Grandpa Points: Exploring Rocky Mountain National Park
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At an early age, I could navigate the byways and the backways of Colorado without the use of a Standard Oil, Amoco or Sinclair map. I was my own GPS. As the calendars of my life have been left smoking from my fast journey through them, I have continued with frequent forays into Colorado with family and friends. It has always welcomed me, it has always excited me.
Thanks to a recent Frontier Airlines sale, Colorado called and invited us to come visit again. We RSVP’d that we were indeed coming and chose late September for our quick hitting mountain return. We decided Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park would be our main focus as that area had somehow gone unexplored by me for 40 years, and was virgin territory for the rest of the crew. We knew our timing could lead to great weather and fantastic fall foliage as we packed our one (free) small, personal item/backpack for our Frontier night flight to Denver.
As we headed north to Estes, my brain was afire with childhood memories. Exciting, endearing, nostalgic, refreshing memories of trips taken and magic beheld. The kind of fond recollections I am sure all parents hope their children can take with them from family vacations. Thank you Mom and Dad for this grand gift. “Memories pressed between the pages of my mind, sweet memories.”
We could feel the temperature dropping as we climbed in elevation and as the walls of St. Vrain’s Canyon hid the afternoon sun. The river flowing alongside was like the liquid mercury in a compass leading us upstream to our destination. We rounded a curve and there below was our home for the next three days, Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park.
Another reason in choosing this area was the famous Elk Convention held here annually in late September and early October. No, not the fraternal organization, but rather the zoological variety. It is mating season in The Rockies and the bull elks like to show off their herds by parading into the city parks, green spaces and golf courses.
They have been doing this for centuries, since long before tourists came to the area. I guess one could say (and I apologize for this in advance) they are in a “Rut”. Well, it didn’t take long to encounter this migration as we ran smack dab into it as soon as we hit downtown. Actually, as we turned to park, a man was gored by a bull elk presumably because he got too close to nature. Normally, the animals and the humans coexist quite nicely in these relatively close quarters. But, it is always advisable to use common sense and situational awareness to minimize the chances of an unfortunate incident. We watched and followed, photographed and admired the beauty and dignity of these animals till darkness sat in and then on each subsequent day upon chance encounters.
The next day we arose early to drive into RMNP and head up to Bear Lake. The ride up to Bear Lake was gorgeous as the aspens were a’peaking. Our youngest daughter said that some were so beautiful they should be called “gaspens”. (Touche, my love, touche.)
I have been to Bear Lake many times in my youth and one of my memories was the abundance of chipmunks and how feeding them was actually encouraged or, at least, not discouraged. I have a recall (real or imagined) of gum type dispensers from which chipmunk food could be purchased. I can positively state no such devices are there now. Bear Lake is one of a series of glacier created lakes whose accessibility varies from short and easy to moderately difficult. We chose the very picturesque and popular walk around Bear Lake as a starter and then ventured on up to Nymph, Dream and Emerald Lakes. The hike up is only about 2 miles with very manageable elevation gain, and is thus far more rewarding than demanding.
Photo ops pop up everywhere and each lake offers something different. Bear Lake has size, great surroundings and ease of access. Nymph is dotted with aquatic vegetation and Dream Lake has a more mirrored quality and is inhabited by the beautiful Colorado State Fish, the Greenback Cutthroat Trout.
My favorite was Emerald because of the water’s color and the rugged landscape that surrounds it. The chipmunks that used to be so prevalent at Bear Lake now seem to be at Emerald. They are very social and not afraid to climb on board the human anatomy.
Two hopped on members in our group, one on the leg and the other on the back. Think the squirrel scene from Christmas Vacation, funny to look at but disconcerting to experience. Overall, our little day hike was a beautiful, outdoor mountain activity that gave us the chance to touch and be touched by nature. We reached out to shake her hand and she put her arm around us and enveloped us in her colorful cloak. This journey is doable for most everyone from the casual tourist to the REI regular and we gave it a 5 smile rating.
Our next morning dawned with clear skies, cool temps and glorious color, a chamber of commerce kind of day.
As we entered The Park, we were welcomed by some mule deer. If I didn’t know better, I might think these are animatronic because every time I have entered there have been similar such creatures at the same spot. They were there 60 years ago, 50 years ago, 40 years ago and I expect to see them on a future return whenever that might be. They are sort of like a dynamite opening act might be to a great concert by setting a positive and exciting mood and tone for the rest of the day.
Our goal was to take Fall River Road up to the top and take Trail Ridge Road back down. Fall River is a maintained but unpaved one way road that slices through the forests and steadily climbs to above timberline. It is a safe road that is well traveled but it gives you a throwback taste of yesteryear mountain travel without the downsides. The golden leaves of the aspens were ablaze as we made our way up the switchbacks on a road left dustless by a gentle overnight shower.
I have a history with this road when as a 9 year old I ventured too close to the top of the rocky 30 foot high Chasm Falls and over and down I went. I was physically unscathed but I have been forever since very uncomfortable in any headwaters above a waterfall. We stopped and paid homage to the falls of my fall.
There were many inspiring and invigorating stops on this delightful morning as we slowly savored the splendor of this 11 mile route which took us almost 3 hours to take in and appreciate. The road has been aptly described as a “Motor Nature Trail” and we highly recommend it. It intersects Trail Ridge Road just below the Alpine Visitors Center and you feel like you are on the top of the world.
On the way back down to Estes on Trail Ridge Road we spotted 2 groups of Bighorn Sheep in the high tundra, we got lightly snowed on, took in the high mountain vistas, watched elk in the mountain meadows, saw a large coyote on the side of the road, and witnessed a moose eating in a grove of young aspens.
This legendary road is generally open to travel from late May to mid October and it and The Park are like a guaranteed treasure hunt. You will always find something valuable and rewarding.
Estes Park is still quite busy in late September and early October and most lodging facilities were displaying NO VACANCY signs. It is a pretty town that has survived the tests of time and the whims of nature. Estes is a town of multiple personalities. One block, one intersection, can offer crowds, congestion and blinking traffic lights and just two streets over and seconds away you can find serenity and peace with a daytime view of ascending peaks and a nighttime sky of a thousand stars.
If you come to this area from Denver, I would take different roads coming and going. We came in through Longmont and Lyons and went out through Big Thompson’s Canyon to Loveland. Big Thompson’s Canyon has been the site of several significant floods in my lifetime but it is one beautiful and fun ride as the road twists and turns through a narrow canyon.
As we neared the end of the canyon road, I said that if we had an extra hour I would turn around and do the ride again. And as long as Frontier keeps offering seats from Houston to Denver for as low as $19, we can check under the cushions and round up some loose change and return whenever we want.
Colorado is like a good friend who you feel comfortable with even after a period of absence. It was so good to see you my friend, so good to see you.
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