After two Colorado explorers said Lake Nokoni and Lake Nanita were possibly the best lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park, it was time to head for the North Inlet Trail.
The North Inlet Trail is near Grand Lake. While it’s in the park boundaries, the parking lot is not, so there is no admission fee. (Directions below)
The North Inlet Trail starts on an old road that drops down to a meadow. For the first mile or so, you’ll be hiking a mostly flat trail past horse ranches, meadows and strands of forest.
At 1.2 miles, you’ll come to an impressive cabin. Look carefully from the trail (do not walk on the property) to find a water pump and an outhouse. Do you see the cabin stairs? The homeowner has figured out a way to cover the stairs so hikers don’t take a break here.
After passing the cabin, the path becomes more of a trail than a road. You’ll find yourself in the forest passing aspens, pine trees and yes, groves of dead trees, destroyed by the pine beetles.
Over the next 1.5 miles, there are two bridge crossings. Both bridges span creeks that can be lively and scenic during snow melt season. Watch your footing as the bridge areas can be slick.
The trail is full of variety. There are meadows in the beginning, thick forest along the way and as you get closer to Cascade Falls, you’ll find rocky cliffs next to the trail. Near the falls, the trail splits. A sign directs hikers with stock animals to the left, everyone else to the right. Go right until you see the sign for Cascade Falls.
Take the short spur trail to the cascades. Come here in late spring/early summer and the falls will be gushing. Come later in the summer and you’ll see several cascades. Just don’t get too close — the rocks and branches are slippery, even if they don’t look wet.
After exploring and taking pictures at Cascade Falls, continue up the trail. While it’s another 1.5 miles to the Big Pool, you’ll pass at least two other cascades along the way. My favorite is 4.5 miles from the trailhead. It’s in a spot where the trail makes a big left turn as it climbs some stone stairs. You may hear a cascade to your right, you’ll see there’s a small drop. However, take a moment to go off-trail to that cascade — it’s worth it. See the photos in the attached slideshow.
About 4.9 miles from the trail, you’ll arrive at the Big Pool. There’s “the Pool” on the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park on the trail to Fern Lake, but this is called the “Big Pool.” It’s a granite basin with a small waterfall feeding it. It’s a very pleasant, calming place for lunch if you’re turning around here or a rest break before you continue on. After taking a few photos of the swimming pool-like basin, walk up the trail a few steps and you’ll come to a nice 15-foot waterfall right above the big pool. Another great photo stop.
While it’s another 2.8 miles from the Big Pool to North Inlet Falls, once again, there are at least two more small cascades and a pond along the way.
At about 7.7 miles from the trailhead, you’ll come to an important trail split. Hikers go left for Flattop Mountain, but they turn right for Lake Nokoni and Nanita. Turn right here. The trail drops over the next 0.2 miles the a bridge over North Inlet and a view of the waterfall.
North Inlet Falls is a beautiful waterfall that has scoured out a canyon, creating a scenic spot. From the bridge you can take photos of the falls and the canyon. Walk a few more steps up the trail and you’ll find yourself right now to the top of the falls.
Continue hiking up the trail as it climbs through a valley on a cliffside trail. When the trees open up, enjoy the impressive mountain views in the distance. It’s about 2.25 miles and 1,400 feet of elevation gain from North Inlet Falls to Lake Nokoni.
Lake Nokoni was named for a Comanche Indian chief, according to the Estes Park Trail-Gazette. The lake sits in a rock basin below Ptarmigan Mountain. This is a surprising large lake with a long, rocky bench around part of the lake. This is a great spot for a nap on a sunny afternoon. However, you may find the wind coming off the lake to be quite chilly.
The big question now that you’re 10.1 miles into the hike — do you turn around or continue to Lake Nanita? Nanita is on the other side of Ptarmigan Mountain, about 1.1 miles away with another 300 feet, or so, of elevation gain both coming and going. If you’ve come this far — what’s another mile or so?
The hike from Lake Nokoni to Lake Nanita crosses the outlet creek of Nokoni and winds through the forest, quickly starting a series of tight switchbacks up a hill. While the trail is steep, watch for a great view of Nokoni below you, a pond in a meadow slightly east of Nokoni and the mountain peaks in the distance.
After hiking climbing 300 feet of elevation gain in a half mile, you’ll come to the high point on the trail. Look into the next valley and you may get a glimpse of Lake Nanita. Despite some who say you can enjoy the lake from here, you can’t. There’s barely a glimpse of it through the forest. You’ll need to hike another 0.6 miles and drop down about 265 feet in elevation to get to Lake Nanita.
The hike to Lake Nanita in the next valley is scenic, has lots of wildflowers and Ptarmigan Mountain is very photogenic.
Then you’ll see it — Lake Nanita. The payoff for hiking 11.2 miles is incredible. The lake is so large, it’s hard to get a photo of all of it. The lake is surrounded on one side by impressive mountain peaks and forest on the other side. There’s a small island in the lake. You’ll likely need to explore the shoreline a bit to get a better photo showing as much of the lake as you can. And don’t miss the Ptarmigan Towers on the north end of the lake. What a striking, memorable photo.
You’ve hiked this far, so do some exploring and spend some time enjoying this special place that few people ever see.
If a hike off 22+ miles is too much, consider getting a permit for one of the many backcountry camping sites along the North Inlet Trail.
In the area, don’t miss the East Inlet Trail to Lone Pine Lake, Lake Verna and 4th and 5th lake. Find more Rocky Mountain National Park hikes and Colorado hiking trails in this list of 400+ hikes across the state. Don’t miss any of my trip reports, sign up for an email alert by clicking on subscribe at the top of this page and follow me on Facebook.
Details: The hike to Lake Nanita is 22.4 miles with about 400 feet of elevation gain with all the ups and downs.
According to the Park’s website, the North Inlet Trail was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on March 5, 2008.
Directions: Take Highway 34 to Grand Lake. When you turn into town, you’ll quickly come to a fork in the road. Take the left fork, West Portal Road. Follow the road about 1 mile and look for a sign on the left side of the road that says “North Inlet Trail.” Turn left and take the road up to the Tonahutu Trailhead. Turn right to the North Inlet Trailhead. There are about nine spots at the trailhead and there is another parking lot above the main lot. The trailhead has bathrooms, trash cans and an information sign.