This summer I traveled to Estes Park, Colorado, with my husband. It’s a nice town with hotels, cabins and specialty shops. Estes Park is a gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park located in northern Colorado. Rocky Mountain NP encompasses an area of 416 square miles (265,769 acres). You can find beautiful mountain vistas (114 named peaks above 10,000' (~ 3,000 m)). The highest is the Longs Peak at 14,259' (~4,220 m). There are thousands of varieties of wild plants and animals. The Rocky Mountain NP has about 3 million visitors a year. You really have to plan your visit, especially during the COVID19 epidemic. You have to ask for a timed entry permit and an entrance. You can get the first one on the internet. You have to make sure to listen to the weather forecast and the park radio. Sometimes they close the gate because of falling rock, flash floods or forest fire.
Fortunately, I checked the weather the day when we planned to go to the park and heavy rain was forecast by 10 AM. Accordingly we arrived very early to the park to be ready to start the hike at first light and complete the hike before the rain could wash out the trails. We used the Estes Park gate to `enter. If you enter the park before 5 AM, you do not need an entrance pass. When we arrived 4:30 AM, at least 50 cars were in the Bear Lake Trailhead parking lot in the dark of the night.
Shortly after arriving, as soon as there was some light, we began our hike from the Bear Lake trailhead. Our goal was to reach Emerald Lake. The hike was breathtakingly beautiful. We were rewarded for early beginning by seeing wildlife: birds and a family of mule deer. The family happily grazed by a water seepage over which the trail passed, and they were not afraid of the hikers. It was great to see them jumping from one boulder to the next. They grazed the grass and sedges that had morning dew on them. I loved to see and smell the beautiful flowers on the trail. We also saw waterfalls. The first lake that we saw was the Nymph Lake. It was about 60 F and very humid but fresh, just perfect. Yellow lily pads decorated the lake, covering about 90% of the water surface. Between the lily pads you could see turtles and ducks. We enjoyed watching a duck family. The mommy duck gently guided her ducklings around the lake. It was hard to leave this beautiful sight. We continued on our way to Dream Lake.
Next. we encountered Tyndall Creek which drains the lake. Dream Lake was so beautiful with its reflecting the scenery due to having no vegetation cover. Following Tyndall Creek on a moderate climb we arrived at Emerald Lake, at the end of the trail. You couldn’t walk around it, because this is an alpine lake and around the lake one can see high peaks. It was pristine, clear and pretty cold; this is why swimming is not recommended. We saw chipmunks and pretty birds. We saw snow and ice high up close to the high peaks. On the way back we again saw the deer, this time a larger group by the boardwalk over the seepage. It was a narrow and only one person passage. The mother deer made a jump that gave me jump. The deer sized me up and decided that we were not a threat. The tender grass was so inviting, and they started to graze again. We managed to cross within arm’s length from several of them, and so did other hikers on their way up. These deer must be accustomed to daily the hikers on this heavily visited trail.
By the time we got back to the car, it started to rain cats and dogs. This was about 10 AM, right as forecast. There was a loop on the trail right around Bear Lake. We were already soaked so we walked around the lake. By the time we finished the trail, you almost couldn’t see from the heavy rain.
Our next destination within the park was the Trail Ridge Road, a 11-miles road that takes you to the tree line. The view changed from forest to tundra. The Rocky Mountain News wrote “scenic wonder road of the world.” This is really true. It took us about 5 hours to really enjoy the view, because we stopped at every pull over to really enjoy the view. First, we saw aspen, ponderosa pine, then we entered the subalpine zones with fir and spruce and finally alpine tundra vegetation. The temperature was 20-30 degrees colder here. We were lucky, because the rain stopped, and we could enjoy the tundra view and the trail.
While back at the Emerald Lake, we wondered about the dirty white patches on the mountain sides near the peaks and were not sure if it was snow or a mineral. At a lookout point before the Alpine Visitor Center, we could see that it was snow. The visitor center is the highest elevation visitor center in the National Park System at 11,796' (~3,492 m). Trails start here that take you to higher than 12,000’. The Trail Ridge tundra is a place of vibrant life and vivid colors. You can find pikas, marmots, ptarmigans and bighorn sheep here. You can see about 200 species of tiny alpine plants. The growing season is only 40 days long, but we saw the green summer tundra with swatches of yellow, red, pink, blue, purple and white colored blooms on the Tundra World Nature Trail.
We stopped at the Continental Divide, where stream flows are separated east from west, at Milner Pass at 10,758 feet elevation. Moose munch greenery in the upper reaches of the Colorado River, which flows through the scenic Kawuneeche Valley. We spotted grazing animals around the river. Others reported seeing coyotes and bighorn sheep. We also crossed areas affected by forest fires the previous year where rain caused ash flows that blackened the road. New growth of flowers was already evident. Some blackened regions in the distance were still covered in smoke.
We visited the Grand Lake area also. This place is close to the Kawuneeche Visitor Center. The lake was beautiful with a nice waterfall close to it. Unfortunately, the rain picked up again and stopped us from going closer. It was also getting late and getting dark, so we headed back our Airbnb home. We were lucky having done our visit that day because the next day the park was closed. The rains caused damage in the park.
We saw places, where the fire killed big parts of the forest. The rain produced ash flows blackening the road. It was interesting to see part of the forest, that was killed one year ago and the part that just stopped burning in 2021, still with smoke lingering. You could see the plants under the trees already coming back. Of course, the forest needs much more time to come back.
This park was incredible, and we could hike more if we had more time — next year, maybe.