Rocky Mountain National Park is in my blood. My parents vacationed there while my mother was pregnant with me and I’d like to think that all the lovely sights, smells, and sense of freedom my mother experienced, passed down to me. I was hooked. I’m incredibly privileged that many summers of my childhood were spent at Grand Lake and the Rocky Mountain National Park. Hiking at Bowen and Baker trail, climbing the rocks at the Alluvial Fan, and having picnics at Lake Irene compose only a portion of my memories. Not to mention the uncountable marmots, pika, moose, and elk I have spotted throughout my many visits. I’ve found myself living in Colorado as an adult and getting to re-experience those trails and memories with a grateful and happy mindset. Rocky Mountain National Park is one of my favorite places in the world, and yet, while I live in the same state as this glorious landscape, I don’t visit as often as I would like (what can I say, that I-70 traffic is a real deterrent). But, this last Sunday, I drove through the entire Rocky Mountain National Park and joy infused my soul.
I hoped the first weekend in October would be prime time to view the gorgeous gold of the aspen leaves and thankfully I was right. Those lovely trees held out for me and my eyes and throughout the whole journey I exclaimed over and over, “Wow”, “It’s so beautiful!”, and “Look at that tree! Now look at that one!” Years past, I would try to see fall colors the third weekend in September, between the 20th and 25th generally, because that’s when the leaves up in the mountains seemed to be at their peak. But with global warming, I think the timeline has shifted somewhat, and the first weekend in October was still spectacular. Honestly, you could probably go up this upcoming weekend too and see lots of beautiful color, many of the aspen in the lower elevations still sported green leaves.
So last Sunday, Shari, Elisabeth, and I spent 10 hours driving from Denver to the park and back again. We entered on the Estes Park side and came out through the Grand Lake side. I know that’s a long drive but if you have the stamina and a day off, it’s completely worth it. At least twice in your life, you traverse the entire park – once in the summer and once in the fall.
Even if the park had zero fall colors, I still would have enjoyed myself. As you enter the park via the Fall River entrance, a meadow known as Sheep Lakes greets you on your left. The meadow is enclosed by mountains that you will soon work your way up. The Alluvial Fan is toward your right, and even though flooding back in 2013 caused extensive damage to the trails and the bouldering area, it’s worth a visit. If you don’t have time to stop, however, no worries, you can see it from an overlook as you start gaining elevation as you head to the tundra. There are lots of places to pull over and enjoy the view and many areas have decent sized parking lots. Take your time and stop as often as you like (which, if you’re me, is often. Everywhere you look is beautiful so it pays to stop!). The sheer number of giant mountains that fill your vision is incredible and is worth appreciation and a moment to pause and soak it in. The scenery is so expansive, so wide, that a photo cannot capture it all. I find it’s generally best to put the phone or camera down after you’ve taken a couple of pictures. The changing aspen are amazing and the mountain ranges are striking, so savor the moment with all of your attention.
There are less aspen, and trees, as you climb, but the views continue to mesmerize and you know you’ll see more on the other side of the park so it’s not an overwhelming sadness. The tundra itself is fascinating once you get there and it’s here that you’ll see peak after peak and realize you stand in the middle of a mountain realm. A handful of short hikes along the tundra gives one the opportunity to see the dedicated and delicate plants that call this place home. These plants take years, sometimes decades, to grow and flower so watch your step. And if you’re lucky, you’ll get to see adorable pika and goofy marmots. On this trip I only saw a pika’s furry behind but that I felt excited even with that.
Soon you’ll find yourself at the Alpine Visitor’s Center where you can climb the stairs to the top of the Alpine Ridge Trail and take in yet another breathtaking view. The trail is tough on the lungs because of the elevation, so take your time and take breaks as needed. An elevation sign marks the path’s finish so you can choose to celebrate with a victory dance or just pause a moment and take lots of deep breaths. Regardless what action you choose, feel proud that you made it.
The road down to Grand Lake is, for the most part, just as beautiful as the road up. Overlooks continue to be available and plenty of picnic areas dot the land as soon as you are in lower elevations. Many bright yellow aspen waved hello to us as we drove. We saw one or two red aspen as well, they stood tall and alone from the others as if to point out their grandiosity. At one point, we stopped at a pull off because of a splendid stand of aspen trees that shone in the light. You know, there are a handful of experiences in the world that invoke the feeling of magic. Watching golden aspen leaves waft to the ground as you listen to the remaining leaves quake, with no one else around you, is one of those experiences. Standing under those tall trees, so your field of vision is completely golden, fills you with a sense of peace that only nature can provide. Those are the moments when you know this is where you’re meant to be. Those are the moments when you know that life is ok and will be ok. I think that’s why I love this park and the Rocky Mountains so much. This land gives me that feeling every time I visit. I cherish those times and those feelings of true harmony.
With that said, as we drove past Onahu trailhead, my heart sank. Last year’s fires have devastated so much of the land. I have never seen such destruction before and I felt like a part of my being had been ripped away from me. I have memories of these places, these meadows, these trails, and seeing the trees burned and bent and naked…well, I cannot accurately describe the sadness I felt. It was terrible. I love this park, and seeing parts of it in its damaged state is heart breaking. It is a very vivid reminder of why we must fight global warming and climate change. I want to be able to keep coming back to the park year after year, to experience and share it’s beauty. I hope that I can.
Currently, the park requires cars to reserve an entry time. I reserved mine a month in advance (the earliest you can) so I’m not sure how difficult it is to reserve a day or two ahead of time. It looks like they may have switched up the reservation system with the colder weather coming in. The reservation costs $2 and then it costs an additional $25 to get into the park for one day. Bring a couple of friends or family members with you like I did and split the cost. We only used a quarter tank of gas too so the trip is fairly inexpensive overall. We stopped in Grand Lake to walk around, enjoy the water, and eat a bit before heading back home. Shout out to Grand Lake Chocolates for still having my favorite caramel apples ever.
Whenever you go and however far you’re able to drive into it, any visit to the Rocky Mountain National Park will be valuable. And if you are mindful and take the time to pause, maybe you’ll have a magical moment too.
Check out all the parts of Colorado I like in my Colorado section.