Elevation 9,425-11,002 ft
Elevation Gain: 2,023 ft with additional ups and down
Estes Cone is just that, a large volcanic remnant with a cap of flat-ish rock. We decided to hike this trail because the high country is still covered in snow and we needed both elevation gain and elevation. Estes Cone also has the advantage of being close to the Front Range and in possession of some excellent views of Mt. Meeker, Longs Peak, and Mt. Ypsilon not to mention Estes Park.
There are two ways to get to Estes Cone, one from the Longs Peak trailhead and the other from Lilly Lake trailhead via Storm Pass. On this trip we started at the Longs Peak trailhead but on our way back we accidentally turned onto Storm Pass (more details about that later). I can tell you that the views from Storm Pass are much better since the trail is about 300 ft higher than the other. If we hike this peak again, we will go via Storm Pass. According to the trail signs, it is only an additional 0.5 miles. I don’t know about any additional elevation gain, however.
The down side of the Estes Cone trail is that it is in the trees most of the time. There is one nice meadow crossing, one creek, and one old cabin. Other than that though it is trees, trees, and more trees. The trail is easy to moderate except for the last 0.7 miles, which ascends straight up the cone. Here the trail switches from dirt and rock to almost entirely rock. In fact the slope and the trail look so much alike that the Rangers have interspersed cairns every 10 feet or so to guide hikers upwards. While rocky, this pitch is short and by no means unassailable. On this trip, the sky was turning dark and we felt pressured to get to the top as quickly as possible. Not the best option when trail finding.
The summit of the cone consists of four to five rocky outcroppings. The hiker can choose to climb to the highest, which is located to the southwest, or scramble up the closest. On this trip we chose this option again because of the threatening weather. The views are just as grand.
Unfortunately, we were only able to stay on the summit for about a half hour before a storm over trail ridge road finally swooped down upon us and we had to bolt. Since it was before noon, we were not happy to be turned away from the views so early. While it thundered periodically, the rain never made it to the ground so the storm turned out to be a bust, but above tree line you can’t second guess Mother Nature.
We were boogying down the hillside at a quick clip so it was not difficult to see how we got onto the wrong trail. The trail junction between Storm Pass and Estes Cone is poor going up and worse coming down. There is a large pine tree between the trail and an extremely large cairn. Before the tree, Storm Pass shoots off to the left. To continue to the Longs Peak trailhead, you have to go around the tree, around the cairn and up a trail on which the trail signs face away from the descender. Not ideal. It took us about a half hour of cruising through the trees before we figured it out. Back tracking up hill is never fun but anytime you get off your route back tracking is the most appropriate thing you can do but it is also the least likely. Studies have shown that back tracking is rare. Most people feel the need to keep moving forward, which often makes things worse.
Everyone should climb Estes Cone at least once. The perspective gained of Meeker and Longs, which normally blend into one large massif, is both pleasing and valuable. The twisted shape of the pines on the upper slopes of the cone is intriguingly eerie. The summit is worth the monotony of the trees particularly when there are few other options. It is going to be a short alpine season this year. Sigh.