Colorado: Bear Lake

Of course we went to Rocky Mountain National Park on our last afternoon in Colorado. And, of course, we went on a completely easy, low-key “hike” so Andrew could stay awake on the drive the next day. Bear Lake parking lot is notoriously crowded. ALWAYS full. It serves as the main parking lot for several trailheads (long and short) and we all kinds of levels of hikers there. We parked pretty far away (basically the first spot we saw).

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Still gorgeous, and we can walk. No complaining.

Bear Lake “hike” is wheelchair accessible. Which means it was EASY ….. Which means it was crowded. Not terrible. Not as bad as I expected, but still pretty busy.

Once you get to the end of the parking lot there is a shuttle terminal (in case you had to park somewhere else), drinking fountains, and a couple bathrooms.

And the path through the trees to take you to the lake ….

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The Bear Lake hike is basically just an easy loop around the lake, but in all other directions are longer hikes to other lakes and other parts of the park.

Someday I’d like to come back and do one of the longer ones.

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There were points of interest all along the path – and I grabbed the little guide brochure that told us what we were looking at. Various types of plants, a tree that lived through getting struck by lightning. That kind of thing.

It was pretty easy to get to the water from the path, and there were big stones and some boulders all around so we could easily just sit with our feet in the water if we wanted….

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Lots of bright blue dragonfly-type insects in this water grass. …

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Around this spot we ran into a ranger*

*Tangent: If I were a park ranger this is the kind of assignment I would want. Walk around Bear Lake all day and answer tourists’ questions. ALMOST like being a tour guide, except way more low-key

*so we came across one of the rangers who, you know, got our attention, talked to us and then asked if this view looked familiar. Um, no? Should it?

Turns out the back of the Colorado state quarter is a view of Bear Lake. She, of course, was carrying a quarter on her, specifically for this purpose.

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The end! Like I said, really easy. Maybe 40 minutes or so and we were deliberately taking our time.

Before we leave Bear Lake, just a quick note re: the water fountains there. All the drinking fountains we came across in Rocky Mountain National Park had a spot where you could fill up a water bottle – not tipping the water bottle at a 45 degree angle so you could wedge it under the spout. An actual for-water-bottles spout. At Bear Lake, it was lower down on the side (see photo below) and reminded me of the water we got all over Rome.

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Then we headed home …. back through the park, back through the traffic.

Andrew was exhausted after 2 days of long hikes and then getting up earlyish that morning for the Stanley Hotel. We were planning on driving about 16 hours the next day, so back to Kevin’s house to rest.

rmnp2  020 rmnp2  021(final stop at the visitor’s center just outside the park gates to get a couple little souvenirs)

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Colorado: Rocky Mountain National Park

SO Monday afternoon we spent at the Stanley Hotel which is in Estes Park, CO (part 1 and part 2 here). You know what else is in Estes Park? The entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park!

Obviously we went again… ESPECIALLY because our pass was still good, so we didn’t even have to pay another entrance fee. God bless the National Park system!

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This time, instead of turning right and heading up the Trail Ridge Road, we turned left / south toward Bear Lake.

We stopped first at this visitor’s center just inside the park entrance. I don’t remember what it was called, and I can’t look it up because ‘government shutdown’ apparently means making entire websites inaccessible. Even though they are obviously still paying for the site’s hosting. Whatever.

Anyway … the visitor’s center was closed anyway. But we parked, got out, checked out the view. It is SO gorgeous there!

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Back in the car and a little bit farther down the road we could pull onto the shoulder and park, and then head down to this river/creek/stream (no idea what you would consider this one).

Shoes off. Feet in the water. It was a beautiful beautiful day.

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A ranger leading some horse-back-riding tourists walked by (between the river and the car)…. That would be so fun!

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Honestly, if I had a book I could have sat there ALL DAY.

But, we wanted to see a little bit more of the park since it was our last day…. back in the car for a little more driving.

The road to Bear Lake has construction (probably every summer), so we had to stop for awhile… You can see the line of cars behind me in the mirror.

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I kept looking up at the mountains, straining my eyes for any tiny little hint of movement and wildlife …

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Tomorrow, our “hike” around Bear Lake…


Colorado: Rocky Mountain National Park

Continuing on our drive up the mountain, taking Trail Ridge Road across Rocky Mountain National Park…. We turned a curve and saw a small handful of cars stopped along the road. Usually when that happens it would be because there was wildlife of some kind – deer or elk or even just a marmot, so visitors would hang out of their car window to take photos.

But, as we turned the curve of the road, I didn’t see any reason there would be cars stopped.

Turns out I was just looking in the wrong place.

This group of elk were RIGHT by the road. As in 15′ feet away from the road. As in, the lip of the road hid them because they were so close to it.


Obviously Andrew pulled off the road a little bit ahead of where all the other cars were and we crossed the (little 2-lane) highway to get a bit of a closer look:

Rocky Mountain National Park elk


SO gorgeous! Just calmly scratching their backs with their antlers and ignoring us (and the other 20+ people who were stopping too).

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After just a few minutes, we started walking back to the car. No need to be part of spooking any wild elk. Right as we were leaving, a ranger pulled up. We saw him make everyone else scatter. Not surprising, considering how close these elk were to the road. I can’t imagine the park wants visitors to mess with them.

Not too much farther up Trail Ridge Road was the peak elevation (12,183 feet ! ), and then just on the downhill side was the Alpine Visitor Center – where we stopped for bathroom, water and my National Parks Passport stamp!

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The boys were itching for a real hike, and we noticed a trailhead just across the road from the Visitor Center parking lot. Hiking!! Crossed and started walking through the tundra …

Rocky Mountain National Park tundra trail

But, first let’s stop for some photos (thanks Kevin!) …. Andrew and I need current photos of us on all our adventures. OBVIOUSLY.

Rocky Mountain National Park tundra trail

But, then, we walked a little farther and realized we didn’t want to hike THIS trail. First of all, since it’s in the tundra, you could see it for yards and yards and yards. No trees, no corners, no mystery.

But second, we were all feeling the elevation by then. Headaches galore.

Back in the car to drive back down the mountain.

Rocky Mountain National Park tundra trail

Rocky Mountain National Park is gorgeous. Period. Anywhere you look. Even the busy, crowded parts are popular for a reason.

Andrew drove us down back through the treeline, past a few overlooks, all through trees and loveliness.

About halfway down, we found another trailhead – I believe this is at Lake Irene – and got out for a proper hike.

Rocky Mountain National Park hiking

This was a super easy hike, almost all level, mostly shaded, and obviously beautiful. It’s just a small loop, and it maybe took us 30 minutes or so.

We were all still feeling a little bit of the effects of elevation, but overall this hike was fantastic.

Rocky Mountain National Park hiking

(I kind of love that the boys both wore orange shirts this day)

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Then back in the car down the mountain. …  I don’t know if we were all just hungry for lunch or just didn’t see any likely spots, but we basically drove the entire rest of Trail Ridge Road without stopping again.

We drove past this far western section of the park – Kawuneeche Valley – that was supposed to be the best place to see moose … but alas. None. It was starting to rain a little when we got there too.

(Notice all the dead trees from Mountain Pine Beetle)

Rocky Mountain National Park

And then all of a sudden we found ourselves exiting the park! That’s it. We were done. We drove through the entire park. Our choices were to drive that same road back through the park, to another section of the park or to Estes Park and home …. But between elevation headaches, car sickness, and just wanting to see something new, we decided to press on.

Lunch in Grand Lake, then using our iPhones to figure out how to get home through a part of the state Kevin had not yet had a reason to visit.

(spoiler: it was gorgeous)

Tomorrow: Our afternoon drive home through Colorado in the rain. It was actually pretty awesome


Colorado: Rocky Mountain National Park

Thursday we visited Rocky Mountain National Park – Andrew’s first time ever, and my first time in at least 20 years!!

I love National Parks! Not *quite* as much as my friend Kam* does, but we definitely want to visit all of them and I’ve got the National Parks Passport and all!

Kevin’s apartment is about 45 minutes away from the Estes Park entrance, so we decided to leave early-ish so we could get in a full day at the park. Since all our plans for the week in Colorado were tentative, I wasn’t sure if we would be coming back at all.

Left Boulder ~8:45a or so and got through the gates of Rocky Mountain National Park at about 9:30a. $20 for a 7-day pass (deal) so we could easily come back later.

Rocky Mountain National Park 2013 pricing

For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about. From Wikipedia:

Rocky Mountain National Park is a national park located in the north-central region of the U.S. state of Colorado. It features majestic mountain views, mountain lakes, a variety of wildlife, varied climates and environments—from wooded forests to mountain tundra—and easy access to back-country trails and campsites. The park is located northwest of Boulder, Colorado, in the Rockies, and includes the Continental Divide and the headwaters of the Colorado River.

Andrew likes to drive. Which is good because this park is A) pretty big and B ) includes long stretches of drives.

We brought a bunch of CDs, but ended up listening to Earth most of the time in Rocky Mountain National Park. Not only is it instrumental music, but it has this deep bass that really makes you feel more connected to the mountain range.

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I have a couple National Parks guide books (thanks mom!) so we had a rough idea of what we wanted to do during our day in the park. You have a ways to drive before reaching anything. We came to the first inner section, turned right, and that basically decided the rest of our day!

After a few miles we turned around a curve and found this little parking lot, and a short pathway to cross the street and have a sweet lookout over the park.

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our first wildlife sighting!!

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heaven’s above it was gorgeous… Can you even imagine being among the first groups of white people to see this and report back?

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The park’s peaks in the distance…

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This little peak was right next to the parking lot. Kevin dubbed it “Bran’s Folly” … or “Fally”. Get it? SUCH nerds.

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We hopped back in the car and started driving farther up the mountain. Eventually, after consulting the map, I realized that we were on the one (1, single, uno) road that went all the way across the park. Trail Ridge Road – the road that would take us all the way up the the highest elevation, above the treeline, and help us truly experience the Rocky Mountains that this park was named for. Check out a map here

Rocky Mountain National Park - Trail Ridge Road

We stopped at another lookout partway up. Really we were looking for trails to hike, but we were in the wrong part of the park for that.

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After awhile (30 or 40 minutes) we found ourselves above the treeline

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Trail Ridge Road:

Whether they begin their journey at Estes Park or Grand Lake, Trail Ridge Road travelers climb some 4,000 feet in a matter of minutes. The changes that occur en route are fascinating to observe. A drive that may begin in montane forests of aspen and ponderosa pine soon enters thick subalpine forests of fir and spruce. At treeline, the last stunted, wind-battered trees yield to the alpine tundra.

Up on that windswept alpine world, conditions resemble those found in the Canadian or Alaskan Arctic. It’s normally windy and 20 to 30 degrees colder than Estes Park or Grand Lake. The sun beats down with high- ultraviolet intensity. The vistas, best enjoyed from one of several marked road pullovers, are extravagant, sweeping north to Wyoming, east across the Front Range cities and Great Plains, south and west into the heart of the Rockies.

But for all its harshness, the Trail Ridge tundra is a place of vibrant life and vivid colors. Pikas, marmots, ptarmigans and bighorn sheep are commonly seen. About 200 species of tiny alpine plants hug the ground. Despite a growing season that may last just 40 days, many bloom exuberantly, adorning the green summer tundra with swatches of yellow, red, pink, blue, purple and white. All are seen from the Tundra World Nature Trail, a half-hour walk beginning near the parking area at Rock Cut.

Yup – that’s snow in July.

Right about here is where we started to feel the elevation. Slight headaches, for sure. We brought snacks with us and ate grapes and granola bars and banana chips in the car while we just watched the scenery…

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Second wildlife sighting! Elk in the grass off the road….

This photo is zoomed in – they were about20 or 30 yards away….

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We stopped at a second tiny little trailhead in the tundra. It started right off the road and just went 100 or 150 yards into the mountain and stopped. The idea, I assume, was to allow visitors to see the tundra landscape a bit more up close … but not actually affect it very much.

It’s just as well. We were already at about 12,000 feet? (I think it’s the Tundra Communities Trail on this map)

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I mean, let’s be honest. It doesn’t *look* like a whole, lot, right? Mountain peaks and scraggly ground cover. But let’s be honest – when else are you really going to get to experience the world at that elevation? Few and far between. And for most visitors, never again.

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Still a bit more drive to go before the highest elevation … but that post is tomorrow.

Have you ever been to Rocky Mountain National Park?

*I think I am full-on going to copy Kam’s National Parks page idea