National Park Number: 52 of 59
We were on a Rocky Mountain high the entire time we were in this park, and we were singing the John Denver song of the same name pretty much the whole time, too. Because we’re very, very hip.
Now that we’re getting so close to our goal of visiting every national park, we want to slow down more and more—we’d be happy to spend a month in each of the parks we have left. We also have a to-do list a million miles long—fixing up little things on Buster as we prepare to sell him, gearing up for our last few parks in Alaska (and doing as much freelance work as possible to pay for it!, etc.—so we’ve been having trouble balancing our desire to spend every waking moment in the wild with our many deadlines and must-get-dones.
Near Rocky Mountain, we had the great advantage of having David’s parents, who live part-time in Boulder, so we got a chance to see the park, get loads of work done over the course of the week in air-conditioned comfort (the Bowman’s apartment) and see a bunch of friends too!
It was exactly what we needed, but it wasn’t all Rocky Mountain all the time. And this park could really, really use ALL the time: it’s massive, and a hiker’s paradise. Our list of hikes we wanted to try grew to around 20 before we stopped writing any more down. In the end, we weren’t able to cross many off our list, but that’s okay—we’re happy to have this epic park on our list of places where we can’t wait to return.
We spent our first day doing the Auto Tour with David’s parents, driving a big loop up Old Fall River Road into the park’s high alpine country, then back down along Trail Ridge Road. Rocky Mountain was one of the early national parks and was developed during the time when the NPS needed to get as many people into the parks as possible to ensure the survival of the system. These old parks often feature incredibly ambitious and scenic roads—like Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier and the loop drive in Mt. Rainier—that would never be built under today’s more conservation-minded ethos. But in the early days of the park system, the best road to preservation was often—paradoxically—development, since roads, railways and facilities would bring visitors and visitors would help lawmakers see the economic benefit of public lands.
Trail Ridge Road is a product of this philosophy: a mammoth project that winds visitors up into the tundra of the high Rockies, crossing the Continental Divide and reaching an elevation of 12,183 ft.—which makes it the highest continuously paved road in the U.S. The whole route was designed for maximum scenic impact and it definitely packs a punch—we were gawping as we crawled up through the forests, through meadows, past waterfalls and into the alpine tundra. Along the way we saw a moose, elk, deer and, once we reached the top, loads of marmots, some of them sunbathing which thrilled me to no end.
We stopped on our route for a picnic at Chasm Falls and some walking around near the Alpine Visitor Center. Past the visitor center, we were caught in a traffic jam when an elk took up residence in the middle of the road. Above the tree line, the views were expansive, stretching out across the peaks in every direction and running down-canyon through forests of pine and aspen. It’s an incredibly beautiful drive and if it’s all you can manage in a visit to Rocky Mountain, it’s still eminently worth visiting.
But though the road allows you to see some of the highlights of the park, hitting the trail is even better. Several days after driving the loop with David’s parents, we returned to the park to do some hiking.
We based ourselves in the Bear Lake area, one of the park’s most popular and the starting point for a number of excellent trails. Our first hike was to Emerald Lake. We’ve been excited to go here since a ranger in Shenandoah told us it is her favorite place in the world; since then, we’ve had several other people recommend it as well. It’s a popular, short (3.5 miles) trail and stunningly beautiful, rising up past Nymph and Dream Lakes to the peak-surrounded Emerald Lake.
We started our hike late in the afternoon, our favorite time for hiking because the light is always so incredible as the sun gets lower on the horizon. It had been raining all day, right up until we pulled into the trailhead parking lot, so as we walked through the forest, the pines glittered with raindrops and the air smelled indescribably clean and wonderful. When we made it back to Bear Lake, the sun was setting and we stumbled into a ranger program about twilight. We joined the group for a loop around the lake and some chats about crepuscular animals (those that are most active at dawn and dusk) and the complicated nature of conservation.
The next day, we intended to get an early start for a longer hike but, as usual, it took us much longer to get our ducks in a row than we were hoping! By the time we started, it was well past noon, but we decided to hike as long as the weather was clear—the sky was threatening a storm and we knew our route wouldn’t be safe if there was lightning, but we hoped for the best!
And boy, did we get the best. Honestly this was one of the best hikes of our entire trip. We’d intended to go up past Alberta Falls and the Loch to Sky Pond; instead, we followed the advice of a ranger and split from the well-traveled trail beyond the Loch to instead go to Andrews Glacier.
Andrews is one of a handful of glaciers left in Rocky Mountain; it runs into a sky-blue tarn, which then runs down in a stream through a steep boulder field and into the pine-surrounded meadow. To get to the glacier and tarn, the trail follows a narrow, cairn-marked path through the boulders, requiring more scrambling and clamoring than hiking. Steep and at times hard to follow, the trail finally crosses a grassy lip and to reveal a flat path around the tarn to the glacier.
The tarn was surrounded by smaller boulders and everywhere there were pikas squeaking to warn their fellows about us. We passed two hikers as we were reaching the top of the trail, but other than that, we saw no one in our hours around the glacier and boulder field. The views of the jagged peaks overhead—including the most prominent, Shark’s Tooth—and the sweep of the surrounding valley had us mesmerized.
Eventually we tore ourselves away from the glacier, picked a path down through the boulders and rejoined the main trail. The sun was sliding down the sky at our backs, light bouncing off the peaks in front of us, and then everything turned pink and purple and golden as we entered our final miles.
In our stupor of wonderment, we forgot that we needed to get back to the trailhead by 7:30 in order to catch the last shuttle to our bus, miles down the road at the Park-n-Ride. We saw one other hiker on the trail, struck up a conversation and asked if he’d mind giving us a ride to Buster; luckily he obliged. He turned out to be a lovely traveler from Germany who was on an American field trip of his own, and he followed us back to Boulder that night for a hot shower and a comfortable bed.
Rocky Mountain is one of those perfect parks that can accommodate any kind of traveler up for any level of adventure. For those who don’t want to stray far from their cars, Trail Ridge Road offers what must be some of the most exquisite driving in the U.S. For the more adventurous, there are trails that range from short loops to weeks-long backpacking routes, strolls through meadows to challenging 14-ers. Compared to what’s on offer, we didn’t do very much, but we left with stars in our eyes and a burning desire to come back to this place. And really, what better way to leave the wild?