Rocky Mountain Dreamin’

By Jack Olson

Moraine Park
The Big Thompson River flows through Moraine Park.
© Jack Olson

I sure hope you’re planning to attend the RMOWP conference in Rocky Mountain National Park in September. It’s stunning, inspiring, magical. That’s just a few adjectives. Supply your own when you come. I taught up there for about a dozen years at the RMOWP photo workshop and I figure I’ve been in the park two hundred or more times.

There are some must-see features in Rocky. Each could be experienced in one day or part of a day. I’ve done a good bit of backpacking, and climbed Longs Peak, but let’s just think of drives or short hikes. Or buttonhole me at the conference and I’ll overwhelm you with tales of the back country.

Well, everyone goes to Bear Lake, elevation 9,450 feet, sometimes too many. In the busiest months the park has a shuttle to take you there. The shuttle runs until October 8. There’s a 0.7 mile trail around the lake, with knock-your-socks-off views of Hallett Peak and Longs Peak. There are side trails to other lakes connecting from Bear Lake. It may not be quite as crowded in September but expect to meet several fellow citizens.

Bear Lake © N Showalter
Bear Lake with Longs Peak in the distance. © Nic Showalter (RMOWP Photo Workshop 2014)

I really like Sprague Lake, down the road from Bear Lake. You can take a shuttle there but it has a big parking area and often you can drive to it. There’s a 0.8 mile trail around the lake, which is located at 8,700 feet. If you walk to the east side of the lake and look west there’s a sweeping view of the Continental Divide. Get there at sunrise and you will ooh and aah. It’s possible you could even see a moose out there, or a fisherman on the lake.

Let’s go a little lower where the valley opens up to Moraine Park. There are a multitude of opportunities in this big meadow. For one thing, there may be elk. But if there are elk there will also be a multitude of photographers. It goes with the territory. One of the major rivers in the park is the Big Thompson, which separates the meadow from the west end. Here’s a hint: there is a photogenic clump of trees at the west end of the meadow.

One more feature before we go up to where the air is thin. Go over to Horseshoe Park and take the short road to the Alluvial Fan. The Roaring River had been a peaceful stream until 1982 when an earthen dam far above collapsed. Screaming down the canyon the waters killed three campers and flooded downtown Estes Park, causing heavy damage. The torrent pried out enormous boulders upstream and then dropped them when they hit the level Horseshoe Park. These boulders, some as big as cars, now form the Alluvial Fan and the waters of the Roaring River tumble over them in fascinating patterns. Shorts trails from east and west parking areas lead to a viewpoint. There is a wonderful picnic ground on the west side among stately, yes stately, ponderosa pines.

But here’s what you came for. If you do nothing else, you must drive up Trail Ridge Road. This is the signature feature of the park. Yellowstone has Old Faithful, the Black Hills have Mount Rushmore, Death Valley has heat. Rocky Mountain National Park has Trail Ridge Road. It’s 48 miles from Estes Park on the east to Grand Lake on the west. Eleven breath-taking miles are above timberline, where jagged peaks roll in all directions. It’s rocks and tundra, and snow much of the year. The high point of the road is over 12,000 feet above sea level. With your feet on the ground you’ve seldom been able to see this far in all directions. Take along the Park Service map and see if you can identify twenty or thirty mountains.

Badger © B Gutierrez
Badger in Rocky Mountain NP. © Beto Gutierrez – 2nd Pl. Image from Last Conf., RMOWP Photo Contest 2009

In summer, and maybe early fall, you may find elk in the tundra, and even some bighorn sheep. Marmots scramble around doing funny marmot things up here. Look for them especially at the Forest Canyon viewpoint and Rock Cut. There’s also a nice trail uphill from Rock Cut. As you continue on you drop a little in elevation past other viewpoints. The Alpine Visitor Center has exhibits on high elevation nature, a gift shop and snack bar, restrooms, and views in all directions. There’s also a trail to 12,000 feet.

Going west stop at Medicine Bow Curve with views into Wyoming. You’re also closer to the Never Summer Range on the west boundary of the park. You’ll soon get back into the forest and cross the Continental Divide at Milner Pass. You can drop down and travel along the headwaters of the Colorado River. Look for moose in this area. Trail Ridge Road leaves the park at Grand Lake.

But as sunset approaches, let’s go back up to Rock Cut and its wide-open views in all directions. You can run every which way to get the setting sunlight hitting peaks all around. Be sure to look at Longs Peak. There are rocks on the south side of the cut which frame the peak or provide excellent foreground. Or hike the trail uphill where there are interesting rock formations. And if the clouds are right, in the west you might get spectacular color over the Never Summer Range.

Go back down. Go to bed. Have sweet dreams.