Rocky Mountain National Park, Part I   13 comments

The view from Glacier Meadows Campground, Rocky Mountain National Park.

The view from Glacier Meadows Campground, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

Time for a travel post.  After all, that’s supposed to be a major focus of this blog!  I’ve been to a bunch of America’s National Parks.  In fact, there are not many that have fallen through the cracks, parks that I haven’t yet had the chance to visit: Sequoia & King’s Canyon in California, Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, Nevada’s Great Basin, the Everglades and Acadia on opposite ends of the East Coast; not many.

Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park is an exception.  It seems strange that I’ve been to all of the other parks in the Mountain West but never this one.  It loomed large in my mind as a blank spot.  I felt I was missing something, until recently that is.  I’m splitting this post up into two parts, because I want to share a lot of pictures of this place.  I only had my little point and shoot camera, but what the heck, it did a nice job of documenting my trip.

With a week and a half off, and considering I’m working within a (long) day’s drive of Denver, I finally got the chance to visit the park.  The hot weather we’ve been experiencing made the decision easy.  I was longing to get out of the unrelenting flatness and heat of the Great Plains and back into the mountains.  The first night camped at elevation, not far from Colorado Springs, was also the first time I’ve used my sleeping bag in quite some time.  It was blessedly cool.  Perfect sleeping weather!

A common sight on the southern Plains these days, on the way to the Rockies.

A common sight on the southern Plains these days, on the way to the Rockies.

 

Getting There & Camping

After a short introductory hike through Garden of the Gods, I headed up to Rocky Mountain National Park northwest of Denver.  The usual gateway to the park that locals simply call “Rocky” is via Estes Park, a little tourist-town on the east side of the park.  Estes Park is about a 2 hour drive from Denver.  From here, after some last-minute stocking up, you have the choice of two entrances: Beaver Meadows, closest to Moraine Park, or Fall River to the north.

An alternative gateway town is Grand Lake, on the southwest side of the park.  At about 2 1/2 hours, this is a bit further to drive than Estes Park, but because I’m recommending a loop through the park anyway, it doesn’t really matter whether you enter or exit through Grand Lake.  However you get into the park, you won’t have to drive far before you find camping.  Campsites (without hookups) cost $20/night.

You can make camping reservations (which in summer is a good idea) at Moraine Park or Glacier Meadows campgrounds.  These are located in the most popular part of the park, the Bear Lake Road corridor.  Moraine Park is the more popular of the two, but I camped at Glacier Meadows and thought it was just fine.  It has a fantastic view (see image at top) and a very friendly ranger to check you in.  At either campsite you can show up early in the day to get a decent campsite.  Not too early before people check out; about 11-1 is a good timeframe.  Campsites are not huge and forested like we have in the Pacific Northwest, but they’re available.  That is, providing you don’t try to do Rocky on a summer weekend.  Do yourself a big favor and go during the week.  It’s a very popular park, and close to a big city.

The terrain at Wild Basin includes this area that was subject to recent flash flooding.

The terrain at Wild Basin includes this area that was subject to recent flash flooding.

One of the many wildflowers I found along the trail.

One of the many wildflowers I found along the trail.

 

 

Rocky is For Hiking

This is yet another national park that is best seen from the trail, whether on foot or horse-back.  One note: days often start clear, with clouds showing up mid-day and thunderstorms always possible late in the afternoon.  I don’t mind storms (call me strange), but if you want a better chance for calm weather start your hikes early and finish before late afternoon.

I drove up on a Monday afternoon, entering the park via an entrance I haven’t mentioned – Wild Basin.  This is a short gravel road, driveable in passenger vehicles, that dead-ends at a trailhead.  The hike in from here to Ouzel Falls is an easy 2.7 miles.  But you can hike further along to a glacier-gouged subalpine basin, ultimately ending up at beautiful Bluebird Lake 6 miles in.

Another key trail-head lies between Wild Basin and Estes Park.  Long’s Peak is the highest mountain in Colorado at 14,259′ (4346 m.).  You can climb the mountain from the trailhead along Hwy. 7.  In late season when there is little snow or ice, the climb is not technical.  It can be done in a long day, starting before dawn.  Or you can do one of a number of shorter hikes from here.  There’s a small tent-only campground at the trailhead.

The Loch is a beautiful place to hike to in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

The Loch is a beautiful place to backpack in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Flowery grassy meadows are found everywhere at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.

Flowery grassy meadows are found everywhere at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.

Another great hike, one I highly recommend, takes off from Bear Lake Road at Glacier Gorge Trailhead.  This is located just before road’s end at Bear Lake.  A short jaunt up the trail and you find yourself at a gorgeous (and popular) little cascade called Alberta Falls.  But keep going, the best is yet to come.

The Loch, a lovely lake popular with backpackers, is your next destination.  When you come to beautiful Timberline Falls 4 miles in, you’ll need to do a little steep climbing.  But the reward for that comes quickly, in the form of two spectacular tarns.  A tarn is an alpine lake set into a depression carved by a glacier at the base of steep mountains.  Lake of Glass and Sky Pond (image below) are aptly named.

Sky Pond is your final stop before turning around.  Unless you want to do some mountain-climbing that is!  You will be hiking across rocky tundra at the foot of the granite giants.  It’s what you come to Colorado for!  The total mileage for Sky Pond is 9 miles round-trip, with about an 1800-foot elevation gain.  Not an easy hike, especially with the high altitude, but definitely worth it.

 

Sky Pond is a glacial tarn sitting high in Colorado's Rocky Mountains.

Sky Pond is a glacial tarn sitting high in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.

One more great east-side hike takes off from Bear Lake at the end of Bear Lake Road.  You will need to take a shuttle for this one-way hike.  First park your vehicle at the Fern Lake Trailhead near Moraine Park Campground.  Just back up the dirt road from here is a shuttle bus stop.  The park operates a free shuttle bus that runs daily from mid-June to mid-October, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.  You never have to wait long for a bus.

You’ll actually take two shuttle buses with a change mid-way along to Bear Lake, your starting point.  From Bear Lake, hike along the lakeshore to the right, quickly leaving the crowds behind when you veer right at a junction and begin climbing to a gentle pass.  After skirting a beautiful alpine lake at the base of rugged peaks, drop steeply down to Fern Lake and then out through a lovely valley to the trailhead, where your vehicle is parked.  You’ll pass some spectacular scenery on this 9+ mile hike, with the chance to see bear or mountain sheep along the way.

Elk browse in one of the park's many grassy meadows.

Elk browse in one of the park’s many grassy meadows.

Other Things To Do

After all that hiking you may be ready for some mellow pursuits.  If you have fishing gear (you can rent in Estes Park), fly-fishing along the Big Thompson River as it winds through Moraine Park is so perfect you won’t need to catch any fish to have a wonderfully relaxing time.  Early morning in Moraine Park is also a great time to break out the camera and tripod to get some pictures.  Herds of elk frequent the huge meadow that makes up Moraine Park.

The Big Thompson River, popular with fly fishers, is a crystal clear stream that flows conveniently through beautiful Moraine Park.

The Big Thompson River, popular with fly fishers, is a crystal clear stream that flows conveniently through beautiful Moraine Park.

There are several stables in the park that offer trail rides.  All of them seem to be centered around Moraine Park.  Those that I saw were your typical long trains of tourists perched uncomfortably on bored-looking mounts.  But I’m sure you could arrange to ride in a smaller group where they cater to a more experienced rider with a quicker pace.  However you do it, it looks to be well-organized.  And the scenery is truly spectacular for horse-back riding at Rocky.

Stay tuned for the second part of this post, where I’ll cover spectacular Trail Ridge Road and the west side of the park.  Thanks for reading and happy travels!

Bear Lake at dusk.

Bear Lake at dusk:  Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

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13 responses to “Rocky Mountain National Park, Part I

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  1. Pingback: Rocky Mountain National Park, Part II | MJF Images

  2. Great shots we spend every spring and every fall in the park it has AWSOME photo opportunities to get some great wildlife and some great early morning mountain shots. When the weather moves in it is really something to see…. spring brings the babies and fall great color and bull moose and elk in great form… something to see even just for a days drive.

    • Thanks for checking it out! I’ll be back to this park hopefully in the fall.

      • You will love the fall… if you go make sure to go to the south side of Rocky Mtn Park into Granby and Grand lake you might even catch a bear or two. They have moose in town sometimes and the locals are always willing to tell you where they were spotted . The entrance to the park there has great colors… Take a trip up to Teller city it too is a great photo opportunity. Road is a little ruff but you can take it if you go slow… great colors there

    • Thanks Peggy!

  3. I cannot believe the stunning images you produce with a point and shoot! Thanks so much for this informative post. We will be in this area in mid-September.

  4. Strong captures as usual.

  5. Beautiful!

  6. Fantastic photos Michael, and a great showcase you’ve put together of this beautiful place (which I hope to be able to visit one day!)

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