If you’ve read any of my other blog posts, you know that I love to travel and explore new places almost as much as I love our home in the Ozarks of Northwest Arkansas, where we have many outdoor activities, and enjoy four distinct seasons. But if there is an area that we consider our second home, it is Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. As much as we enjoy seeing and learning about new places, there is a comfort and relaxation factor in returning to the same place every year for family vacation. We have been going to the area around Rocky for about 20 years now. We love it so much that we often think of it as “our park”.
Rocky is the 3rd most visited National Park in the country, but still manages to feel intimate and personal if you know some tricks. Let me share some insider knowledge with you.
We stay in Estes Park, the town on the east side of Rocky. This is a town of 6,000 permanent residents, but on any given summer day, can have 25,000 people around. There are many hotels and a lot of cabin groups and individual vacation home rentals. There are also several family camps in the area. The most iconic of these is the YMCA of the Rockies. At the Y, you can stay in lodges or individual cabins, and enjoy many summer camp-like activities. We rented cabins for years on the Y. As our family has grown with the addition of sons-in-law, or when friends accompany us, we have found that there aren’t enough large cabins to accommodate us. Now we rent individual vacation homes, using sites like VRBO or local property management sites. Most are pretty reasonable, especially when you consider that you’re getting a kitchen and common living space.
From Estes Park, there are three road entrances into Rocky (there is another on the west side, near the town of Grand Lake). The most heavily used one is the Beaver Meadows entrance. On the north end of town is the Fall River Road entrance. The least used is south of town, almost to Allenspark along Hwy 7, called the Wild Basin entrance. At all of these are ranger kiosks where you can buy your park passes, get a map, and ask questions. At Rocky, like most of the larger, heavily trafficked parks, you can buy daily, weekly, and annual passes. Also available are annual all-park passes, and senior citizen and military passes. Because we go for two weeks every year, we purchase the annual all-park pass. This is a plastic credit card-like pass, allowing you to use the automated entrance for a quick entry (believe me this is important at busy times). There are also many hike-in entrances to Rocky. One at Longs Peak, another at Gem Lake/Lumpy Ridge, one from the YMCA campus, and many others.
Rocky is a beautiful, rugged, and majestic park with stunning views of amazing mountain ranges. You can see great beauty from your car if you are short on time, or have physical limitations. There are a few roads that criss-cross the park, giving you views of amazing scenery. Trail Ridge Road is the most famous of these, and is the highest paved road in the country, peaking out at over 12,000 ft in elevation, while crossing the tree-less, wind-swept tundra. There are some gut-check places on the road, with no shoulders and high winds, but the views are unmatched and other-worldly. This road usually doesn’t open until after Memorial Day because of snow load (sometimes it’s as late as mid-June), and closes again in October when the snow returns. Another road that goes high and eventually joins with Trail Ridge Road is the historic Old Fall River Road. This was the original high mountain access road, and is still a gravel road. It is a one-way road through the forest, and eventually breaks out onto to the tundra near the Alpine Visitor Center along Trail Ridge Rd. This road usually doesn’t open until around the 4th of July, again because of snow load. The other popular road to drive is the Bear Lake Rd. Along this road, you will find beautiful pull-outs with great views, or short walks, including a flat walk around Sprague Lake, and another short hike to the impressive Alberta Falls. At the end of the road is the picturesque Bear Lake. There is a short hike around this that is easy, but rocky in places. Also, from this point, you can strike out on longer, more difficult hikes. It is important to note here that the parking lot at Bear Lake fills up early (by 8am) so you may need to park at the Park and Ride lower on Bear Lake Rd, and ride the frequent shuttle buses to Bear Lake (these make stops at several trailheads along the way). Also, an important thing to remember about Rocky is that the lowest elevation in the park is about 7,500 ft above sea level, and soars to 14,000 atop Longs Peak. Give yourself time to adjust to the lower levels of oxygen. Even though we’ve been going for 20 years, I still have a slight headache on my first day at altitude. Be patient, and drink lots of water.
If you are physically able, I highly recommend that you get out of your car. You will not be disappointed. Rocky has over 350 miles of trails (see my earlier post, “Take a Hike”). When you start down these, you will be rewarded with views of high mountain lakes, vistas across high mountain ranges, stunning waterfalls, fields of wildflowers, and even close encounters with wildlife. The tip is to go in early – be in the park by 7:30 or 8:00 am. You will not encounter a line at the entrance kiosks, the roads will be fairly empty, and there will be spaces in the parking lots. Also, by starting early, you will have completed your hike before the almost daily summer afternoon thunderstorms. These can be quite powerful, so you need to be below treeline before they begin. Over the years my family has developed favorite hikes. Some of these are the hike to Mills Lake (you can start near Alberta Falls or Bear Lake, we often start in one place, and finish in the other, making a loop); the hike to Ouzel Falls out of Wild Basin; the Ute Trail off of Trail Ridge – an easy high altitude hike along the tundra; the hike from Hollowell Park to the Mill Creek Basin, where usually a field of wildflowers awaits us; the hike to Odessa Gorge from Bear Lake – the views are amazing.
Here’s another tip that will make your visit fun and memorable. Many evenings we take what we call “game drives” into the park. We head into one of the east entrances (Fall River Rd. or Beaver Meadows) about dusk. We make a loop to the other east side entrance, going off on some of the side roads to Upper Beaver Meadows and Hollowell Park. Because the animals tend to bed down during the heat of the day (or go high to the tundra), and move about eating during the cool of the evening, it is during these drives that we encounter most of the wildlife we have seen over the years. We will see herds of elk or mule deer, flocks of turkey, marmots, and the occasional moose. We have even seen a couple of bears, a coyote, and once had a close encounter with a golden eagle. It is awe-inspiring.
We have visited Rocky many, many times, and yet every time we go, we seem to find a “new” trail, or see an animal in a different place, or encounter different flowers or weather than the times before. We enjoy the family time spent in nature, which puts “real life” in perspective. I know if you make the trip, you will also fall in love with my park. Maybe I’ll see you there!