Herr We Go finally made it to Rocky Mountain National Park after bypassing it two years ago on our epic road trip. This beautiful park, filled with sparkling mountain lakes and tundra hikes, was worth the wait.
Denver, Colorado is one of our favorite cities to visit and luckily we have good friends who give us an excuse to visit. This time Dan and Annalise invited us to celebrate their wedding. We decided to take advantage of the week and go two days early to explore Rocky Mountain National Park.
Day 1 – Thursday October 20, 2016 – Bear Lake
Like all national parks, we started our visit at the Visitor Center to talk with a ranger about the hikes we wanted to try and get suggestions. Our plan was to spend the day on the most popular attraction in park, the Trail Ridge Road. Trail Ridge Road transverses the park, however the road closes seasonally due to the snow and ice. The average closure date is mid-October so it was risky to assume the road would be open during our visit. Unfortunately, snow earlier in the week had closed the road. Instead the ranger suggested the Bear Lake area of the park.
Bear Lake is one of the most popular areas of the park, and for a good reason. It is easily accessible, beautiful, and filled with a variety of hikes. The 1.8 mile hike from Bear Lake to Emerald Lake was recommended to us. Before starting our hike, we were awestruck by the many great views of Bear Lake and ended up taking our time and walking the 0.5 mile Bear Lake Loop with breaks for photographs every few feet.
The hike to Emerald Lake passes Dream Lake, alpine forests, and mountain streams. It was a little chilly, but the crisp air made the hike feel more magical. If you are willing to make the 1.8 mile trek to Emerald Lake, the reward is a lake that sits at the base of a glacier carved mountainous peak. We ate sandwiches at Emerald Lake. By the time we headed back, the mountains were blocking the sun and it was getting colder.
Before leaving the park, we took a quick drive to Rainbow Curve, the highest open portion of the Trail Ridge Road.
Etes Park is the town which sits just outside of the park, and it is one of the nicer towns we’ve seen outside of a National Park. Estes Park is full of cabin style motels, quaint craft stores, and small restaurants. We stayed at the Swiss styled Appenzell Inn. The man working the front desk recommended Nepal’s Cafe for dinner. The Indian and Nepali food was comforting and hit the spot after hiking in chilly weather, however the food wasn’t as good as the Napali food we’ve had elsewhere on our travels.
Day 2 – Friday October 21, 2016 – Chasm Lake
We woke up early on Friday to prepare for our biggest hike of the trip, an 8.3 mile out and back to Chasm Lake. Chasm Lake sits in the shadow of Long’s Peak, the highest peak in the park. When we pulled into the parking lot, there were a few cars already there and one group of hikers from Europe who were packing icepicks and ropes for a trek to the summit.
The start of the hike was through alpine forest. Hiking in an alpine forest actually feels different than the East Coast forests we are used to. The floor is covered in soft needles and the light comes in through the trees differently. You can also feel the altitude as it takes your breath away faster. It was a nice change of pace from our usual hikes in Shenandoah.
It didn’t take long before we were seeing snow and ice among the trees and then on the trail. The trail wound its way uphill and past a few almost frozen streams. About two miles into the hike the terrain becomes tundra and the trees drop away. The feeling and views change greatly once you are above the tree line. And, although the terrain looks sparse, its actually a very fragile ecosystem, so staying the trail is important.
At mile 3.7 is Chasm Junction, the point at which the trail splits and you can climb to the summit or continue to Chasm Lake. Chasm Junction is also arguably the best view in the park. The ranger we talked to indicated it was her favorite, and we agreed. The glacier carved mountains loom just out of reach. As an extra bonus for us weary hikers, there is a chemical toilet located here. We took a very long break, but never tired of taking pictures in every direction.
The next quarter mile is downhill, overlooking Peacock Lake and Columbine Falls (when it isn’t frozen). There’s a second chemical toilet before starting the steep 0.2 mile rock scramble. The rock scramble lacks a clear trail and it might be difficult normally, but it was extremely hard to climb covered in snow and ice. We had been warned that in winter when its truly frozen an ice pitch was the only way up. We managed to make it up, and were rewarded with Chasm Lake. Long’s Peak appears to rise up out of the lake’s deep blue water. Sitting lakeside, we ate our lunches and relaxed enjoying the view.
The way back went much quicker and we took fewer pictures. We reached the car, and although we had a good workout, I wasn’t as exhausted as I sometimes can be after a hike this length. We went back to our accommodations and showered. We had worked up an appetite so we went to get some BBQ at what must be the most popular restaurant in town, Smokin’ Dave’s BBQ & Tap House. The wait at Smokin’ Dave’s was much longer than we were told when we arrived. If we hadn’t eaten snacks prior to leaving our hotel we might not have stayed. We did stay, and waited well over an hour to be seated. Finally we were seated and we split a huge rack of ribs and some yummy sides.
Day 3 – Saturday October 22, 2016 – Trail Ridge Road
We woke Saturday to another chilly but beautiful sunny day. The good weather had allowed the Park Service to clear Trail Ridge Road and open it for the weekend. We checked out of our hotel and drove straight to the park. We didn’t go far from the hotel before passing elk wandering the Estes Park streets.
Just inside the park’s entrance gate is Deer Mountain, and it lived up to its name with deer scattered throughout the hill side as we started our ascent on Trail Ridge Road. We didn’t get much farther than Rainbow Curve before we left the forest behind and were back in the tundra looking at snowy mountain ridges. The road had pull offs to take in the view, but not too many hikes. We didn’t have to stop often to realize it was windy and bitter cold to leave the car for just a few minutes of pictures at each pull off.
Despite the cold, we did take the 1 mile hike along Tundra Communities Trailhead. The views and rocks formations were stunning, but the cold had the better of us. The road starts its decent just before the Alpine Visitor Center, which was closed for the winter season.
We stopped again at the base of the mountain where the Colorado River Trailhead is located. It was a quick walk from the parking lot to view the start of the river, and is much warmer than at the top of the mountain. We left from the west side of the park and continued to Denver to join our friends at their wedding celebration.
The wedding celebration in a lovely barn over looking a lake. We loved seeing our friends, and we even learned a new lawn game, Kubb which the couple brought back from their wedding in Brussels.
Day 43 – Sunday October 23, 2016 – Denver
There is a lot to do and see in Denver. Lucky for us, we’ve had two other trips to explore it, so we could relax this time. (Read about one of our other trips here). We started the day meeting our friends one last time at their favorite local breakfast joint, Waffle Bothers. Waffle Brothers has sweet and savory waffles with a variety of toppings.
After saying good-bye, we headed back to our favorite Denver Brewery, Crooked Stave. Crooked Stave is in the coolly refurbished Source building. Crooked Stave specials in sour beers. Jon had the popular Nightmare on Brett Street and I had a sample of some of the other beers. We had some more time to kill, so we headed to Great Divide Brewing Company. Great Divide doesn’t have a large selection of beers, but we each got a pint and sat at a table outside. Food at Great Divide was from the Ohana Island Kitchen food truck, and we tried a sampling of their food. At last it was time to head to the airport and say goodbye once again to Denver.
If you are planning to visit Denver and do any amount of hiking, it is worth mentioning the possible altitude sickness. Our hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park were more strenuous due to the thin air.