Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Overview. (Entrance fee is $20.00 per vehicle good for seven days as of summer 2010). Established in 1915, Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park is nearing its centennial thanks to the efforts of Enos Mills, who led the drive to preserve this tract of the Rockies in northern Colorado. The park is a gem of mountains with scores of peaks over 12,000 feet topped off by Longs Peak (14,259’) the highest point in the park. Most visitors to the park arrive at the town of Estes Park, the eastern gateway. From Estes Park, Highway 34 climbs over the divide, known as Trail Ridge Road – the highest paved road in the nation offering some of the most spectacular mountain vistas in the country. The park has over 60 named summits above 12,000 feet of which 17 are over 13,000’ across its 265,769 acres (1,075.53 kilometers square).
Trail Ridge Road. If you have only one day to spend in the park, the Trail Ride Road is where you should head. In fact most visitors to the park drive this road, one of America’s finest, and see nothing else. The views are spectacular, especially from above timberline, and the road reaches a maximum elevation of 12,183 feet, making it the highest paved pass in the country. Just follow Highway 34 from Estes Park or Grand Lake, depending upon where you enter. There are frequent pullouts to enjoy the views as well as numerous trailheads along the way.
Visitor Centers. Located at the park’s southwest entrance, Kawuneeche Visitor Center (elev. 8,720 feet) features exhibits of the Colorado River (its headwaters are a few miles upstream) and Native Americans who dwelled in the area. Don’t miss a stop at the beautiful Kawuneeche Valley a huge meadow/wetlands complex that runs the length of the Colorado River for five miles. The Alpine Visitor Center sits a mile or two west of Trail Ridge Road’s highpoint and at the junction of Old Fall River Road, a dirt-packed road that predates the Trail Ridge Road. At an elevation of 11,796 feet the visitor center is above timberline and naturally has great views. Tundra is what this place is all about. Five miles west of Estes Park on Highway 34, Fall River Visitor Center (elev. 8,240 feet) is a good place to learn about the park’s wildlife. Located on the well-travelled Bear Lake spur road, Moraine Park Visitor Center is a good place for a short nature hike and a chance to see elk. Beaver Meadows (elev. 7,840 feet) is located along Highway 36 three miles west of Estes Park and is probably the park’s busiest visitor center. It’s a good place to get oriented if you are here for the first time and great views of Longs Peak can be seen from behind the visitor center.
Wildlife. You‘re likely to see a variety of fauna. Black Bear and mountain lion are less conspicuous denizens but keep an eye out for elk, which can be seen in many areas, especially in meadows or on ridge tops, the yellow-bellied marmot, found above timberline, as well as the park’s famous bighorn sheep another animal that prefers the rocks and tundra above the tree line.
Hiking. The park has 359 miles of trails which cover all abilities including trails that are handicap accessible. One thing to keep in mind is the high elevations. The lowest elevations in the park are at about 7,000 feet, so it’s fair to conclude that most hikes will take you above 10,000 feet at least. Proper acclimation is essential for people not native to these elevations. Lightning strikes quickly and frequent storms, especially in the summer, are common. When hiking lookout for changing weather and fast forming cloud formations. The best rule of thumb is to head back down no later than noon from your destination. Stay off ridges and summits especially. While some trails can be short with little elevation gain any dedicated day hike will gain elevation and some hikes can gain up to 5,000 vertical feet and are only advised for those in good physical condition and with experience. Mountain climbing and peak-bagging are common pursuits of park visitors. A couple days acclimating is best if you plan to take long, difficult hikes. Altitude sickness can easily occur in these elevations. The best thing to do is to head down if you are feeling symptoms such as nausea, dizziness, shortness of breath, loss of appetite, and incoherence. Stay well hydrated. The most popular day climb in the park is Longs Peak, via the East Longs Peak Trail. See my hub for details,Climbing Longs Peak: A Personal Narrative. This 8 mile hike (one way) takes you to the park’s highest point, LongPeak (14,259’), the only peak above 14,000’ in the park. It is physically demanding and potentially dangerous with a measure of exposure even by the easiest route. If you don’t feel like climbing to the top but want a spectacular up-close view of the peak’s sheer two-thousand foot eastern face, the hike to Chasm Lake, at its base, is one of the most spectacular in the park, if not the state. To get there take the East Longs Peak Trail five miles and follow the signs at the well-marked junction. Other popular trailheads in the park include Wild Basin, Bear Lake, Lawn Lake, Sprague Lake, and on the less visited west side, the Colorado River Trailhead. WildBasin, in the park’s southeast corner, takes hikers into a little visited area. High alpine tarns such as Bluebird Lake at the headwalls of a cirque, and beautiful waterfalls such as Ouzel Falls highlight this hard to reach section. BearLake is quite a contract to Wild Basin. It teems with crowds of tourists and parking can be difficult to find during the summer. Come early if you plan to visit. Beautiful lakes and headwalls are accessible by trail and Alberta Falls is an easy .6 miles from the roadside. Dream and Nymph Lakes, both alpine jewels, are also reached by trails from Bear Lake. Lawn Lake Trailhead is more for the backpacker or experienced hiker. It leads up into the MummyRange in the park’s northern section. Sprague Lake Trailhead is just down the road from BearLake so expect crowds. From here you can access Storm Pass Trail which eventually connects to the East Longs Peak Trail. The Colorado River Trailhead on the park’s western slope has trails that lead into the NeverSummerMountains, a chain of peaks with volcanic origins. Baker Gulch, another beautiful hike, is also located on this side of the park from the Bowen/Baker Trailhead along Highway 34 in the Kawuneeche Valley. A very popular hike, the Twin Sisters Peaks (elev. 11,428 feet), located in an exclave of the park to the east of Highway 7 four miles south of Estes Park, can be reached by a four mile trail from Twin Sisters Trailhead. The views of Longs Peak from the treeless and rocky summits are unparalleled.
Waterfalls. There are too many waterfalls in the park to describe, no doubt many unnamed falls over the countless creeks that drop off the peaks. The best known as Alberta, Chasm, and OuzelFalls. Of these, OuzelFalls is the most inaccessible requiring an almost a three mile hike and a thousand foot gain to reach from the Wild Basin Trailhead. ChasmFalls is located off the steep, rugged, unpaved but frequently traveled Fall River Road. A steep walk down from the marked pullout will bring you to this popular waterfall. AlbertaFalls, which makes a voluminous fifty foot plunge over a granite cliff, is accessible after a .6 mile hike (160 foot gain) from the road. This is another popular destination with hard-to-find parking. Bridal Veil Falls is one of the park’s prettiest and can be reached by a three-mile trail from Cow Creek Trailhead after gaining over one-thousand feet. The two-tired West Creek Falls is also in this less explored northeast section of the park and is reached by a two mile hike from the Cow Creek Trailhead (600 foot gain). FernFalls is reached by a 2.7 miles trail from Fern Lake Trailhead in the Moraine Park Area. It is about a 650 foot gain to reach the wooded falls, and a steep 450 feet up from the Pool. If you continue past Fern Falls for another mile (another 650 foot gain from Fern Falls) you will reach Marguerite Falls. Grace Falls is reached from the popular Bear Lake after 3.25 mile hike and 1,215 foot elevation gain or by continuing up the canyon from Marguerite Falls. The aptly named Timberline Falls can be reached after a four mile hike from Glacier Gorge Junction that gains over 1,200 vertical feet to reach this three-tiered falls, one the park’s finest. Located in Glacier Gorge anyone who makes the effort to reach RibbonFalls will be rewarded by spectacular views in all directions including the west face of Longs Peak to the east. The falls can be reached after 4.5 miles and 1,330 foot gain from Glacier Gorge Junction. TrioFalls is a long hike requiring 7.25 miles and 2,800 foot gain from the Wild Basin Ranger Station. Also located off the Wild Basin Trailhead Copeland Falls is a short hike of only .3 miles from the car with little to no elevation gain. Columbine Falls is a tough hike from Longs Peak Ranger Station but the setting is guaranteed to blow your mind. Located along the trail to Chasm Lake, the sheer walls of Longs Peak’s east face tower overhead. Less than one kilometer farther up is Chasm Lake at the base of Longs Peak. Adams Falls sits just inside the park’s boundaries and is easily accessible by a hiking trail of a couple hundred yards (.3 miles) from the East Inlet Trailhead on Grand Lake’s east shore. Cascade Falls can be reached from the North Inlet Trailhead after a 3.5 mile walk which is fairly even gaining just 300 vertical feet in contrast to Granite Falls which takes over 5 miles of hiking and over a thousand vertical feet to reach from the Green Mountain Trailhead a few miles north of the Kawuneeche Visitor Center. The falls is best photographed under clear skies during the afternoon.
Glaciers. If you are coming here to see huge rivers of ice that flow miles down a mountainside you’ll be disappointed. Nevertheless, the last ice age left its mark in the park and residual evidence is everywhere in the countless tarns, moraines, and cirques remaining. There are still a few small snowfields that stubbornly linger and defy the sun’s attempt to burn them into water. Rocky Mountain National Park has a number of named glaciers, from north to south: Rowe, Sprague, Tyndall, Andrews, Taylor, Mills, Moomaw Glaciers. Whether any of these snowfields still qualify as glaciers is arguable. More likely they are ice fields that lose ground every year (a glacier has to register forward movement to be correctly called a glacier). Although moot, it is clear that these big snow piles were once active and probably are the vestiges of the huge alpine glaciers that carved out the U-shaped valleys below the cirques where they lie today. Even more speculation rests on whether they are simply the lingering remains of the glaciers of the Little Ice Age which occurred, at its latest phase, 150 years ago, and are not the remains of the Pleistocene ancestors that plowed through these valleys. Enjoy them, but be careful. Now and then crevasses can open up, especially in late summer. The Andrews Glacier is the most accessible and a hiking trail reaches the lake at its base from the Glacier Gorge Trailhead. None of these glaciers is larger than one quarter mile square.
Estes Park. Unlike many of the resort towns in the Colorado Rockies, Estes Park (elev. 7,522’) didn’t begin its hundred or so year history as a mining town. Its raise d’être is mostly because of the park, ranching, and land speculation when the community was first formed around 1859. Estes Park sits outside the east entrance of the park and is the unofficial gateway and tourist hub. Highways 7, 34, and 36 converge, split, and cross in and around the town which has makes Estes Park somewhat congested during the high summer season. Estes Park has a population of just over 5000 but its busy summer season will make you think there are more people. Its main drag, which follows Highway 34, has a motley collection of shops, mom and pop factories, and restaurants and gives the town a quaint and homey feel. The opulent Stanley Hotel, built in 1909, sits on the city’s outskirts, and was the inspiration for Stephen King’s horror, The Shining. Estes Park is about a 2-3 hour drive northwest of Denver.
Grand Lake. Grand Lake is the gateway to the park’s western entrance. It actually sits right outside the park’s southwest boundaries. At an elevation of 8,367 feet, the town hugs the shores of Grand Lake, the largest natural lake in Colorado. Downstream are the much larger Shadow Mountain Lake and Lake Granby, both man-made reservoirs. Grand Lake, both town and lake, are outside the park’s boundaries but trailheads into the park begin from roads along the lake’s shores.
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