North Inlet and Cascade Falls with Lake Nokoni and Lake Nanita

Whether you’re looking for a lovely stroll through some meadows along a creek, a slightly longer hike to some cascades, or an epic day to two gorgeous alpine lake, the trail along North Inlet in Rocky Mountain National Park gives everyone a plethora of options.

In 2019, I hiked all the way up to Lake Nokoni and Lake Nanita gaining around 3,000 feet for an approximately 20-mile day passing through Summerland Park, visiting Cascade Falls, Big Pool, and North Inlet Falls. The following summer, one of two fires that burned in Rocky Mountain National Park swept through the drainage. The trail finally reopened and Kristen and I went back to see what the new trail looked like.

From the North Inlet Trailhead, we dropped down along Tonahutu Creek which is more heard than seen. The trail, really a gravel road, parallels the creek for a short trail where it disappears, only to dump into North Inlet downstream. The road allows access to an inholding which burned in the 2020 East Troublesome Fire. We walked along North Inlet which lazily snakes through the broad, Summerland Park with the golden grasses of the fall. In 2019, I hiked in mid-August which still had flowers such as Fireweed blooming.

While this section didn’t have much cover in the past, any cover is now gone leaving much of the surrounding landscape to be a sea of gray sticks standing, ghosts of the forest that once stood. This does make the hike a bit hotter, but it also lets you see the actual mountains themselves with their great rock formations.

Eventually, the trail comes to the old homesite and turns into a proper, single-track trail and spends more time passing through stands of burned trees. They are, however, not devoid of life! Dark-eyed Juncos, American Robins, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and Mountain Bluebirds flitted and hopped around eating fall berries, rose hips, and insects. A Mule Deer buck hung around a few does and a young-of-year fawn, now with no spots.

As you head further up the valley, knuckled ridges encroach forcing you to climb amongst them and gain some elevation. The rock formations are great and the views looking back are wonderful. North Inlet comes back into view as it chatters along below. We could see it exiting the area where it drops as Cascade Falls.

The trail turns up and into a cool, unburned section where we went right alongside the wonderful cascade as it divides, combines, and splashes over large boulders. The trail continues up alongside the cascade where you can perch right on the top and see it cascade below you. This is a great destination in and of itself.

Our turnaround was further up, so we continued following the creek, running much slower, as it passed below a towering cliff. The landscape opened again as broader meadows and bounced between very burned and unburned forest. A stretch of green forests brought us alongside a cascade of the creek and just up from that, Big Pool came into view. As its name suggests, it’s a deep pool of clear water with a short 10-15ft waterfall that drops into it.

We continued much of the same alternating of forest, both burned and unburned, passing more campsites, walking along the chattering creek and passing over feeder streams such as Ptarmigan Creek. Eventually the trail switchbacks up, gaining some elevation, before coming to the trail junction for Lake Nokoni and Lake Nanita. At the intersection, we headed towards the lake, dropping down to a footbridge over North Inlet where a wonderful waterfall called North Inlet Falls crashes down over the rocks and races below the bridge and out to the valley that we just came up from.

This day, we decided to turn around, having hiked through all of the burned sections, but in 2019 I continued on.

The trail from here begins its steady grade through the forest, passing a couple of campsites. Views initially were sparse peeks through the tall trees, but improved as I gained elevation. Taylor Peak, across the drainage, is the closest, dominant peak, but looking up the drainage gives you a look at Chiefs Head Peak and a gnarled shoulder of Mt Alice.

A series of switchbacks gives better views up the drainage, but also down into a cool, deep canyon where the outlet stream from Lake Nokoni invisibly cascades below. The forest gradually recedes and are replaced with the smaller subalpine fir and flowering meadows lined in granite formations. The trail eventually wraps into the basin with the lake. I passed some more meadows with the stream and came to the edge of the lake backdropped by the stunning Ptarmigan Peak, punching into the sky like a giant fist.

I rested for a bit on the big granite slab that sloped into the deep lake, before crossing the outlet stream on a footbridge and heading over to Lake Nanita.

The lakes aren’t a “chain of lakes”, but rather lakes in two separate basins. In order to access Lake Nanita, one must switchback up a fairly steep 300ft ridge. Boulders dominate the landscape which house numerous American Pikas that scamper around collecting grasses and forbs for the winter and occasionally let out their signature “Eeeep!” call.

Once at the top, I got my first glimpse of the dramatic ridges of Ptarmigan Mountain that jut out towards the lake. They look like imposing spires and are delightful. As I finished the switchbacks and the grade eased into the flowering meadows, I spied a bull moose through the trees. I took a couple photos and continued on my way.

At the lake, I found a lovely spot to have lunch and admired the gorgeous scenery. Between Andrews Peak and the spires of Ptarmigan Mountain are a series of ridges that come out to the edge of the lake. It’s a wonderful mix of rock, cascades, water, and green vegetation. The fish rising kept me company until I was done eating, when I turned around and started my trek back. I passed the moose again, who was now digesting his food before heading up and over the ridge to Lake Nokoni and on down the valley.

Lake Nanita

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