We took a detour on our way to Rocky Mountain National Park to see Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. It was the first National Monument, in 1906, and it is bizarre to see. It’s an 867 foot tall hunk of rock in the middle of nowhere!
The craziest part is that people climb this thing. Not normal people, of course. There was a demo of the cracks in the rock that people use to climb it, and I tested it out so I can confidently say this is another activity that’s not for me!
To visit Rocky Mountain National Park, we camped in Estes Park, Colorado at Spruce Lake Campground. It was expensive and had a lot of rules, but the location couldn’t be beat, just outside the entrance to the park.
We arrived, and by the time we set up camp it was starting to rain. We learned our first lesson of Rocky Mountain National Park, which is that in the summer, it rains everyday around 1 pm. Sometimes just a little, sometimes a lot, but everyday! We went to the visitors center, where we had a less than helpful encounter with a ranger who declined to recommend any hiking trails. We ended up going to a “Welcome to the Rockies” ranger talk, and he was the one to lead it. Brian mentioned that he was interested in seeing rivers and waterfalls and he replied that “there aren’t really waterfalls here, they are more like cascades”. Fortunately, another ranger was happy to recommend some hikes, and told us that her favorite trail is the Mills Lake trail in the popular Glacier Gorge area, and recommended a few short hikes on the west side, which is less busy and the area most likely to have moose sightings.
We drove part of the Trail Ridge Road our first day in the park, even though it was still rainy and visibility wasn’t great. Trail Ridge Road is a 48 mile road that starts at the eastern entrance to the park, climbs up the mountains, past the tree line into the Alpine Tundra, across the continental divide, and down the mountains, and ends at the south-western end of the park.
We went about halfway that first day, and the rain and clouds parted long enough to see a herd of elk and a rainbow. With all the rain in the park, we saw a few rainbows during our visit!
We also drove another fun park road, Old Fall River Road, which is a one-way dirt road up the mountain to to Alpine Visitor Center at the top. We stopped at the Alluvial Fan which is a waterfall over boulders created when a dam broke in 1982. There were people crawling all over it, one person fell into the water while we were there. We also saw a few yellow-bellied marmots while we were driving this road!
I was apprehensive about hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park because, well, it’s the mountains. The elevation of the park varies from 8,000 – 12,000 feet above sea level. I wasn’t sure whether the hikes would be too hard, but there were plenty of easy and moderate hikes, too.
We started with a couple of easy hikes (about a half mile each) on the west side of the park. Coyote Valley Trail is a flat trail that follows a river. It is in a beautiful valley, but wasn’t a terribly interesting hike until we spotted a mother and baby moose! We watched them for awhile, and the female moose walked into the river for a drink.
We also hiked to Adams Falls, and as we were hiking back from the falls we spotted a male moose lying in the trees.
The most popular hiking area is on the eastern side of the park. We picked out a 6 mile round-trip hike from the Glacier Gorge Trailhead to Mills Lake and Jewel Lake. We knew it would be crowded even on a weekday, so we got there at about 7 am, and the trailhead parking was full already! Fortunately, they have a park and ride lot and shuttle in this area. That lot fills too, especially on the weekend, but it was pretty empty at 7 am.
The hike took us past Alberta Falls, up about 900 feet of elevation to two lakes, Mills Lake and then Jewel Lake. It got pretty muddy between the lakes, but hiking in the cool mountain air felt good. The lakes were so beautiful!
Our friend Stephanie recently moved to Fort Collins, CO, and joined us for a great day in the park, and stayed in the trailer with us. We used the park and ride to go to the Bear Lake Trailhead. It was even busier on Saturday! We circled Bear Lake, which was full of lilly pads.
Then we started the 3.5 mile round-trip hike past Nymph Lake and Dream Lake to Emerald Lake. Each lake was very different, and between the lakes we walked along the river and admired the cascades. There is so much water in the park! There are rivers and lakes everywhere.
We peeked in the ponds and saw some beautiful trout. Brian was sad to be without his fishing pole, and was jealous of the fly fishermen that we saw along the way.
When we got to Emerald Lake we had climbed about 700 feet and as soon as we turned around a bend, it got so cold! There was a chilly breeze coming across the lake. We stopped there and ate snacks, and had to fight off the hungry chipmunks.
It was a great hike, and it was really nice to have someone else besides Brian to continuously exclaim “wow, this is so beautiful!” back and forth with me.
Afterward, we continued on to drive the entire Trail Ridge Road. We stopped at the Alpine Visitors Center and climbed the Alpine Ridge Trail, nicknamed “Huffers Hill”, and even though it was only 160 feet, it was a challenge because it climbed to 12,000 feet above sea level! We saw the Alpine tundra up close and enjoyed great views from the mountain. It was chilly up there!
When we got to the west side of the park we saw a few herds of elk.
It was really fun exploring the park with Stephanie. It was also great to catch up and drink beer together.
Brian and I did one last hike in the park before our time there ended. We visited the southeastern area and hiked 5.2 miles round trip and about 900 feet in elevation from the Wild Basin Trailhead past Copeland Falls and Calypso Cascades to Ouzel Falls. It was a great Trail through the woods near the river. Brian was very excited the see mushrooms again, and we saw some great ones!
We ended with a walk around Lilly Lake where we saw wildflowers, baby ducks, and a couple of muskrats.
Rocky Mountain National Park really exceeded my expectations and I learned why it is such a popular park. The hiking and wildlife are amazing, and nearly every trail goes past rivers, waterfalls, (oops, I mean cascades), and gorgeous Alpine lakes.
Day 321 | Mile 33,843