This is the second of two posts on Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. Make sure and check out the first part, where I cover some logistics, along with things to do on the popular east side of the park. This post will take you over to the west side on your one-way tour, entering via Estes Park and exiting through Grand Lake. You could also do it the opposite way of course.
Trail Ridge Road
Trail Ridge Road is a famous highway that traverses a high ridge over the Continental Divide. Local American Indian tribe, the Utes & Arapahos, maintained a foot-trail near where the highway now runs. They accessed hunting grounds on the Great Plains, where those big mammals you now see mostly limited to the high country in the national parks (elk, buffalo, etc.) used to congregate in huge numbers. In fact, one of the park’s most popular trails is called the Ute Trail. It doesn’t involve much climbing and yet accesses high country.
Find the Ute Crossing Trailhead roughly half-way between Rainbow Curve and Forest Canyon interpretive trail on the east side of Trail Ridge Road. There is not much parking. You can walk out a couple miles to a large rock and small pass and then retrace your steps. Or with a car shuttle you can continue steeply down Windy Gulch a few more miles to Beaver Meadows in Moraine Park.
For sunset, you can’t do much better than drive up to the top of Trail Ridge Road. This high highway, reaching over 12,000 feet, traverses alpine tundra with fantastic views of Long’s Peak to the east and the Never Summer Mountains to the west. Get an early jump on sunset so you can enjoy a walk on the tundra. Well, not on the tundra, on a trail through the tundra. It’s delicate.
Stop just before the summit at the Rock Cut pull-off. From here a trail takes off north of the road and winds its way up onto the ridge. Try your best to tear your eyes away from the incredible vistas and pay some attention to the tiny flowers and other tundra vegetation at your feet. You won’t see tundra like this in many places outside of far northern Alaska. There is a visitor center just west of the summit where you can learn about this tough community.
A little side-trail leads right up to the ridge-line where interesting mushroom-shaped rocks (hoodoos) will compete for your attention (see image below). Climb up onto the summit rocks for some great views of Long’s Peak and surrounding mountains. I found some great light and beautiful far-reaching photos here (image at bottom).
I rarely do this on my blog but feel I must in this case. In Part I I mentioned starting early and finishing before late afternoon. There is a reason I’m stressing that again, and adding an important point. In summertime the Rockies are prone to very fast-moving and violent thunderstorms that build up in the afternoon. Lightning is a very real threat, a threat made clear a few days ago when two hikers died from lightning strikes. Both died while hiking off Trail Ridge Road, one of them a woman hiking with her husband on Ute Trail. A total of 13 people were taken to the hospital from one of the strikes alone!
Now there is no reason to fear hiking up high in Rocky in the summer. These events are rare. But you’d do well to keep a close eye on the weather. If big billowing clouds start to catch your attention, it’s time to move to lower ground. Do not get caught out in open terrain where you’re the tallest thing around. Do not take shelter under a big lone tree. Get into a low depression or down into thick forest if you can. Of course you can mitigate the danger by finishing your hike by 3 or 4 p.m. But situational awareness is always the best tool you have for this (and all) dangers in the outdoors.
The West Side
At first glance it seems as if the west side of the park is not as full of things to do as the east side. But look a little deeper. Though the views may not be as frequent, it is a wonderful place to hike, photograph and watch wildlife. And this is in no small part because of the Colorado River. The Colorado is one of two great rivers of the American West (the other being the Columbia). And this is where it starts. The Colorado’s headwaters are accessible via a trail that takes off from where Trail Ridge Road finally levels out after a long looping descent.
The Colorado River Trail takes you on a nice level foray through lovely meadows bordering the Colorado (see image above & top). It’s amazing to see the river in this way if you have experienced it like I have, in the desert southwest. You’re far upstream from the cactus-lined rocky desert canyons here. And that includes the biggest of them all, the Grand Canyon. It’s a mountain stream up here, with bighorn sheep descending the steep rocky slopes to sip from its cold waters. Keep an eye out for moose as well.
The trail heads out to Lulu City, an old silver mining town. Well, not a town now. There isn’t really anything left outside of some cabin foundations. But that’s really okay, because the miners sure picked a pretty spot on which to site the town. Located in a meadowy area along the river, it makes a fantastic place for a picnic. Lulu City is about 3.5 flat miles in.
If you’re hankering for more of a hike, keep going to the Little Yellowstone Canyon area. It resembles the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, though like it’s name suggests is quite a bit smaller. You can keep going to La Poudre Pass about 7.5 total miles in, and thus reach the true top of the Colorado River system.
For photo opportunities, wildlife seems particularly abundant in this part of the park. A walk near sunset along the winding Colorado is bound to result in beautiful shots of the river and mountains. If you’re lucky a moose or elk will grace your foreground. There are a number of other hikes in the area. I hiked to Big Meadows, a fairly easy 3.2 miles round-trip to a big sea of grass. Wildflowers were in bloom and I saw plenty of wildlife sign, though no animals. It would be a great early-morning or evening option.
There are several routes up into the Never Summer Mountains that I didn’t check out. The hike up to Michigan Lakes Basin seems to me a particularly scenic, if steep, hike. The hike up to Lake Nokoni features a great wildflower show. The short walk to Adams Falls is a great family option. All things to do on my second visit!
Final Thoughts & When To Go
As I already mentioned, a good way to tour Rocky is to do a loop from east to west (or vice versa), camping along the way. I visited in late June, and a few of the hikes I did (especially the Bear Lake to Fern lake one-way) crossed abundant snowfields. The flowers were blooming big-time in the meadows below tree-line. In July the wildflower show moves up to the subalpine areas as the snow melts, so right now is a perfect time for a visit. And so is autumn, with the Rocky Mountains’ signature quaking aspen adding their spectacular golden colors to the mix.
It’s worth repeating that this is quite the popular park. You should avoid it during summer weekends or holidays. If you come in May or early June (depending on how much snow fell during winter), be prepared for snow blocking access to many trails and even roads. If you look at a map of the park you’ll notice that it covers a big area with limited road access.
What this means is that it will at first seem crowded (as it did to me). But as soon as you put a couple miles or more between you and a road you’ll find big empty mountainous country. Just make sure to take it easy and go at a measured pace. The high altitudes will humble even the most fit flatlander. Thanks for reading! I hope your summer is filled with fun and sun!