National Parks: Rocky Mountain National Park
Apr 21, 2019
After moving to Colorado nearly 6 years ago, I found a home just 45 minutes from Estes Park, the eastern gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. In the time since it has become my new home park, and I still have so much exploring to do. Rocky Mountain has climbed into the top 5 in park visitation over the last few years, setting a new record in 2018 with nearly 4.6 million park visitors. In the summer, park shuttles run on Bear Lake road, as parking lots fill early in the day, and in 2016 a secondary gate was even set up on Bear Lake road to turn cars back when even the park & ride lot was full. However, two-thirds of those visitors came between June & September, when all park facilities are open for the season and the weather is the most pleasant.
In the summer, a trip over Trail Ridge Road is a highlight of the park for most visitors. The highest continuous paved highway in North America, Trail Ridge Road peaks at a height of 12,183 feet, with 11 miles above treeline on the alpine tundra, connecting the towns of Estes Park on the east to Grand Lake on the west. Due to this, the road closes in the winter until it is plowed out again in the spring. Plowing operations begin in April with a goal of opening the road with the rest of the park's seasonal facilities on the Friday before Memorial Day. The earliest over opening date was May 7 in 2002, and the latest was June 26 in 1943. Most years the goal of Memorial Day weekend is reached, or if a late snow delays it it is usually not more than another week or so. The photo above was taken on opening weekend in 2014 on Memorial Day. Deep snow remains on the tundra for the first few weeks after the road is open, giving visitors a taste of the harsh conditions up here all winter long. The park service maintains plowing the road in the fall until Columbus Day, and then the closure date depends on the weather. The average close is October 23, although a mild start to the winter can keep the road open later. The latest close date was December 2 in 1933. Near the highest elevation on the road is the Alpine Visitor Center, the highest visitor center in the entire National Park system. Many overlooks along the way provide scenic views, and elk, marmots, and bighorn sheep are the most common wildlife in the alpine environment.
The Alpine Visitor Center can also be reached by traveling the Old Fall River Road, the predecessor to Trail Ridge. This narrow, one-way, gravel road is not plowed, so it usually doesn't open until 4th of July weekend, and closes before Trail Ridge in the fall. This road was built in the 1920's and is a throwback to a calmer time. It has no guardrails, many switchbacks, and is often quite steep, so much so in fact that early cars had to back up some of the hills because they didn't have enough power going forward. Upon reaching the Alpine Visitor Center, travelers rejoin Trail Ridge Road, returning to Estes Park or continuing on to Grand Lake.
Bear Lake is the most popular destination on the east side of the park. This high mountain lake sits at the end of Bear Lake Road at nearly 9,500 feet, and is accessible year-round except for in the worst winter storms. The image at the top of this post is from a rare calm night at Bear Lake, with the Milky Way arcing above Longs Peak and reflected on the lake. Bear Lake Road also has some of the most popular trailheads in the park. Many trails radiate out from Bear Lake itself, and the Glacier Gorge trailhead is also popular with many trip options as well. These trails lead to some of the most poplar lakes in the park, such as Dream Lake, Emerald Lake, Lake Haiyaha, the Loch, Sky Pond, Mills Lake, and more! Many glacial gorges have been carved out of the mountains in this area, and the remnants of these glaciers remain even through the summer in the high passes of the Continental Divide. These are some of my favorite hikes in the park, and are great adventures any time of year. In the winter, just snap on some snowshoes or microspikes and enjoy softer terrain and fewer people on the trails. Dress warm though, it's almost always windy up here. My favorite sunrise location in the park is at Sprague Lake, just off of Bear Lake Road, where morning light falls on the peaks of the Continental Divide and on a good day really makes them shine.
On the west side of the park, Trail Ridge Road follows the Kawuneeche Valley down to Grand Lake. The Colorado River starts its long journey by flowing down this valley, and this is the most common place in the park to see moose wading around in the marshy areas by the river. The headwaters of the Colorado River lie just inside the northwest corner of the park. You must drive outside the park to reach the area however, traveling on Colorado Highway 14 to reach the Long Draw Road in Roosevelt National Forest. You can travel this road past the Long Draw Reservoir to La Poudre Pass, and then it is only a short walk to the marshy area where the source of life for the American West forms and begins its journey. This is a favored adventure for me, and is accessible for almost anybody in the summer time when Long Draw is open. If you have the time, its worth seeing this landmark.
A favorite area of mine in the park, and somewhat less visited, is found in the southeast corner. Wild Basin is an area containing creeks flowing down out of the mountains, multiple waterfalls accessible on a single trip, alpine lakes that aren't quite so crowded, and beautiful wildflowers in mid to late June. This entrance is located on the Peak to Peak Highway, just north of the town of Allenspark. Calypso Cascades is one of the most beautiful waterfalls you'll ever see, and in spring runoff the North Saint Vrain roars alongside the main trail. While the parking lot at the trailhead, as well as parking spots along the road, will fill up in summer, you will find a quieter environment here than in the main areas along Bear Lake & Trail Ridge Roads.
Colorado is famous for its 14ers, the peaks in the state that are over 14,000 feet. One of them, Longs Peak, resides in Rocky Mountain National Park. As the highest mountain in the park, it can be seen from almost anywhere in the park east of the Continental Divide. Its proximity to and visibility from the population centers of the Front Range make it one of the most popular 14ers to attempt, even though it is also one of the most difficult. For around 4-6 weeks every summer, hikers begin their 15 mile RT journey in the predawn hours in an attempt to reach its large, flat summit. Weather conditions turned back multiple attempts for me before I finally gained the summit of this peak. For a more detailed description of my experience on this mountain, read a separate post on my blog about climbing Longs Peak.
In September, the aspens of the park turn bright yellow on the mountainsides, and the elk rut is at its peak. This is the most popular time in the park, beat the crowds by arriving early.The elk will be most active early and late in the day, so if you want to see the males sparring this is the time to pull yourself out of bed early or return in the last hours of the day. Enjoy the aspen trees contrasted with the evergreens as well, the yellow really stands out against the greens and the deep blue skies of a sunny day.
One last way to beat the crowds in Rocky is to explore the park at night. Despite the close proximity to the Denver, the mountains can provide a shield to provide some darker skies and some excellent night sky viewing as illustrated in some of the photos above. Night photography opportunities on Trail Ridge Road in the summer can be excellent and quite varied. Even before Trail Ridge opens for the summer, hikes out into the snow in the early morning hours can offer some excellent spring Milky Way opportunities.
While Rocky is a fairly large park, covering 415 square miles, 95% of the park is actually designated as Wilderness Area, and 355 miles of maintained hiking trails find their way through the park. Like in any other popular park, getting more than a mile away from the road will thin the crowds, although the locals here like to hike too! This post is part of a series I'm doing on National Parks and some of my favorite spots in each one, in honor of National Parks Week. If Rocky Mountain National Park is a special place to you, visit my Rocky Mountain Collection. This special gallery is a collection featuring only images from Rocky, and a donation to the Rocky Mountain Conservancy will be made for 10% of all sales from this collection. If you're enjoying following my posts here on my blog, don't forget to follow me on Facebook & Instagram as well. You'll often see my latest photos there first! If you'd like to order a print of any of these photos, just click on them and you'll be taken to my art store where you can place your order. Thanks for following along!