RMNP – Thunder Lake

Hike to Thunder Lake

In September we hiked to Thunder Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park for a total of almost 13 miles, on the further end of what we can comfortably hike in a day. Nearly every new hike we go on in Rocky feels like we’ve discovered a special place, but Thunder Lake in particular was one of the most beautiful alpine lakes we’ve seen so far in Rocky, and in Colorado.

The Hike

The hike starts out at Wild Basin Trailhead, the same trailhead you use to go to Ouzel Falls. The trailhead to go to Sandbeach Lake is not far away. We went in late September and there were noticeably less cars parked in the parking lot early in the morning than in summer.

After hiking 1.8 miles on Wild Basin Trail, when you get to the junction with Thunder Lake Trail, you turn right to hike 4.2 more miles all the way up to the lake.

Wild Basin Trail

We were on a mission to get to the lake and back, so we made a beeline there and did not stop by Copeland Falls on Wild Basin Trail. The main difference in what we passed in this area from our previous trip to Ouzel Falls was the aspen leaves were turning golden.

Wild Basin Trail

Thunder Lake Trail

At mile 1.8 we turned onto Thunder Lake Trail. The first mile or so on the trail you pass by several backcountry campsites. As with all backcountry campsites in Rocky Mountain National Park, you need to get a permit to stay overnight at these locations, often far in advance due to their popularity.

Thunder Lake Trail

Pine forest surrounds you all the way along the trail, with periodic glimpses of the mountains through the trees.

Thunder Lake Trail

About halfway up, we stopped at this lovely open rock area with a view to take a break and eat some snacks. This is a great spot to relax for a bit and warm up in the sunshine. On our way back to the trailhead I took a short nap here.

Thunder Lake Trail

Further up the trail there is a junction that leads to Lion Lake. The hike to Lion Lake round-trip is 15.5 miles. During our hike we passed by a NPS Ranger who highly recommended visiting Lion Lake. It’s definitely on our list of places to go.

Approaching Thunder Lake

In the last mile or so before reaching Thunder Lake you can see more views of mountains through the trees.

Thunder Lake Trail

You pass multiple campsites and a stock rest area before you reach Thunder Lake. As we hiked out we passed a couple who had just spent 3 days by the lake as a vacation. They seemed so happy. The campsites were all definitely full by the time we headed back from the lake. And soon you’ll see why this is such an amazing place to visit or camp at.

Thunder Lake

As we approached the edge of the lake, our jaws started dropping. The towering mountains surrounding the edges of the lake made quite an impression.

Thunder Lake Tanina Peak

One of the first things we noticed is this ranger patrol cabin situated close to the lake. The rangers that stay here do so in order to be able to quickly respond to emergencies in the area. What a spot to stay!

Thunder Lake Patrol Cabin

Thunder Lake

Taking a left at the cabin, we followed a path to the bottom edge of the lake, where there is a narrow rocky beach you can walk along for a bit. The wind was blowing strongly on this side of the lake.

Panorama of Thunder Lake, Tanima Peak (12,420′) to the left, Mount Alice (13,330′) to the right.

Thunder Lake

A closer view –   Thunder Lake

Mount Alice

I couldn’t find any official trails for hiking Mt. Alice, but apparently they exist.

Closeup of Mount Alice with a telephoto lens –

Mount Alice Colorado

Tanima Peak

Similar to Mt. Alice, there are no official trail to climb Tanima Peak, but it is still possible from a mountaineering perspective, even combining it with Mt Alice.

Tanima Peak Colorado

I loved the shape of Tanima Peak since we first identified it when we went for a hike along Allenspark Trail back in April –

Tanima Peak

From a distance it kind of looks like an egg, but it was interesting to see it from a different perspective, so close up.

Trail along Thunder Lake

It was windy by the bottom edge of the lake, and a few people were arriving. We decided to hike a bit further to the other side of Thunder Lake to see what it’s like and enjoy some solitude.

View of Tanima Peak along the way –

Thunder Lake Tanima Peak

Trail by the lake –

Thunder Lake Trail

There are a few spots along the trail that go down to the edge of the lake where you can sit –

Thunder Lake Trail

The Far Side of Thunder Lake

Other than the view of the lake near the cabin, our time spent by the far side of the lake was my favorite part of the hike. There is this open area on the far side where we decided to sit down and have lunch.

Thunder Lake Tanima Peak

The view from our spot, looking down the lake from the other side. There was little wind here, and with the sun shining its warm beams, we nodded off in the grass for a nap. It was so peaceful.

Thunder Lake

The Hike Back

After our nap, which lasted about 45 mins, we woke up to see wisps of clouds starting to come in. Having seen the main sights, we headed straight back to the trailhead to get ahead of any rain. The hike down was straightforward, but with the miles adding up to one of our longest hikes ever, our legs got quite tired.

Recommended as a Strenuous Hike

If you are physically up for the length of this hike, we would highly recommend it. The views of the mountains and the lake at the end of the climb are exceptional.


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  2. Carl G Posch

    We took the family this past August. My wife and I, along with friends did sky pond, which was very strenuous leading up to Timberline Falls. We are in our 50s. I have also hiked to Black Lake, but that was 20 years ago. I remember that one being pretty tough, as well. Have you done either one of these? If you have, how would compare them to your hike to Thunder Lake? We are going back in a couple of years. We may contemplate doing Thunder Lake then.

    • Katarina

      That’s great that you recently visited Sky Pond. It’s a tough hike, and not one to be missed in RMNP. I have hiked to Sky Pond before, but not Black Lake. According to Alltrails.com trail profiles, Sky Pond is a 8.5-mile hike with 1,761ft elevation gain, Black Lake is a 9.7-mile hike with 1,643ft elevation gain, and Thunder Lake is a 11.2-mile hike with 2,234ft elevation gain. When we visited Thunder Lake we went to the far side of the lake, making our trip 12.7 miles long. The highest elevation on the Black Lake and Thunder Lake hikes is similar – about 10,600ft. Sky Pond is closer to 11,000ft. Just from the statistics, I’d say that Thunder Lake is a more challenging hike than Sky Pond or Black Lake. However, I would add that Thunder Lake was one of my favorite hikes we did last year. Although much of the ascent was through forest, the lake was so beautiful. Out of the three hikes, Thunder Lake is the least popular hike, so the level of solitude you get is amazing. At the same time, you should always consider your own fitness level before going out on a hike, especially if the hike is a strenuous one and far away from easy access to assistance. I would only recommend Thunder Lake if you feel that it is safely doable with your fitness level.

  3. Carl G Posch

    Thanks for sharing. We were able to do Sky Pond relatively easy.I know Thunder Lake is further. Who knows what we’ll be feeling like in 2022, but we did discuss hiking to Thunder Lake next time we go because none of us have ever been there before. The pictures are incredible. Thanks again for your reply.

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