I recently had a chance to spend a week camping in Estes Park, Colorado and exploring Rocky Mountain National Park (ROMO) for the second time. The park is known for its wildlife, scenic drives, and epic hiking. I was fortunate enough to experience all of these in my time there.
There are 106 photos of this trip on my Flickr page, but here’s some highlights of the week.
ROMO is home to black bears, bald eagles, elk, and moose. There’s also a million other species of flora and fauna, but those are the big four everybody tries to see. I was able to see three of the four (never spotted a bald eagle) and photograph two of them (wasn’t fast enough to get a pic of the one black bear I saw).
It’s generally best to enjoy wildlife from a safe distance:
A moose on the loose! Let’s use our fancy camera to zoom in for a better look:
And that’s as close as I’ll ever want to be to a wild moose. Those things are pretty docile, but they can get up to seven feet tall and 2,000 pounds, and they can run up to 35 MPH. If they turn aggressive, you want to be far, far away.
Elk, on the other hand, are pretty chill.
In fact, you can get surprisingly close to them.
And if you’re really lucky, they’ll pose for pictures for you.
If you’re really unlucky, they’ll stop traffic just to scratch up your car.
There’s two great roads to drive in ROMO.
Trail Ridge Road
Trail Ridge Road is the newer, safer road, and the primary artery connecting the east and west sides of the park. It has many turnouts in which to pull off and park the car and get shots like these:
When you drive the Trail Ridge Road, you eventually end up over 12,000 feet in elevation and in a barren alpine wilderness. Herds of elk roam the landscape and you can see for miles in every direction. Keep going and you’ll find yourself at a visitors’ center and gift shop at the apex of the road, which is where most people turn around and head back the way they came. It’s also where the other scenic drive ends.
Old Fall River Road
The Old Fall River Road begins in a different location than the Trail Ridge Road, but they both end at the Alpine Visitors Center. This road is much older and does not have the modern safety features or the accessible turnouts of its big brother. This road was begun in the 1910s using prison labor; it doesn’t have a single guardrail anywhere along its route. It’s not paved, either. And it’s a total blast to drive.
The first few miles of the drive wind their way up a canyon.
Along the way, you’ll drive right past Chasm Falls, which is worth a stop.
Eventually the view starts to open up.
Some impressive engineering has been used to keep the road open for close to 100 years.
I drove this road two days after it opened for the season — it usually isn’t plowed and open until the 4th of July, but opened early this year — and there were a few spots along the way where you could see snow melt resulting in spontaneous waterfalls:
Keep winding upward and you’ll start to approach the Alpine Visitors Center again.
And if you’re lucky, you’ll see elk herds roaming the open meadows.
Grab a cup of coffee at the gift shop (their cold brew is surprisingly good!) and head to any of the park’s many trailheads for some exercise.
The Bear Lake area is a very popular destination for day hikers like me. Bear Lake itself is very scenic and has a short and flat loop trail that follows its entire shoreline.
Because of its accessibility to scenery ratio, the Bear Lake area is so popular that its parking lots often fill up early in the day, and the National Park Service will close the approaching road to all tourist vehicle traffic. When that happens, which is every day in summer, your only option is to park elsewhere and ride a park shuttle bus. It’s a minor inconvenience but one worth enduring; the Bear Lake area is home to my favorite hike of the ROMO trip.
(Camping just a two mile hike from a shuttle stop is also an excellent idea. If you hike into ROMO via this trail, you can ride the shuttle anywhere you want and you don’t have to pay the $25-per-vehicle entrance fee!)
From Bear Lake to Emerald Lake
The hike to Emerald Lake is a gentle but persistent upward slope that takes you past a total of four alpine lakes over the course of ~4 miles (one way) and 1,500′ in elevation gain.
It begins with a sign to set you on edge:
Bold scary colors and the promise of elk nearby. And it turns out they’re not kidding. About 500 yards past that sign, I saw this:
An elk just feet from the trail. Is it female? Well, no antlers, so probably? I dunno. This is the point where I regret not doing more research. Is it aggressive? Hopefully not. So what to do? Let someone else go first and see if they get attacked/mauled/bit/trampled by it:
Seems pretty docile. Carrying on. Make sure to snap a picture on the way past.
After climbing out of the Bear Lake area (and leaving behind 90% of the tourists) you encounter Nymph Lake.
A beautiful lake, but the mosquitos here are so thick you can see clouds of them, and I didn’t bring my bug spray on this hike, so I’m not gonna linger here very long. Onward to Dream Lake! On the way, take a picture of a friendly chipmunk:
Only to have it turn around and leave, giving you a rather rude but well-composed photo of a chipmunk’s butt:
And while you’re still laughing about how stupid that photo is, keep hiking past views like these:
The trail starts to close in on you as it moves away from the edge and into the forest. This is a good place to spot wildlife, like this majestic elk that’s nice enough to strike a pose:
Be careful to give it plenty of space, and keep hiking. The trail will open up again shortly.
And then turn inward to an alpine meadow that’s straight out of a painting.
And that takes you to lake #3 on the hike, Dream Lake.
Less mosquitos than Nymph Lake, which is good, cause you have to hike along the shore of this one for its entire length. You’re high enough at this point to start encountering snow in late June.
Messy, muddy snow, but snow nonetheless! Snow is fun. Take a moment to throw a snowball at nothing in particular before beginning another short climb to take you to Emerald Lake. One look at it, and you’ll realize how it got its name.
I did this hike as a spur-of-the-moment decision born out of restlessness, which means I just grabbed my daypack and hit the trail. It was late in the afternoon, and I didn’t bring any snacks or a flashlight. Had I been thinking, I would have brought those with me, which would have allowed me to stay longer to catch the sunset at Emerald Lake and hike back to camp in the dark. The Emerald Lake photo above was taken while facing almost due west, and the sun was about an hour away from dropping behind that ridge. I bet it’s beautiful at dusk. Won’t be able to find out for sure until the next time I go back there!
Also in the area, and regrettably not hiked, is the trail to Flattop Mountain. It’s about 1,500′ above Emerald Lake and looks down along this whole route as well as Tyndall Glacier. Something else for the next trip.
There’s another hike in the park, this one on the west side, that takes you up past a series of lakes. It’s a 90 minute drive each way across the park, and I blocked a whole day for it: the plan was to drive over there, hike as much as I could, then drive back. I arrived at the trailhead under gloomy skies, which is generally a bad sign in the mountains. I decided to hike to the first significant point of interest, which is Adams Falls, barely a half mile from the trailhead. Turned out to be a good decision, because Adams Falls is beautiful.
You can already get a sense of how overcast it was from lack of sunlight in the photo, but it was about this point that thunder started to rumble. The other folks at this overlook and I all looked at each other, then turned around and headed back to our cars. When we emerged from the woods, we saw this:
Definitely not the time to begin a long hike up a mountain valley. So the remainder of the hike was scrubbed and will have to wait for another trip. The first half of the drive back to camp was during a pretty incredible thunderstorm. Very windy at some of those mountain passes!
A Note About the 14ers
There’s one “14er” in ROMO — that is, a mountain higher than 14,000′ elevation. It’s been a goal for awhile now to summit a 14er, but Longs Peak is not something I wanted to attempt as a solo hiker. It’s a long hike, and a bit more technical than I’m comfortable with, and there’s still plenty of snow at those altitudes in late June. Maybe if I had my hiking buddies with me, but definitely not solo. I’ll bag my first 14er on another trip sometime.
Wrapping This Up
Besides exploring ROMO, this trip featured plenty of downtime at camp relaxing and enjoying the fresh mountain air, lots of time swinging lazily in a hammock, and a trip to sample one of the largest whiskey collections in North America. I even had a visit from some of my close friends who live in the area and got to give their kids their first taste of camping. We made s’mores, took a short hike, and had a great time catching up. All in all, a week well spent and a wonderful way to recharge the mental and physical batteries.
When I packed up the campsite, I was sad to leave, but excited for the next leg of my journey: another week of camping, this time in Yellowstone National Park. That post is due up next.