While not as celebrated as some of the other iconic mountain national parks such as Yellowstone or Yosemite, Rocky Mountain National Park is nevertheless a must-see. I spent five days there a few summers ago, so in today’s post I will share some of my adventures and experiences that may help in planning your own high-altitude excursion.
Park: Rocky Mountain
How to get there: In short, head towards Denver. The park is approximately 65 miles northwest from the Mile High City, and the charming town of Estes Park is nestled right up against the park’s eastern boundary. If coming from the north, you can head west to the park from Fort Collins by getting on to U.S. Route 34, a twisting road that descends into the Big Thompson Canyon where it follows the undulations of the Big Thompson River. The bare rock canyon walls rise on either side of you, blocking out the sun as you gain in elevation before you finally emerge back into the light as the road nears Estes Park. This drive is splendid and I highly recommend it.
Where to stay: While there, I camped two nights at Moraine Park campground within the park itself but was forced to stay the other nights at the KOA in Estes Park. Initially disappointed by my lack of foresight in reserving a park spot for each night, the KOA stay turned out to be a blessing, as the available showers were a godsend after the long, sweaty days on the hiking trails. I wholeheartedly recommend camping within the park for a night or two, but staying at the KOA or one of the other hotels or campgrounds near Estes Park is also an excellent option.
Highlights: Although hiking is my primary recommendation for recreation at RMNP, a fantastic way to acclimate yourself to the elevation and take in wondrous alpine scenery is to drive the Trail Ridge Road through the park. Reaching an elevation of 12,000 feet, this road is the highest continuously paved road in the U.S., and as you roll along it presents you with view after outstanding view of the alpine tundra, complete with herds of browsing elk.
Along the way, you can stop at the Alpine Visitor Center to see interpretive exhibits and grab a quick lunch, all at 11,800 feet. Numerous scenic overlooks are dotted along the roadside, providing plenty of opportunities to stare at the treeless expanse that stretches out in all directions. Unless you have acclimated yourself, even walking the short distance from a turnoff to an overlook point will have you short of breath, a tangible effect of the thin mountain air. Take your time and breathe deeply.
Now let’s get to hiking, my main reason for visiting RMNP. My brother Tim joined me for this adventure and we undertook two unforgettable hikes, one to Mills Lake and the other to the Andrews Glacier. To find out which of the hundreds of hikes would be best for you, just stroll into any ranger station and pick the expert brain of one of the numerous backcountry hiking volunteers. These friendly folks can assess your abilities and suggest a route that will maximize both your enjoyment and your safety.
My and Tim’s ultimate goal was to walk on a glacier, so after our initial acclimation on the Trail Ridge Road, the next step in preparing our hemoglobin-challenged bloodstreams for a glacial assault was a modest three-mile hike to Mills Lake the following day.
Per the suggestion of a trail-seasoned park ranger, we drove to the trailhead at 6 am in order to finish our six-mile round-trip hike before the daily thunderstorms began to zap the mountainsides with lightning. Arriving early for your hike also ensures a parking spot and plenty of solitude once on the trail. (Later in the day you can take a shuttle to avoid traffic issues.) The trail was wide and impeccably maintained, so we had a relatively easy time putting the miles behind us. The chilled mountain morning air was clean and fresh and evaporated any sweat instantly, and before we knew it, we had arrived at our destination.
Mills Lake was dazzling.
You can find your own spot on the shore away from other hikers to take in the lake’s splendor in peace. Just follow the rocky shoreline until the voices fade and the silence grows.
Although they may be irresistibly cute, please do not feed the squirrels that patrol tourist hotspots, for it only makes them bolder and a nuisance. As for larger mammals such as elk or bighorn sheep, keep your distance because they can run very fast and they don’t take kindly to humans violating their personal space.
If you’re so inclined, take a quick dip into one of the mountain lakes. Mills Lake cooled Tim and I to the core after just a few minutes of soaking in its chilly purity. If scratching glass with your nipples isn’t your thing, bring a fishing rod and try catching some of the colorful trout that glide through the crystal clear water.
With this first “training” hike completed, we returned to camp and were now confident in our ability to reach the Andrews Glacier the following day. Our lavishly bearded ranger had suggested the Andrews route for its relative ease of access (i.e. no technical climbing involved). For this longer hike we awoke even earlier and were stomping our way up the empty trails not long after 5 am. Halfway to our destination we paused at a lake known as The Loch to rest our legs and devour fistfuls of M & M-heavy trail mix, all in anticipation of the strenuous ascent still ahead of us. Instead of me attempting to describe The Loch’s beauty, I will let this picture produce its own thousand words.
Recharged, we got back on the trail and continued to rise in elevation, leaving the 10,000-foot mark in our wake as we approached 11,000. The trees ended and the boulder field began—and that’s when the real work started. Fortunately, kind souls have marked the hard-to-follow trail by stacking small stones on top of larger boulders. Tread carefully through this section, for although it isn’t as steep, a misstep among the rounded rocks could easily lead to a sprained ankle. Soon we saw a stream tumbling down its rocky chute; the first physical evidence that our glacier wasn’t far away. At the upper edge of the boulder field, the trail ascended at a very steep angle, and because we were now at 11,300 feet, we were taking three breaths to every one step. Because of this extreme incline, Andrews Glacier is not visible until you step up over the ledge at the top of the trail’s final climb, but once your head peeks over, you instantly quit thinking about your aching leg muscles.
As inviting as its brilliant turquoise waters looked, there would be no swimming in the Andrews Tarn. The water in this pond-sized glacial pool is as close the the solid-to-liquid phase transition as H2O gets: dangerous for swimming, but perfect for drinking (after filtering, of course). We rested, snacked, and stared at the ancient icy behemoth before us. We couldn’t stay too long, as noon was approaching and an exposed mountaintop is not where you want to be when the electrifying afternoon storms roll in. But just as we were preparing to leave, another hiker popped up over the trail ledge behind us. Outfitted with high-tech clothing and gear this obviously fit adventurer waved as he passed us and just kept on going, right up the side of the glacier, heading for the top, which is part of the Continental Divide. It was at this point that Tim and I realized it was safe to walk on the glacier itself, and we wasted no time in taking advantage.
While walking on the base of the glacier is relatively safe, do not attempt to climb the entire thing if you do not have the proper equipment and experience, for the Andrews Glacier has claimed lives. We snapped our photos, cruised back down the trail to the parking lot, and ate like bulimic rhinos at The Grumpy Gringo in Estes Park. (The chicken enchiladas are first-rate.) Although Tim and I had planned to sip vanilla porters around a campfire that evening, we were both sawing logs well before dusk surrendered to darkness. A better night’s sleep I cannot recall.
Summary: Whether you choose to experience Rocky Mountain National Park from the comfort of your vehicle or the comfort of a hiking trail (or both), you will have an adventure to remember. As long as we continue to be trapped in our extended winter, you might as well use this time do a little extra planning and reading about the park to ensure you maximize your time there. If you’ve already been and have a story of your own or if you are planning to go and have questions, feel free to leave a comment or question.