Camping isn’t so bad (Road Trip Part 3)

Part 1: There and Back Again

Part 2: Bouldering in Boulder

My plan of dividing the blog posts into location rather than day has meant less posts, but so much more writing in between! I might have to reevaluate my plans for the next two parks.

We left off in Boulder. Louie and I wanted to take the scenic route to Rocky Mountain National Park, so we drove from Boulder to Nederland and then took the Peak-to-Peak highway from there. It was only about 1 1/2 to 2 hours drive so we just wanted to arrive in time to set up camp before dark.

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Nederland was a cute but odd town. Evidently it was founded due to the mining boom, and at one time the hotels sold rooms in 8 hour intervals because they were so busy! You would sleep and THAT was it. It seemed (obviously)  less busy now, and more of a weird tourist place where people would buy coffee and ride a merry-go-round. But we filled up on 85 octave gas (took us by surprise at first but then we realized it was due to the altitude…we think…) and continued on our way. We had a plane to catch! Oh wait, no, we had a tent to set up.

The Peak-to-Peak Highway was gorgeous and scenic. I am too chicken to drive on windy mountain roads (I can but I go really slow and hate it) but Louie loves it. So we both had a great time! Once we got close to the park we pulled over at a place called Lily Lake for some views and to stretch our legs. People told us (people, so friendly and helpful!) that there were moose off to the right, so we booked it. And saw two moose, just eating in the brush next to the Lake.

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I didn’t get great pictures of both, but you can kind of see the second one in the background there.

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Also, there were ducks. And mountains and a large lake.

It didn’t take too long before we got to Estes Park and then Rocky Mountain National Park. We opted to purchase the annual America the Beautiful pass which gets you into all national parks and monuments and some more stuff for a year (and it seems, not only a year, but until the end of August next summer!) for $80. I’d added up our plans, and everything on it’s own would cost $90, so we were saving.

Our reservation was for three nights at Glacier Basin Campground. Check in was easy and low key, and we found our site right off the main road. All the pine trees in the area had been cut down due to the pine beetle problem, which left GREAT views, but you had to watch carefully for the stumps which had been left. We were pretty close to the bathroom, which was nice, even though you could hear the hand dryers (no hot water or showers, but yes, hand dryers—I suppose no paper towels and less mess that way!). The bathrooms were nice and clean, and we were warned about bear safety (nutshell, put all the food and cosmetics and toiletries in your car, don’t leave trash around). We set up the tent and got started on dinner…thinking back, we did that so many times it became no big deal, but this first time was really exciting PLUS I didn’t really have the hang of anything so I was pretty stressed about how to cook and get everything done.

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The tent…and what a view!

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The stove. Looks like we were making breakfast here.

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My campsite outfit. I only brought one sweatshirt and one pair of sweatpants because I didn’t realize it would be absolutely freezing all the time.

Oh, right—the COLD. I knew it would be cold in Yellowstone but I wasn’t quite prepared right away, even though I should have been. We made a fire which was nice, and we had awesome cold weather sleeping bags—“mummy bags” because you look like a mummy in them, but they ended up being the greatest thing ever for me. Louie didn’t care for them as much, but I get much colder than he does anyway.

In a nutshell, I should have brought warmer slip-on shoes than flip flops but I did not.

We had two full days in Rocky Mountain National Park. Day 1 plan was: giant hike, of course! I found a hike people recommended online that left from Bear Lake and went to the Fern Lake Trailhead.

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I probably should have considered this elevation profile a bit more. At one point, we did feel like we had been descending for most of the hike…looking at it now I see that was most definitely true.

So: Day 7: we got up early (around 6 am) in order to be ready to catch the shuttle to Bear Lake. Rocky Mountain National Park has an excellent free shuttle system within the park, but it only ran until 7 pm, and we needed to catch another shuttle at the end to get back to the campsite, and wanted to make sure we didn’t miss it! I wasn’t terribly worried as it was a 10 mile hike and that gave us nearly 12 hours—but I am a slow hiker and you just never know.

It looked like the shuttle came directly to our campground but I was mistaken and we had to walk about 1/4 mile down the road and across. Just as we reached the main road we saw our shuttle leaving…luckily they saw us too and stopped to pick us up, saving us 15 minutes plus a little more walking. We were thrilled.

They say Bear Lake Trailhead gets really crowded later in the day but at 7:30 or so we had it much to ourselves. We started out up the trail, loaded down with plenty of water, snacks, and peanut butter sandwiches. We both had walking sticks, backpacks, and of course, our cameras! From the beginning, I couldn’t get over how beautiful the hike was—points of it just didn’t even look real, as if the whole landscape were manufactured in some way.

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Right off the bat we saw a deer (or two, I can’t recall) and of course we saw tons of chipmunks. The trail climbed a bit but wasn’t too bad, and it was just beautiful. We’d had a few layers on to begin with but I didn’t need those for long. A few hikers passed us but mostly it was pretty quiet.

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As we got near the turnoff for Lake Helene we noticed another trail off to the side. We followed it up for some amazing views AND a marmot, who seemed to just be posing for pictures.

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Overall the hike was AWESOME and we had a wonderful time. We saw a variety of lakes, enjoyed amazing scenery, and thoroughly enjoyed our time outdoors. Hiking makes me feel so strong, even when I’m slow! I figure that slow hiking just means a better chance of seeing wildlife.

I wanted to post our lunchtime selfie but it’s upside down…and when I turn it it just gets distorted and stretched. Sigh.

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So the only real downside to the hike was that the last few miles were a little boring…though I’m hardly complaining since it’s really only IN comparison to how amazing the first 7-8 miles were…and then the actual downside was the nearly 1 mile walk from the trailhead to the shuttle stop, which we must have just missed, since we waited about 25 minutes. It was nice to sit down though, and we enjoyed riding around the park on the shuttle. This particular one dropped us off right at our campground so we had a very short walk!

Downside to not having showers—getting back and having no great way to clean up. Thank goodness for wet wipes and cold water? Then it was dinner and relaxing time.

Day 8:

Today was a day I was nervous but excited about. I’d booked us with New Venture Cycling for a downhill bike ride on the Trail Ridge Road. We weren’t sure what to expect, but we knew to dress warmly and meet in Estes Park at the shop at 7:30. Naturally I wanted to allow extra time (I’m nothing if not obscenely prompt/early sometimes) so we got up around 6 am. It was pretty cold at camp, but we had no idea how cold it would be up at 11,000 feet or so, where our trip would start.

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The clouds were so gorgeous that morning. More clouds meant less sun and colder though…

We had a little trouble finding the shop because it was actually behind the address they gave us, but we were still plenty early. Kerry and Brandon got us fitted with bikes and helmets, and the other party arrived. Lucky for us was that we were only 5 people riding so lots of personal attention! The guides were very friendly and incredibly knowledgeable, as learned over the course of the morning.

We headed out in a large van up to Rock Cut, which is around 12,000 feet above sea level. It was VERY cold, windy, and cloudy, but amazing.

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You’d be able to see a lot of mountains if there weren’t so many clouds there.

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The bike riding ended up being REALLY fun! We stopped at several overlooks on the way down so we had plenty of breaks, and honestly, I could have gone much faster than we did (though we went at a fine speed, and it was probably safer!) so it wasn’t like I was struggling to keep up. I was less scared on the bike on the road than I was in the van—that is to say, there was only one time I was scared and that was one place where the road was open on both sides—I took a deep breath and held on tight for that segment! But the road was amazing—the Trail Ridge Road is the highest continuously paved road in the US, and we learned so much from Kerry and Brandon about the park, historically and today, and about trees and wildlife. They were wonderful guides and we couldn’t recommend the tour more highly!

We had a picnic lunch near the bottom, and then continued into Estes Park by bike, so by the end of the morning we felt that we had gotten a really good overview of the park! There was one uphill bit, which was incredibly difficult for me, probably because I was pretty out of bike riding shape plus the altitude, but I made it. We stayed bundled up all the way down the road as well—it did get a little warmer by the end, but never so hot that I even wanted to take to my jacket off!

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After we got back to the car we decided to do a little sightseeing in Estes Park, but the traffic was so bad that we grew tired of it pretty quickly. We enjoyed a good cup of coffee at a place called Ink and Brew, and then decided to head back into the National park and do a shorter hike.

We lucked out and found the only space in the lot at the Glacier Gorge where we headed to “The Loch.” This hike also passed Alberta Falls and was about 6 miles round trip.

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I won’t bore you with poorly written details about the hike, but instead will just share some pictures and tell you it was amazing! I will say this about most of the places we visited on our trip, but I can’t wait to return to Rocky Mountain National Park for a longer visit in the future, or at least for another visit and to do more hiking. There were so many options and so many trails and we just barely scratched the surface.

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Every signpost is a decision. To continue or not to continue, to turn left or to turn right. (This could be a life lesson, but I’m really just talking about hiking.) On this day we had to turn back, but another time we might be able to continue to Sky Pond and Andrews Glacier, who knows! We got back around 6:30/6:45 pm and debated heading into Estes Park to find a shower, but decided we were just too lazy.

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The Loch was gorgeous, possibly the most gorgeous lake we saw the whole time.

So we returned to the campsite for our last night in Glacier Basin Campground. The next morning we would have to leave RMNP and head to Grand Tetons, and we were sad.

In retrospect, my favorite thing about RMNP was the lack of commercialism in the park. No vendors, no lodging, just cheap camping, free shuttles, and nature. It was fantastic. Outside of the park, sure there was plenty of commercialism and lodging and food, but within the confines of the park it really felt like a getaway from all of that, and it was truly wonderful. After all, we all own the national parks, don’t we?

I hope we can get back in the next few years…we didn’t see the west side of the park at all and there are so many more hikes to do. But you’ll see, next is Wyoming, and Wyoming is pretty awesome.