I remember sitting in my fourth grade classroom learning about the Rocky Mountains and all the wildlife, the “fourteeners” and the explorers that barely made it over and some that didn’t. The mountain range that split the continent might has well have been on another planet. To my small town, immature, geographically sheltered brain, I would never make it to even the foothills from which the song was written about so long ago. “For purple mountains majesty”…is how it was penned. There was definitely a reason why Katherine Lee Bates wrote a poem atop one of the highest mountains in the lower 48. She climbed Pikes Peak and was so inspired by her experience that she wrote “Pikes Peak” that would later be set to music and become, “America the Beautiful” the iconic American hymn.
In that fourth grade class, I felt my destiny was only to imagine what it was like to hike through a grove of aspen and spy on a herd of Elk. I could read about the crisp mountain air laced with pine scents in books, but I never thought it was a possibility that a little small town southern girl would hike these same alpine forests . So when we decided almost on a whim to visit Rocky Mountain National Park this summer. It was a dream come true for me.
There was just one little hitch. It was Fourth of July Weekend. Who in their right mind visits one of the most coveted National Parks on the busiest days of the year. Definitely not this family. We avoid scenes like these like the plague. We’re usually the family that stays home specifically because everyone else isn’t. Traffic, crowds and competition for parking spaces are not the ingredients that magical memories are made of. But alas, we were an hour from Rocky Mountain National Park. How could we NOT go! So we packed up summer clothes, winter clothes, change of clothes and our refrigerator and headed out to make a grown woman’s childhood dream come true. My job as we traveled the hour it took to get to the park was to monitor traffic. Thirty minutes into our journey, we became very disheartened to see that the GPS still indicated there was an hour left in the trip. We all know what that means. MAJOR TRAFFIC!! I mean really, why should we be surprised? So an hour trip ended up taking an hour and thirty minutes, no biggie.
And so we enter Estes Park. Such a sweet little welcoming city for the park. The road to Estes Park is a winding arid canyon that is more reminiscent of the Grand Canyon than the Rockies. But then you gain elevation until finally you crest and gaze into the valley below that is Estes Park. Think Gatlinburg meets Aspen. It has all the kitsch of Gatlinburg with the pretention of Aspen. Lets put it this way. I’m sure you can get an airbrushed t-shirt here and wear it to a white tablecloth Gastropub. But it is cute and quaint and welcoming to its 2.7 million adventure seeking visitors it hosts per year.
After rolling S-L-O-W-L-Y through the city we finally came to the park entrance. Would you believe that I didn’t get a picture of my mug in front of the Rocky Mountain National Park sign? Yes, the traffic was that bad. We were afraid to get out of line for fear that no one would let us back in. Oh well, a reason to come back! Here’s a stock pic so you don’t feel gypped.
Well, maybe you still feel gypped…
So the traffic was so bad that we decided to pull over at the first visitors center we came to. Come to find out, parking is horrendous, even on the lightest of days. But someone was smiling down on us and we actually happened upon the first spot in the lot closest to the visitors center. We decided to wait it out with a picnic on the grounds of the Beaver Meadows Visitors center. There was a ranger standing at the front door answering all sorts of questions and I overheard her say that the park starts to clear at around 2pm on regular weekend days. We just hoped July 4th might be a cousin to one of those weekend days. So we sat on a blanket and ate our lunch and even met a French family. We let our kids play together and learn french words as the park cleared.
And just like that at 2pm, the park did begin to show signs of clearing. So we hopped in the van and set out on our long awaited RMNP adventure!
We had not been moving forward but five minutes when we saw the first place we wanted to pull over. A clearing with a mountain stream with a walkway built through it. We would find out later that this was a favorite moose feeding ground. The walkway was not precarious enough for my crew. They wanted to get their hands and feet dirty. Two out of three left this stop just a little dirty while one left completely soaked from a fall which fully submerged her to the point of needing a change (glad I’m a planner) of clothes.
So we go onward and upward. And I mean upward. We had ascended to about 7,000 feet when it started raining, then SLEETING. We were so high that the sleet had not had time to melt before hitting the ground. Now that’s a cool thing to experience on Independence Day! Suddenly, the clouds part and it’s a sunny July day again. Our 2006 Odyssey does her job and climbs and climbs to about 9,000 feet when we see a gorgeous view complete with a chance to climb to the top of a rocky tundra. We pulled over and proceeded to climb…
until we crest.
And what a glorious moment it was.
What I neglected to mention is that my hubby was severely affected by the altitude (which I gauged to be about 10,500) and had to stop several times. After a brief rest, he would be fine and then begin to climb again. And we had a scary moment when Rosco, our fur baby began to stumble and couldn’t stand for a time. I could not even imagine having to carry either him OR my hubby down the mountain. He too recovered quickly after descending a bit. It is amazing to me that it does not matter how fit you are, the altitude is a whole different animal. It can bring an Iron Man to his knees.
We did get to spend some time at the top and enjoy what felt like the top Heaven. I like to imagine that we were the first humans that ever touched these parts but of course I know thats isn’t true. There have been a few times I have felt this free and like this moment was made just for me and my family. The first time was standing at the foot of Yosemite Falls, the second was staring into the Caldera at Crater Lake and the third was viewing Gods sculpted handiwork in Rocky Mountain National Park.
We then descended and proceeded with our route to our destination for the day which was the Alpine Visitors Center. On our way we were treated with spotting a herd of elf grazing on the tundra. I tried to get pictures but they were very elusive on this day. We made it to the center which I expected to be the highlight of the day. To no avail, it was probably the biggest surprise in that there was nothing more than a gift shop, a cafe and an overlook that paled in comparison to what we had just seen. There was this and then the fact that the Alpine Visitors Center is where I believe everyone had in mind for their destination that day. IT WAS PACKED almost elbow to elbow and I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. A wind had also picked up which made the 43 degrees we were feeling much colder. Needless to say, we didn’t stay long and turned back for our trek down the mountain.
Well, we couldn’t get enough of what we had seen on Independence Day so we decided to go back the next day. But this time it wasn’t quite as crowded. This day we headed for one of the lakes not far from the entrance. We took a chance on parking and again got a good spot fast. We then began our stroll around Bear Lake.
It rained on and off for the first hour so we had to get creative with finding shelter. But then the sun came out and it was gorgeous!
We completed the easy .6 mile loop and decided it was best to take it easy today because some tempers were better than others. Unfortunately, we had to turn back from our start to Dream Lake. Our 4 year olds “legs suddenly didn’t work”. Imagine this in a whiny tone, and now you know why we didn’t go any farther.
It is incredible to me that we spent two days in RMNP and didn’t even begin to touch how much there is to do there. There are over 350 miles of trails to waterfalls, lakes and alpine tundra views just waiting to be explored. I’m just so thankful that we took a chance and began to realize a dream for me that was a long time coming. Now, I can’t wait to go back. Maybe this time we’ll try our luck on Labor Day!