10 Aug Rocky Mountain National Park
One high point of our one-month road trip was spending the week in Colorado with my parents. And by high point, I mean literally these five days were spent where the elevation was 7,500 to 12,000 feet above sea level.
We experienced shortness of breath just going up the fight of stairs in our rental, and we also learned to adjust to the mountain weather. While the summer mornings are bright blue, storms usually build up in the afternoon (which explains some of the more grey-looking photos in this post). It took a little extra planning to coordinate the outdoor activities we wanted to do with the weather patterns.
Exploring Estes Park
Estes Park is a small town perfectly poised near the entrance(s) to Rocky Mountain National Park. Considering that this area was flooded out less than a year ago, we were happy to see it in good shape and well-visited.
There is plenty for the outdoor adventurer and family vacationer to do in Estes Park- from biking, touring, rock climbing (indoor or outdoor), boating, and fishing to playing at amusement parks or shopping.
You can also get to just about anywhere (including the National Park) using the free shuttle system which departs from the Estes Park Visitor Center.
Despite its many pros, downtown Estes felt pretty touristy to us- lots of t-shirt shops and several variations on the same taffy and ice-cream store. Not that I’m complaining about the availability of sweets but it didn’t feel very authentic or local.
The best local shop we found was Kind Coffee, an environmentally-friendly coffeehouse with great space for using wi-fi or enjoying breakfast by the river. If you’re in town, I highly recommend skipping the Starbucks down the street and coming here.
I’m sure there are other unique establishments like this that we would have found if we had stayed longer. With about 2/3 of the summer population being tourists, most of the places we saw seemed to cater to vacationers.
Where we stayed
Above and beyond hotel availability, there is a plethora of vacation rentals in this area. We found ours on VRBO, which came with a fully furnished kitchen, allowing us to have most of our breakfasts and dinners at home (lunches were eaten out or PB&J on the hiking trails).
Rocky Mountain National Park (and Surrounding Area)
Like the other National Parks we’ve visited, Rocky Mountain is great for hiking, scenic drives, and interpretive programs. We took advantage of exploring the Beaver Meadows and Moraine Park Visitor Centers, which were closest to Estes Park.
We also stopped at the Alpine Visitor Center while driving the Trail Ridge Road. Although we didn’t get a chance to do any evening Ranger programs this time around, we did download an audio guide to listen to along the Trail Ridge Road and we joined a Ranger-led hike one morning at Bear Lake.
Short walks from the Trail Ridge Road
Tundra Communities trail
Our car art on the Trail Ridge Road
Although my parents are hiking fiends and usually out-pace us on any given walk, we all decided to take it easy in the Rockies due to the adjustments in altitude. For that reason, we stuck to hikes under 4 miles with relatively little elevation gain.
These are some of the best easy to moderately-easy hikes in the area, which I compiled from several sources:
- Sprague Lake (0.5 miles round trip, flat)
- Bear Lake* (0.6 mile loop, flat)
- Lily Lake* (0.7 mile loop, flat; optional addition of 0.4 miles and 100 feet elevation gain on Lily Lake Ridge trail)
- Alberta Falls (1.2 miles round trip, 200 feet elevation gain)
- Tundra Communities Trail* (1.1 miles round trip, 175 feet gain)
- Lake Estes Trail*, Estes Park (3.75 mile loop, mostly flat, one 50 feet gain; also good for road bikes)
- Emerald Lake* (3.5 miles, 600 feet gain. You can also turn turn back at Nymph Lake, 1 mile round trip, or Dream Lake, 2.2 miles round trip)
- Ute Trail* (4 miles round trip, 325 feet gain)
This section of RMNP is accessed separately from the rest of the park, kind of like a park annex, on the East side. You can view the lake from the parking lot, take an easy stroll around the perimeter (0.7 miles), or get a little exercise by adding the Ridge Trail on the North and another little detour on the South.
Lily Lake Ridge Trail
When doing the Ridge Trail above the lake, just follow the rock piles to make sure you’re on the right path.
Watch for muskrats swimming in the lake!
This paved, multi-use trail is in the town of Estes Park, not the National Park. While not as scenic as some of the others, it’s a convenient place for a morning run or bike ride. We also saw a number of people fishing around the lake.
Emerald and Bear Lake
The Emerald Lake trail probably had the most elevation gain of the hikes we did. Starting early in the morning, we made it back to the trail head in time to catch a Ranger-led stroll at 9:30 a.m. around neighboring Bear Lake.
The trail to Emerald Lake also passes Nymph and Dream Lakes as well as a nice stream and small waterfalls. Even early in the morning there were a good number of people hiking, many of whom had arrived on the free park shuttle.
Ranger-led hikes, like the one around Bear Lake, are family-friendly and take lots of breaks to discuss the surrounding wildlife, ecology, geology, and history. On this trip, our Ranger taught us how to differentiate between the various trees, explained the formation of the mountains in layman’s terms, revealed the impact of past forest fires on our surroundings, and told stories from the foundation of the park. As usual, we learned some interesting things that were helpful as we continued to explore the park.
The Ute Trail, which traverses a rocky meadow above tree line, was recommended to us by our Uncle. To be honest, I was skeptical at first. We were exposed to the frigid wind and it didn’t seem that there would be that much to see.
It ended up being one of my favorite hikes of the week. Within the first quarter mile, we spotted some elk and discovered impressive views of the mountain range. (It’s a bit far away, but there’s an elk grazing toward the right of the picture below.)
I also felt a strong connection on this hike to the Ute, a Native American tribe who used to the trail to move from their winter to their summer hunting grounds. I could picture them trekking across the same path with their families and belongings. Clearly, they were very hardy people.
The trail apparently goes on for miles, but after about 2 miles it descends slightly to a crop of rocks with a scenic overlook, a natural ending point. We found shelter from the wind and celebrated our arrival with a snack before making the return trip.
The other things we found outside of Estes and Rocky Mountain were recommended spots from family who had visited in the past. These places don’t really fit together in any way, but I’m throwing them in here randomly because they were all share-worthy discoveries.
The Baldpate Inn is a one-of-a-kind, historic B&B and landmark that we would have never thought to check out if we weren’t told to do so.
Apart from the hotel rooms and cabin rentals, this place boasts the largest key collection in the world! (On their website, you can read the fun story about how the key tradition started.)
Keys brought by guests
Additionally, they have a fantastic home-made soup and salad buffet for lunch and dinner, with pies available for dessert. This meal was definitely a highlight for our trip!
YMCA of the Rockies, Estes Park Center
This was like no other YMCA I have ever seen before. We were super impressed by the grounds, facilities, and activities available.
The YMCA in Estes Park would make a great stay for a family vacation, reunion, or even conference because of its convenient access to Rocky Mountain National Park, wide range of cabins or hotel rooms to choose from, and plenty to do on site.
Painted rocks at Craft Center entry
When we stopped by the craft center, I was picturing macaroni necklaces and finger painting. Oh no. This place is legit.
The last place we visited that doesn’t really fit anywhere else was Mary’s Lake on the way out to our Lily Lake hike. Although there wasn’t a walking trail or anything, we did a little geocaching there and also spotted some rock climbers.
We liked the area a lot and decided that it might be a more scenic place to stay than Estes Park, while still convenient to accessing Rocky Mountain National Park.
So that was our trip. We’d love to hear your take if you’ve been to this area. What did we miss? Where should we go next time?
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