We love Sunday afternoon drives, but I will happily admit that our Sunday drive on this day in Rocky Mountain National Park was the best, and most memorable, one ever, especially after our gorgeous Peak to Peak drive this same day in the morning, which I described in my previous post.
After navigating a holiday weekend traffic jam in Estes Park just before noon, we finally made our way out-of-town, traveling west on Highway 36 to the Beaver Meadows entrance at Rocky Mountain National Park. Once again, we found another line of cars to get into the park, but it was nothing like the line we encountered a few years ago at Yosemite on our first trip there. It took about fifteen minutes to wait our turn in line and show our receipt, then we were finally on our way into the main part of the park.
Line of cars at the Beaver Meadows entrance station at RMNP
After a fairly sunny drive into Estes Park on Highway 7, we found the rain once again inside the park. We did not let it dampen our excitement to finally be in the park, though.
Just prior to entering the park, we made a quick stop at the beautiful Beaver Meadows Visitor Center and bought a few souvenirs at the nice gift shop there, including a 100th anniversary poster that I just adore.
See the poster and other items commissioned for the park’s 100th anniversary
The architectural story of this building is significant, and it is a lovely place all around. The building was designed by Taliesin Associated Architects, a firm founded by Frank Lloyd Wright to continue his architectural vision after he was gone, and this building was one of the firm’s first major projects, completed in 1967. At that time, the building was known as the Rocky Mountain National Park Administration Building but has since become the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center. We loved how it seemed to blend almost seamlessly into the beautiful setting among the tall pine trees while still displaying a unique and inviting presence at the same time. The building was declared a National Historic Landmark in 2001.
Beaver Meadows Visitor Center – a National Historic Landmark
Beaver Meadows Visitor Center was such an inviting place to begin our journey in RMNP.
Information sign at Beaver Meadows Visitor Center
As we walked back to our car, the rain began to fall in earnest. Our plan to enjoy our lunch at one of the nearby picnic tables at the visitor center quickly dissolved with the falling rain, so we decided to just drive around a bit to see if we could at least find a prettier spot for our “inside-the-car” picnic other than the busy parking lot of the visitor center. We turned onto Bear Lake Road and finally found a beautiful spot toward the end of the section of road leading to the Fern Lake trailhead where we pulled into a parking spot with beautiful views all around us.
Driving to the Fern Lake Trailhead
After enjoying our little picnic in the car, the rain subsided, and we were finally able to roll down the side windows and just sit and enjoy the solitude, the scenery and the cool mountain air. That is when my “eagle eye” caught something flying around the top of a tall tree in the distance. Can you spot it in the photo below?
Do you see what I see?
Perhaps zooming in a bit will help.
Birds in their nest on high!
It was a huge nest in the top of a tall, dead tree in the distance, and as we began to watch it more closely, we saw two big adult birds flying around the nest and perching in it. I quickly knew that my decision to not bring a tripod on this trip would be one that I would regret, too. I dug out my telephoto lens anyway, determined to get a better view of the activities transpiring in the nest. While I never was able to get a good clear shot, of course, I managed to get a few shots that were better than I thought they would be without any camera stabilization, other than leaning the lens against the car door with the window rolled down.
We have not been able to absolutely identify these birds, and I do not think that they are bald eagles. I’ve watched the Decorah bald eagles online for a few years now, and these birds seemed a bit smaller and had different markings on their heads. I’m open to suggestions as to what they are… eagles, hawks, anyone? I wish I knew my birds better than I do, but it was a wonderful experience seeing these wonderful birds perched in their nest on high in person. I just wish now that I had packed the tripod, as it was such a wonderful quality photo-op missed.
The view at our picnic spot was beautiful!
After finishing our picnic lunch, we drove about a mile to the end of the road and the Fern Lake trailhead. We knew that we did not have time to hike the trail, but I did capture a picture of the most inviting trailhead.
Aspen trees on the road to Fern Lake Trailhead
Road to Fern Lake Trailhead
Fern Lake Trailhead
There was also a bear locker nearby for people to stash any food that they might have in their car so that bears would not be tempted to break into the hikers’ vehicles. I would love to return to hike this trail on a future trip, for sure. The road to the Fern Lake trailhead was a beautiful, secluded drive with ferns and aspen trees all around the further we went. I’m sure the hike is absolutely gorgeous, just based on what we saw of the area on our drive.
We also made a quick drive through the Moraine Park campground nearby on this same road, and we decided that we likely would not bring our RV to this campground in the future. Since we returned home, however, I have read that this campground will be repaved soon, which is a good thing. For people with smaller RVs or tent campers, this would be a lovely place to camp.
As it was now around 2:30 pm, we decided to make our last scenic drive of the day up to the Alpine visitor’s center on the famous Trail Ridge Road. At last. :-)
Trail Ridge Road is the highest continuous road in the United States, and the top elevation on the drive is 12,183 feet. Thankfully, it is a very well-built two-lane road, which is a good thing because there is a significant amount of traffic on it during peak months. We even saw a couple of RVs headed toward us as we made the drive up, too. The road connects Estes Park to Grand Lake as Highway 34, and it is 48 miles from town to town. Reading more about this unique road is well worth a few minutes of your time, and that information can be found at the link provided. To say that this is an impressive drive is an understatement. To say that it is a once-in-a-lifetime drive would be a much better description, at least for us!
We had an issue to consider before making this drive, though. Our hideous rental car tires, which were past their lifespan at over 40,000 miles, would not hold pressure. The warning light had come on a bit earlier for the first time, just after we left Estes Park. Of course, there was nowhere to get air for the tires once we left town, and we did not want to return to town to get air and get stuck in the holiday traffic once again, as it would impact what we would be able to see in the few hours of daylight we had left on this day. After looking over the tires carefully, Hubby made the call for us to just continue with our scenic drive plans but to cut our drive short and not take the road all the way to Grand Lake. We drove to the Alpine Visitor’s Center, then turned around and drove back to Estes Park for the night, and the tire pressure warning light continued to flash on and off the entire time. Long story short, we made it back to town just fine with no issues.
Now, about that drive! What a fabulous drive it was for us, and it is one that I will always remember, for sure. We are flatlanders, so any mountains always impress us, but this was just literally “over the top.” Even though we were unable to pull over at any of the scenic overlooks on the drive, due to the number of people already parked at each one, we still enjoyed this drive so much. Hopefully on a return trip, we will be able to go during a less crowded time, stop at these scenic overlooks and hike in the tundra area, since it is such a unique ecosystem.
I will just let a few pictures tell the story of our drive to the top.
Starting our drive on Trail Ridge Road
Nearing the treeline around 11,000 feet elevation
Look – no trees!
The approximate elevation where the road went above the treeline
This was an amazing sight to see!
The unique tundra land above treeline
Lava Cliffs at 12,135 feet elevation, which was close to the highest point of the drive
We spent about thirty minutes at the Alpine Visitor Center to give Hubby a driving break, see the landscape, take photos and buy a few more souvenirs. The largest gift shop in the park is located here, along with an adjacent restaurant, which are both located in a separate building next to the Alpine Visitor Center. The views of the tundra from this location are quite stunning, even from inside the gift shop looking out of the windows.
We finally made it!
Sign at the Alpine Visitor Center
It was so cold! The wind was blowing quite hard, and the chill factor outside was 33 degrees.
Tundra view from inside the warm gift shop
Just outside the Alpine Visitor Center – gorgeous view!
Trail at the Alpine Visitor Center
Treeline information in the visitor center
The Alpine Visitor Center is completely self-contained, requiring no electric or water connections. It is only open in the warmest months of the year from about Memorial Day to mid-October. The upper part of Trail Ridge Road is not plowed during the winter months and is impassable.
The drive back to Estes Park was just as beautiful as the drive up the pass. We were glad to finally be back in town where we would not worry quite as much about the tires, too.
Starting our drive back to Estes Park as we left the visitor center
One of several amazing views on our way back down
An Alpine lake can be seen in the middle of this photo.
In my next post, I will share a little story about my “history” with Estes Park and why we opted to stay where we did that night, as well as “who” we slept with! We also spent a full day back in RMNP on Monday, Labor Day, as the weather cleared and we took two fabulous hikes in some gorgeous locations, and I’m so excited to share that day’s adventure here soon, too.
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