The Trail Ridge Road (US Highway 34) meanders over 40 miles through some of the prettiest parts of Rocky Mountain National Park. There are a number of stops along the way all of which are worth the time.
Fondest memory: The spectacular beauty and the people I met.
The Rocky Mountains stretch from Alaska to Mexico, some 2700 miles, forming "the backbone" of North America. This makes the Rockies the longest mountain barrier in the world. It forms the Continental Divide which divides the area that drains into the Atlantic from the area that drains into the Pacific. The park is also home to the highest major highway in North America. The highest point along the highway is 12,183 feet near the Alpine Visitors Center. The park has three distinct ecosystems: The Alpine (above 11,400 feet); Sub-Alpine (9000 to 11,399 feet); and Montane (below 9000 feet). Nearly 1/3 of the park is above 11,400 feet with 72 named peaks over 12,000 feet and Longs Peak which at 14, 259 feet is the northernmost "fourteener" (peak over 14,000 feet in the Rocky Chain.
Fondest memory: The magnificent views. Meeting some nice people.
The morning brought another fiery display on the peaks hemming in the lake. Once the show had concluded we made breakfast on the lake shore to take advantage of the sun, forgoing the one the elves built. It was so nice we wished we had reserved another night at Odessa and walked out the way we came but a circle is what we booked and that's how we found our ducks.
The hike out was the kind that builds character. We opted to do the side spur up to Spruce Lake and I do mean up. There was no one at the ranger station at the intersection so we could not leave our backpacks and had to carry them on the excursion. As with most mountain lakes, there is invariably an elevation change to reach them and this was no exception. The climb did us good, preparing us for the day and we found another little jewel of a campground to hopefully one day pitch our tent. We had a snack and did the rock hop in reverse to link back up to the main trail.
Our sketch map was misleading and we found ourselves walking a lot longer than anticipated. We finally broke out into a large meadow and the aspen were aflame with color. It was a campground but unfortunately not the one I had reserved. We were tired and it was empty. I suggested staying put but Doreen said we should stick to our permit. She's so German sometimes I muttered to myself. (concluded below in Fondest Memory)
My ace in the pocket was the climb of Longs Peak. I had not quite made it to the top in 1994 despite a very early start and it sounded like a perfect overnight trip. It was, she said, but not in September. Longs Peak at that time is a technical climb requiring crampons and ropes. Squashed, I asked if she had any suggestions and she said the mountain lakes were perfect that time of year. She gave us a backcountry planner and off we went to look for plan B.
We chose Odessa. It sounded like an amazing place to pitch the tent and a befitting end to what had been an incredible round of backpacking that summer. We tacked a second day on at another camp for our hike out to form a short circle. It was not the grueling hike I had envisioned as the finale but it was tough to argue with the scenery on the way up, greatly enhanced by the glow of aspens as they began to earnestly turn to gold. Late September indeed did have some advantages. It was a tougher walk than it looked on paper but we easily managed it and in short time too.
We arrived to an empty paradise and grabbed the top spot in the two-site campground. September was looking good and the lake was stunning. The spot was treed but you could see the lake from it. A small forest kitchen had us looking for elves. The pit toilet was in a group of boulders fairly far back but it afforded great views as it was not covered. Since the walk was so short we really got to enjoy the spot and did some exploring. There was a trail along one side of the lake that likely led to a climb of one of the peaks but we were more in the mood to relax than exert ourselves further. It was one of nicest afternoons of our trip with not one soul intruding on our solitude. Once the sun went down it got cold. That's how it is late September at 10,000 feet. Our warm sleeping bags never felt so good. (continued below in Fondest Memory)
“Ignore the signs warning against glacier travel and slide on down, but be sure to get off before the end or you'll wind up in the lake,” he said matter-of-factly. The lake would be a glacial pool, just above freezing and would surely mean our imminent death. We looked at each other and said, “sure, we're game.” I might not have been so sure but Kristin always was. She had taken me on my first hike in her native Canada and just the year before we did one very hairy glacier hike in New Zealand though it had been guided. She was a bit of a dare devil and certainly more adventurous than me at the time.
The hike went like clock-work. Everything the ranger said is exactly how it happened. Though it wasn't a regular maintained trail, we carried it out just like it was. It was a long hike and it was exhilarating. We would do similarly extended hikes like this in Grand Teton, Olympic, and Yosemite National Parks and it was these walks that made me want to backpack which is what these trails were more suited for. The formed the crux of the chase that summer of 2008: to do them again but to do them better. Doreen and I had done just that in Yosemite, in Olympic, in Grand Teton. We even did it in other parks for good measure like Grand Canyon and Glacier. Only one park stood in our way of a complete sweep and that was where I sat watching the ducks bobble.
It was late in the season and the ranger explained that while the Andrews Glacier traverse was still possible in spring, it was not in September, the month of record. It had receded considerably since 1994 and she said that while it was more of a rock scramble than a true sliding experience, it could be done. We would just have to return another day. (continued below in Fondest Memory)
Rocky Mountain National Park is one you can visit solely using your vehicle but you would be missing an awful lot. It is first and foremost a hiking park and there are trails to meet all level of hiker. Even short walks lead to amazing nature. Get out and enjoy the trails of Rocky Mountain National Park!
Fondest memory: Looking down at two incredibly cute ducks as they bobbed down below the glistening lake's surface for sustenance, leaving their feathered derrières jutting up, not so unlike the Rockies rising as their backdrop, I could not help but smile and take a deep breath. It was over. There may have been a few more weeks left in what would in the end be a six-month trip around the US, but it was the end of chasing the idea of topping what had stood as my benchmark greatest summer of all time, 1994. It was undisputed now, 2008 was it. Through great effort, determination and a lot of luck, my wife and I had done everything we could to make a dream come true. One national park after the next came and went with all I had done previously paling in comparison except for Banff in Canada. Banff had not been one of the places that had got into my soul in the summer of 1994 but where I sat now was the first, Rocky Mountain National Park. It was befitting that this profound feeling should happen here, where it all started. If life is a circle, then this was where the ends met.
A city boy bred in Philadelphia to parents not aligned with nature, I was not to find it myself until my mid-thirties and one of those revelations was the hike up Flattop Mountain and back down the trail to Andrews Glacier in the park I now found myself. It involved a non-trail traverse of the Continental Divide and a slide down the aforementioned glacier that was thrilling in its beyond-our-experience feeling. A park ranger had suggested it when we asked about long day hikes, something the park is not particularly noted for. He was basically connecting two shorter hikes into one and despite it not being “allowed” by the park, he said it was perfectly safe that time of year if one was careful. He had obviously done it himself and he egged us on more like a friend than an employee. (continued below in Fondest Memory)
To punish her, our campground was a short but steep slog up. To punish me, it was in a dense and somewhat spooky forest. Not one ray of light could penetrate it so we quickly made dinner and retreated to our tent and slumber. With such an early night, I was up long before the birds, planning, scheming. I refused to eat my last meal in the backcountry in this dismal spot. On waking D, I suggested eating a cereal bar and making our way to Bierstadt Lake for breakfast. It wasn't far away and she thought it was a brilliant idea. She was none too fond of this haunting spot and after nearly six months of practice, we packed up swiftly.
The hike to Bierstadt was short and steep but with the early start we still arrived in time for great light on yet another alpine gem. With rockies as a backdrop and some reeds dancing in the sun, it made for great photos and Doreen took the opportunity of my preoccupation to man the stove, something I always do. It was just some oatmeal and the proverbial cup of hot chocolate but sitting in this wonderful slice of nature, nothing could taste better. By then, our duck friends had joined us but we let them fend for themselves for their food. Nature knows what nature needs. I sat and for the first time did not lament missing out on the opportunity to shred the Flattop/Andrews hike of yore. I let that memory sit on its own and enjoy its place in my life, in the past. That was the past and now I was living in the very moment. The moment of ducks bobbing. Nature knows what nature needs.
If you plan to be a frequent visitor to National Parks in the course of a year, the National Park Pass can be a great purchase. I bought mine in March in Rocky Mountain National Park ($20). Since then it has paid for itself at least two times. The pass is $50 and can be used at any of the National Parks, National Monuments and National Recreation Areas.
Upon purchase you will sign the back. Each card can accommodate two signatories. Although we were told that we would need to show ID each time we use it, ID has actually only been requested once in 8 uses so far.
Rocky Mountain National Park is located 65 miles northwest of Denver and about 35 miles from Boulder. To get to the park, take I-25 north to hwy 34.
The park is open all year. As with most parks, summer is the most popular time. For many, it is the only time to visit as the high altitude park is never snow free. Trail Ridge Road, the parks main road and one of its top attractions, is open fully only from about Memorial Day until Labor Day. You'll find snow on trails well into June.
Fall is supposed to be the best time to visit the park. The crowds are gone, the snow has not arrived yet, and the elk are out in full force.
Horseshoe Park is another popular summer location in Rocky Mountain National Park. The park, named for its shape, is an area where elk are known to congregate. In the fall, which is elk mating season, the animals can be heard bugling in the twilight hours.
The road circles the park and Sheep Lakes and connects with Fall River road.
Favorite thing: Sheep Lakes, barely visible in the corner of the photo, is a popular spot during the summer. Sheep Lakes is located along hwy 34, a few miles west of the park entrance. In the summer, bighorn sheep are often spotted in the area.
Favorite thing: Deer Ridge Junction is the intersection of Trail Ridge Road and Bear Lake Road. From here, you can also get to Horseshoe Park, named due to its shape, or Sheep Lake, where, in the summer, bighorn sheep are found.
Favorite thing: The Loch Trail is another option for exploring the park along Bear Lake Road. The trail passes Alberta Falls and continues to a more remote lake known as the Loch. This is a good option on a crowded summer's day when crowds head en masse to Bear Lake and the neighboring sights.
Favorite thing: The trail originates near the Bierstadt Lake trailhead. It connects to the Sprague Lake trail and continues on to storm pass. The trail also passes the remains of the Eugenia mine. From there, you can continue to 11000 plus foot Estes Cone, connect to the Long's Peak Trail or call it a hike and head back.
Favorite thing: Located along Bear Lake Road, the Sprague Lake Nature trail is an easy 1/2 mile walk in the summer. Winter in Rocky is quite a different picture. Since most trails were too iced over to contemplate sans snowshoes, I thought this one might be doable. But the paved trail and its wooden bridges were as icy as any trail I found in this area. Still, it was possible to get over to the lake, which was a sheet of ice in January, and to see some nice views of Flattop and Hallett Peaks.