On our final afternoon in Rocky Mountain National Park on Labor Day, we opted for a shorter hike to Alberta Falls. The total hike was a 1.7 mile round trip with only a 200 foot elevation change going up to the falls, but after our more adventurous hike in the morning to Nymph and Dream Lakes, we decided that this would be a good option. Unfortunately, this particular trail was quite crowded with other hikers, and it was especially crowded once we reached the falls. We just made the best of it and enjoyed our time in this beautiful area as best we could. I also tried to be patient at the falls to find opportunities to take photographs without too many people in them as I could, with some good success.
The further we hiked on this particular trail, the more it reminded me of an epic hike we made at Yosemite National Park on May 18, 2011 – the famous Mist Trail hike to Vernal Fall. The hike to Alberta Falls seemed so similar to that hike to me, only on a much smaller and drier scale. Our hike to Vernal Fall will likely be our most strenuous and memorable hike ever, as it will be hard to beat our unforgettable experience on that day. Let me share a quick flashback for just a moment, since this hike came back to mind in a big way on this day.
The Mist Trail to Vernal Fall in Yosemite is a 2.4 mile round trip hike, but it has a 1000 foot elevation change. The last 600 foot climb from the footbridge to the top of the fall is a much steeper (and wetter) climb that is adjacent to the fall. It is labeled a “strenuous” hike, and it deserves every bit of that designation. We almost made it to the top of Vernal Fall but stopped just short because we were absolutely soaked and freezing to death. Snow had unexpectedly fallen the night before, and it was melting everywhere around us that next morning, almost like a rain storm as it quickly melted from the trees. When we encountered the mist of the falls past the footbridge, the cold damp water on our aching bodies finally just got to be more than we could endure. The trail got quite steep toward the top, and I was afraid of falling on the wet rocks. Nevertheless, it was just an amazing hike and one that we will surely never forget. I have some great photos from that hike, and I really need to share much more about that memorable trip here sometime.
I kept thinking of our hike to Vernal Fall as we hiked this beautiful trail up to Alberta Falls on a much sunnier and warmer day. The trail to Alberta Falls is a lovely trail with wonderful views, and the fall is especially beautiful. I’m glad that we ended our trip with this wonderful hike, and I would love to hike it again sometime when it is not so crowded. It was especially neat that it brought back the memory of our Mist Trail hike so vividly, as I had not thought about that hike in quite some time.
After we returned to our car, we made a quick drive through Glacier Basin campground nearby to look at the RV sites, and we had mixed feelings about the campground after seeing it.
While the location is absolutely wonderful in the park, especially the views and the proximity to the popular hiking trails and bus routes, we were honestly not impressed with the campground itself. So, we decided to check out a few private RV parks in Estes Park before starting our drive back to the Denver area that evening.
If we ever decide to bring our RV all the way to Estes Park, we would likely try to stay at Spruce Lake RV Resort, if possible. To our great surprise, we happened upon a “family” of elk in the Spruce Lake campground, too! What a treat it was to see them up close. They are such magnificent animals, not to even mention how cute that baby was!
We loved the town of Estes Park so much and would thoroughly enjoy spending our days in the park and our evenings in town. To that point, we would also be happy to just leave the RV at home and stay at a motel in town, especially for a quick trip to the area. We also might consider leaving the RV at a park at a lower elevation near Longmont and just commute back and forth about an hour each way. There are several ways for us to work this trip in the future, with or without the RV.
After visiting three campgrounds in town, we enjoyed a quick Mexican food dinner at Grumpy Gringo in Estes Park, then drove back to our hotel in the Denver area. We took a different route back to Denver on Highway 36, which had apparently just re-opened after being closed for road repairs after the big flood in September 2013 that washed away part of the road. The highway was in great shape and made for a much faster, although less scenic, drive back to our hotel.
We turned onto the interstate just as the sun was setting to our west over the mountains, providing us with an amazing Rocky Mountain sunset to enjoy.
I was truly sad to leave this beautiful area and hope to return sooner rather than later.
After we finished our half-mile walk/hike around Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park, we began our uphill trek to see two more beautiful Alpine lakes, Nymph Lake and Dream Lake. Our goal was to hike to both lakes, then return to our car for a late picnic lunch before hiking to Alberta Falls in the afternoon, although we held open the possibility of hiking on to Emerald Lake once we were at Dream Lake.
While our hike around Bear Lake was on a trail at an elevation of 9,475 feet that was basically flat, the trail up to the other lakes was a slow and steady climb, with a few breaks along the way. Fortunately, we were more acclimated to the high altitude on this day than we were two days earlier at Golden Gate Canyon State Park, when we attempted our first hike above 9000 feet and had to cut it short. In fact, we thoroughly enjoyed this particular hike to the lakes and got a good, calorie-burning workout in the process.
The entire hike was amazingly beautiful, and that is likely an understatement. This is one of the most beautiful sites that anyone will ever see, so rather than repeat that fact over and over again, I will try to refrain from stating this fact and just show a few photos to share that fact.
The first part of the hike to Nymph Lake climbed to an elevation of 9,705 feet over a distance of a half-mile, and the climb began right away once we left Bear Lake. It felt like climbing a long staircase for much of the way, but it did not take long to finally arrive at our first scenic stop at Nymph Lake. We had a nice rest break here, enjoying the view and catching our breath a bit. I was surprised to see that I actually had a little cell signal here, so I took that opportunity to take a picture with my phone camera and send it to a couple of good friends who were dealing with brutally hot weather at their respective locations that holiday weekend.
After taking photos and enjoying the views, we then continued onward and upward to Dream Lake, which sits at an elevation of 9,912 feet and is .8 mile from Nymph Lake. It was the highest elevation we ever attempted to hike, and thankfully, it was a great experience for us.
Dream Lake is just amazingly beautiful. There, I said it again. It is hard to not gush over the beauty of this place. We spent quite a bit of time here at the end of our planned morning hike and just enjoyed being there. I was quite surprised to see how many people were already there along the banks with their fishing poles, too. It was such a peaceful, serene place at almost 10,000 feet, and our reward for our climb was definitely worth it.
After hiking to the far end of the lake and just a bit beyond, we made a decision to return to the car for a late lunch, rather than skipping lunch to hike on to Emerald Lake. It was nice to hike downhill for a change, too. Just like a trip by car, the scenery is often quite spectacular behind us, and we discovered that happy fact as we made our way back to Bear Lake. It was just a grand hike in both directions.
Once we were back at the car, we enjoyed another picnic lunch in the park at a scenic spot nearby, which was handy for us. It was nice to not have to sit in the car to eat this time, as the weather was pretty much perfect. Clouds and cooler breezes began to roll in a bit, so we made it a quick lunch, then set out for our last adventure in the park on this trip – a hike to beautiful Alberta Falls, which I will share in my next post.
On our last day in Rocky Mountain National Park, the skies cleared for the first time in our trip, and we were finally on our way back into the park to do some hiking.
After looking over our park map and reading reviews of the different trails in our Fodor’s guide-book, we opted to begin our hiking day in the Bear Lake area. The trails at Bear Lake are among the most visited trails in the park, and we were aware that we needed to begin our day pretty early to get a parking spot, especially since it was Labor Day and many people were in the park this day.
We arrived in the area just before 10 am, which was a bit later than we hoped to arrive in the area, and we were not surprised to find a sign stating that the small parking lot at Bear Lake was already full. The sign directed us to park in the large overflow lot, and we were quite surprised to find that lot almost full. Thankfully, we found a parking spot toward the back of the lot near a picnic table, which would come in handy for our picnic lunch a bit later after our first hike was done.
The overflow lot had stops for three different bus routes, so after seeing a bus called “Hiker’s Route,” we decided that must be the bus we needed to take us to the Bear Lake area. We waited about ten minutes, then hopped on the bus with a few other people. When the bus turned the wrong way on Bear Lake Road, however, we immediately knew we had made a big mistake. Fortunately, we were sitting right behind the bus driver, who was kind enough to return us back to the overflow lot, and he directed us to the bus we needed to take. We definitely detected more than a little irritation in his voice, but we were just grateful to not have to ride that bus *all the way back to Estes Park!* Seriously, that bus should have that destination listed somewhere for visitors to see, at least on its return trip back to town. I seriously doubt we are the only ones that have made that mistake, too.
A few minutes later, we boarded the correct bus, which finally dropped us at Bear Lake after making a few stops at other trailheads along the way. The Bear Lake bus stop reminded me of a bus stop in a major city due to the large number of people there, and my heart sank just a bit. I knew we would not have any trails to ourselves on this busy holiday, but this seemed a bit much. Fortunately, there were several trails that people could take from that drop point, and we enjoyed a truly great day of hiking, despite a few more people on the trails than we would prefer. The fabulous scenery made up for it, and people were dispersed on the trails pretty well for the most part.
We saw three beautiful Alpine lakes on our 2.5 hour hike – Bear Lake, Nymph Lake and Dream Lake. It was such a fabulous hike in absolutely perfect weather, too. Bear Lake sits almost adjacent to the bus stop area, and the half-mile trail around the lake was our first hike. This was an easy trail on a level path, and our early reward this day was some truly gorgeous views! No wonder this is such a popular place, especially for people who are not up to more strenuous hikes but still want to see some beautiful scenery.
In my next post, I will share the rest of our beautiful morning hike to Nymph Lake and Dream Lake. Both are amazingly beautiful and at altitudes higher than Bear Lake.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Perhaps zooming in a bit will help.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
On Sunday, the second day of our Colorado Rocky Mountain adventure over Labor Day weekend, we retraced some of our drive from the previous day as we headed toward Rocky Mountain National Park for the first time.
Side note: Thankfully, we had a gas station with a car wash next to our hotel, and we took that opportunity to finally wash the car before beginning our scenic drive for the day. Our entire rental car experience is another story about this trip, and perhaps I will share that after my trip posts are done. Let’s just say that one particular car rental agency at the Denver airport has some serious issues that someone needs to address… quickly… as this was, by far, the worst rental car experience we have ever had, and the condition of our car unfortunately impacted part of the drive we intended to make at RMNP later this day.
The first part of our drive took us back to Boulder, and this part of the drive looked quite different to us than it did the evening before, when we were headed out of the mountains toward Thornton to our hotel for the night. On Sunday morning, the mountains loomed beautiful and large directly ahead of us.
The mountains at Boulder are called the “flatirons” for their distinctive shape. We had a much better view of these mountains this morning than on the previous evening when we drove through the area in route to our hotel during a misty rain.
Boulder is such a pretty and seemingly vibrant town, with beautiful tree-lined streets and bike lanes along the river. I would love to return sometime and explore the town much more. And, as I mentioned in my previous post, the scenic drive between Boulder and Nederland was fabulous once again, too.
There is a scenic tunnel on this drive, and I wanted to get a good picture of it as we drove back through this area, but I forgot to watch for it with camera in hand. It surprised me once again while we were driving, and this blurry photo was the best I could do as I hurried to get my camera in hand.
We drove past Barker Reservoir and saw the big City of Boulder dam once again, too.
After arriving in Nederland, we turned north on Highway 72 and once again resumed our drive on the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway. We were amazed at how many people were out on bicycles on this beautiful stretch of road, too. We agreed that while we enjoy riding our bikes, tackling the hills on this road is something we would not be excited to do, unless we could somehow find a way to only ride the downhill parts, of course.
Since part of our purpose for making this trip was to check out possible RV campsites, we made a quick stop at the Peaceful Valley campground in the Roosevelt National Forest, which we easily accessed just off of Highway 7 – a continuation of the Peak to Peak route from Highway 72. It was a truly beautiful place, but given the other nice campgrounds that we saw during our trip, we would likely pass on this one unless we just wanted a quick overnight stop. It sits on a pretty creek, and each site has bear lockers. Most sites seemed to be set-up more for tent campers, rather than RVs, and the only facilities were vault toilets. Over the holiday weekend, the campground was almost full, too.
We returned to Highway 7 and continued to drive north on the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway. Soon, we found ourselves along the eastern edge of Rocky Mountain National Park, and while Highway 7 is not actually in the park, several places in the park are accessed from it, as there is not a park road available to get to them.
We opted to go ahead and pay our park fee here and hopefully see just a bit of this side of the park. We paid our fee at this small station pictured above, but just after we drove in the park, the rain began to fall in sheets, and we could barely see in front of our car. We were able to see a small lake nearby, but that was about it.
Rather than sit and hopefully wait for the rain to subside a bit, we made our way back to Highway 7 and just continued north toward Estes Park and the main entrance to RMNP. Thankfully, the rain quickly began to subside, and it even cleared off nicely for a while.
A few miles later, we passed the sign for the park entrance at Long’s Peak, but once again, we opted to just continue our drive north. We pulled over shortly, however, to try to get a picture of Long’s Peak. Unfortunately, the clouds were still hanging around right over the peak.
We continued our drive toward the beautiful and scenic town of Estes Park, which sits in a pretty valley just a few miles from two of the main entrances to Rocky Mountain National Park.
By now, it was getting close to lunchtime, and we debated whether or not to eat lunch in Estes Park or drive on to the national park. Since we already had our picnic lunch packed, we opted to just forego lunch in town and drive directly to the Beaver Meadows park entrance. Even though we ran into quite a bit of traffic in town as we made our way to the park, fortunately it did not take too terribly long to get through town and to the park entrance. We knew there would be crowds over Labor Day weekend and had already adjusted our expectations accordingly for our time in this area.
In my next post, I will share the rest of our fabulous Sunday drive, including our experience in driving the famous Trail Ridge Road highway to the Alpine Visitor’s Center at almost 12,000 feet for the first time.