Backpacking Trip to Spruce Lake

“What did we get ourselves into?” I thought as I scrambled up and over what felt like the 100th boulder. “What if one of us falls? What if we never get to our campsite and we have to turn around? What if we just aren’t cut out for backpacking?”

A few hours earlier, my wife and I had excitedly parked at the trailhead of Fern Lake trail in Rocky Mountain National Park to camp out near Spruce Lake. After a few months of searching around the internet, we decided that Rocky Mountain National Park would be the best place for us to spend a few nights together before she left on a 7-month deployment with the Navy.

One of the biggest reasons we chose RMNP was that it had been a dream of mine ever since I was a kid to explore its backcountry. I had visited several times with my family and was even fortunate enough to experience a weeklong sleep away camp at RMNP when I was in 6th grade!

Rocky Mountain National Park is home to some of the most serene alpine lakes in the country. Most of these lakes were formed through thousands of years of glacial movement. As you look at some of the valleys in RMNP, it’s pretty astounding just how powerful these glaciers were. Giant U-shaped cuts left behind tranquil meadows where deer, elk, and bears roamed freely. In addition to that, they also left behind massive boulders cut from the side of the granite mountains that encircle the park.

This is what was currently plaguing my wife and I as we slowly moved our way to our campsite. Some of the boulders we climbed up and over had 6 to 8 foot drop offs on all sides. Some of them, we had to jump across to get to the next because there wasn’t a safer way around it. All the while, we both had way too much stuff for just an overnight.

Both of us had giant backpacks on stuffed to the brim with gear. The way we looked, someone might have mistaken us for moving into the woods for good! It’s a bit embarrassing to look back on now, but we brought our pillows from our bed at home, a collapsible 5-gallon water jug, and enough food to supply a small family of 4. And we were just going out for 1 night!

Part of the reason we chose to bring all of this extra stuff was that we had been woefully under prepared when we entered the park for our trip. We had been car camping practically all over the western US, from Colorado to Idaho and from South Dakota to California. Our car camping set up was pretty dialed in, so we figured that all we’d need to do to get into backpacking was to bring what we normally would on a car camping trip on our backs. Boy was that wrong.

The beginning of the hike was extremely enjoyable. We walked through a long, flat aspen lined section for a while. Streams full of snow run off trickled down through the forest and across the trail in a few sections. The park had created some reinforced channels to prevent excess erosion. It was magical!

Once we left the forest, the real work began. While the trail began to meander upwards, the steepness was pretty mild. However, the weight in our packs seemed to pull us backwards as the trail ascended towards Spruce Lake. We huffed, puffed, scrambled, balanced, and even sat down to rest a time or two. We felt like we had made great progress until we came to the final stretch to our campsite: that dreaded boulder field.

With an abundance of caution, we carefully picked our way around and over the boulders. Both of us felt pretty unbalanced due to the weight of our packs as well as our lack of trekking poles. But rather than turn around, we decided to press on. We both wanted to make it to Spruce Lake because the rangers had made it sound so wonderful! Our resolve was rewarded once we exited the boulder field and finally spotted the trail once again.

We arrived at Spruce Lake in true backpacker fashion: tired, dirty, and hungry. After gathering some water with my ridiculous 5-gallon collapsible jug, we set up for dinner and quietly ate as the sun set behind the mountains for the night.

I couldn’t help but think how happy I was to be out there in that moment with my wife. And I realized that while it’s always a good idea to be prepared for going into the backcountry, you don’t have to be an expert to take the first step. Sure, we had made some mistakes and brought way too much stuff. But in the end, we were able to enjoy each other’s company and that’s what backpacking is all about. For more stories like this, be sure to check out our Tales from the Trail section. Backpacking is better when you get to share the stories!