Rocky Mountain National Park

I recently posted about my trip to Estes Park, Colorado (and all the yummy meals I ate to fuel my hiking), but I’ve yet to share the best part – the hiking itself!

Now, I’m not exactly an outdoorsy person.  Our trip to go hiking was Mike’s idea.  I was the one that said – “Sure, as long as we spend some time in cities too” …So Mike should get all the credit for the magical experience we had.  

It wasn’t easy.  It pushed me out of my comfort zones.  There were times I didn’t think I could do it.  And now I can’t wait to go hiking again!

Our cabin was just a couple miles from the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. We’d drive through downtown Estes Park, make a couple turns, then a few minutes later we’d be IN the park which was completely surreal.  Mike would hum the Jurassic Park theme song every morning as we entered the park, spotting herds of Elk and deer casually grazing just steps from our car.

While we only spent two days in Rocky Mountain National Park, we were able to spend quality time in each of the 3 very different Eco-Systems of the park.  As the elevation increased, the change in scenery was dramatic.

While this isn’t in the order of our itinerary, follow along in my post below to see how drastically different each Eco-System was:

Upper Montane Zone: Fire & Water

One morning, we hiked the Cub Lake Trail (Max Elevation: 8,620 feet) which was not only the perfect example of the Upper Montane Zone EcoSystem, it also had a unique twist – Half of our hike was through areas that had burned in the Fall of 2012 in the largest ever wildfire at Rocky Mountain National Park (which may have been sparked by an illegal camp fire).

It was eerie, yet as Mother Nature always is, still beautiful.

From Cub Lake (pictured above), we continued along the trail to see streams and waterfalls (“The Pool” and “Fern Falls”), after making it across a burned out bridge.  Luckily, the water flow was minimal and we were able to simply walk through the mini waterfall / stream instead of over it.

Later on our journey, we saw Donkeys hiking along the path with boards strapped to their sides.  My guess is they were on their way to fix the bridge.  Seeing this old-fashioned method of transportation reminded us of  just how remote we were out on the trail.  No car could get there if it tried.

We finished our time in the Upper Montane Zone by snacking at one of the most picturesque picnic-grounds I’ve ever seen.


Sub-Alpine Zone: Mountain Lakes

Another day, (actually – our first day), was a hike around Bear Lake (Max Elevation: 9,520 feet), which was vastly different than Cub Lake, thanks to about 1/4 mile difference in elevation. The Cub Lake trail was dusty & warm.  Though it was the first week of June, the Bear Lake trail had a light snow cover with quite a few drifts that we had to climb over while circling the lake.

(Tip: If you’re heading to Rocky Mountain National Park this summer, to be sure to look into the Construction schedule.  Bear Lake Road was under construction while we were there so we made sure to arrive very early in the morning (we got there before 8am!) to avoid long delays.  Thankfully, Mike did quite a lot of research before our trip!)

After walking around Bear Lake, we headed up the trail to Dream Lake (Max Elevation: 9,910 feet) and then to Emerald Lake (Max Elevation: 10,110 feet).

Whereas Bear Lake had light snow and snow drifts, as we climbed higher and higher, the entire ground was covered in dense snow.

It was tricky.  Sometimes the snow was so icy and slick that we’d be sliding around, unable to get a grip.

Other times, it was so loose and slushy (thanks to a sunny day and mild temperatures) that we’d often unexpectedly sink knee-deep into the snow.

Either way, we were glad we had brought hiking sticks with us!

As exhausting and unpredictable as it was, there was one thing about this hike that truly terrified me: the run-off.

With so much snow, it was hard to know exactly where the trail was.  And with so much run-off from the melting snow, there was one time when I looked down and saw a knee-deep foot print from another hiker that ended in running water.  It was then that I realized that instead of a trail underneath my feet, I had just 2 feet of slushy snow separating me from a very cold dip.

But once we reached Dream Lake (pictured above), I knew that this hike was absolutely worth the risks.  Dream Lake will go down in my memory as one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen, and certainly the most beautiful moment of this trip.

 From there, we headed upward still.  And the further up we went, the harder the hike became.  There were long stretches of nothing but steep inclines of slippery, hard-packed snow.  It was so steep, in fact, that on the way down, sometimes it was easiest just to sit & slide!

Whereas Dream Lake had what looked like a few ice cubes floating in the water, Emerald Lake had a nice frosting of ice.

While the scenery at Dream Lake was unforgettable, the wildlife is what I’ll remember about Emerald Lake.

We saw our first ever Marmot (pictured below, left) and dozens of overly friendly Chipmunks.

Before hiking the park, I asked a Ranger if it was okay to bring food along on the hike.  I had read too much about Bears so I wanted to be sure.  Thankfully, the Ranger told me that food was allowed, and even encouraged.  On these busy trails, she said, the only danger would be that a Chipmunk might steal my sandwich.  At Emerald Lake, if I hadn’t kept close watch, that surely would have happened.

While I’d probably be too scared to ever do a hike like that again while the snow was melting , it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done and it taught me that I’m tougher (and luckier) than I knew!


Alpine Zone: Where no Tree can Grow

Highest yet, Mike took us on a drive along Trail-Ridge Road, which was more thrilling than any Roller Coaster.  We were driving along a two-lane road in the sky.  This 48-mile road connects the East and West sides of the park.  The road starts off relatively low, but then the elevation rapidly climbs, culminating at an elevation of 12,183 feet, including more than 11 miles of travel above the treeline (11,500 feet – so high that trees can no longer grow).

The rapid changes in elevation made me queasy, as did the fact that this two-lane road often didn’t have any guard-rails.  We couldn’t believe that there were huge trucks and RVs up there with us, with strong Alpine winds blowing constantly.

(tip: If you’d like to visit Trail-Ridge Road, be sure to check with a ranger to confirm the hours it’s open.  When we were there, the road didn’t open till ~11am each morning, to allow any Black Ice that formed overnight to melt away)

At the top of the road world, there was a short trail that allowed us to get out and explore the Alpine Tundra – a very rare and delicate Eco-System, resembling conditions seen in the Canadian or Alaskan Arctic.  

I found the signs along the trail (pictured below) to be especially interesting.  I’m only sad that the alpine flowers weren’t in bloom when we arrived – in the summer months, miniature sunflowers often cover the ground.

The two facts listed on the bottom especially stuck with me:

-Human Footprints are not easily erased – Heavily trampled alpine areas may require 500 to 1000 years to completely regenerate.

-At their upper limit, trees may grow only an inch in diameter every one hundred years.

Armed with these facts, I became a temporary Captain Planet for my time on the tundra.  I couldn’t believe that despite the signs above, as well as several signs instructing visitors to stay on the trail!, there was a surprising number of people traipsing through the tundra for the sake of a photograph.  

I’m normally pretty shy, but this really upset me and led to me coming out of my shell.  I politely told them that they really shouldn’t be walking on the tundra as it can take hundreds of years to regrow.  Sadly, I’m sure many more visitors followed in their footsteps after we left the area.  I think Nature deserves more respect than that.

Can you believe we were above the Tree Line?

I’m so glad I was able to see the Alpine Tundra, although we weren’t able to stay up there long.  At such a high elevation, both the sun and wind were so intense!

As short as my time on the Tundra was, I’ll always have pictures to remember it by – Pictures I didn’t have to step off of the trail to take!

I’d love to hear from you!

What have you done that’s scared you?

What’s your favorite place or type of scenery to hike in?