Rocky Mtn National Park Alternatives: Avoiding Crowds   13 comments

Sunrise over Brainard Lake, Rocky Mountain Front Range, Colorado.

Sunrise over Brainard Lake, Rocky Mountain Front Range, Colorado.

I’ve been stranded with vehicle problems lately but it has not been all bad.  I’m in a beautiful place, near to Rocky Mountain National Park.  Now this is not the most out of the way place I’ve ever been.  In fact Rocky (the name locals use for the park) is now the third most popular national park in the country, visited by more people than either Yosemite and Yellowstone.  So it can get very crowded, especially on summer weekends.

Besides visiting during the week, there are a few ways to avoid most crowds at Rocky.  One is to go over to the west side of the park, in particular staying away from Bear Lake, the most popular destination within the park.  Another is to go hiking but to summon the energy and continue on up the trails, past popular destinations in order to get more solitude.

But an alternative is simply to not enter the park at all.  The Rocky Mountains don’t stop at the park boundary and public land (mostly Forest Service) extends in three directions.  I’ve been checking out a few nearby natural areas recently, mostly to see something different.  As I suspected most of these places are also very crowded on weekends.  But since they mostly attract locals, they tend to be quieter than the park during the week.

It's peaceful along the Colorado River in the western part of Rocky Mtn. National Park.

It’s peaceful along the Colorado River in the western part of Rocky Mtn. National Park.

Brainard Lake Recreation Area

One place that is hard not to be impressed with is Brainard Lake Recreation Area.  It’s only 35 miles south of Rocky, about an hour’s drive down the Peak to Peak Highway.  A busy campground (get there early or reserve a spot) is located conveniently just below Brainard Lake itself.  Several small picnic areas are scattered about, and fishing is popular.  In recent years a population of moose has moved in.  Popular with wildlife photographers, these are Shiras moose, the smallest subspecies.  Although definitely smaller than Alaskan moose, bulls can reach 1200 pounds and are dangerous in the fall rut.

The area is also famous for its hiking.  Several trails head up into the Indian Peaks Wilderness to beautiful alpine lakes.  Energetic hikers and peak baggers continue up the spectacular valleys past glacial tarns and on up to rugged granitic mountains.  The hikes tend to be strenuous because of the altitude, but distances are not great.  For example I hiked to Blue Lake and it was just 5 miles round-trip with 900 feet elevation gain.

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Colorado Columbine on one of the trails of Brainard Lake Recreation Area.

Colorado Columbine on one of the trails of Brainard Lake Recreation Area.

Another amazing hike I can personally recommend is Isabelle Glacier.  In 8 3/4 miles you gain 1750 feet.  This takes you past two lakes, including lovely Lake Isabelle.  Hike beyond this lake and you’ll drop most other hikers, passing flower meadows and a high tarn before climbing into a huge amphitheater surrounded by soaring peaks, snowfields and waterfalls.

Lake Isabelle and Indian Peaks, Colorado.

A family of ducks paddles across Red Rock Lake.

A family of ducks paddles across Red Rock Lake.

But several of the images here are from the lowest of the area’s lakes, and my favorite.  Red Rock Lake lies on the road to Brainard Lake, and most people blow right by it, in a hurry to get to their destinations.  It’s a peaceful spot that attracts waterfowl, and has a nice view of Indian Peaks from the east shore.  It’s quite a photogenic place, despite not being as spectacular as the high, hike-in lakes, which are closer to the peaks.  But because of the red rocks and a partial cover of water lilies I think Red Rock is more visually interesting than many of the area’s lakes.

Thanks for reading, have a great week, and happy shooting!

Beautiful Red Rock Lake, Colorado.

Beautiful Red Rock Lake, Colorado.

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13 responses to “Rocky Mtn National Park Alternatives: Avoiding Crowds

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  1. Fantastic photos!

  2. A beautiful place! Love the lighting in your images 🙂 Everything glows.

  3. Very nice, Michael. Red rocks lake looks like a great spot. I was at RMNP in May. That’s another way to miss the crowds since it is still pretty cold that time of year. My only complaint about visiting then is that I went to Bear Lake and it was frozen over!

    • I’ve never been that early but sounds nice. I came in mid-June once and was hiking in snow. I like the late fall too. Walking across Bear Lake would be interesting, haha!

  4. One day we’ll hopefully make it to your part of the world, Michael. Not to see any of the cities or the human-made “attractions”, but to experience incredible natural beauty such as this.

  5. Thanks Mike, Beautiful! Yesterday we got to Multnomah Fall at about 10 am. Good thing as we got a parking place luckily right by the tunnel. We were on our way to the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center in The Dalles. Coming back no way could anyone part at MF and the line up of cars going east was about 1 1/2 miles long. Couldn’t stop at other Falls or Vista House except Lauterelle Falls (spelling). Take care and please be safe. I always look forward to your posts!

    • Yes Annette, that’s Oregon’s RMNP. I can’t believe how popular the Gorge has become in recent years. Used to be MF was the only busy place. Take care yourself!

  6. What a beautiful and informative post, Michael. Thank you. Your images speak volumes about how important it is to get to these special places and see them in person. Love your landscapes and your moose and flower close-ups are wonderful.

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