Tonahutu Trail to Big Meadows, Kawuneeche Visitor Center, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Tonahutu Trail to Big Meadows - 8.4 miles
Kawuneeche Visitor Center
|Round-Trip Length:||8.4 miles|
|Start-End Elevation:||8,545' - 9,397' (9,397' max elevation)|
|Elevation Change:||+852' net elevation gain (+1,165' total roundtrip elevation gain)|
Tonahutu Trail to Big Meadows - 8.4 Miles Round-Trip
The Tonahutu Trail is accessible from the North Inlet Trailhead at Grand Lake, and the Kawuneeche Visitor Center via the Tonahutu Spur.
It arcs 13 miles northeast to Flattop Mountain on the Continental Divide, forming the western half of the most popular thru-hike in Rocky Mountain National Park.
While few tackle the Tonahutu in its entirety, many use it to access Big Meadows, an aptly named expanse that supports large numbers of elk and moose. The Tonahutu route into Big Meadows is longer than beginning at Green Mountain Trailhead, but preferable for lighter crowds and a particularly active wildlife corridor along the creek.
Mild grades and good trail conditions are ideal for families, backpackers and winter recreation, and anglers will enjoy easy access to deep oxbows in a pastoral setting. The following description begins at the Kawuneeche Visitor Center on the Tonahutu Spur:
The trail heads east through dense lodgepole to join the main Tonahutu Trail at .65 miles (8,695’). The Tonahutu Trail steepens past Harbison Ditch (.8 miles), then levels for an extended period.
Though the canopy is badly marred by beetle kill, the forest floor is brightened by flowers and a verdant herbaceous layer. Deadfall creates useful viewing lanes, and late-summer travelers will enjoy mushrooms and raspberry patches along the way.
Tonahutu Creek is first visible at 1.1 miles, where the forest gradually opens and diversifies. Medium-sized meadows appear at 1.7 and 2.2 miles before a third opening reveals a long, open corridor that you’ll follow into the main meadow (3.0 miles : 9,325’).
The trail enters a contrastingly healthy swath of moss-draped fir to the Paintbrush backcountry campsite (3.55 miles : 9,265’), then edges up against the meadow (3.9 miles). Use this partially concealed segment to look for elk, moose and bear in open space.
The trail passes a spur for South Meadows and Big Meadows Group campsites (4.05 miles : 9,390'), which crosses Tonahutu Creek to the east side of the meadow. A few steps ahead is the Green Mountain Trail junction on the northwest corner of Big Meadows (4.2 miles : 9.397’).
Those with time should continue on the Tonahutu Trail a bit longer for exceptional views and additional perspective on the route you took to this point.
- N40 15.967 W105 49.943 — 0.0 miles : Kawuneeche Visitor Center
- N40 15.989 W105 49.320 — .65 miles : Tonahutu Trail split
- N40 16.235 W105 49.163 — 1.0 miles : Trail levels past Harbison Ditch
- N40 16.611 W105 48.978 — 1.5 miles : Fast moving stretch on mild grade
- N40 17.005 W105 48.935 — 2.0 miles : Forest diversifies as you progress
- N40 17.413 W105 48.859 — 2.5 miles : Pass two small meadows before main corridor
- N40 17.822 W105 48.814 — 3.0 miles : Edge of finger meadow that leads to Big Meadows
- N40 18.271 W105 48.767 — 3.55 miles : Paintbrush Backcountry Campsite spur
- N40 18.589 W105 48.618 — 4.05 miles : Backcountry Campsite split
- N40 18.657 W105 48.715 — 4.2 miles : Big Meadows - Green Mountain Trail split
- N40 19.126 W105 48.762 — 4.8 miles : Onahu Creek Trail split
- N40 19.594 W105 48.539 — 5.4 miles : Steady climb
- N40 20.227 W105 48.701 — 6.35 miles : Long Meadow Trail split
- Enjoy wildlife from a distance. Moose in particular can be dangerous if startled, with calves or during the rut. Moose have poor eyesight, a deficiency that may contribute to negative encounters.
- The 2013 Big Meadows Fire was started by lightning on June 10. It burned about 610 acres before containment, with minimal impact on the meadow-proper.
- The Tonahutu Trail sees heavy equestrian travel. Honor yield protocols for horses.
Camping and Backpacking Information
- A permit is required for all backcountry camping in Rocky Mountain National Park. Permits may be obtained from the Beaver Meadows Visitors Center Backcountry Office, or the Kawuneeche Visitor Center at Grand Lake. Day-of-trip permits may be obtained in-person, year round.
- Reservations may be secured by mail or in person anytime after March 1 for a permit to be used in that calendar year. Phone reservations are accepted from March 1 - May 15, and anytime after October 1 for a permit in that calendar year.
- Camping is permitted in designated sites only. Fires are not permitted. Gas stoves only.
- Camp safely away from dead trees, as close as possible to the metal arrowhead posted at each site. Red flags on trees provide additional guidance to each campsite from the main trail.
- Backcountry Campsites for Big Meadows, Granite Falls, and Haynach Lakes:
Big Meadows Backcountry Group Site (9,405')
- The Big Meadows Backcountry Group Site is located 1.9 miles from the Green Mountain Trailhead on the west edge of Big Meadows. The site is located in a stand of mixed pine that looks out over the meadows. 1 site and a privy is available.
- Sunset Backcountry Campsite Site (9,505')
- The Sunset Backcountry Campsite is located 3.8 miles from the Green Mountain Trailhead. A wood footbridge leads south over the creek to the site, located near the bank in a stand of mixed pine. 1 site is available.
- Sunrise Backcountry Campsite (9,527')
- The Sunset Backcountry Campsite is located 4.05 miles from the Green Mountain Trailhead. The site is located north of the trail over a pine-ringed meadow with an oxbow stream. 1 site is available.
- Lower Granite Falls Backcountry Campsites (9,747')
- The Lower Granite Falls Backcountry Campsite is located 5.05 miles from the Green Mountain Trailhead. The sites are located in a forested area along Tonahutu Creek. The sites are .1 miles downstream from Granite Falls. 2 sites are available.
- Granite Falls Backcountry Campsites (9,921')
- The Granite Falls Backcountry Campsites are located 5.35 miles from the Green Mountain Trailhead. The sites are located north of the trail in a spruce-fir forest on the west edge of a wet sedge meadow. The sites are .2 miles upstream from Granite Falls. 2 sites are available.
- Tonahutu Meadows Backcountry Campsites (10,050')
- The Tonahutu Meadows Backcountry Campsites are located 6.1 miles from the Green Mountain Trailhead. The sites are located in a spruce-fir stand between Tonahutu Meadows and Tonahutu Creek on the south side of the trail. 2 sites are available.
- Tonahutu Group and Stock Backcountry Campsite (10,160')
- The Tonahutu Group and Stock Backcountry Campsite is located 6.6 miles from the Green Mountain Trailhead. The site is located in a heavy spruce-fir forest on the banks of Tonahutu Creek. 1 site and a privy is available.
- Haynach Backcountry Campsites (includes Llama Site) (10,678')
- The Haynach Backcountry Campsites are located 7.2 miles from the Green Mountain Trailhead on the Haynach Lakes Trail. The sites are located in a spruce-fir glade on the edge of a meadow, just east of Haynach Creek. The sites are .5 miles north of the Tonahutu Trail split. 2 sites are available (permit required for Llama stock).
Rules and Regulations
- There's a $20 entrance fee to Rocky Mountain National Park.
Directions to Trailhead
The Tonahutu Spur Trail begins at the Kawuneeche Visitor Center on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park.
The Kawuneeche Visitor Center is located 41.8 miles from the Beaver Meadows Entrance Station on Trail Ridge Road (Highway 34), or 2 miles north of Grand Lake.
Rocky Mountain National Park