If you enter the Rocky Mountain National Park from the south via US Highway 34 your first stop should be the Kawuneeche Visitors Center. The center features some nice displays about the park, a free movie, special Junior Ranger activities for the kids, a large bookstore, and backcountry permits. Here you can also obtain brochures, maps and other information to help enhance your visit to the park and satisfy your souvenir needs. The center is open daily 8 AM to 6 PM from 14 June to 7 September.
Bear Lake Trailhead offers access to many great short lake hikes. If you are not up for much exertion, try the .5 stroll to Nymph Lake. This only picks up a little over 200 feet and when the leaves are changing is a stunner with minimal effort. As with all trails in the Bear Lake area, start early to avoid the throngs of people that descend on this place daily.
We did this on our return from Emerald Lake but it is a perfectly nice destination in itself if you are not looking for much exertion.
The hike to Dream Lake is only 1 mile and climbs very gradually all of 425 feet rewarding those who do a gorgeous view of this appropriately named alpine jewel. The trail conveniently skirts Nymph Lake so the two are commonly done together even by families with small children.
We did this on our return from Emerald Lake but it is a perfectly nice destination in itself if you are not looking for any exertion. Do very early morning to avoid crowds and for best light. It's magic.
Rocky Mountain National Park's second paved scenic drive, Bear Lake Road, offers great views but is congested in summer. A free park shuttle runs almost its entire length with key stops for picnic areas and trailheads. If you get an early start, it is not nearly as busy and parking should not be too much of a problem. We were there in late September 2008 during the week and found it fairly empty early in the morning though by the time we returned in the afternoon it was more crowded. There are some great views from the road but minimal pullouts. It is more of an access road to hiking/picnic areas that make up the heart of Rocky Mountain National Park.
Rocky National Park is at its heart a hikers park but it is one place you do not need to be a marathon champion to enjoy. It has trails to fit all levels of hikers with many short to medium length hikes to very scenic spots. Bear Lake Road gives access to some of the most popular, one of which is Bear Lake itself. This stunning lake is at the terminus of its namesake road and one can enjoy it to the fullest by strolling around it on a flat .6 mile trail.
We never walked around the lake but did do much of the trail as part of other hikes that went higher up in elevation and used the lakeshore trail as their beginnings. In late September, the aspen were just peaking and it was very colorful around Bear Lake.
Another place that normally has Bighorn Sheep on view is West Horseshoe Park, which is a short distance southwest from Sheep Lakes. The area got its name from the shape of the meandering flow of the Fall River. There was a resort built here in 1907 by Wilard H. Ashton. The resort was moved in 1931 after the establishment of tourist facilities outside the park and the land was retaken by the plant and wildlife.
At one point this area was dotted with beaver dams blocking the flow of the water. These dams caused a buildup of sediment washed down from Hidden Valley and when the dams decayed the water flowed away leaving a 20 foot deep deposit of rich fertile soil. Sedges and grasses grow in this soil and form marshes. These marshes develop into grasslands which are then invaded by seeds of trees like the spruce, fir, and pine. These tress then attract beavers who use the trees to build dams starting the cycle over and over again. A wide variety of animal and plant life inhabit these ecosystems.
There is one major falls in the park that is accessbile by car. You can also do a 10 minute hike to get closer. There had been at one time a dam above, but it broke and flooded the valley.
There is a very nice picnic area at these falls, but an even better one is located a mile of so further on.
You may be tempted to feed the birds an small animals, but it is a park rule not to.
The one thing every visitor to Rocky Mountain National Park must do, if nothing else, is drive the Trail Ridge Road (US-34) which connects Estes Park Valley on the east and Kawuneeche Valley on the west. It has been designated an "All-American Road," and is one of the great alpine highways in the United States. In fact, it is the highest continuing paved road in America, winding its way 12,183 feet above sea level and into a world akin to Earth's arctic regions. The road us usually open from Memorial Day weekend to mid-October, weather permitting.
You may notice that your vehicle has reduced power at higher elevations. Three or four hours are needed to fully enjoy the scenic drive, stops at overlooks, and a visit to the Alpine Visitor Center. This can be acomplished in a day trip from Denver, Boulder, or other nearby cities.
Good view stops along the road include Rainbow Curve, Forest Canyon overlook, Rock Cut, Gore Range overlook, the Alpine Visitor Center at Fall River Pass, the Continental Divide at Milner Pass, Lake Irene, and Farview Curve overlook. Above tree line on Trail Ridge Road you are on the "roof of the Rockies" with superlative vistas of glacier-carved peaks on every side. It's a drive you'll remember for a lifetime.
The hike to Andrews Tarn is perhaps the top hike from Glacier Gorge Trailhead. This is an area blessed with smaller, higher elevation lakes than those reached from Bear Lake. These hikes also bring you to the most accessible glaciers in Rocky Mountain National Park but be forewarned, they are shrinking swiftly.
This medium difficulty hike climbs 2,150 feet over its 4.7 mile one-way length. It passes The Loch en route and a junction shortly after forks to either Lake of Glass and Sky Pond or to Andrews Tarn. You could combine these but be prepared for a lot of up and down as each destination is a bit of a climb!
I did Andrews Tarn as part of a long day hike in 1994, first climbing Flattop, walking along the Continental Divide to Andrews Glacier and sliding down to the tarn. It was one of the top day hikes I have ever done. In 2008, I wanted to do this circuit as backcountry trip but the traverse of the glacier was considered unsafe at that time of year. There is a backcountry campsite at Andrews Creek 3.3 miles in from Glacier Gorge Trailhead.
The hike around Sprague Lake is one of the parks most popular and accessible. This one mile loop trail is completely wheel-chair accessible and shows great insight by the park in making an alpine jewel like this something everyone can enjoy. They even have a wheel-chair accessible backcountry campsite here!
This is one gorgeous walk and since it is so easy to get to, the best time to visit it is early in the morning but it is very pretty very late afternoon/early evening as well. When we did this short but sweet stroll, it was as the sun went down but late September mid-week so not overly busy.
If you enter the Rocky Mountain National Park from the east via US Highway 34 your first stop should be the Fall River Visitors Center. The center features life-sized wildlife displays, a special children's room with hands-on displays, and a large bookstore. Here you can also obtain brochures, maps and other information to help enhance your visit to the park and satisfy your souvenir needs. The center is open daily 9 AM to 5 PM from 14 June to 24 October.
The nest stop is Lava Cliffs. This interesting stop highlights a lava bed and cliffs formed of welded tuff in a volcanic explosion some 28 million years ago. There is a short metal platform extending out onto the lava bed for a better view.
This is the main building for the lodge. This is where the Holzwarth Family lived and Sophie cooked up her famous combinations of German and Western US cuisine. There are also several other building onsite.
Fall foliage is one of the great wonders of nature. Leaves that once thrived and were luscious green turn bright colors on their way to brown before falling to the ground. Simply, trees lose their leaves in preparation for winter as an energy conservation strategy. With less sun coming their way, less chlorophyll will be present which gives their leaves a green color. The stunning reds, oranges, and yellows of autumn are actually signs of the leaves dying but much like a baby becomes a wise old man, it is a cycle of life that we should rejoice over. Another baby comes along one day and green leaves return in spring. Who cares, right, it's gorgeous!
Timing is everything when it comes to viewing this amazing seasonal ritual. Some years are better than others and count yourself lucky if you find yourself in the middle of it. In general, the trees need just the right amount of precipitation. Too little results in muted colors. The other big factor is temperature. They need crisp cool nights. Too cold and they can freeze and prematurely fall off. Mild sunny days is the last thing ensuring optimal fall foliage viewing.
Different trees offer different color displays. New England is the most noted area in the US to view fall foliage due to a variety of trees with maple leaves offering great bright reds. The western US is home to aspen which take on a brilliant golden color in fall.
In the fall of 2008, we were in Rocky Mountain National Park for only four nights in late September. The aspen were just starting to turn and while we were there the days were mild and sunny with cold crisp nights. We did a two night backcountry circuit and while it was gorgeous on the way up, it had truly peaked the day we walked out. It was amazing the difference and it was a great way to finish up our stay at Rocky Mountain National Park!
Great areas to view the colorful foliage display are in Hidden Valley and around Bear Lake but you won't have to look too hard to find it if it's peaking. Just look for the GOLD.
Finding a less visited lake in Rocky Mountain National Park is no easy feat. The park's most developed areas bring hikers to incredible alpine lakes with minimal effort. While Spruce Lake is right in the midst of the best of them and certainly their equal in splendor, it is almost thankfully a bit more difficult to reach and hence not nearly as crowded.
The trail to Spruce Lake climbs over 1500 feet over its 4.5 mile one-way length. This is the same trail as the one to Fern Lake but from there on it is an unimproved one that is a bit of a scramble with a fair amount of boulder hopping. Those with less mobility may want to reconsider but for those who make the effort, they will be rewarded with a bit more solitude and a pretty place for lunch. Thanks to a backcountry campground on its shore there is a pit toilet nearby if you need one.
We did this as part of our two-night backcountry trip. We unfortunately did not camp here as it was a bit too close to our camp at Odessa Lake and far from our exit route though it looked like a marvelous place to pitch the tent. We did it as a side trip on our way to our last camp. Normally, there would be a ranger at Fern Lake and we would have left our backpacks there but we had to carry them on, no easy feat on this very physical trail.
Fern Lake Trailhead is down a short unpaved road near Cub Lake Trailhead and Moraine Park Campground in the eastern part of the park.
419 Garfield Street, PO Box 1286, Grand Lake, Colorado, 80447, United States
Good for: Business
County Road 491, Box 629, Colorado, 80447, United States
Good for: Business
Ten miles north of Grand Lake Entrance, Colorado, United States
Good for: Couples