For shelter from the wind, look for side treks that veer toward the ridge line, where you can find rock outcrops that offer a wind break and a good spot for a snack. They also give great views of the basin below, spotted with glaciers, and alpine lakes, including Highest Lake, Azure Lake, Inkwell Lake, and Arrowhead Lake.
Highest Lake (William J. Hunter)
Reaching the Summit
The summit requires minimal scrambling and affords views in all directions. You will likely have the summit all to yourself. You can also maneuver around to shield yourself from the wind and get different, equally expansive views.
The descent back to Milner Pass follows the same trail, but the view changes as the sun is higher in the sky and afternoon clouds create interesting shadows. If you have any energy left, and no storms are threatening, at the fork near the trailhead you can take a right and head to the Alpine Visitor Center and then hitch a ride back down to Milner Pass. Enjoy the hike!
Mt. Ida Summit (William J. Hunter)