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Never Summer Mountains

Never Summer Mountains: Explore a Stunning, Lesser-Known Colorado Range

Tucked away in the northern reaches of Colorado, the Never Summer Mountains offer a stunning escape into nature that belies their foreboding name. Found on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park, the range is a fantastic place to find solitude and adventure in Colorado, even during the busy summer months of June, July, and August.

This guide delves deep into the essentials of exploring this less-traveled path, emphasizing responsible enjoyment and preservation of its pristine wilderness.





Table of Contents

Never Summer Range

Getting to Know the Never Summer Mountains

Here are some essential facts and details about this rugged Colorado mountain range, including access information and weather conditions.

Location and Access:

The Never Summer Mountains, a subrange of the Rocky Mountains, straddle the boundary between Rocky Mountain National Park to the east and Routt National Forest to the west. Access points are conveniently located near the towns of Grand Lake and Walden, with entry routes suitable for both personal vehicles and public transportation during the warmer months.





Best Times to Visit:

The optimal time for visiting is from late June to early September when the trails are free from snow and the wildflowers are in full bloom. However, for those who enjoy winter sports, late November to March offers snowshoeing and cross-country skiing opportunities.

Climate and Conditions:

Prepare for variable weather; summer days can be warm under the Colorado sun, but evenings are chilly, and sudden thunderstorms are common. Layers of clothing, waterproof gear, and sun protection are must-haves. Read the current NWS forecast for the range before you visit.

History of the Never Summer Mountains

A ruined log cabin in the northern Never Summer Range, within State Forest State Park.

The Never Summer Mountains are part of the Rocky Mountains and are known for their distinctive geology. They were formed by geological processes that date back over a billion years. The range is primarily composed of igneous and metamorphic rock, with the area being significantly impacted by volcanic activity around 24 to 29 million years ago during the Oligocene epoch. This volcanic activity is responsible for much of the range’s rugged topography and rich deposits of minerals.

Before European exploration, the area was frequented by various Native American tribes, including the Ute and Arapaho peoples, who used the region for hunting and fishing during the warmer months. The mountains served as a natural boundary between tribal territories and were revered for their spiritual significance. The Utes, in particular, are known to have traveled through and camped in these mountains as part of their seasonal migration and hunting cycles.

After a short-lived mining boom in the area, the focus transitioned to water rights and agriculture, with the construction of the Grand Ditch along the east flank of the range to divert water to the dry eastern plains for irrigation. Eventually, the land was protected as part of Rocky Mountain National Park in the mid 20th century.

In 1914, the Colorado Mountain Club facilitated a visit to the region by members of the Arapaho tribe, specifically inviting those who had spent their early years in the area. During this visit, these tribal members were requested to provide the Arapaho names for the range’s peaks, lakes, and other geographical landmarks. They referred to the mountain range as Ni-chebe-chii, which was translated at the time to mean “Never-No-Summer.” Subsequently, the Colorado Geographic Board officially adopted the name “Never Summer Mountains” for the range.





Trails and Hiking Opportunities

Hiking is a fantastic way to explore the Never Summer mountains. There are various options, from family-friendly shorter trails to rugged climbs and scrambles to lofty summit vistas. 

Here are some tips and trails to get started with:

Popular Trails:

  • Bowen Gluch Trail: A 8.3-mile round trip that offers moderate challenges with rewarding panoramic views of alpine lakes and dense forest expanses.
    Read More.

  • Lulu City Trail: This gentler 7.3-mile trek follows the Colorado River to the site of an abandoned mining town from the late 19th century.
    Read more.

  • Mount Richthofen Summit Route: A challenging 4.1-mile ascent to the range’s highest peak, suitable for experienced adventurers familiar with navigating rugged terrain.
    Read more

Hiking Tips

Here are some tips and tricks to make the most of your visit to the Never Summer Mountains.

  • Always check local trail reports for closures or conditions.
  • Make a plan and leave a copy with a reliable friend at home with a check-in time.
  • Carry a detailed topographical map and a reliable GPS to navigate the less marked trails.
  • Go early to avoid afternoon thunderstorms during summer and beat the crowds.




Leave No Trace Principles:

While this area of Colorado is off the beaten track, it’s getting more popular with time, increasing the impact on trails, wildlife, and the entire ecosystem. It’s essential we practice Leave No Trace (LNT) ethics to preserve these areas for future generations. Here are some simple ways you can do your part and protect the Never Summer Mountains.

  • Stick to designated trails to protect the fragile alpine tundra.
  • Keep your pets leashed and clean up and carry out their waste.
  • Pack out all trash and minimize campfire impacts by using a portable stove.
  • Leave what you find and take only photographs so others can experience it too.
  • Respect wildlife by giving animals 100-200 ft of space and never feed them.
  • Practice good trail etiquette by keeping noise to a minimum and group sizes small.


Visit our Leave No Trace Tips guide to learn more about outdoor ethics.

Wildlife and Natural Attractions

If you’re a nature lover, there are few better places to see spectacular wildlife and unique plants and fungi than the Never Summer Range. Here are some specific examples of what to look for, with tips on responsible wildlife viewing too. 

Flora and Fauna:

The area is home to an abundant ecosystem, including mule deer, moose, and a variety of bird species like the white-tailed ptarmigan. Vegetation ranges from dense subalpine forests to delicate alpine wildflowers that bloom in late summer.





Responsible Wildlife Viewing:

Maintain a respectful distance from all wildlife, especially during sensitive periods like calving and migration. Use binoculars or a telephoto lens for safe observation. Be especially mindful of mothers and their young, as they may become aggressive if they perceive you as a threat.

Notable Natural Features:

One of the most interesting aspects of the Never Summer Mountains is the names of the major peaks. Most of the tallest summits are named after different types of clouds, including:

  • Mount Cirrus – 12,808 feet
  • Mount Cumulus – 12,729 feet
  • Mount Nimbus – 12,721 feet
  • Mount Stratus – 12,534 feet


Here are some additional sights worth visiting during a trip to the Never Summer Mountains:

  • Colorado River: The headwaters of the mighty Colorado River are in the northern Never Summer Range, and flows south towards Grand Lake.
  • Lake of the Clouds: This famous alpine lake commonly experiences mystical early morning mists ideal for photographers.
  • Parika Lake: Provides a picturesque setting perfect for a mid-hike rest and picnic.
  • Baker Pass: Hidden behind the main ridge of the range, this backcountry pass crosses the Continental Divide at an elevation of 11,253 ft.
  • Nokhu Crags: This rugged peak reaches a height of 12,490 feet. Its name is derived from the Arapaho language, Neaha-no-xhu, meaning “Eagles Nest.”
Image: View of Nokhu Crags and the Grand Ditch on its slopes.

Camping in the Never Summer Mountains

There are lots of great camping options around the area, including both first-come, first-serve dispersed camping and reservation-only campgrounds. While it can be difficult to secure a site given the proximity to Rocky Mountain National Park, it’s always worth trying!

Popular Campgrounds:

Exploring the Never Summer Mountains offers an array of camping options ranging from the lush east side near Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) and Grand Lake to the more serene and less frequented sites along CO-14 to the north and west. Here’s a guide to some of the top campgrounds in these areas:

South/East:

Timber Creek Campground: Located on the west side of RMNP, Timber Creek Campground offers easy access to the park’s trails and wildlife viewing opportunities. It’s the only campground on the park’s west side and provides 98 sites suitable for tents and RVs, available on a first-come, first-served basis. The proximity to the Colorado River also offers excellent opportunities for fishing and evening relaxation.

Grand Lake KOA: Just outside the quaint town of Grand Lake, this KOA (Kampgrounds of America) provides a variety of lodging options, including tent sites, RV sites, and cabins. Known for its family-friendly atmosphere, it includes amenities like Wi-Fi, a snack bar, and a mini-golf course, making it a comfortable base for exploring both the town and the adjacent national park.





North/West:

The Crags Campground: This campground is located along CO-14 in the Roosevelt National Forest, offering a quieter alternative to the busier sites near RMNP. With only 26 sites nestled in a pine forest, The Crags provides a secluded setting ideal for those looking to disconnect and enjoy nature. It’s particularly popular among hikers and rock climbers due to its proximity to local trails and crags.

Ranger Lakes Campground: Also situated along CO-14, Ranger Lakes Campground is known for its beautiful lakeside setting and is a favorite among fishermen and families. The campground features 32 sites equipped with fire pits and picnic tables, and the nearby lakes are stocked with trout, offering excellent fishing opportunities.

Pines Campground: Pines Campground offers a serene camping experience amidst thick pine forests. It’s smaller and less developed, providing a more rustic experience for campers looking to truly immerse themselves in the wilderness. This campground is ideal for wildlife enthusiasts and those seeking peace and solitude.

timber creek weather conditions and forecast
Image: Timber Creek Campground Area

Dispersed Camping:

Dispersed camping offers a more secluded and intimate experience with nature, allowing campers to escape the crowds typically found at established campgrounds. The Never Summer Mountains and surrounding areas provide ample opportunities for dispersed camping, particularly in the national forests adjacent to the range. 

Here are some recommended areas for dispersed camping and tips for finding the perfect spot:

Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forest: East of the Never Summer Mountains, the Arapaho National Forest offers expansive areas for dispersed camping. Campers can find numerous spots along forest service roads, especially around the Williams Fork and Sulphur Ranger Districts. These areas offer stunning views of the surrounding peaks and access to trails.

To the north and west of the Never Summer Mountains, the Roosevelt National Forest provides a variety of dispersed camping options. The area along the Cache La Poudre River is particularly popular, offering beautiful riverside spots that are perfect for those who enjoy the soothing sounds of flowing water. Learn more on their website.

State Forest State Park: While State Forest State Park does have established campgrounds, it also offers areas for dispersed camping along the less-traveled roads within the park boundaries. This state park is less crowded than nearby national parks and forests, offering a peaceful retreat with plenty of wildlife viewing opportunities. View their dispersed camping map.

Photography and Scenic Vistas

Many people flock to Rocky Mountain National Park and the surrounding mountains to take photos of the stunning backcountry landscape, catch majestic wildlife in action, and record unique finds like minerals, historical relics, wildflowers, and more. Here are some tips and viewpoints I recommend visiting:

Best Scenic Viewpoints:

Whether you’re a photographer looking for the perfect sunrise shot or a hiker wanting to soak in majestic landscapes, here are some of the best viewpoints in and around the Never Summer Mountains:

  • Bowen Pass: Located on a high mountain pass accessible via the Bowen/Baker Trail, Bowen Pass offers expansive views of the Never Summer Mountains to the west and the Medicine Bow Range to the north. This pass is especially stunning in early summer when wildflowers carpet the ground.

  • Milner Pass: Located along Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, Milner Pass offers views from the Continental Divide, where you can see into both the east and west sides of the park. The pass provides a stunning vantage point to observe the vastness and varied landscapes of the Rockies.

  • Far View Curve: This viewpoint is particularly notable for its expansive vistas that stretch far into the distance, providing a broad perspective on the range and its dramatic landscapes. The altitude here gives visitors a bird’s-eye view of the sprawling valleys and peaks, making it an unforgettable stop when touring the region.

  • Mount Richthofen Summit: As the highest peak in the Never Summer Range, Mount Richthofen offers unparalleled views from its summit. The climb is challenging but rewards hikers with 360-degree views over the Rockies. From here, you can see other major peaks in the range, including Mount Nimbus, Mount Cumulus, and Mount Stratus.




Photography Tips:

Here are some quick tips for photography in the mountains:

  • The best light is during the golden hours of early morning or late afternoon when the landscape is dramatically lit.
  • The period just before sunrise and after sunset provides a soft blue hue that can add a mystical quality to your images.
  • Respect the wilderness by staying on trails and using zoom lenses to capture distant wildlife or delicate plant life.
  • Always check weather forecasts and be prepared for sudden changes in mountain weather. Wear appropriate clothing and footwear.
Leave No Trace 14ers

Conservation Efforts and How You Can Help

If you love the mountains as much as I do, you probably want to do everything possible to help protect them and their fragile ecosystem for future generations. Here are some simple, yet powerful ways to make a difference for the Never Summer Mountains.

Leave No Trace:

As stated previously, practicing Leave No Trace ethics is the simplest way to ensure you do not impact the environment while hiking, camping, and climbing. Learn the seven principles and always practice them outdoors. Learn More

Volunteering:

Trails don’t just build and maintain themselves: It takes dedicated crews of talented professionals supported by a large corps of volunteers to keep these trails open and accessible. Pay it forward and be part of the solution by volunteering for a trail-building organization. You can find opportunities on the Volunteers of Colorado website here.





Contributions:

If you cannot get out to build and maintain trails yourself, you can always make a contribution to support those who do. Give to groups like the Wilderness Society, Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, Colorado Mountain Club, and Volunteers of Colorado to support their trail work.

Conclusion

The Never Summer Mountains are not just a destination but a journey into the heart of Colorado’s rugged wilderness. By visiting responsibly and embracing the natural elements, you ensure this hidden gem remains unspoiled for generations to come. 

We invite you to share your experiences and photos in the comments below with The Next Summit community to inspire and engage fellow nature enthusiasts. Safe travels on the trails!





FAQ: Never Summer Mountains

Below are answers to common questions about the Never Summer Mountains. You can also leave questions in the comments below, and I will respond as soon as possible.

Q: Where are the Never Summer Mountains located?

A: The Never Summer Mountains are situated in north-central Colorado, USA. They form a part of the Rocky Mountains and are bordered by the Rocky Mountain National Park to the east and the Routt National Forest to the west. The closest towns are Grand Lake to the southeast and Walden to the north.

A: The range is so named due to its harsh and prolonged winters, with significant snowfall even in summer months, giving the impression that summer never comes to the area. It comes from the Araphoe term for the range, Ni-chebe-chii, translated contemporaneously as “Never-No-Summer.”

A: The Never Summer Mountains are primarily composed of igneous and metamorphic rocks. They were heavily influenced by volcanic activity approximately 24 to 29 million years ago during the Oligocene epoch, much later than the Front Range to the east. This geological history contributes to the range’s rugged terrain and dramatic landscapes.

A: Yes, dogs are allowed in the Never Summer Wilderness Area, but they must be kept on a leash. This is to ensure that they do not disturb wildlife or damage the fragile alpine environment. Dogs are not allowed on trails in Rocky Mountain National Park on the east side of the range.

A: The formation of the Never Summer Range is attributed to volcanic activity during the Oligocene epoch, which caused the uplift and subsequent erosion that shaped the mountains. This geological activity included the emplacement of large igneous rocks, which are a significant feature of the range.

A: Absolutely! The Never Summer Mountains offer stunning natural beauty, diverse wildlife, and a variety of outdoor activities such as hiking, camping, and fishing. Their relatively remote location provides a more secluded experience compared to more trafficked areas of the Rocky Mountains.

A: The main rules include:

  • Leave No Trace: Pack out all trash and minimize impact on the environment.
  • Fire Restrictions: Follow local guidelines regarding campfires, often restricted to designated areas or prohibited during high fire risk periods.
  • Camping Regulations: Camp at least 200 feet from water sources and trails, and only in designated or previously impacted sites to protect the wilderness.
  • Wildlife Interactions: Do not feed or approach wildlife. Store food securely to avoid attracting animals.

 

Visit the main website for the area to review all the rules and regulations.

A: The best time to visit is from late June through September when the snow has melted, and the trails are most accessible. However, for those interested in winter sports, visiting from November to March provides excellent snowshoeing and cross-country skiing opportunities.

A: Essential items for a day hike include:

  • Water and Snacks: Bring plenty of water and high-energy snacks.
  • Weather-Appropriate Clothing: Dress in layers to adjust to changing conditions.
  • Navigation Tools: Carry a map, compass, or GPS device.
  • First Aid Kit: Always have basic first aid supplies on hand.
  • Sun Protection: Sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat are crucial at high altitudes.

Read my complete hiking checklist for Colorado.





Alex Derr, Founder of The Next Summit

Alex Derr is an Eagle Scout, climber, and environmental policy expert located in Denver, Colorado. He created The Next Summit to help others stay safe exploring the mountains and advocate to preserve the peaks for the future. Follow him on Linkedin or Twitter or click here to contact him.





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Hi, I'm Alex!

In 2018, I watched in disbelief as dozens of people hiked into a storm on Longs Peak, unaware of the extreme danger. Soon after, I started The Next Summit to educate and empower the public to safely and responsibly explore America's mountains.

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