Our post Rocky Mountain National Park memories was written in honor of the National Park Service’s 100th birthday.
One of the best things about living in Fort Collins, Colorado for eight years was its proximity to Rocky Mountain National Park, about an hour away. The drive through Big Thompson Canyon via U.S. 34, the highest continuous paved road in the country, is mostly scenic with some stretches through settlements were people have built summer camps (vacation cabins) on the Big Thompson River over the years.
The drive to Rocky Mountain National Park takes you through the town of Estes Park, a town mostly geared to tourists who’ve come for the incredible mountain views and to visit the park. While there are inns, motels, condos and cabins to rent, if you want a bit of historic luxury, the Stanley Hotel, built in 1909, is the place to stay. If you don’t stay, at least go for a ghost tour. This hotel, loaded with spirits, is the place that inspired Stephen King to write The Shining.
Our Rocky Mountain National Park memories
Trail Ridge Road
One of our most spectacular Rocky Mountain National Park memories is driving Trail Ridge Road (the name for U.S 34 as it traverses the park) to the 12,183 foot summit. The road takes you across the Continental Divide and past the headwaters of the Colorado River. While you can do this ride west to east, the drive from the east side of the park is, at least for me, much more spectacular. The first time we ascended this road we were visiting Steve’s sister in Greeley. The ride with its stunning views was literally breathtaking and for someone with height issues, frightening. I didn’t want to descend the way we came so we returned to Fort Collins and Greeley via a four-hour detour that took us down through Poudre Canyon. It was the first time we saw this beautiful river canyon where we’d spend a lot of time while living in Fort Collins a decade later.
When we moved to Colorado I became used to mountain driving and the ride up Trail Ridge Road became a thing of joy rather than intimidation. If you don’t drive Trail Ridge to the west side, at least go up to the summit. The road is open the entire way from Memorial Day (weather permitting) until the first big snow, usually in mid-October, makes it too perilous to plow the road. After the closing, the east side is only open to just beyond Many Parks Curve, which affords great eastern views tear round. (For a detailed description of the drive, read this post I wrote for Bid on Travel Blog.)
You can also drive Trail Ridge from west to east. Grand Lake is the gateway town on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park. The road remains open to the Colorado River Trail Head about 10 miles from the western park entrance once the seasonal closing is in effect.
Moraine Park is one of our favorite areas in Rocky Mountain National Park, formed by glacial activity eons ago. This beautiful is the gateway Fern Lake Trail, one of our favorite hikes in the Rocky Mountain National Park. If you don’t want to hike, bring a picnic lunch and take a short walk along the trail where you’ll discover wonderful spots to hang out, relax and enjoy the view. In winter, bring your cross-country skis or snow shoes. In fall, this is a popular spot to watch the elk during their mating season. At dawn and dusk people park and stand at the edge of meadows where bull elk “bugle” to attract the females. It’s a haunting sound you won’t forget.
Lakes and waterfalls
Rocky Mountain National Park is teeming with lakes. The most easily accessible are Bear Lake, Cub Lake and Sprague Lake. We’ve walked the easy trails around these small bodies of water. Some of the lakes are accessed by steeper trails with breathtaking views. There are also a number of waterfalls throughout the park.
Rocky Mountain National Park is full of wildlife. The most prolific critters, and I can almost guarantee you’ll see at least one (and probably many), are elk. They thrive here and you may also see them right in Estes Park. I’ve seen them walking down the street. I once inadvertently got between a mother and her baby on a path near the Estes Park Visitors Center. I got out of there fast! I saw my first moose on the west side of the park. While the park is home to bighorn sheep we never spotted any. In late spring and early summer, the best place to see these is in Horseshoe Park near the beginning of Trail Ridge Road a bit past the park entrance. The sheep, the official symbol of Rocky Mountain National Park, come down to the lower altitudes to graze. There are beavers (we’ve found dams near Fern Lake Trail, but never the critters themselves), black bears, moose, mountain lions, snowshoe hares, yellowbellied marmots and coyotes. There are also a slew of birds to keep an eye out for as well as snakes and amphibians. The good news, at least for me, is there are no rattlesnakes in the park.
Besides accessing the park through Loveland and Big Thompson Canyon, there are other ways to get to the eastern side of the park. We’ve driven most of these. If you’re staying near Denver, a really scenic, but somewhat long, way to get to the park is over the Peak to Peak highway which goes through really beautiful high country. You can stop in the historic gambling towns of Central City and Black Hawk, the rustic town of Nederlands and Ward, an old mining village. I spent a week camping there decades ago, before settling down with Steve. It was a memorable experience! The road also goes through historic Allens Park and Meeker Park. You can also access the Peak to Peak up some of the canyon roads out of Boulder. If you want to stay on U.S. Highways, take U.S. 36 to Estes Park.
Rocky Mountain National Park is one of our favorite places to spend time. While it can be busy in summer, and anyplace close to a road will have lots of visitors. But, it’s big enough to get away from the crowds if you hike some of the more remote trails. If you’re visiting Northern Colorado’s Front Range, put it on your itinerary and create your own Rocky Mountain National Park memories.
What are your Rocky Mountain National Park memories?