The sign by the roadside informed me that I was 2 miles above sea level. This is the kind of information I am more used to getting from an airline captain than a road sign and as the engine laboured in the thin air I rounded the last bend and climbed past stunted pine trees towards the top of the first pass. Behind was a wild scene of jagged peak and shining snowfield outlined against gathering grey clouds – the mysteriously named Never Summer Wilderness which lies to the West of Rocky Mountain National Park through which I was now heading.
My journey would take me over the Milner Pass and past the jewel-like Poudre Lake before climbing higher still to the Alpine Visitor Center at Fall River Pass with its spectacular views over the pristine wilderness to the North. From here the highest through highway in North America – the Trail Ridge Road – leads on over a tundra landscape to Estes Park on the far side of the Rockies.
Rocky Mountain National Park in northern Colorado was America’s tenth national park, a status it achieved in 1905. The park, bisected by the Continental Divide, is approximately 25 miles from north to south and 20 miles from east to west and covers a particularly wild and scenic part of the Colorado Rockies. Much of the area is over 12000 feet above sea level and here the landscape resembles the arctic tundra. Main access is via Estes Park on the eastern side and the smaller Grand Lake on the west. These are the only towns bordering the region and both offer a good choice of accommodation – there are campgrounds but no hotels within the park boundaries.
Hiking is one of the main activities in the National Park with almost endless possibilities for routes, the best known is perhaps the ascent of the park’s highest mountain Longs Peak. At 14255 feet, Longs Peak is one of the major summits of the Rocky Mountains and the normal route via the Keyhole starting at Bear Lake is a long tough scramble. The hike is however classified as non technical when free of ice – usually from late June to September. If you’re not ready to take on a fourteener – as the Colorado summits of over 14000 feet are known – there are many far easier hiking opportunities in the area.
For the less energetic, the Trail Ridge Road, mentioned earlier, crosses the Rockies’ main ridge reaching an altitude of 12183 feet. This is a fascinating drive between Estes Park and Grand Lake with plentiful opportunities for wildlife spotting. Elk can be seen at many locations while if you’re lucky you’ll spot a moose. Black bears and mountain lions do live in the park too but they’re pretty secretive and you would usually need to stray some way from the road to stand any chance of spotting either of these elusive creatures. That is of course if walking in remote woods inhabited by mountain lions and bears appeals – attacks on humans are rare but they can occur! The park’s visitor centres offer excellent information on all park activities – including wildlife spotting and what to do if you should meet a bear!
In winter the whole area is invariably snow covered and provides ample opportunities for cross country skiing and snow shoeing. Bear in mind that here there is no ski lift infrastructure like in Aspen or Breckenridge so if you ski down a hill you’ll have to figure out how you’re going to get back up again. Trail Ridge road is generally closed in the Winter months which is usually October to May.
Estes Park has the largest choice of hotels and it is here most people visit from. Estes is best accessed from Denver and Boulder by US Highway 36 or by Highway 34 from the Fort Collins direction. Over the mountains the charming Grand Lake with its wooden houses and boardwalks also has some hotel accommodation. Grand Lake is situated close to Granby and is reached from the I-70 corridor by Highway 40 or from Walden to the North on State Highway 125. Entry fees for the park at the time of writing are $20 for a car and $10 if you’re on foot or cycling. These are both for a pass valid 7 days. Enjoy your visit.