Rocky Mountain National Park: Hidden Wonders
August 13, 2016
by Amanda Wind
After traveling the United States to visit many of our National Parks this past summer, I found that Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado was one of my favorite stops along the way. The jaw-dropping views opened up as soon as you drive through Estes Park, the town outside of the National Park. This National Park offers wonderful scenery and activities – from wildlife viewing, hiking, scenic drives, and excellent camping. If you are an outdoor enthusiast, then this is the place to be.
Wildlife Viewing & Scenic Drives:
Avid wildlife watchers know that peak times to see any activity are at dawn and dusk. Not here in Rocky Mountain! While you may see more animals up and about in the mornings, I was able to see plenty of wildlife at midday. On both short and long hikes, I spotted elk, deer, horses, turkey, and moose! I was not lucky enough to spot a bear on this trip, but I was happy with the diversity of animals I saw. Most of the elk sightings occurred on our drive along Trail Ridge Road. This road takes you up along the ridge lines of the highest peaks in the park. You are literally driving on top of 14,000ft peaks. This is a must do on any visit to the park. If you are going to/from Loveland, SR 34 in Estes Park is a great drive as well. The road goes through Roosevelt National Forest and meanders through a canyon while it follows Big Thompson River. If you have time while in the park, the rangers also offer great programs and information walks. Whether you pursue this as a hobby, or just want to see some cool animals on a family vacation, Rocky Mountain has more than enough opportunities to keep it interesting. Just remember that they are wild animals and should stay wild (unlike the alpine squirrels that stole my lunch).
I came to Rocky Mountain for the views, but also the hikes. This park offers 355 miles of hiking trails! From steep mountain peaks, to meadows and lakes, to rushing waterfalls, there are endless options to choose from. While the ones I chose to do were on the difficult side, there are easier family hikes and handicap accessible options available, too. We did two major trails in the park: Estes Cone and Cascade Falls as a backpacking trip.
This hike was on the south east side of the park. The Longs Peak trail head is actually accessed through town and up SR 7. Luckily, there are restrooms, potable water, and a ranger station in the parking lot. The ranger we spoke to was very informative and gave us great information about the trail and suggested that we take the turn for Estes Cone, rather than going up to Chasm Lake. The trail started off at a mild incline through a densely wooded area. It smelled of sweet pine needles as the wind blew across the mountains and cooled us off. It slowly meandered into an open meadow that had a few deer grazing off in the distance. While the first half of the hike was a fair incline, I was not prepared for the hike up Estes Cone. The 11,006 ft peak towered above, almost taunting me. I stopped to catch my breath frequently as we meandered our way up the switchbacks, following cairns (rock stacks to mark the trail) the rest of the way up. As we neared the top, I became more and more excited as I saw the views of Longs Peak open up in front of me. The top of Estes Cone can only be accessed by rock scrambling with hands and feet. This is not for people who have balance issues! The hard work was worth the view because we sat on top of the rocks with a 360 degree panorama of the whole park. I was amazed by all the white caps surrounding me, even in July! I’ll say that the way back down is certainly easier and faster, but be careful not to trip over a rock going downhill like I did. This difficult 7.4 mile hike is top on my list of recommendations for visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park. If you are feeling really ambitious, you can climb 14,259 ft to the top of Longs Peak from the same trail head.
On the less visited west side of the park, the Grand Lake area offers more stunning views of the park. While you are no longer in the heart of the tall peaks, this side of the park is abound with wildflower meadows and streams. The hike to Cascade Falls crosses through open fields with ponds and streams anywhere the eye can look. Although Cascade Falls is usually done as a day trip, we opted to do an overnight backpacking expedition and continue a few miles past it to our back country campsite. If you are interested in doing a similar trip, make sure to speak with the back country office first to get a permit and safety lesson (back country is bear country!) Cascade Falls is about 3 miles up the trail and is a great spot for families. While the river is too strong to go swimming in this section, there is a spot called Big Pool another mile up that is a lovely place to cool off. I found myself laughing every time we came to a stream on this trail, because we must have crossed 30 in the 7 miles that we hiked. Each stream that crossed the trail is accompanied by a little log bridge to walk over. When we agreed to do this trail, it was because the ranger told us the elevation gain was about 200 feet. I think he must have been confused because it seemed that we kept going up and up and up. I didn’t mind the elevation gain once we got to our stopping point though. The falls rushed below us as we ate our PB&J sandwiches for lunch. This was only halfway, and we still had another 4 miles until the campsite. The Porcupine campsite is one of 5 in the whole park that still allows fires, which is pretty unique. Campers must be careful in back country sites here, because the bark beetle devastated this forest and ate many of the old pines. Although new pines are now growing, be careful not to set up camp near a dead tree that may fall down. This campsite offered privacy and serenity. The path to our site crossed an even bigger stream this time (when does it qualify as a creek?). The site was surrounded by pines and rushing water, like a little fairy tale island. The 7 mile hike back seemed like a breeze since it was mostly downhill again. Although I did not get the chance, I recommend going an extra 2 miles up the trail to Lake Nanita. I was told it is one of the park’s most beautiful lakes.
These longer and more strenuous hikes may not be for every one, especially families, but the park offers many shorter trails. Bear Lake Road is one of the most popular areas in the park. You must be an early riser, though, because the parking lot is often full by 8:30 am during peak summer season. These hikes can lead you to waterfalls, lakes and other stunning views.Or, if these hikes seem too easy, there are plenty of longer backpacking trips and mountaineering expeditions available in the park.
Rocky Mountain National Park has something to offer for anyone. Hiking, camping, and watching for wildlife are just a few of the extraordinary activities in this mountain wonderland. I recommend spending at least three days in this park, time permitting. This is a place that inspires beautiful artwork and writing. Colorado is a nature lover’s paradise and Rocky Mountain is the heart of this community of outdoor enthusiasts.