Across The Rocky Mountain National Park

We spent the day driving on the Trail Ridge Road from one end of Rocky Mountain National Park to the other – from Grand Lake in the west to Estes Park in the east. The total distance covered was only about 50 miles, but we did make a few stops and do a lot of walking along the way. It was another exciting day!

We arrived at the Kawuneeche Visitor Center, at the western end of Trail Ridge Road, as they were opening up for the day – got some information about the trails to explore, watched a video about the park, and then headed into the park. I had forgotten to bring my senior pass with me, but I had kept a receipt for it on me – just in case! The park ranger at the actual entrance to the park was kind enough to let us into the park after seeing the receipt without our having to pay an entrance fee for the day. She actually did not have to accept the receipt because it was missing some of the information she needed.

We traveled north in the broad Kawuneeche Valley for the first section of the drive, stopping at Harbison Meadows to take a couple of pictures. The Colorado River flows through the meadows. There was a crew of rangers out in the meadows doing some work.The mountains were still in the distance at this point.

The valley narrowed as we drove further north, with the peaks of the Never Summer Mountains rising up to our west. At one point we had the option to stop at a pullout area and start hiking along the Colorado river on the Colorado River Trail – towards a point very close to the river’s actual headwaters. We had considered doing this initially, but ended up not having time. We reached a point in the drive where the road began to climb and switchback its way up the side of a mountain on the eastern side of the valley. At the last of a series of switchbacks, at a pullout up on the mountainside, we got this view of the valley.If you examine the picture carefully, you can almost see the road that we had been driving on in the valley. The Colorado river itself is merely a stream, and is barely visible.

Our first stop was at Milner Pass (10759 feet). The ranger at the visitor center had recommended our walking along the Continental Divide towards Mount Ida from this location. The parking lot at the pass was already full when we arrived. We had to park at a smaller lot further along the road and walk back along the road to get to the start place for the hike.You can see the parking lot for Milner Pass in this picture, beyond the lake in the foreground. The lake is called Poudre Lake.

Unfortunately, once we arrived at the parking lot that was our original destination, I led the team onto the wrong trail. I only figured out that we were going the wrong way after a little while – as we were traversing a meadow.Although the start of this trail had looked well used, we had encountered no other people along the way. Also, we had not seen any official trail markings anywhere.

We had to return to the Milner Pass parking area and restart our hike. We had actually already walked a significant distance by then.

The hike took us immediately up the mountainside. It was quite a steep climb. Since we were also starting out from a high altitude. the going was tough.We arrived at a point where the trail split in two directions, one leading to the Alpine Visitor Center, and the other taking us in the direction of Mount Ida. There was a warning attached to the trail sign to watch out for the weather if one were headed in the direction of Mount Ida. The weather could change quickly in these parts and one would be walking in the open, above the tree line, for the latter part of the hike. If one were caught in a storm, including perhaps lightning, there would be no place to take shelter. We had been warned that there was the possibility of inclement weather later in the day. We wanted to complete the hike before that time.

The climb never got easy! The vegetation started thinning out as our elevation increased,and at some point we made it above the tree line. The Never Summer Mountains loomed to the west of the valley below us.

At one point we thought that we were close to the ridge line of the Continental Divide itself, but we arrived at that locationonly to see that there was still some more significant climbing involved in order to reach the top of the ridge.

We continued our slog higher up the side of the ridge. We then arrived at the highest point on the ridge that we had seen from the bottom of this stretch of the ridge, thinking that we had reached the top,only to find out that there was still quite a climb left if one actually wanted to get to the top of the Continental Divide, and that the trail in fact continued along the side of the ridge rather than along its top.

We regrouped. We had some snacks to restore our energy, and then turned to head back to the trailhead at Milner Pass. We had to leave the climb all the way to Mount Ida for another day. According to my GPS device we had climbed up to 11,620 feet. In my estimation, Mount Ida was still more than a mile away. It is at an elevation of over 12,800 feet. I was not sure about our ability to handle the additional climb at this elevation, even though the climb beyond this section appeared to be a more gradual one. Besides, we had expended additional energy with the walking at Milner Pass itself.

The hike back to Milner Pass, and to our car, was much quicker than the attempted climb up to the Continental Divide.We walked back along the road to the place where we had parked the car, and then drove to a picnic area at Lake Irene to consume our packed lunch. We had expended at lot of energy on this walk even though it had not been that long. Some of us were hangry!

We continued driving eastward into the park on the Trail Ridge Road. Since we had crossed the Milner Pass at a relatively high elevation, I thought that we were already into the high areas of the park. But I was wrong. The road kept climbing and soon we were up in the alpine tundra region of the park. I did not realize how vast this space was until I experienced it. In these wide open spaces, one can see enormous distances along the mountainsides – for miles and miles. The tiny path of the road ahead of us, gaining elevation, looked quite minuscule and insignificant in scale when seen along the side of the massive mountain range. I was awestruck.

At Medicine Bow Curve we could see that the road was headed still higher up the hillside after the switchback.

This is what I saw at the switchback after Medicine Bow Curve up on the mountain. (You can actually see the switchback in the middle of the previous picture.) This picture also shows the road that we had already traveled on on our way from Milner Pass. It is to the right of the picture.

(The lighting was not ideal for the above pictures. You might have to click on the pictures to open them up and actually see the roads on the mountainsides.)

From the location where the above picture was taken, I could also barely make out a building on what looked like a saddle between two mountains. That was my first sight of the Alpine Visitor Center, at an elevation of 11,796 feet. It is the National Park Service’s highest visitor center.

We arrived at the Alpine Visitor Center parking lot, and for the first time got a full appreciation for the magnitude of the crowds visiting the park.The big parking lot mostly full and you had to drive around to find an available spot.

We first tackled the Alpine Ridge Trail that ran up the hill next to the visitor center.
It was difficult climbing because of the elevation, but I did not feel it as bad as at Mount Evans.You could not see the actual top of this hill from the visitor center. You got a surprise when you got to where you thought the climb ended – when you suddenly realized that there was some more to go! Fortunately, this last section of the hike was not as steep as the earlier one.

Along the side of this trail was a wayside display that explained why it was more difficult to climb at this altitude, and the kind of behaviors that one could expect from a person suffering from the effects of altitude sickness. I could not help thinking that this was a perfect location for teaching young people. They should be busing school kids to the visitor center and taking them up the mountain so that they can experience and get more practical knowledgeable about the realities of our physical world.

Here is a view from the top of the mountain.The mountain had a flat top, and its elevation topped out at 12.005 feet.

Back at the level of the visitor center, you could also see the western terminus of the Old Fall River Road that also ran across the park. It is a one-way, mostly dirt, road that can only be driven in the east to west direction today, and it runs in the valley between the mountain ridges, one of the ridges being the one we were going to continue our drive on. Here is a picture of the road climbing from the valley to the level of the visitor center.We would encounter the Fall river once again later in the town of Estes Park. Both of the roads through the park are closed in winter.

After the somewhat obligatory shopping at the gift shop in the visitor center, we continued the drive eastward along the Trail Ridge Drive. We made a few stops along the way at different viewpoints. We crossed the highest point on the road at 12,183 feet. There was a herd of elk at one point along the road that brought traffic to a standstill. We pulled off the road into a parking lot to see the animals.

Here is a sweeping view of the mountains from the Forest Canyon Pullout. Mount Ida can actually be seen in the distance, towards the right side of the picture.

The drive in the alpine tundra section of the park, above the tree line, came to an end at Rainbow Curve (elevation 10,875 feet). Here is a picture of the valley below as seen from that viewpoint.The road was about to start descending into the valley beyond this point.We could see a spectacular rainstorm happening in the distance.There were also chipmunks at the parking lot that kept us entertained.We remembered these animals from our previous trip to the park.

Rainbow Curve was the location at which our attempt to explore the western side of the park had stopped during our previous visit to the park – due to unexpected snowfall early in the season in the mountains.

We had just descended into the valley (on the road seen in one of pictures above) when we came to an area where all traffic had come to a standstill. People were stopping their cars on the narrow road and getting out to look at something by the roadside. There did not seem to be any park official around to maintain order. As we crawled along, we finally got a glimpse of what had caught people’s attention. It was a moose! We had made a few trips to parks out west, and this would be a first moose sighting for us. I found a place beyond the crowds where there was place to pull over safely, and got out of the car and walked back to the place where we had sighted the animal.

The moose was sitting quietly amongst the vegetation chewing on the greenery. It appeared to be completely oblivious to the excitement that its presence had caused.

Our last stop in the park was at a big meadow (elevation about 8500 feet) that was said to be a good location for bird watching, and for looking for longhorn sheep. We found neither. There was the solitary elk sitting in the meadow in the distance. It looked quite relaxed!

From the meadow, off to the west, we could see the opening in the mountains through which the Old Fall River Road runs. Perhaps we will have an opportunity to drive on that road some future day.

We could also see Rainbow Curve from this point. That was the location in the mountains from which we had seen this meadow for the first time. I had also taken pictures of the meadow from Rainbow Curve.

We drove further east, out of the park, and into the outskirts of the town of Estes Park, soon after we left the meadows. Our motel turned out to be a charming place, sprawled out on a property beside the road, accessed by a short covered bridge over Fall River. The motel property also included a short trail beside the river. There was some exploration to be done the next morning.

After all the events of the previous day. including the late night, I was happy to end the activities of this day somewhat early. We headed out towards the center of Estes Park for dinner. Memories of our previous trip came flooding back as we entered the central area of town. It is a very touristy place, and not very inviting. There was no room at our first choice of restaurant this evening, but we did manage to find another nice place to eat. After dinner, we walked over to the river running behind the shops. Fall river feeds into the Big Thomson River in town. Big Thomson River also originates in the park, and it runs through the valley that we had seen from Forest Canyon Pullout earlier in the day.

After dinner, we took a detour to try to locate the motel we had stayed in during our previous trip. The mission was successful. We then drove back to our motel for a relaxed evening. I was able to crash out at a reasonable time.

We have managed to explore just a tiny part of what Rocky Mountain National Park has to offer during our two trips to the park. There is so much of hiking and exploration that remains to be done. Surely one must return!

A Day Of Travel And Adventure

This was probably the most eventful day of this whole trip. Our destination for the end of the day was Grand Lake (elevation 8369 feet), located at the western entrance to the Rocky Mountain National Park. There were a couple of options under consideration for the route to get us there. Either way, we would head out west into the mountains on Interstate-70 for the initial part of the drive, but once on the highway, there were two different options to consider to get us to Grand Lake. One route was shorter than the other. Our decision would depend on the time at our disposal. We ended up taking the longer route.

Our first destination for the day, Mount Evans (elevation 14258 feet) had been chosen just the previous evening, at the last minute, after hearing about the plans that friends had to visit the place. They were going to try to see the sunrise. That was much too early for us. We could perhaps get to the Fourteener later in the morning. (My original thought had been to instead stop at Berthoud Pass, a pass that has been, and still is, notoriously difficult to traverse – on the shorter route to Grand Lake.)

The morning started just like the one before, with a sighting of the dawn.

We first stopped at the local AAA office near our hotel to get a paper map of Colorado in case we had networking and/or GPS issues during our travel. We also stopped at the Safeway grocery store for lunch items, and also for Dramamine for the road. After a check of tire pressures at the gas station, we were on our way!

We were still climbing into the mountains when we exited I-70 at Idaho Springs (elevation 7526 feet) and then headed southwest on highway 103 towards Mount Evans. After entering the park just beyond Echo Lake,we started our drive up the road to the top of the mountain. Wow, wow, wow! This road, about 14 miles long, tops off at 14,140 feet, near the top of Mount Evans – climbing into the open spaces of the alpine tundra, above the treeline, and traversing many spectacular mountain sides, clinging to the mountainsides, dangerously in some places, and even passing a beatiful mountain lake (a tarn), before reaching its destination. Note that Echo Lake, where the road starts its climb up the mountains is at only about 10,600 feet. This road to the top is claimed to be the highest paved road in North America (and 5th highest in the world). It is clear that the road is a difficult one to maintain. It is closed in winter. While climbing up the mountain, it quickly becomes a narrow road without a divider, with sections where vehicles have to pass each other with extreme caution. There is no protective wall on the side to prevent one from tumbling over the mountainside. The condition of the road as it passes Summit Lake is extremely poor, with huge potholes, and the pavement itself undulating up and down in a dangerous way. This section has to be passed very carefully.

We arrived at the parking area near the top of the mountain to find ourselves in a fog. The temperature had fallen quite significantly by now, and there was snow around us. There was an open structure beside the parking lot.

We explored this area quickly and used the restroom. There was an observatory nearby that we could not even see at that point. We then started climbing to the actual top of the mountain on foot. The conditions were a little dicey, but, having gotten this far, we were determined to finish this last section. I was having trouble breathing. I needed to take it slow and easy.
The exposed rocks, fortunately, had a good grip!

We managed to get to the top safely. It was still misty – but the fog gradually began to lift.A spectacular view opened before our eyes. Here is a picture including Summit Lake (elevation 12840 feet).This is the geological marker at the top of the mountain.

It cleared up enough that we could see the observatory as we walked down from the mountain top.

We made a few stops driving back down the mountain. I got a picture of a Yellow Belied Marmot at one of our early stops.This is the view from the place where we saw the marmot.

This is a picture of Summit Lake.Interestingly, the park here is owned by the City of Denver, and they charge you for its use. Apparently the Denver Mountain Parks system is an over 14,000 acre collection of parks in different parts of Colorado.

We had lunch at Echo Lake, and then got back on the road to Idaho Springs. At Idaho Springs, we headed west on I-70 towards the town of Silverthorne.

It was at the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial tunnels on the highway (highest elevation 11,158 feet) that we ran into our first unexpected situation. This is the highest point on the Interstate system in the United States, and it is among the highest vehicular tunnels in the world. As we were emerging from the tunnel, we saw a sign just outside that warned about ice on the road, and cautioned drivers to slow down. We had entered the tunnel in a location where it had been sunny and dry, and we were not prepared for what happened next – in spite of the sign. As we exited the tunnel, we hit a patch of rough pavement, and felt and saw the snow around us. We were coming into a gradual curve, and I had to steady myself. I could not panic! Fortunately, the tires found their grip on the road surface, between the patches of snow, on a clear twin path that had been created by vehicles that that previously exited the tunnel. There was an official vehicle with its emergency lights beside the road, and another vehicle seemed to have smashed into the side of the hill next to the road. It was snowing! Everything slowed down. I sneaked a look at the thermometer in the car. It was 38°F outside.

The roadway was a mess for a few miles after this. The pavement was flooded in parts. The road spray from the 18 wheelers on the other side of the highway was flying over the divider and onto our windshield, temporaily blinding us. We ourselves were in danger of hydroplaning and losing traction in some sections that were waterlogged. By this time the rain also was coming down in sheets, in bursts, and visibility was also suboptimal. Our vehicle was heavy enough to hold steady. I proceeded with caution. The good thing was that traffic was light. We made it safely through this section.

The weather had cleared up by the time we got to Silverthorne, but there were threatening clouds in the direction of the mountains. It was still cold.

The sun was out as we headed north on route 9 in the direction of Kremming. Just before we reached Kremming, we turned off the main road and headed west on Trough Road, a part of the Colorado River Headwaters National Scenic Byway. We followed this mostly dirt road till we got to the Gore Valley Overlook, where we could see the Colorado River flowing below us.
Having followed the Colorado river all along its flow. all the way into Arizona, during previous trips, I was appreciative of seeing this section of the river also.

The railroad line running through the canyon is a historical one. It is part of the earliest railroad connection across the Rocky Mountains between the east and west of the continent, and this is part of the section between Denver and Salt lake City. This line includes the historical Moffat Tunnel. Amtrak’s California Zephyr still runs on this line.

We headed back to the main road towards Kremming. We drove further north on route 9. Once we reached Kremming (elevation 7313 feet), we made a right turn onto Highway 40 to head east towards the town of Granby (elevation 7935 feet). Our route paralleled the Colorado river and the railroad line during this part of the drive. The skies looked threatening ahead of us, and we did encounter some rain.

It was in a section of the road that ran through a canyon that we had our second unexpected event of the day. It seems like the rains had losened up rocks along the canyon wall. We would come across small rocks randomly littering the road, in small enough number to not be of great concern. There were signs along the road that indicated the presence of the rock falls. We were managing the driving quite nicely until we came upon a section of the road where the attempt to avoid driving over the rocks resulted in one of the bigger rocks going right under the car. It seemed small enough to fit under the front end of the car – and it did. Unfortunately, we also heard a loud bang from under the car. It was an “Oh, crap!” moment to put it lightly, but the car continued to drive properly after the event. We thought we had made it OK. Soon after that encounter, we arrived at the turnoff from route 40 onto route 34 towards the town of Grand Lake. As we approached our destination, the sounds from below the car bagan to get more obvious, especially to the nervous driver. When we reached our destination I looked under the car. A piece of plastic has come loose and was dragging along the ground.

There was no way that we were going to go any further in this car. The area in which we had ended up was far off beaten path and I did not think I would be able to find a place to fix the problem anywhere close by. While the others checked into our cabin for the night, I made a call to the rental company. They quickly decided that the only way to resolve the problem was to get us a new car. They had to find a place from which to send it to us. They would also take the damaged car back with them. They indicated that they would address the problem within 8 hours! We were to be contacted as soon as they figured out the details. This sounded good!

Meanwhile, we headed out into town for dinner.It was a small place, and one could walk from one end of town to the other other in a matter of minutes. The place seemed to be set up for the tourists, but this traffic tends to be seasonal in these parts. The entrance to the western end of the Trail Ridge Road across the Rocky Mountain National Park was nearby, but this road is closed during the winter time.

After dinner, we took a detour to look at Grand Lakeand then headed back to our cabin.

While we were out in town, I got several messages related to our car problem. The person calling the first time seemed to be confused about what problem they were addressing, and where they were supposed to go. Soon after I corrected that issue, I got a text message that the problem would be addressed in half-an-hour. A company had been found to send me my replacement car and to take the old one away. I then got a call from the person who was actually going to bring out my new car. It was going to take about three hours, not the half hour that was initially promised. The person had to drive to the Denver Airport to get the new car since there was no agency of the rental company closer by that could be of use.

While the others settled in to try to get some sleep, I sat up in the living room awaiting my new car. It took more than the three hours promised for the towing company to arrive with the new car. The person doing the car exchange was very professional. He got the job done quickly and quietly without disturbing the people in the neighboring cabins. He was smart enough to do the unloading of the new car from the tow truck, and the loading of the damaged car onto the tow truck, on the main road, away from our sleeping neighbors. I was impressed by how he got the job done.

It was about 11:30pm by the time I could get to bed. It had been a long day and I was super-tired.

But the trip could also go on as originally planned! Things turned out OK in the end – except for perhaps a bill for damages that I could expect, and take care of later. The number of different things that one was exposed to on that long and exciting day made for a very memorable episode in the life of one Mr. Joseph of Planet Earth.

I slept well!