As I lay in my sleeping bag watching the large pieces of hail pelt the rain cover of our tent and smash into the poles with metallic pings that resembled rapid gunfire, I wondered how much the thin material could take. It had been hours since the heavy rainfall had started. Along with the explosive thunder, flashes of lightning, and finally hail. We were over 6-miles of rough terrain from our truck and nature was lashing out against our tiny tent. In every adventure into the wild one risks the worst of nature and the elements. We must take the bad along with the good. While backpacking Mirror Lake our tent took the brunt of nature’s fury but we also got a trip full of amazing beauty and great memories.
Mirror Lake is about as far removed from the heart of Rocky Mountain National Park as one can get and still be within the park’s boundary. Jennifer and I have explored a large percentage of this amazing park. But before backpacking Mirror Lake, we had never explored the remote northwest corner. Mirror Lake is a hidden gem and a good backpacking destination for those not used to hiking in the Rocky Mountain region. The journey takes hikers through forests, meadows, and along mountain streams before reaching the destination of two gorgious alpine lakes. Most people stop at the first lake which is Mirror Lake, but for those who keep going, there is a second unnamed lake that offers better reflective views of the rocky mountain landscape.
The northwest corner of Rocky Mountian National Park is also known as one of the best spots to find moose in the park. I would add to that bears, although we never saw one ourselves, we did see plenty of signs of the large omnivores. We had encounters with five deer on our journey and while we didn’t see moose on the trail we did find 3 bulls, a cow, and a calf along the access road (Long Draw Road).
Trailhead: Corral Creek Trailhead
Total Distance: 12.5 miles (Add half a mile for the second lake)
Trailhead Elevation: 10,070′
Lowest Elevation: 9,678′
Mirror Lake Elevation: 11,015′
Total Elevation Gain: 1,950′
Alt Trailhead: Milner Pass or Mummy Pass
There are several trailheads that can be used for backpacking Mirror Lake. The shortest and most direct route lies at the Corral Creek Trailhead near the Long Draw Reservoir. To drive here from the west gate on the Grand Lake side of Rocky Mountain National Park takes almost 3 hours. It took us longer as we like stopping for the beautiful scenery and this drive has lots. To go from the main east gate would take nearly 4 hours. The Corral Creek Trailhead is remote, but a beautiful drive either way you go. The Long Draw Road is a fairly well-maintained gravel road that could be traversed by any vehicle. But, for peace of mind, I would recommend high clearance. The road never crosses into Rocky Mountain National Park although white border signs can be seen in the distance as the road approaches the trailhead and the reservoir beyond.
Long Draw Campground
We made our way up to the Long Draw Reservoir the night before heading into the backcountry and slept in the Long Draw Campground located just beyond the Coral Creek Trailhead. The campground itself is very nice but small and relatively expensive for the area. You would think a campground as remote as this would be a few bucks, but the fee was over $20. We arrived around 4:00 PM on a Sunday in the middle of the summer and got the last spot available. We realized a few days later that the area also has free dispersed camping just beyond the reservoir.
Backpacking Mirror Lake – Trip Report
We woke up early and made the short drive to the small Corral Creek Trailhead parking area. The lot is so small that it took me a few attempts to get YOLOM perfectly backed in. Due to my over-zealous excitement, we set off quickly down the trail and forgot the bear spray. Luckily, I quickly noticed it missing and ran back to grab it while Jennifer watched the packs.
The trail starts with a descent following the natural flow of the Corral Creek as it descends towards Peterson Lake. Shortly after starting the trail enters the Comanche Peak Wilderness. From here the path undulates deeper into the woods. It is still mostly a descent and the creek is audible for most of the journey with views peeking through the dense forest from time to time.
Entering Rocky Mountain National Park
After about 1.3-miles the trail reaches the Big South Trail Junction. This trail leads off to the left and on to Peterson Lake. We took the right trail towards Rocky Mountain National Park. It is a short distance before the path reaches a sturdy bridge that crosses over La Poudre Pass Creek (which joined with Corral Creek) and into the park. We had traveled a long way since we had left the west gate of the park several days earlier but we had once again reached the porous border of the park. The bridge sits above the confluence of the Cache La Poudre River and Corral Creek and this area is the lowest point when backpacking Mirror Lake.
Following the Cache La Poudre
After crossing into the park the trail is fairly level as it follows the flow (up the river) of the Cache La Poudre from a distance. We meandered through the open flat valley for another half mile before reaching the intersection for the Poudre River Trail. Taking the Poudre River Trail down from Trail Ridge Road near Milner Pass would be a longer hiking option for those not wanting to make the long drive around to the Corral Creek Trailhead. Just beyond the intersection, we crossed over a second well-built bridge and the Cache La Poudre River. Across the bridge, the trail passes the Hague Creek camping area (the only site along the trail with a privy) and begins to climb through the woods.
A Steep 1-Mile Climb
At about 2.4-miles on the trail, we arrived at an open meadow with a spur leading to the Desolation camping area. From the Desolation campsites the trail steepens and for the next mile, hikers get a taste of what Rocky Mountain hiking is truly like as elevation is gained quickly. The rest of the trail is fairly moderate by RMNP standards but this mile of the trail is steep. The downside is that where most RMNP trails climb steeply following alongside rushing water or in boulder-strewn alpine areas, this steep section is swamped in by dense evergreen forest. However, this is also where we saw the most signs of moose (lots of poo).
Mummy Pass Intersection
After the strenuous mile of climbing, the trail reaches the top of the ridge and then undulates across the ridgeline for another half mile before reaching the junction for Mummy Pass. There is a group of campsites known by the same name (Mummy Pass Creek Campsites), but the Mummy Pass trail continues straight up and over the pass. We turned left at this intersection and continued our journey of backpacking Mirror Lake.
A Close Encounter of the Moose Kind
From here the path is a very mild walk through a dense boggy forest all the way to the Koenig Campsite. It was in this dense forest that Jennifer and I came upon something unseen that created a huge ruckus in the trees. I can only assume from the scraping sounds that it was a bull moose rubbing his antlers up against a tree. Upon hearing/smelling us it took off crashing through the underbrush. Shortly after this incident, we came upon the group that had camped out in the Koenig site. They had seen five moose that morning from their site.
The Koenig area is in a boggy meadow with the Cascade Creek running through it. This is the first sighting of the water flowing from Mirror Lake and it is easy to see why moose would frequent the area. Also located at the Koenig spur is the junction for Comanche Peak, another great day hike for those looking to spend some time in the backcountry. We continued straight on the trail as it once again began a moderately steep climb towards Mirror Lake.
The Final Mile
The final mile up to the lake is a steeper climb that I would classify as moderately difficult. It is one of the prettiest sections found when backpacking Mirror Lake. There are many species of wildflowers growing all over the terrain throughout the summer months. There’s also a waterfall located at the foot of a meadow just before reaching the Mirror Lake #3 campsite.
The Mirror Lake Campsites
The three backcountry campsites are spread out well over a 1/4 of a mile apart. We choose to take the closest site to the lake, Mirror Lake campsite #1. The site has a small pad so it can’t accommodate anything much bigger than a 2-person tent. The other campsites would be better for slightly larger groups with bigger tents. Campsite #1 was perfect for us and the adjacent bubbling stream created the perfect soundtrack for a night of camping in the backcountry. The stream was also surrounded by lots of wildflowers. It is a perfect backcountry campsite.
After setting up our campsite we made the less than 1/2-mile final push up to Mirror Lake. The lake itself is a very large sub-alpine lake lined with trees on two sides and a boulder-strewn mountain wall on the other side. The fourth side lifts up about 20’ to an adjacent unnamed and yet unseen lake. The runoff from Mirror Lake creates two small cascading waterfalls. The whole scene is of a perfect picturesque lake that is well worth the effort of getting there.
After a small lunch by the lake, we decided to push on to the right of the lake and find the unnamed lakeshore beyond. The path up isn’t as clear as the well-worn path to Mirror Lake, but with some moderate route-finding skills, most travelers can locate it.
The Unmarked Path to the Second Lake
We hiked along the Mirror lakeshore to a boulder field. Here we didn’t find any cairns to mark the way so we cut straight across and easily picked up the trail on the other side before arriving at another small boulder field where we repeated the process. We continued to follow the trail staying close to the lake until it arrived at a granite slope that slid gently into the water. Once again no cairns were available so we made our way cautiously across the granite slab. Arriving safely on the other side the trail climbs quickly through the small patch of woods to the second lake’s shore.
Unnamed Lime-Green Lake
While Mirror Lake is worth the hike I found this second unnamed lake that I call “lime lake,” on account of its vibrant color, worth the entire trip up to this remote area of Rocky Mountain National Park. This is one of the most gorgeous Colorado mountain lakes I have ever set my eyes on. The lake is shallow which makes it clear all the way to the bottom. Yet the water has a vibrant lime-green color. The runoff from the lake makes its way over a bouldery outlet area before dropping down into Mirror Lake. Even the panoramic view of Mirror Lake below is one of the best views. Those who stop prior to reaching this lake have missed out on a true jewel and one of the best of Rocky Mountain National Park.
We had to quickly retreat back to our tent as storm clouds were starting to roll our way. Upon reaching the relative safety of our site the clouds opened up and for the next 16 hours we were prisoners of our small backpacking tent as lightning, thunder, rain, and hail bombarded our site. The hail got so rough at one point I doubted the thin canvas of our small tent would hold out. All I can say is Big Agnes makes a great ultralight backpacking tent. It was a rough night, but it is all a part of the adventure. We returned safely to YOLOM late the following morning to mostly blue skies.
Mirror Lake and more so the “lime lake” are hidden jewels in the northwest corner of Rocky Mountain National Park. Not many people venture to this remote corner of the park. But if you are looking for a great introduction to mountain backpacking this is a great trail. Or if you are looking for a bit of solitude in the backcountry of what can be a very overpopulated national park in the summer, this is also a great choice. Want a better chance of seeing a moose in the wild? This might also be your trail.