After Mueller State Park we headed straight to Rocky Mountain National Park, jetting through Colorado Springs and downtown Denver on a sunny Sunday. While we usually avoid towing through major metropolitan areas whenever possible, we had little choice in this case and in any event our travel was smooth. The only things that made the drive harrowing were (a) I was forced to drive right by an IKEA without pulling in for a lunch of Swedish meatballs (and believe me that the siren song was strong; only the difficulty of finding parking for our rig held me back), and (b) we were stuck in a surprising amount of traffic for the Colorado Renaissance Festival, and I had to focus on driving rather than making snarky comments about events involving historically-inaccurate medieval fantasies and men in tights. It was rough. Despite these challenges, we managed to make it to our campsite just inside the eastern side of the park, relatively close to the town of Estes Park.
We knew that our main activity in the park would be hiking, and we would only scratch the surface of the 350+ miles of trails in the park. But we tried to explore different sections of the eastern portion of the park (leaving the western side until next week) to get a sense of the different environments in the park. Visiting over the Independence Day holiday week – squarely within the brief peak summer season for this park – meant that we had to expect a high level of visitors everywhere we went. The good news is that we were able to find plenty of peace and quiet in the busy park, even without resorting to extreme measures like standing in line for the shuttle bus at 6:30 a.m. like we did in Glacier last summer.
Our favorite hike was the 6 mile Cub Lake Loop, which we could easily reach via a quick shuttle bus ride to the trailhead. The trail covers several different environments from a valley with beaver ponds, to a lake tucked on a mountain side, to a return trip along a rushing creek. We saw three or four moose during the hike (or possibly one creepy stalker moose that shadowed us up half the trail). The wildflowers were abundant, and I particularly liked the sections of the trail where wild roses lining the sides of the trail made the whole area smell sweet with their perfume. We liked this trail so much that we did it twice.
Probably our second favorite was the Beaver Mountain Trail, which was right around 5 miles. The trailhead was a short drive from the campground and not too crowded. A steady uphill climb was rewarded with absolutely spectacular views over the Beaver Meadows and Moraine Park areas (including the campground), along with sightings of Longs Peak (highest in the park) before returning to the trailhead along a creek. The only negative of this trail is that the route is extremely popular for trail rides, so hikers must constantly be on the lookout for horse poop. Since we emerged from the trail with our shoes in no worse shape than when we started, we loved this hike. Less vigilant hikers might have a less pleasant experience.
The most popular trail is the park is the Emerald Lake hike, which is only about 4 miles round trip but brings hikers to not just one but three different alpine lakes (tiny Nymph Lake, postcard-gorgeous Dream Lake, and ice-filled Emerald Lake). We made an effort to get out early on the shuttle to hit this trail, and while we certainly had plenty of company we also had plenty of periods of relative solitude and tranquility on the trail.
One day we ventured down to the Wild Basin area of the park, which has a separate entrance about 15 miles south of Estes Park. Our theory was that this remote section would have far fewer visitors, which was correct, but it also has much smaller parking areas. Visiting right on the Fourth of July holiday meant that we had to park over 2 miles from the trailhead! Fortunately the walk in to the trailhead was a lovely stroll through a forest alongside a burbling stream, so we still enjoyed the area as we headed toward a set of scenic waterfalls.
While we didn’t tackle any gargantuan hikes, I was proud of our ability to easily handle 5-mile treks with around 1,000 feet of elevation gain, especially considering that all the hikes were starting at an elevation of 8,500 feet or more. Who would have ever guessed that flatlanders like us could become relatively acclimated to elevation? All our hikes featured stunning views of the landscape, punctuated by wildflowers everywhere we looked. My favorite plant encounter was our frequent sightings of columbine, the state flower of Colorado. These multi-hued, three-dimensional flowers are unmistakable.
Heading to the Tundra
One of the unique features of Rocky Mountain National Park is the ability of visitors to get an up-close view of a tundra environment. Trail Ridge Road, the main road running east to west through the park, is also the highest elevation paved road in any national park and tops out at 12,183 feet. In these lofty heights, the whipping winds and freezing temperatures make it impossible for trees to grow, creating a summer environment that is dominated by low lawn-like plants and views that go on for miles. The road runs roughly parallel to the Gore Range, which serves as the Continental Divide through the middle of the park and has multiple peaks topping 12,000 feet.
One day we drove up to the Alpine Visitor Center to experience the road and learn more about the tundra. Having learned from our visit to the highest point in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, we remembered to take our fleeces, gloves, and hats. The views from Trail Ridge Road across the tundra and valleys were truly awe-inspiring. Near the visitor center, we took some short hikes that gave us the chance to examine the tundra a little closer. The summer growing season is a mere six weeks long, and the few plants that can survive in this harsh environment generally remain very small and low to the ground. The miniature plants with miniature flowers impressed us with their beauty and resilience. Those tiny plants must also be tasty, because in the summer large herds of elk come up to the high elevations to nosh on the bounty of the tundra.
Camping in the Park
Our spot in the Moraine Park Campground inside the park was just about perfect. Unlike at some other national park campgrounds we’ve experienced, the roads were in pristine shape, and our site was long, perfectly level, and well groomed. The only weird thing was the placement of our picnic table and fire pit really close to the neighbor’s site, but we rarely use those items so that wasn’t a problem. We had plenty of open sky for solar power generation, and we stayed well powered even through days when we experienced scattered afternoon thunderstorms. Our next door neighbor was one of the fanciest, most tricked-out Airstreams we have ever seen, but since the occupants only showed up two (!) nights out of the seven we stayed next to them, we didn’t have a chance to interrogate them about their rig. Deer and turkeys nonchalantly wandered by our campsite on a daily basis. Being in the park and on the shuttle bus system made it much easier for us to ignore the crowds, since we didn’t need to wait in line to enter the park or fight for parking at trailheads on the shuttle system. All in all, we were quite pleased with our choice to stay in the park.
We celebrated Independence Day in true American fashion by consuming Russian eggs, Polish sausages, and Czech lager (AKA deviled eggs, hot dogs, and Budweiser). Our holiday week also featured a sample pack of great beer from Red Leg Brewing, a veteran-owned and operated brewery in Colorado Springs. The Helo Hefe hefeweizen and Devil Dog Stout were standouts for us.
With the weather being warm enough to hike in short sleeves, we discovered that we frequently serve as a joint walking billboard for our favorite camping resource, Campendium. I don’t mind promoting such a great cause, but in the future we will probably try to be less matchy-matchy.
Next: We head to the western edge of Rocky Mountain National Park, for more hiking and presumably smaller crowds.