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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!