Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park is sort of the crown jewel of Colorado.  Growing up in Fort Collins, every time someone came to visit we would take them there.  I grew up in the area (Fort Collins), and I think never fully appreciated the mountain scenery until I left the state for a while. Now every time I go back to visit, I spent tons of time in the mountains.

This is the first time I’d been back to the park in about twelve years, and I didn’t remember very much of it.  When I was a kid, I just hopped into the car, let an adult worry about driving, and read a book until we parked. I remember a visiting aunt asking me, “Emily, don’t you want to look out the window and see the pretty scenery?” I said that my book was more interesting.

“Someday you’ll understand how lucky you are to live around this,” she replied. And she was right… now I appreciate it much more.

What I actually remember most about being in the park as a kid was feeding the chipmunks. It used to be common for people to set food in their outstretched palms, and the chipmunks would hop onto their hands to get the food. Well apparently they figured out this is really bad for the chipmunks’ health. It disrupts the quality of their fat stores, and then they have a hard time surviving the cold winter. I hope never hurt any chipmunks… and am glad that now I know.

Ethan and I entered through Grand Lake on the West side and stopped by the Kawuneeche visitors center. We did a couple short hikes in the Kawuneeche valley, where we very quickly encountered some elk and moose.

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Right before the evening thunderstorms rolled in, we drove up Trail Ridge Road to the top of the pass where you can see the Continental Divide, and walked up many stairs to the Alpine Ridge lookout. The view up there is incredible.

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We ran down just as it started raining, and drove to the east side of the park. As we rounded the bend to get our first view of Estes Park, a rainbow arced across the sky. We pulled over to take photos at what was aptly called Rainbow Curve. I guess it’s not the first time for a rainbow to appear there!

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It was Monday night. We camped on some property we had found through hipcamp.com. The owners were super friendly – a huge family with tons of pets including three Great Danes that ran up as we parked. Our campsite was on a rocky ledge overlooking the town of Estes Park. We watched a gorgeous sunset and swung in the hammock while the lights came on below us and the stars above us. It was absolutely perfect.

The next morning we took showers at the public pool and got brunch, before parking at the visitors center and catching the shuttle up to the famous Blue Lake trailhead on the east side of the park. This part of the park is so consistently crowded that the parking lot fills up by 6 am. Tourists are encouraged to use the free shuttle. Since it was already afternoon when we got on the shuttle, there was only one other person riding up. He was a foreigner in the area on business. He had no backpack or water, and seemed really confused about where he was going. The shuttle driver lectured him about bringing water and being prepared, less he die on the mountain. She told us these types of unprepared visitors are unfortunately so common that the park had to put out buckets of free water bottles at the trailheads so people stopped getting dehydrated on the trails.

We hiked a 4-mile loop out to Lake Haiyaha, which was one of the most scenic hikes I’ve ever done in my life. We hiked alongside a white-water river called Glacier Creek.

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Hiking alongside Glacier Creek

In about 20 minutes we arrived at a waterfall, which was where the majority of hikers turned back for their cars.  From there on, we basically had the whole trail to ourselves. We rounded the mountain to see absolutely stunning views. Maybe because we took so many photo/viewing breaks, the hike took much longer than expected. We got to Lake Haiyaha about 3 hours after we started, and from there it was another 2 hours to finish the loop. We barely made the last shuttle back into town.

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The park sells day passes for $25 and week passes for $35, which include the free shuttle ride.

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Ethan had to get going back to Texas, so we left after the two days. However, my brother Vinny and I decided to drive back up later in the week and make the most of my pass. Since the east side had been so busy, Vin and I decided to stay on the West side. That’s where you see the most animals.

We did two long hikes that I had seen previously and wanted to check out. The first was the Poudre River trail. The Poudre River runs through the city of Fort Collins where we grew up, so we have a special connection to it. The river starts as a calm little stream flowing out of the Poudre Lake at the top of the park. As it descends, it collects more and more and water until becoming thunderous white water rapids.

This trail was absolutely magical. We hiked for almost 3 hours and only ran into 2 other people. It is an easy hike with very little change in altitude but beautiful views of a long corridor-like valley. It was quiet, serene, pastel, and wet, disappearing into puddles at many points.

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The Poudre River Trail

On our way back to the car, a majestic elk walked up the trail, straight toward us as if it was going to walk right up and say something. In that moment I felt like I was in a fantasy movie.

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An elk walking up the trail toward us

We camped along Shadow Mountain Reservoir, just south of the West entrance. It was a really beautiful site carpeted in wildflowers, with a view of the lake and the islands. The only downside was there were no showers.

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Wildflowers at our campsite

The next day was our really big hike. We parked at the Colorado River trailhead around 9 AM and started immediately encountering animals.  I accidentally almost walked right into an elk who was standing about a foot from the trail.  He looked at me calmly, continued chewing some grass in his mouth, and I slowly backed away.

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Massive elk eating grass right by the trail… I would never have gotten this close on purpose, and was really scared that he’d head butt me!

We took a little break to munch on some trail mix, and I dropped an almond.  A second later, a little grey squirrel had picked it up and was sitting right by us, munching on it and watching us.  A minute later, his squirrel friend bounced up, apparently wanting an almond too.  When I didn’t give it one, it started screaming in a series of very high-pitched squeaks.  Squirrels from all around the forest started echoing his scream, from all directions.  I’ve never seen or heard anything like it!

As we neared the ruins of Lulu City, on our right was a steep rocky outcrop – perfect marmot habitat.  Sure enough, I started hearing their squeaks.  We saw a couple big fat solitary ones, but the cooler part was when we encountered a nest of pups right next to the trail.  Three adorable mini marmots popped their heads up one at a time, and curiously climbed around looking at us.  We spent way too much time watching the cute little guys!  We also saw a deer further up on the mountain.  The animal sightings were definitely a highlight of this hike.

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Marmot pups

We continued past Lulu City up the Little Yellowstone Canyon, where we found a little waterfall that didn’t appear on the map.

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Gazing out at Little Yellowstone Canyon
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The waterfall in Little Yellowstone Canyon

Hoping for a view of the Continental Divide, we continued up to the Grand Ditch.  Here’s where we started encountering some other hikers – but they were all going the opposite direction.  It’s apparently common to start this hike from Long Draw Reservoir just off Highway 14.  Some of the people we ran into were fellow Fort Collins-ites, which was cool, and one told us some stories about his time as a professional cave explorer/mapper.

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Grand Ditch

We hiked back down the same way we came.  In all it was 13 miles and took around 8 hours (including the breaks for animal viewing).

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View of the Never Summer Mountains from Grand Ditch (near La Poudre Pass)

The next morning we went on a quest for showers, which we ended up finding at a more commerical campsite for a hefty cost ($7/person). Then we took my inflatable canoe out on Shadow Mountain Reservoir before heading home.  It was a neat place to canoe because there are a number of little islands to explore… although you’re not actually allowed to walk on the islands, you can view them from the boat.

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Canoeing on Shadow Mountain Reservoir

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