A Rocky Mountain National Park Overview
Some adventures just don't always go as you intend... this was one of our "curve ball" adventures. We were going to be in Colorado for a wedding, and it happened to be over our wedding anniversary, so we planned a few extra days to go hike and camp in Rocky Mountain National Park. We had big ideas... hike to lakes to dip our feet in alpine waters, wake up early to catch some mountain sunrises, and climb some big rocks. About a month before the trip, I (Andrea) got into an accident on our motorbike/scooter. My leg got crushed from thigh to calf, including the knee. Ligament tears and very injured muscles forced us to re-evaluate our plans. We didn't want to cancel the trip, so I just tried to heal quickly (because we all know that works...). I ended up making the trip, but on crutches and with a cane, still unable to manage more than a few feet of walking at a time.
We still forged ahead and planned for our trip, which included two nights at a campground. The night before we left town, we came to terms withthe fact that what we were planning + the current condition of my busted leg + the weather in Colorado = bad ideas. We would likely be sleeping in 35-40 degree weather and lots of rain, and any amount of cold made my leg just quit functioning at that point. Literally, the night before our flight - we dumped out our bags and repacked without camping gear and started searching for a cabin. It was a last minute curve, but as with most things, it all worked out.
We spent our first couple of nights in Boulder for the wedding. If you ever plan to visit RMNP, take a stop over in Boulder. They have a great downtown area for walking and visiting lots of fun little shops. We enjoyed a tasty anniversary dinner at Walnut Brewery and then some fresh cupcakes from Boulder Bakes - a late night bakery, please go here, yum.
We stayed the remainder of our trip in an Airbnb that was a large log cabin home, way up in the mountains near Coal Creek (a short distance from Golden) at about 9,000 feet. The air was crisp, we had an outdoor firepit, even made s'mores, and tried to pretend we were camping and roughing it. My leg very much appreciated having a soft and warm bed at night though!
We drove the winding Highway 7 from there to Rocky Mountain for our one day escape into the National Park. You wind through hills and mountains and so many green trees. As we approached RMNP on 7, heading north, we passed Long's Peak on our left. This demanded that we pull over and enjoy the view - such a gorgeous scene!
Soon after that, we pulled in at Beaver Meadows Visitor Center. Stop in for your passport stamp or a variety of souvenirs and info from rangers. We continued on, stopping for the obligatory park sign photo, then on to the Lawn Lake Trailhead. This is a great stopping point for a bathroom break and to have a drink or snack. We had a rental Jeep Renegade with 4WD so we could drive a little off the beaten path in this park. That allowed us to take the trip up Old Fall River Road. This is a one way, dirt road that takes you all the way up to the Alpine Visitor Center. It was easily passable in a sedan while we were there, but we've heard that it can get muddy and a bit difficult at times. (Always check road conditions before heading out, especially up a one way road.)
As you pass the Alluvial Fan area, you're still on paved road. Roll your windows down and listen for the waterfalls - we could hear them very clearly and it is a wonderful sound. We branched off to the left at the fork in the road, which leads down to Endovalley picnic areas. We were able to walk from a picnic spot down to a creek and small waterfalls. For this busted leg adventurer, getting to step into a creek, touch the water, see some falls up close was about as amazing as possible. Definitely the highlight of the trip for me. After that, we headed back out of the picnic loop, and took the left to get back on Old Fall Road. At this point, it becomes a dirt road. There was a little guidebook stand on the side of the road - I highly recommend you buy the little booklet for a couple of dollars, if it's there when you visit. It's informative and historical, and the money goes to a good cause.
From here, the road leads the way, with pull-outs every mile or less so you can venture out further and stop to see things around you. The climate zone changes dramatically as you climb, so go slow and look around. You'll have a chance to see waterfalls, wildlife, wildflowers, and a variety of trees that change as you climb. There are a couple of hiking trails that you can join from the road, but we didn't have the chance to try any out. One short walk near the beginning leads to a big waterfall (Chasm Falls), which Kim was able to go down and get a full look at. I was stuck at the top, unable to take the stairs or climb the steeper parts.
Eventually the road climbs into a tundra zone and things get pretty sparse around you. The temperature is noticeably more chilly, and the winds seem to blow a little stronger. Forests of trees give way to wide open spaces with views that just go on forever. Soon after this change, you'll approach the Alpine Visitor Center.
This is a great spot to have a snack, get some souvenirs, and run to the bathroom. There is a cafe inside that serves coffee, snacks, and warm food (burgers, warm sandwiches, mac n' cheese). There are also a huge amount of souvenirs to choose from. Be sure to get your passport stamp and take a look off of the back of the visitor center, from their deck. You'll most likely see a few elk down in the big open green space behind the center. We saw a herd of at least 15 or so chilling in the sun by a grove of trees. Pretty cool, even though they were mostly just tiny dots from where we were standing.
We took Trail Ridge Road down from here, which is nicely paved and has several pull-outs and restroom stops. We recommend that you stop at every opportunity and take a look around, because the views from this road are sweeping and beautiful, and seem to change every mile or two. We had the chance to watch a thunderstorm literally roll into the area from valleys far in the distance, to passing over hills right in front of us. We were watching, then suddenly it was on us - a wind tunnel and pelting raindrops. It was an amazing scene.
The other area that we visited is Bear Lake - this has an accessible trail, so we were able to walk out and see the alpine lake, although I wasn't able to make the full trek around it. It was raining on us at this point, so the grey skies took over and made this a moody, although flat scene. On the way to the lake, we passed an elk relaxing at the edge of the road, with a pack of tourists stopped to photograph him and a large turkey that was sauntering across the road. Drive slow and safe in this park, because you can almost be promised that you'll pass some form of wildlife at some point.
We headed back home for another evening at our "cabin" camp-out and enjoyed dinner around the fire pit. While we didn't get as deeply into this park as we had hoped, for a basic overview and drive-through experience, it was still just packed with beauty and history and well worth the trip. This made our desire to visit again stronger than it already was, and next time, we'll hike out and find one of those alpine lakes to dip our toes in. If you only have one day, the park is still worth the drive through for the sheer amount of beauty that can be seen from the road.
We'll be visiting this place again someday - have you ever been and do you have tips on what we should add to our list? By all means, let us know - we have a list started, and would love to add to it!