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On Walkabout At: Rocky Mountain National Park

Basic Information

  • What: Rocky Mountain National Park
  • Where: Estes Park, Colorado
  • Founded: January 26, 1915
  • Fee: $20 per vehicle
  • More Information: NPS website

Picture from Rocky Mountain National Park

Narrative

This summer my wife had a convention she needed to attend in Loveland which I volunteered to drive her to.  Since she was going to be at the convention all day I decided to use the free time to go and check out Rocky Mountain National Park.  From Loveland the gateway city to the park Estes Park is easily reached via Highway 34:

From Loveland it takes just over an hour to reach the park due to the windy road that passes through Big Thompson Canyon:

Picture from Rocky Mountain National Park

Traffic often gets backed up here due to the RVs and camper-trailers being pulled up towards Estes Park.  Once at the park expect to wait even more just to get in because of the huge lines at the tollbooth.  Since I have an annual National Park Pass I was able to get into a quicker line and still took me 20 minutes just to enter the park.  Once in the park one of the first views I had was of the spectacular 14,255 foot Longs Peak:

Picture from Rocky Mountain National Park

Getting a look at Longs Peak was one of the main reasons I wanted to drive in and check out the park.  I have it on my short list to hike up this summer and this visit gave me an idea of what to expect.  The first thing I decided to do while visiting the park was to drive up the famed Trail Ridge Road to the Alpine Visitor Center at 11,796 feet of elevation.  Trail Ridge Road begins from the park’s eastern entrance and then passes up and over the Mummy Range pictured below:

Picture from Rocky Mountain National Park

The road has a number of curving switchbacks with many pull outs to allow visitors to stop and take pictures.  Here is a picture of the mighty Longs Peak from one of these pull outs:

Picture from Rocky Mountain National Park

Pretty much from where ever you are at in the park Longs Peak always seems to be a visible sentinel watching over the park.  This next picture shows the meadows down below near the park’s entrance:

Picture from Rocky Mountain National Park

Here is a panorama picture I took from this same lookout where on the far right Longs Peak can be seen watching over the meadows below:

Picture from Rocky Mountain National Park

The road eventually ended its climb up the side of the mountain range as it leveled out above treeline:

Picture from Rocky Mountain National Park

Once above treeline I had more views of the summits of the surrounding mountains:

Picture from Rocky Mountain National Park

Here is a panorama looking north at the scenic Mummy Range:

Picture from Rocky Mountain National Park

The road eventually crests and I was surrounded by fields of alpine tundra:

Picture from Rocky Mountain National Park

As I continued to drive through the alpine tundra section of the road I eventually spotted a herd of elk grazing near the road:

Picture from Rocky Mountain National Park

I actually saw a lot of deer and elk while driving through the park, but the above photo was the only one I was able to take due to the fact no one was driving behind me so I could momentarily stop and take a picture out the window.  Yes I am not one of those guys that will block traffic just to take a picture of deer.  A short distance later there was a parking area where a short trail could be walked that crossed the tundra:

Picture from Rocky Mountain National Park

The trail leads to the to the Forest Canyon Overlook that has a great view of a beautiful forested valley down below and of the rugged peaks across from it:

Picture from Rocky Mountain National Park

The Forest Canyon was carved out by glaciers that once filled this canyon about 18,000 years ago.  The rugged peaks show where the glaciers carved the rocks while the higher mountains with rounded summits shows the part of the mountain that the glaciers did not reach:

Picture from Rocky Mountain National Park

Here is a closer look at the rugged mountains where a stunning lake can be seen just below treeline:

Picture from Rocky Mountain National Park

The next stop I made along Trail Ridge Road was at the Lava Cliffs.  I could not really see much because the cliffs were covered in snow, but these cliffs were supposedly created by a volcanic eruption that occurred 28 million years ago:

Picture from Rocky Mountain National Park

Just passed the Lava Cliffs the road reaches its highest elevation at 12,183 feet.  That is a very high paved road.  The next stop I made after seeing the Lava Cliffs was at the Gore Range Overlook:

Picture from Rocky Mountain National Park

This overlook provided a nice view of the rugged Gore Range which I have heard people describe as one of the most rugged mountain ranges in Colorado:

Picture from Rocky Mountain National Park

This range is named after Sir St. George Gore who was an Irish aristocrat who was led here on a hunting expedition in 1854 by a mountain man by the name of Jim Bridger.  In 1976 the Gore Range was set aside by Congress as a Wilderness Area.  Since the range contains no 14-thousand peaks it sees few hikers which means the mountains are mostly untouched and look much like what Sir Gore would have saw all those years ago:

Picture from Rocky Mountain National Park

My final stop on the road was at the Alpine Visitor Center:

Picture from Rocky Mountain National Park

The visitor center sits at an elevation of 11,798 feet and it actually began to snow when I parked in the lot even though it was summer.  The inside of the visitor center had a small area describing the various plants and wildlife that can be found living in the alpine tundra sections of the park:

Picture from Rocky Mountain National Park

The visitor center also had a section explaining the cultural history of the park which for most of its history centered around the Ute people that called the park home for many centuries:

Picture from Rocky Mountain National Park

On the backside of the visitor center there is a large viewing platform where the various peaks near the visitor center can be viewed from an indoor environment:

Picture from Rocky Mountain National Park

Overall the Alpine Visitor Center is quite disappointing because it is basically just a massive overpriced gift shop to fleece money from tourists.  The informational section of the visitor center is very small and due to the amount of people inside the building the crowds can be stifling.  So to escape the crowds I decided to do the short hike up the Alpine Ridge Trail.  The walk is less than a mile with just over 200 feet in elevation gain.  This is a very easy hike that even has great stairs to assist people with ascending to the ridge:

Picture from Rocky Mountain National Park

On top of the ridge there is a paved trail to the lookout:

Picture from Rocky Mountain National Park

Due to all the Manitou Incline training and hiking on 14ers I blew by everyone on the trail without working up a sweat.  It was interesting to see people hiking up the trail in full mountain hiking gear.  They had Northface jackets, boots, huge multi-day packs, etc. on to go to the top of this hill.  I had on a windbreaker and passed all of them.  The lookout is at 12,005 feet and has some nice views of the Never Summer Mountain to the West:

Picture from Rocky Mountain National Park

It also had some good views of the Gore Range to the South:

Picture from Rocky Mountain National Park

There was also a few wildflowers that could be seen along the trail as well:

Picture from Rocky Mountain National Park

I then did a speed walk back down the stairs and then went by all the people I had passed previously struggling up the stairs:

Picture from Rocky Mountain National Park

I then went back to my car and sure enough it started to snow again:

Picture from Rocky Mountain National Park

That was my signal that it was time to drive off the mountain and back towards the park’s entrance.  So I drove back down Trail Ridge Road an once I reached the lower elevations of the park it was a beautiful day out again:

Picture from Rocky Mountain National Park

I could even see Longs Peak out in the distance as well since the clouds had blown passed it:

Picture from Rocky Mountain National Park

Here is a closer look at the snow that was on Longs Peak:

Picture from Rocky Mountain National Park

Since the weather was looking good I decided to take a drive over to Bear Lake.  The drive was beautiful with all the surrounding mountains now clear of clouds:

Picture from Rocky Mountain National Park

Picture from Rocky Mountain National Park

Here is a picture of some wildflowers that I spotted:

Picture from Rocky Mountain National Park

 

Before reaching there lake there was a sign saying the lot was full and that visitors should take a shuttle bus to the lake from a parking area I passed earlier on the road.  I decided to do a quick drive through the lot to see if I could get lucky and find a parking spot.  Sure enough I found a spot and then did the short walk to the lake.  The lake and the view of the 12,324 foot Flattop Mountain behind it is stunning:

Picture from Rocky Mountain National Park

There is a trail that starts at Bear Lake where hikers can climb to the summit of Flattop Mountain.  I would definitely like to do this hike some day:

Picture from Rocky Mountain National Park

After visiting the lake I then drove out of the park and back to Estes Park.  The place was still an absolute traffic madhouse, but I made it through town and took a detour to take some pictures of Longs Peak before heading back to Loveland.  This is such a beautiful and impressive peak that I really need to get around to climbing one day:

Picture from Rocky Mountain National Park

Conclusion

This park is stunning and one of the most beautiful National Parks I have visited.  The drive up Trail Ridge Road was a good way for me to spend a day getting acquainted with the park.  However, to really experience the park one has to leave the car behind and do some hiking here.  I have not had the opportunity to do so yet, but the drive through the park was enough to make me really want to explore more of what this park has to offer.

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