Which Way to the Park?
Will Trail Ridge Road be closed? That was the key question. We could drive up the west side of the park, across Trail Ridge Road to the east side of the park, IF it is open. Trail Ridge Road is a highlight of the park, but the website says it’s closed from “mid-October” to late May. Our visit was Oct. 24 – 26, did that qualify as “mid-October”? We called the road condition hotline twice a day for four days before our visit. The road was opened and closed multiple times during these four days. Should we take a risk? We decided to play it safe and go up the east side, through the Denver metro area. That turned out to be the right choice since Trail Ridge Road was closed in the afternoon of the day we planned to cross it. We arrived at Estes Park, the eastern gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park on a warm, sunny fall day.
Rocky Mountain High
On this late fall day, the park was quiet. We’ve heard about traffic jams and massive crowds at this very popular park, but not during late October. I was expecting pristine mountain lakes with majestic, snow covered peaks in the background. Think John Denver (I know, I’m dating myself here). What I saw at Sprague Lake, our first stop on Bear Lake Road, took my breath away. The scene was much more than I expected. Everything was in balance. The reflection of the snow capped peaks on the tranquil lake was so beautiful and relaxing, I wanted to just sit there and soak in the beauty. The half mile loop around the lake was flat and entertaining. The streams that fed the lake were crystal clear, with red-finned fish swimming in the shallow water.
Bear Lake Road led to … wait for it … Bear Lake! This was another beautiful alpine lake, surrounded by very tall mountains and alpine forest. More importantly, it was the start of many trails that led to waterfalls, other alpine lakes, and mountain peaks. The trail around Bear Lake itself was easy and beautiful, even in the cloudy cold mist with the wind blowing. I pulled my hat further down to cover my cold ears as we walked around with few others on the trail.
The weather was too cold and rainy to attempt longer hikes to a peak, so we decided to hike to Alberta Falls, a two mile round trip. We walked through the mist, the light rain, and bright sunshine, all during our hour long trip. The weather can sure change in a hurry in these mountains. The trail was scenic, as it meanders through the forest of tall evergreens, and across the occasional mountain stream. The roar of the waterfall, faint at first, got louder as we approached. Alberta Falls was a very pretty waterfall with nice boulders that surrounded it. A very nice reward for a pleasant hike.
Second Try at Trail Ridge Road
We followed Fall River on Route 34, past Sheet Lake and West Horseshoe Park, before turning towards Deer Ridge Junction and onto Trail Ridge Road. The ranger said the road was closed after Rainbow Curve due to a dusting of snow overnight, but it may open in the afternoon if the weather cleared up as expected. We were optimistic. The road started in the meadows with large grassland before it hugged the mountain and climbed through a series of switchbacks. Around each turn, the view got grander.
The vegetation changed as we climbed through multiple zones to the top of the treeline, from aspens to fir and spruce. The trees got shorter and shorter as we climbed in elevation. Each pullout presented a different view of the meadows below or snow capped peak. We stopped at several places to take in the view. It was enjoyable even in a cold, damp, cloudy day. As we drove towards Rainbow Curve Viewpoint, the end if Trail Ridge Road was closed, we were hoping for the clouds to part and the sun to come out. It was not to be. Rainbow Curve was windy with light snow falling! Sure enough, the road was closed beyond it. We were not able to experience the views above the tree line. What a bummer.
I was determined to see the west side of the park, Trail Ridge Road or not! We drove all the way around the southern end of the park the next day and reached Grand Lake, the head water of the mighty Colorado River on the western edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. Grand Lake is stunning, with the clear deep blue water flanked by tall mountains. The reflection of the late afternoon sun glistened off of the tranquil, pristine lake. This is a picture perfect setting to just hang out and relax. As much as I would have liked to stay for hours to soak in the beauty, we had to head back to Denver before it got too late. The town of Grand Lake is quaint but largely empty in late October. It was between the fall foliage and the ski seasons.
Why are People Stopping
Up ahead, where the forest met the meadow, many cars pulled to the side of the road and those on the road slowed down. What was going on? Of course, it was the sight of wildlife. In this case, there were a half dozen elks grazing in the meadow, near the forest, at dusk. The male was keeping a close eye on his harem, nudging them to move on as the herd grazed. We were delighted to see large animals in their natural habitat, being themselves. Picture perfect!
Peak, Church, Glacier, and Town
Rocky Mountain National Park is surrounded by beautiful and interesting sights. We visited Pike’s Peak that reached well above the tree line at 14,114 feet, just shy of the tallest peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. As we drove up the incredible road, the temperature dropped and the vegetation changed dramatically. We saw mountain goats along the way, trying to find food in the barren landscape.
We were lucky to have perfectly clear weather so the vistas were spectacular. Gunnison National Forest was to our west and Colorado Springs to our east, both clearly visible. The air is thin at this altitude. We had to walk slower than normal but the car did all the work and got us to the peak. A school field trip injected energy and noise. After they left, the place returned to quiet and had a sense of foreboding. The desolation of the landscape told me that on another day, the wind and the cold would make this a very unforgiving place.
We passed a couple of interesting sights on our way to Grand Lake. St. Catherine of Siena Chapel, otherwise known as Chapel on a Rock, is a beautiful stone church that is part of a Catholic retreat. There was a landslide in 2011 that destroyed the retreat buildings and went around the chapel without hurting it. Many thought it was a miracle. Pope John Paul II visited and prayed at this small chapel in 1993 and took a hike around the area.
I wanted to see a glacier but the ones in Rocky Mountain National Park required longer hikes than we can do, so we visited St. Mary’s Glacier that required a mile and half hike from the parking area through a dry riverbed full of boulders. It was not an easy hike, but manageable by us.
The trail led to a beautiful mountain lake with snow and ice just past the lake. I hiked right up to the rapidly melting ice pack, with more ice just beyond. It wasn’t very grand or large, not exactly what I envisioned. I wondered how long the ice field will stay.
The town of Estes Park is a classic artsy mountain gateway to a National Park. It had interesting shops and restaurants on a nice looking main street without being tacky or too touristy. Elks roamed the city park in the middle of town, just grazing on the grass, oblivious to people and traffic nearby. We found an excellent family run Nepalese restaurant in town. The owner came from Nepal and decided to settle in Estes Park because the Rocky Mountains reminded him of his mountainous homeland. The food was excellent.
Thought for Rocky Mountain National Park:
Your environment can change suddenly and unexpectedly, just like the weather in the Rockies. Be prepared so you can be nimble and adapt to the unexpected.
Impressions of Rocky Mountain National Park:
This park has so many varied activities, it begs for repeat visits. While hiking is the main attraction, auto touring, biking, horseback riding, climbing, wildlife viewing and fishing are all available. The hiking trails range from easy loops around the lake to the long, strenuous hike to Longs Peak, and everything in between. The varied mountain scenery is beautiful everywhere you look, from lush meadows to panoramas from mountain peaks. The streams, lakes, waterfalls and varied trees accentuate the landscape. The seasons bring another dimension to the variety, from budding leafs in the spring with white capped mountains, to lush meadows in the summer, to bright fall colors, to tranquil snow covered trees in the winter, there are new discoveries in all seasons. With the proximity to a large metro area, it’s no wonder this is a very popular park. Rocky Mountain National Park is the essence of the Rockies’ image in our popular culture – rugged, pristine and beautiful.
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Rocky Mountain National Park Rating:
(Note: Ratings are on a bell curve, which means there are as many 5 star ratings as 1 star ratings. All National Parks are wonderful, which makes this a very strict rating scale)
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Practical Info for Visiting Rocky Mountain National Park
- Allow at least three days to visit this rich park.
- Trail Ridge Road, Sprague Lake, Bear Lake and surrounding trails, are must see sights.
- Allow one day to take a leisurely drive across Trail Ridge Road. This is a road to take slow and enjoy. Get out of the car to truely appreciate the scenery. Be sure to check road conditions if visiting in October or May. It’s probably closed between November and April.
- If Trail Ridge Road is closed, take the loop around south of the park (CO7, CO72, CO119, I40, US40, US34) for a very nice, scenic day trip to Grand Lake.
- Summer is crowded to the point of having traffic jams. If you go in the summer, take the shuttle when visiting Bear Lake region.
- Best time to visit is early fall (mid-September to mid-October) or late spring (Late May to early June). Weather is nice and the crowds are manageable.
- Do as many hikes as your physical condition allow. Hiking is the best way to enjoy the park.
- Estes Park is a wonderful town to stay if you are not camping. Many quaint hotels are available. We loved the Stonebrook Resort where we stayed. We saw wild turkeys one morning next to our cabin.
- Best chance of wildlife viewing is dawn or dusk, where forest meets the meadow. Higher elevations during the summer and lower elevations during the winter
Rocky Mountain National Park Facts:
- Size: 265,828 acres, ranked 26th
- Visitors: 4,517,585 in 2016, ranked 4th. 2016 was a record year.
- Peak Month in 2016: 912,507 in July
- Low Month in 2016: 91,831 in December
- Entrance Fee: $30 per vehicle, $15 per person for 7 days
Date Visited: Oct 24-26