We were very excited for our time in Rocky Mountain National Park. We chose to stay just outside the west entrance in the town of Grand Lake.
It was a 5 minute drive from our hotel to the park entrance. However, getting into the park requires a little extra planning during the crowded, summer months.
Without getting too complicated, there are two different park entry passes you can purchase (for $2) each day. The first gives you access to everywhere in the park. The second gives you access to everywhere except the Bear Lake area (the most popular place in the park).
The good thing about only being five minutes from the park entrance is that the park entry passes are only needed after 9:00 am. If you can get into the park before then, you don’t need an entry pass.
Our main goal for the first day was to just enjoy the Trail Ridge Road. It runs through the entire park from Grand Lake to Estes Park.
Entering the park from Grand Lake, which is the less crowded side, was a breeze. Trail Ridge Road starts out in the Kawuneeche valley, which is a prime location for spotting wildlife.
Less than 10 minutes into the drive we spotted several moose wandering through the trees!!
Here’s a picture from further up Trail Ridge Road, looking back at the valley.
Leaving Kawuneeche Valley, Trail Ridge Road winds through forests of ponderosa pine and aspen trees. The road never felt overwhelmingly steep, but the altitude gain was enough to make most of our ears pop. Carter seems to have some kind of immunity to altitude change. Haha!
We spotted some yellow-bellied marmots at the Medicine Bow Curve overlook.
At just over 11,500 feet, this overlook sits right on the tree line and provides the best views of the northern part of the park.
Our next stop was the Alpine Visitor center, which is just up the road from Medicine Bow Curve. At 11,796 feet, it is the highest elevation visitor center in the National Park System.
The view from the back deck of the visitor center revealed some impressive snow fields still lingering from Winter.
After spending some time in the visitor center and Trail Ridge Store, we decided to try our luck at the Alpine Ridge Trail. It is only .7 miles round trip, but the elevation is the real factor. The trail tops out at 12,005 feet!!
The first turnoff after the visitor center is the Gore Range Overlook.
Shortly after leaving Gore Range, we crested the high point of the Trail Ridge Road.
The temperature at this spot is usually around 20 to 30 degrees cooler than in Grand Lake or Estes Park.
We spotted a herd of elk in the alpine tundra section of the road!
The boys’ favorite place on Trail Ridge Road was the Forest Canyon Overlook. Probably because it focuses on some of the park’s glaciers. It is also located within the 11 mile portion of the road that is above treeline. I have to give it to the boys, the views are breathtaking!
We skipped some of the overlooks on the way down Trail Ridge Road because we were all getting hungry. I’m not sure I had to hit the gas pedal more than a couple times all the way to Estes Park!
After a late lunch, we found a parking spot ($2 per hour) and walked the streets of Estes Park. It has plenty of your typical, “touristy” shops, which always seem to take all our money. I’m not sure how that happens. Haha!
It was approaching evening and that meant it was time for us to head back to Grand Lake for the night.
As we were approaching the Alpine Visitor Center, the rain we had been driving through quickly turned into snow pellets. What an experience!
Descending back into Kawuneeche Valley, we came upon some cars pulled over. We slowed down to see what they were looking at and, sure enough, it was another moose!!
The weather forecast for our second full day in the park looked great!! After seeing a couple moose yesterday, we were eager to find out what this day would have in store for us.
We started our day off with a short walk along the Coyote Valley Trail. The trail is right next to the Colorado River and is a great place for seeing wildlife. This was our first moose experience not in a vehicle!!
Just passed the Alpine Visitor Center we experienced our first ever elk jam. I’m not sure that’s an official thing, like a bison jam, but we’re going with it.
A little further up the road we hit the “elk jackpot”!
We did purchase an entry reservation to the Bear Lake area for today. The weather was good and we were ready to tackle the nearly four mile hike to Emerald Lake!
We rode the tram from the park-and-ride area to the Bear Lake Trailhead.
The trail was fairly crowded but there were still times where we had the trail to ourselves.
The first stop on the hike is Nymph Lake. It is only a half mile from the trailhead. However, we quickly realized the entire trail is uphill! That wouldn’t normally be a major issue, but again, the altitude makes it even more challenging.
Here are the altitudes for the viewpoints along the trail:
- Trailhead – 9,475 feet
- Nymph Lake – 9,700 feet
- Dream Lake – 9,905 feet
- Emerald Lake – 10,110 feet
The trail was very well taken care of and had little waterfalls, boulders and mountain views around every turn.
After 1.1 miles of walking and taking breaks to catch our breath, we reached Dream Lake.
All that stood between us and Emerald Lake was another .7 miles and just over 200 feet of elevation gain. It truly was a breathtaking hike……..in more ways than one!
It was worth the effort! Emerald Lake is a beauty!
We even had someone nice enough to take our picture!
We found an unoccupied spot at Emerald Lake and took a few minutes to eat a snack and hydrate. There was a girl contemplating a backflip into the water, but thankfully her friends talked her out of it.
The journey back down took less than half as long and required much less stopping along the way. It was a challenging but wonderful hike that we would highly recommend!
After dinner in Estes Park, we started the journey back over Trail Ridge Road.
There were several cars stopped near the Fall River, so naturally we had to stop too! We were glad we did!
We also stopped at the Many Parks Curve overlook to capture the shadow of the mountains!!
What a couple days it was for the Ramsey crew at Rocky Mountain National Park!!
We did have one more chance to drive the Trail Ridge Road the following day, as it was the quickest route to our next destination.
The wildlife was out in full force!!
It’s time for us to start heading back east!