Big Meadows, Granite Falls, and Haynach Lakes

The short hike to Big Meadows offers great birding, wonderful wildflowers, and a chance to see moose. Further on, the waters of Tonahutu Creek spill over the granite as the lovely Granite Falls. Further still, greater effort leads to the solitude of Haynach Lakes where a pristine lake full of trout sits below rugged mountains and the boulder fields are full of pikas.

Driving up to the trailhead, you could see that the East Troublesome Fire of 2020 burned quite a bit of the surrounding hillsides. In August of 2019, I’d hiked up past Big Meadows and Granite Falls to Haynach Lakes doing the research for my Day Hikes of Rocky Mountain National Park Map Guide. The difference between the two was striking.

Mid-August in the mountains of Rocky Mountain National Park are lush and green with wildflowers and birds singing. Late September trades the green for gold. With just about every evergreen tree having been burned along the hillside, it was a bit jarring to see the difference.

Where once I stepped out into a cool forest obscuring the hillside, I could now see all of the rolling hills around me with towering sticks. The Mountain Bluebirds and a lone Western Kingbird were content with the insects still feeding on the dead trees as they do after fire. Wildflowers such as Fireweed and hips from the summer’s roses were color amongst the black wood strewn on the ground.

We climbed up along the stream that leaks out from the numerous boggy meadows above. Trail crew was working on a slight trail reroute after the fire, using it as an opportunity to improve the grade. It didn’t take long to ascend the hillside, passing the wet meadows to eventually crest the hill and begin to drop down to Big Meadows.

An old historic cabin used to sit at its edge. In 2019 I watched a bull moose foraging at the foot of the meadow. This time, a large bull moose trotted across the golden grasses after a cow moose. The forest had burned, but it was very much alive.

Wilson’s Snipe had been flying over this wet meadow (technically a fen) in August while flowers bloomed and insects annoyed, but now the golden fall took over to a quieter landscape. We followed around the meadow to the north end and the boundary of what burned and what didn’t. Canada Jays chatted to us from the trees while we spied the cow moose below.

The trail acted as a sort of fire break, green trees on the left, burned on the right. We eventually re-entered the burned area, crossed over a seasonal stream and turned up the Tonahutu Creek drainage. We followed up along the creek splashing down below us. The burn took the cover off the surrounding hillsides and mountains allowing us to see the rugged terrain. Small meadows along the way had a few mule deer and muddy spots showed signs of moose.

After passing a few campgrounds and wandering up and down the knuckle ridges extending down into the valley, we had one last moderately steep climb up to Granite Falls. Here, the water slides and splashes over granite slabs. Once formerly obscured, you can see much of the falls as it spills over, splashes down and races down the valley.

Just above the falls, more wet meadows and the trail generally got steeper, leading to some impressive views. We passed a younger bull moose resting on the other side of the creek before turning up the Haynach Lakes Trail.

There is no other way to say it. The first quarter mile or so of trail towards Haynach Lakes is brutal. If you can make it past the few hundred feet of elevation gain, it eases its grade and re-enters into the cooler forest of sub-alpine fir. The trail wanders through small meadows with peeks at the peaks to opening up to sprawling meadows with sweeping views.

Most of the meadows have ponds in them and are very squishy in the middle of summer. The trail wanders from meadow to meadow, going up and over small rises separating them… some with a fairly moderate grade. We kept thinking that we had to be close, only to walk along another meadow. The trail does a fun job of giving you a sort of tour of the head of the valley before eventually dropping down to the main body of water that is Haynach Lakes.

Boulder fields surround the lake and pika chirp from all around. Flowers and birds are plenty, even into later fall. A wonderful outcropping yields a perfect spot to have lunch and soak in the sun… and watch large trout swim below you. As tempting as it was to want to fall asleep on the rocks, we knew we had another 8.5 miles to go on our return trip and reluctantly packed up and headed back down.

Meadows along Haynach Lakes Trail

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