Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the most popular national parks in the United States. It encompasses and protects a vast wilderness that is bursting with some of the highest mountains in the continental U.S. Although the majority of the majestic peaks reside within Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, the jagged range extends over 3,000 miles from Canada to New Mexico. This expansive mountain range forms the backbone of the west coast and is the site of the Continental Divide, a climactic division of water flow in North America.
With over 415 square miles to explore, the park is teeming with nature trails, alpine lakes, verdant forests, and magnificent wildlife. These features of the high-country park are inseparably connected to the natural elements, which continually shape the mountainous topography and diverse landscape. The following are some my favorite sites and hikes for viewing the aforementioned park attributes:
Trail Ridge Road:
Trail Ridge Road is a moniker that has been ascribed to the main travel vein of U.S. Highway 34, as it navigates through Rocky Mountain National Park from the eastern town of Estes Park to the western town of Grand Lake. The route has garnered acclaim as being the highest continuous roadway in the country and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is widely considered to be one of the most beautiful drives in the state with incredible scenic overlooks of the glacially-carved valleys, crystalline lakes, and imposing summits. Due to its elevation, this stretch of road is seasonal and closes indefinitely during the winter because of the harsh climate and heavy snowfall that occurs, making it impassable.
Heading east to west, here is a list of the various attractions & overlooks:
DEER RIDGE JUNCTION – At an elevation of 8,978 feet above sea level, Deer Ridge Junction marks the starting point for the Trail Ridge Road and it is where hikers will find the Deer Mountain Trailhead. For those traveling west to east, this marks the final stop and from here travelers can access Horseshoe Park, Bear Lake Road, Upper Beaver Meadows, and Estes Park.
HIDDEN VALLEY – As the road begins to ascend to 9,325 feet above sea level, the first scenic point motorists encounter is at Hidden Valley, a developed ski area that has since been closed. Today the remnant ski slopes are actively used as a sled and tubing sanctuary during the winter when the ground is littered with fresh snow. During the spring and summer, visitors are treated to a boreal ecosystem that is teeming with new growth and life, while in the fall the landscape is saturated in crimson, ochre, and gold as the leaves begin their annual transition.
MANY PARKS CURVE – Many Parks Curve is the first true hairpin turn as you reach an elevation of 9,691 feet on Trail Ridge Road. From here, there are exquisite views of the towering peaks of Mummy Range, Longs Peak, and Deer Mountains that stand tall against the illustrious terrain. The overlook has a boardwalk that hugs the curve and provides outdoor enthusiasts with unrivaled views of the many glacially-carved valleys: Horseshoe, Moraine, and Estes Park.
RAINBOW CURVE - At 10,875 feet above sea level, Rainbow Curve provides a phenomenal scenic vista of Horseshoe Park, Beaver Ponds, and the Alluvial Fan via the paved pathway. The 42-acre alluvial fan was created in 1982 after the natural dam of Lawn Lake failed, releasing over 29 million gallons of water and washing away trees and boulders into the valley.
FOREST CANYON – At an elevation of 11,758 feet, the Forest Canyon Overlook is an unparalleled view of Forest Canyon’s lush woodland canopy, as well as the mountain summits of Longs Peak, Stones Peak, and Terra Tomah Mountain. The viewpoint peers down into Forest Canyon nearly 2,000 feet below with breathtaking vistas of Hayden Gorge and the arctic blue water of Gorge Lakes.
ROCK CUT – One of the tallest and most impressive points on Trail Ridge Road is Rock Cut at an elevation of 12,110 feet above sea level. Rock Cut is a superb site for viewing the high-country tundra terrain, as well as accessing the Toll Memorial Trail. Initially an obstacle for early travelers, the construction of the Trail Ridge Road had crews cutting away a portion of the mountain rock to allow the road to continue being created.
LAVA CLIFFS – The Lava Cliffs is a lookout at an elevation of 12,138 feet above sea level that provides a stunning view of cliffs of lava that formed millions of years ago as a result of a volcano eruption in the Never Summer Range. The cliffs tower above an alpine meadow where local wildlife can be observed grazing and resting.
GORE RANGE – At 12,048 feet above sea level, the lookout at Gore Range is a mesmerizing panoramic above the tree line of the prominent peaks of the Gore Range, as well as the Never Summer Mountains to the west.
ALPINE VISITOR CENTER – Open seasonally, the Alpine Visitor Center is located at 11,798 feet above sea level at Fall River Pass and is the highest facility of its kind in the National Park Service. Being the only available restaurant in the park, it is a vital stop for some to grab a bite and relish in the tremendous views of the mountainous tundra. It is also a phenomenal stop to gather information about the park or buy a souvenir from the gift shop.
MEDICINE BOW CURVE – As the road descends from the Alpine Visitor Center, the next overlook is the Medicine Bow Curve, which is a tight hairpin curve at an elevation of 11,660 feet. The view from this overlook is an unobstructed view of the Never Summer Mountains and surrounding verdant landscape.
MILNER PASS/POUDRE LAKE – Milner Pass is at an elevation of 10,759 feet and offers astonishing views of the Rocky Mountains and Continental Divide. Poudre Lake is just east of the Continental Divide and is a tranquil alpine lake that is the main source of water for the Cache La Poudre River.
FARVIEW CURVE – At an elevation of approximately 10,000 feet, and the first overlook on the park’s western border, Farview Curve provides a lookout of the Kawuneeche Valley, Never Summer Mountain Range and Colorado River. The valley is one of the top wildlife viewing spots in Rocky Mountain National Park and a particular favorite grazing ground for elk and moose.
Little Buckaroo Ranch Barn:
The Little Buckaroo Ranch Barn resides on the 160-acre Trail River Ranch, which is a homestead in the central portion of the Kawuneeche Valley, west of the Colorado River. The barn was constructed in the architectural style that is commonly found in southern Louisiana, but with a native adaptation by its implementation of rustic materials. It was constructed in 1942 as a small, one-and-a-half story barn with an adjacent corral, which was intended to house horses on the property.
The barn sits alone in an open meadow on the western slope of the Continental Divide at an elevation of approximately 8,760 feet, with a dramatic backdrop of the Rocky Mountains to the east and Never Summer Mountains to the west. Today, the Little Buckaroo Ranch Barn is listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its unique architecture and is one of the most widely photographed barns in Colorado.
Located along Rocky Mountain National Park’s western border, the Kawuneeche Valley is a lush river valley that contrasts impeccably with the peaks of the Never Summer Mountains. The basin is approximately 22 miles long, extending from the Timber Lake Trailhead to the Grand Lake entrance, and was glacially-carved by the Colorado River Glacier millions of years ago.
Today, the valley, and its surrounding meadows and forests, exemplify a verdant landscape that is the prime location in the park to observe the local fauna. The abundance of plants attracts unique wildlife like mule deer, elk, moose, and coyotes, as well as uncommon animals like river otters and osprey. There are an ample number of pullouts along the highway so that motorists can safely pullover to view the scenery and the grazing herds that may be roaming about the grassland.
For a more in depth experience of the environment, there are a wide variety of trailheads with varying degrees of difficulty that can be found throughout the Kawuneechee Valley, but the most family-friendly is the Coyote Valley Trail. It is an easy, one-mile loop that traverses through a meadow and along the Colorado River via a paved walkway. Throughout the trail there are informational placards that provide visitors with a history of the valley, the diverse ecosystems, and the thriving flora and fauna.
Several other trailheads begin in or around the Kawuneechee Valley, including, but not limited to the:
Colorado River Trailhead
Lulu City/Little Yellowstone Loop (13.8 miles round trip) – Rated as strenuous, this hike passes by an abandoned mining town, as well as a miniature version of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.
Timber Lake Trailhead
Timber Lake (10.6 miles round trip) - This trail is a strenuous excursion that navigates a series of switchbacks and crosses meadows filled with blooming subalpine flowers before culminating at the picturesque Timer Lake.
Bowen Lake Trail (15.8 miles round trip) – A moderate to strenuous climb that requires additional navigation time due to its relatively steep switchbacks, rocky terrain, and fallen trees.
Granite Falls (10.8 miles round trip) – A backcountry track with intermittent inclines that crosses through a lush conifer forest and a few small meadows before terminating at the cascading Granite Falls.
Green Mountain Trailhead
Big Meadows (3.6 miles round trip) – The trail to Big Meadows passes through the marshy wetlands and forests of aspen, fir, and pine trees where an abundance of wildlife can be spotted.
North Inlet Trailhead
Cascade Falls (6.8 miles round trip) – The excursion to Cascade Falls is considered an easy hike that spans an open meadow and along a river that twists through a dense pine forest on the way to the waterfall.
East Inlet Trailhead
Adams Falls (.6 miles round trip) or Lone Pine Lake (11 miles round trip) – The path to Adams Falls is a short and easy trail through a thick forest of aspen and pine trees that ends at the surging waterfall. For those who journey past Adams Falls towards Lone Pine Lake, the trail is rated as strenuous and passes a fertile, glaciated valley with a river running through it before reaching the tranquil shoreline of Lone Pine Lake.
Estes Park Aerial Tramway:
The Estes Park Aerial Tramway is a tram transports visitors from the valley floor of Estes Park to the pinnacle of Prospect Mountain. At the summit there’s a café, observation platform, and a series of nature trails for sightseers to experience. From its elevated position, the observation platform delivers on the most magnificent panoramic views of Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park, Longs Peak, and the Continental Divide.
What makes the tramway unique is that it utilizes a free span design where there are no support towers for the cables from the bottom to the top stations. This design is more common in Europe and less so in the United States, but it affords a smoother ride for the passengers as they ascend or descend the mountain.
The Estes Park Aerial Tramway is only open from May 26th through September 3rd and operates during the daily hours of 9am to 6pm. Tickets start at $14 for adults and are valid for round-trip travel. Discounted tickets are available for select groups: $12 for seniors 60 years+, $10 for 6-11 year olds, and free for children 5 and under.
The Stanley Hotel:
Commonly referred to as The Stanley, The Stanley Hotel is a four-story, 142-room hotel that is located near the entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park with extensive views of Lake Estes and Longs Peak. It is part of the Stanley Hotel District, consisting of twelve buildings spread over 47 acres, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985 for their architectural significance. Their design featured ‘twentieth century expressions of Georgian architecture through its symmetrical style and strong horizontal lines,’ which was uncommon for mountain hotels at the time, thus creating a visually stunning juxtaposition between this style of construction and the natural alpine landscape.
The hotel is infamous as being the inspiration behind Stephen King’s Overlook Hotel, which was the haunted hotel that was the setting of his bestselling novel, The Shinning. It is said that in the 1970’s Stephen King and his wife checked into the hotel just before it closed for the season and were the only guests. They were assigned Room 217 and, although they only stayed for one night, they both had an eerie sense that they were not truly alone. To this day, Room 217 remains the most requested room by hotel guests.
For those who are passionate with the supernatural, or are aficionados of The Shinning, the hotel offers a couple of tours that escort guests to various parts of the property, including a stop at the door to Room 217. Tickets can be booked through the hotel’s website or purchased on-site at the tour office located on the lower level of The Stanley.
Moraine Park Valley:
As with most of the valleys in and around Rocky Mountain National Park, Moraine Park Valley is a stark reminder of a glacier’s impact on the landscape. After the glacier carved out the vale and receded, it left behind a fertile meadow that is imperative to the local flora and fauna. It is one of the many settings in Rocky Mountain National Park that has a consistent wildlife presence during the early morning or late evening. The most common being herds of giant mule deer and elk that can be observed peacefully grazing on the surrounding vegetation.
Besides being a gateway to outdoor recreational activities like fishing, horseback riding, hiking, and backpacking, the valley is also a haven for photography buffs. A main feature of the grassland is the Big Thompson River, which snakes its way serenely through the Moraine Park Valley. Some of the prime shooting locations can be found off of Fern Lake, South Moraine, and Bear Lake Road as they parallel the Big Thompson River. There are small parking lots or pullouts along the road for safe parking, so that photographers can explore the landscape for the vantage point and composition that works best.
HIKING IN ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK:
Rocky Mountain National Park encompasses more than 265,000 acres of protected mountain wilderness that lures hikers and outdoor enthusiasts from all over the globe. With more than 350 miles of trails navigating through diverse terrains, the spectacular scenery lends its hand as to why many consider Rocky Mountain National Park as being the premier hiking destination in Colorado.
In fact, there is no shortage of options when it comes to quality day hikes or multi-day backpacking excursions. Every trail is unique in their elevation gain, distance, and difficulty, but one thing is for certain, the views of the backcountry landscape are unprecedented. Whether it’s a casual stroll along one of the easier footpaths or attempting to summit one of the infamous 14,000-foot Rocky Mountain peaks, there is a journey that is right for everyone.
It is quite possible to hike for a year and still not cover all of the hiking trails that are found within the park. To that end, the hikes listed below were the ones that I had the time to explore during my brief visit. Although I found them to be a perfect representation of the Rocky Mountains, I am aware that there were a multitude of prominent hikes that I missed out on:
Sprague Lake Trail:
Sprague Lake is a scenic body of water located on the eastern side of Rocky Mountain National Park near the village of Estes Park. Although it is listed as a half-mile loop, the gravel trail is closer to a .9-mile journey. The loop is heavily trafficked because it is relatively flat and is ideal for visitors of all ages and skill levels.
Throughout the loop, there are benches and a wooden pier where guests may relax and relish in the peaceful serenity of the Rocky Mountains and their reflection in the placid water. The mountains are part of the Continental Divide and are the main features of this scenic trail, which include Notchtop Mountain, Taylor Peak, Flattop Mountain, Hallett Peak, Thatchtop Mountain, Otis Peak, Half Mountain, and Blerstadt Moraine.
The Sprague Lake Trail is the perfect site to photograph the sunrise from since the sun rises over the eastern prairies and the mountain range is illuminated in the regions renowned aspen glow. Since the pathway circumnavigates the lake, there are many perspectives that can be captured that look stunning during first light, so be sure to take advantage of this feature and scout out other locations along the trail. Whether it is utilizing the wooden pier or the large boulders protruding out of the reed-lined lake, photographers will be gratified with the photographs that are snapped during this fantastic trek.
Bear Lake Trail:
The Bear Lake Trail is an extremely popular hike in Rocky Mountain National Park and is a 0.8-mile loop that hugs the shoreline of Bear Lake with minimal elevation gain. It is rated as easy and can become congested with visitors by the afternoon, so it is highly recommended to arrive early to avoid the crowds.
The route begins by the Bear Lake Ranger Station before it ventures into the alpine forest that is dense with pine, aspen, spruce and fir trees. From here, hikers will encounter their first commanding view, which is of Hallett Peak as it towers above the tree line and is reflected in the tranquil water of Bear Lake. Continuing on to the northern side of the lake and facing south, trekkers will witness the discernable features of Longs Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park’s highest summit, as it proudly lies on the horizon behind Half Mountain.
Like Sprague Lake, Bear Lake is a phenomenal destination for photographing the sunrise as the light saturates the surrounding landscape in a vast array of vibrant color. Besides capturing a splendid backdrop in the glow of dawn, another benefit of arriving at Bear Lake during the early morning is that there are a handful of other trails that can be accessed from the trailhead. Arriving early provides photographers with the opportunity of capturing the perfect sunrise and then hiking into the backcountry while the trails are relatively isolated.
Dream Lake Trail:
Beginning at the Bear Lake Trailhead, the Dream Lake Trail ventures deep into the desolate backcountry of Tyndall Gorge while skirting the shores of Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, and Emerald Lakes. The well-maintained hike is 3.6 miles round trip and is considered a moderate trail because of its sufficient elevation gain.
At approximately .7 miles into the journey through the gorge, hikers will pass by the eastern shores of Nymph Lake. The lake’s appearances are more like that of a pond because of its diminutive size and the lily pads that are scattered along the surface. Sizeable rocks are strewn along the lakefront and make for terrific foreground elements with the reflection of Hallett Peak in the calm water.
As the trail continues on, travelers will keep right at the fork in the track and arrive at a footbridge that spans an outlet of Dream Lake. This occurs at roughly 1.1 miles into the journey and then proceeds to parallel the lake’s northern shore. From here, there are mesmerizing photo opportunities of Hallett Peak and its reflection along the rocky lakeside coast. At this point in the hike many travelers turn back; however, for those who press on, the trail continues to follow Tyndall Creek up the steep slopes of the mountainside.
The trail officially culminates at 1.8 miles with an impressive vista of Hallett Peak and Flattop Mountain as they tower over Emerald Lake. Since the lake resides in a deep bowl that was shaped by the Tyndall Glacier, one of the five remaining glaciers in Rocky Mountain National Park and the lake’s main water source, it is surrounded by sheer inclines of shifting shale. Although it is not recommended due to its precarious nature, some thrill seekers brave the elements and continue skyward for an elevated panoramic view of the scenic backdrop.
Fern Lake Trail:
Normally, the Fern Lake Trail commences at the upper portion of Moraine Park and parallels the Big Thompson River before reaching Fern Lake 3.6 miles in (7.2 miles round trip); however, for my excursion, I opted to begin at the Bear Lake Trailhead and end at the Fern Lake Trailhead via the Flat Top Mountain Trail to Fern Lake Trail route. This journey spans 7.9 miles one way and passes by Bear Lake, Two Rivers Lake, Lake Helene, Odessa Lake, and Fern Lake, as well as an optional detour to Spruce Lake. Since there are copious offshoots for the other trails in the area, hikers must remain vigilant to the trail signs in order to stay on course.
Heading in this direction from the Bear Lake Trailhead, Two Rivers Lake will be the first stop at 2.7 miles into the trip. Nestled within the Continental Divide, the serene, tree-lined lake has commanding views of Notchtop Mountain, Knobtop Mountain, and Little Matterhorn. The preeminent view of the peaks, and their reflections in the subalpine lake, is from the northeastern corner of the lake, across from the headwaters of Mill Creek.
From the spectacular view at Two Rivers Lake, the next stop is Lake Helene at approximately 2.9 miles, but is often overlooked since there aren’t any marked trails leading to its shores. The scenic lake is in a basin that is encircled by dense forest at the base of Flattop Mountain, Ptarmigan Point, and Notchtop Mountain. The snow-packed peaks provide another majestic vista for travellers passing through, and, more importantly, are also the main water source of Lake Helene and the headwaters of Fern Creek.
Pressing on, at 3.5 miles into the trek the next stop is at a small side trail that leads to the edge of Odessa Lake. The lake resides within the Tourmaline Gorge and provides a picturesque vista when photographed from its northern shore. From here, the topographic features that can be seen are Joe Mills Mountain, Flattop Mountain, Notchtop Mountain, Little Matterhorn, Knobtob Mountain, Gabletop Mountain, and The Gable. It is impossible not to be blown away by the outstanding alpine scenery and the reflections that are cast on the still surface of Odessa Lake.
At approximately 4.25 miles, the first glimpses of Fern Lake can be seen from a scenic overlook off of the main trail. The view is facing east and pits the formidable Stones Peak against the glimmering alpine lake.
After taking in the view, the trail descends a quarter mile further where, at 4.5 miles, hikers will arrive at another vantage point of the picturesque range from the northern shore of Fern Lake. The sweeping vista from this position showcases views of Notchtop Mountain, Little Matterhorn, Knobtop Mountain, and The Gable. It is the main water source of the Big Thompson River and is also the namesake of this remarkable hike.
At the 4.7-mile mark, hikers will encounter a split in the Fern Lake Trail, where the aforementioned path proceeds to the right or a side trip to Spruce Lake on the left. The lake can be accessed via this 1.6-mile detour on the Spruce Lake Trail, which is often overlooked. To that point, it is a welcomed deviation for those looking for a moment of solitude away from the crowds. Views from the northeastern shore are of a landscape that is dominated by Gabletop Mountain and Castle Rock.
After returning to the main trail, the next stop will be Fern Falls at 5.6 miles. As onlookers traverse the hairpin turn in the trail, they can feel the mist from the surging 60-foot waterfall as the cascading water continues on its journey down Fern Creek. The sight of the plummeting water through the heavily forested area, and the sound as it crashes against nearby boulders, make this spot a welcome reprieve during this trip.
From here, the trail parallels the Big Thompson River as it traverses through flower-filled meadows and mixed forests. There aren’t any major stops along the way; however, there are features like the Pool, Arch Rocks, and views of the Big Thompson Valley, that are worth a gander as the trail approaches its terminus. Finally, at 7.9 miles, the path culminates at the Fern Lake Trailhead and concludes a fantastic backcountry expedition through Rocky Mountain National Park.
Recommended Estes Park Eateries:
Cinnamon’s Bakery – The best handmade cinnamon rolls that come in a variety of flavors: classic, raisin, pecan, and salted caramel. It is best to arrive before 7:30am to avoid the long queues and get them fresh out of the oven.
Donut Haus – A local favorite for an assortment of homemade pastries like donuts, cinnamon rolls, and muffins.
The Notch Top – A comfortable café with extensive breakfast and lunch options, which focus on local and organic ingredients.
Baba’s Burgers and Gyros – A dine-in or drive-thru serves a variety of delicious hamburgers: beef, elk, and buffalo.
Penelope’s Old Time Burgers – A retro burger joint that serves fantastic fries that accompany their beef, elk, or buffalo burgers, which are touted as being the ‘world’s best’.
Fresh Burger Stop – A spin on typical fast food hamburgers that serves fresh food that is made to order.
Ed’s Cantina – A vibrant, locally owned café that serves traditional Mexican classics plus margaritas and beer.
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