Mount Ida hike — Don’t get caught in a thunderstorm

David and I visited Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) in early July 2014. We were there for 7 days and hiked 8 wonderful trails. Mount Ida Trail was the highlight of our hiking experience in RMNP.

If you like uncrowded trail, a 360-degree view, hiking in alpine tundra where the terrain is open and air is thin, practicing some trail finding skills, and a good chance of seeing bighorn sheep, Mount Ida is your hike. You’ll need to start this hike early in the morning. For slower hikers or those who want to take time enjoying the scenery, this means starting your hike at 7 AM or earlier. RMNP is notorious for having afternoon thunderstorms during summer months. The top of exposed mountains and alpine tundra trails are not the place to be in the thunderstorm due to the lightning risk. Our Mount Ida hike is a bad example of what to do in this situation. Read on.

Mount Ida Trail begins from a trailhead at Milner Pass on Trail Ridge Road. We arrived at the trailhead by 8 AM. It was a clear day with little to no cloud in the sky. Poudre Lake at the trailhead looked like a nice place for picnicking, but we had a more ambitious goal for the day. After using the toilet at the trailhead, we were off hiking.

A calm Poudre Lake at Milner Pass. The road on the left of this picture is Trail Ridge Road.

Trailhead at Milner Pass is at 10,759 ft elevation.

From Milner Pass, Mount Ida is about 4.7 mile or so one-way despite what this sign said.

Section of the trail before leaving the tree line

Before reaching the tree line, we came to a trail junction where Mount Ida Trail separating from a trail to Alpine Visitor Center. There was a sign warning hikers about getting lost on Mount Ida Trail. It was quite unnerving, but I’ve read quite a bit of this hike to feel comfortable about our plan. Nevertheless, it made me be more cognizant about our surroundings for the rest of the hike.

A sign at the trail junction of Alpine Visitor Center and Mount Ida warning hikers about getting lost

Section of the trail at the tree line

We hiked this trail on July 10th. There were some snow fields left to cross.

Then we were above the tree line.

Soon we were above the tree line. The view from this point was unobstructed. The Never Summer Mountains were glorious. The sky was blue. Alpine sunflowers were in full bloom. Camera shutters were snapping. The hills were indeed alive.

We took our time and savored the scenery. Only 3 other hikers passed us on the way. We met maybe two other groups of hikers that day. In fact, we probably saw more bighorn sheep than hikers on this trail.

Our destination is the summit on the far right side of this picture.

Such a beautiful place. Try not to burst into song

David found a herd of bighorn sheep

Here they are

The landscape is expansive. You could see a faint trail on the left from where we came. But from this point on the trail became more rugged (= even slower pace). The cloud started to roll into the area (= bad sign).

About 3.5 miles in, the terrain became more rugged with lots of taluses to navigate as we headed up Mount Ida. There was a lot of trail-finding involved. I had a moment when I was tired so we stopped for an apple which gave me the energy boost. Although we saved this hike until almost the last day to allow us time to acclimate to the altitude, it’s still challenging to exert energy at above 10,000 ft.

The clouds looming in the distance made us a bit nervous, but we pushed on up the summit.

The higher we went, the more different the terrain looked. Here we started to see the Gorge Lakes below.

Snow accumulated at the headwall.

Final push to the summit. From this point it took us about 5 more minutes to summit.

Inkwell Lake and Azure Lake from Mount Ida

David at the summit

A heathy-looking marmot at the summit

By the time we reached the summit, it started showering. So we took some pictures and began our descent. We hiked down for about 40 minutes until we found a spot to have a quick break for lunch. The shower had stopped for a brief moment. There was a herd of bighorn sheep nearby. They didn’t seem to be concerned by our presence. So we quietly ate our lunch and enjoyed the wildlife viewing.

After lunch we headed down the mountain. About 30 minutes before getting back to our car, the sky opened up and it rained hard on us but stopped and cleared up as we arrived at the trailhead.

The spot where we came down and stopped for lunch while admiring a large herd of bighorn sheep that didn’t seem to mind our distant presence.

Headed back to the car

In hindsight, we were very fortunate that the clouds that rolled in that day were bringing just shower and rain. I didn’t remember hearing thunders. Nevertheless, it was stupid of us for not turning around when the weather changed. We were spending too much time taking pictures among other things and should’ve picked up our pace sooner. It took us 4.5 hours to reach the summit and about 3 hours hiking out including lunch stop.

The next day, we attempted to hike Deer Mountain in the Moraine Park area, but got rained on again with lightning from far away. We wised up and aborted the hike. When we arrived home in Virginia, we learned that, on the same day we hiked to Deer Mountain and the day after, two visitors were killed by lightning strikes in RMNP. These tragic events underlined the real danger of lightning in the mountains of RMNP, something that we all need to take seriously.

If you plan to hike Mount Ida Trail, be sure to research the trail and what to expect during the hike. I recommend reading this page as part of your preparation. I agree with this statement from the author wholeheartedly.

“On the surface this hike might appear to be relatively easy when compared to other hikes of similar mileage or elevation gain. Numbers, however, can be deceiving.”

What about you? Have you been in similar situations?

  • Date hiked: July 10, 2014
  • Hiking time: Approx. 7h 30m
  • Distance: 9.5 mi round-trip (out and back)
  • Elevation change: Approx. 2,500 ft gain
  • Note: Due to the danger of lightning from afternoon thunderstorms while hiking in a completely exposed alpine tundra, plan to start the hike very early in the morning and be back below the tree line before the afternoon thunderstorms arrive. Carry plenty of water and have sun protection.

15 Comments

  1. Geez! You two were very lucky.

    We have a similar story, back from when we first started hiking in the mountains in about 1990. We were above tree line, ill equipped in tshirts (because it was a lovely hot day… which we’ve since come to realize means thunderstorms will build), and got hailed on with intermittent torrential rain. Now we always keep an eye on the sky. Especially on ridge walks above the tree line.

    I’m saddened to hear that others were killed. But I’m happy you came out unscathed.

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  2. Sounds like a great hike. I love hiking above treeline with grand sweeping, unobstructed views. I’ve also been caught in the afternoon thunderstorms a couple of times in Rocky Mtn. N.P. Once I basically ran down a mountain (I wasn’t too far up the trail though) and the other time I got soaked near one of the lakes near the Bear Lake area.

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    1. It was the highlight hike for us in RMNP, mostly because of being an alpine hike with such a sweeping view. Even if it’s done without reaching the summit, IMHO it’s still a great hike.

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  3. Great advice! We called Colorado home for over twenty years, and we know all about those afternoon thunderstorms and how dangerous they can be. RMNP remains one of my favorites. Thanks for taking me back and reminding me how stunning it is.

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  4. i got caught in a thunderstorm once hiking , we overestimated how long the climb would take and 0.25 miles from the summit lightening hit around us making us run downhill for some shelter. we found a rock outcrop to sit under for 45 min while watching lightening hit and the air smelling burned. It was a great “light show” , afterwards we were wet, cold and exhausted and walked back to the Lean To and I doubt I will make that mistake again and not try to outrun the weather again.

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    1. The burnt smell in the air must be so surreal, a smell of impending doom. Glad you made it down safely. What didn’t kill us made us stronger, right?

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  5. Wonderful post, Keng–thank you so much for sharing this! Wow, Mount Ida is even more spectacular than I’d imagined. Your photos are stunning! With scenery like that, I can see why you lingered. I’d never want to leave those sunflowers or lakes, either. I’m thrilled to finally be able to experience Mt. Ida through you, but it cuts both ways–I think I might be even more disappointed now that we didn’t get to hike it, lol. Reading about the route finding, though, makes me think that maybe it was for the best in terms of the kids. Good call on leaving Deer Mountain; having seen the intense lightning in RMNP, I agree that it’s better to be safe than sorry. So sad that those visitors died; it’s a tragic but important reminder for all of us.

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    1. Thanks so much Christine. Since it’s an out-and-back hike, ones could turn around any time without getting to the summit and still have a wonderful time, an advantage of alpine tundra hike. I saw a couple of hikers stopped at a nice view point at about 3.5 miles in.

      I need to be more prudent about turning around on a hike when circumstance changes — like being tired, getting late in the day, or bad weather. On a few occasion the thought of hiking this far to be this close to the destination got the best of me. Oh well. We live and learn.

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