Rocky Mountain National Park: 5 Family-Friendly Hikes

In our family, life in the seventies unfolded to a revolving soundtrack of the Carpenters, Barry Manilow, and Neil Diamond. Some of my earliest memories are of my mom setting the record player needle onto vinyl just so, my dad singing and stomping to “Sweet Caroline.” I’d spend whole afternoons rifling through our album collection, pulling records from sleeves to hand to my mom. I remember one album in particular–a bespectacled, long-haired John Denver on the cover, guitar in hand–a greatest hits compilation. I may not have understood who Annie was or the significance of those country roads, but there was an earnestness to Denver’s voice that moved me even then. Listening to “Rocky Mountain High” with the kids decades later at Rocky Mountain National Park was like traveling back in time, linking past and present. Like coming full circle and going home. Wandering a few miles of RMNP’s trails, those lyrics came alive like never before. Hiking felt like catching a small glimpse of Denver’s heart.              

  1. Bear Lake Loop (0.8 miles)

If you’ve ever visited Bear Lake in late June, then you already know the truth we discovered on Day 3 of Road Trip 2015: the eponymous bear of Bear Lake might have more to do with the challenging parking conditions than any creature of the ursine variety! Still, one glimpse of beautiful Bear Lake was all it took to convince us that parking woes were a small price to pay for such beauty. We jockeyed for a stall at the Bear Lake Park and Ride (our fault for lingering over camp bacon!) and took a free park shuttle to the lake.

With a bevy of lovely trails and showstopping subalpine scenery to enjoy, Bear Lake is one of the most popular regions in RMNP. Crowds are something I prefer to avoid, but Bear Lake is popular for a reason: if ever there was a picture perfect postcard scene, Bear Lake is surely it. Bear Lake Loop follows the circumference of Bear Lake, offering multiple perspectives and viewing angles with an added benefit–the farther we hiked along the loop, the more the crowds diminished. And while you’re never truly alone on this trail, there are plenty of lakeside pockets and clearings to escape to, if only for a minute.

IMG_20150627_110440
Bear Lake Park and Ride–even with several hundred stalls, this lot fills by 9 am
IMG_20150627_110842
Bear Lake, RMNP
IMG_20150627_110935
Bear Lake Loop, 2015
IMG_20150627_111352
Bear Lake Loop offers pockets of solitude not generally found at the trailhead
  1. Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, and Emerald Lake (3.6 miles)

Once back at Bear Lake trailhead, we followed an adjacent trail to Nymph Lake, half a mile away. A short but steady uphill climb didn’t sound so bad on paper, but the unfamiliar altitude (9,400 feet) left us winded. Coming from sea level, we found ourselves headachey and nauseous. Recognizing the effects of altitude, we slowed our pace and hydrated liberally to take the edge off. (Which mostly worked, though we continued to experience headaches the next day, too.) We rested at Nymph Lake for half an hour, journaling and sketching the waterlily-ringed lake before us. While not as clear or vivid as Bear Lake, Nymph Lake had its own Monet-like appeal that made for an interesting watercolor study.

IMG_20150627_114853
Taking a break to sketch the scene with watercolors
IMG_20150627_115632
Nymph Lake, RMNP 2015
IMG_20150627_121344
Photo cred to the hubby for this shot…and most of the shots on this blog, really! 😀

From Nymph Lake, we climbed another half mile to an elevation just shy of 10,000 feet. This portion of the trail remains ingrained in my mind to this day: yellow wildflowers overlooking miles of forest, Longs Peak standing watch in the distance. It was hard to keep from stopping every few seconds; it seemed there was a rushing creek or family of deer vying for our attention around every bend. Perhaps that’s how it was meant to be–RMNP’s way of upping the ante to prepare us for the grandeur of Dream Lake. Framed by snow-capped Hallett Peak, Flattop Mountain and Tyndall Glacier, Dream Lake remains one of the most spectacular sights I’ve ever seen. We lingered on a rocky perch and sketched for the better part of an hour, savoring the view.

IMG_20150627_125457
On the way to Dream Lake, Longs Peak in the distance
IMG_20150627_125515
Between Nymph Lake and Dream Lake
IMG_20150627_130559 (1)
This portion of the trail was especially scenic
IMG_20150627_130126
We felt like we were getting whiplash–there were beautiful creeks around every bend
IMG_20150627_131007 (1)
Dream Lake was sublime, especially as seen from our rocky perch away from the crowds
IMG_20150627_130935
Dream Lake, RMNP–we sat here for close to an hour just absorbing this beautiful scene

Though we were loath to leave Dream Lake, we still had a mile to go to reach our final destination: Emerald Lake. Climbing through the heart of Tyndall Gorge, we were excited to come upon a family of elk grazing in a meadow. They paid us no heed as we ascended the trail, finally coming to a rocky outcropping signalling the end of the trail and the beginning of Emerald Lake. I wasn’t sure anything could top the magnificence of Dream Lake, but Emerald Lake gave Dream a run for its money with its exquisite jewel-toned hue. We’re lake fans through and through, and this hike came through in a big way, supplying four beautiful subalpine lakes in under four miles. Emerald Lake even delivered an entertaining bonus in the form of a plump marmot who scurried about the rocks, panhandling for food.

IMG_20150627_135336
Between Dream Lake and Emerald Lake; loved seeing the mountains and lakes from multiple angles
IMG_20150627_141942
Emerald Lake, RMNP–it was challenging to take a photo without being unintentionally photobombed by lakeside visitors
IMG_20150627_141723
Emerald Lake (plus unintentional photobombing visitor) 😀
IMG_20150627_141957 (1)
Loved Emerald Lake’s beautiful jewel-toned hue
  1. Alpine Ridge Trail (0.6 miles)

Day 2 in RMNP dawned ominous and gray. A quick check-in with a park ranger regarding impending thunderstorms confirmed our hunch that hiking 5 miles along open and exposed Mount Ida Trail was probably not the best idea. His recommendation? Hike the half mile trail behind Alpine Visitor Center instead. I have to admit that I secretly pooh-poohed the idea– “Only half a mile?” I thought–but don’t let Alpine Ridge Trail’s short length fool you: ascending 200 feet at an elevation of 12,000 feet in under three tenths of a mile is no joke. Our youngest was seven at the time and had to sit with his head between his knees a long while to recover. He struggled to catch his breath, saying it felt like there was an elephant sitting on his chest.

Here in the alpine tundra, the growing season is short. Wildflowers bloom for six short weeks and plants grow low to the ground, adapting to the harsh winds and temperature extremes of this unforgiving environment. These miniature blooms have found a way to thrive where other organisms perish, and it was a treat to see their vibrant hues dotted against the stark expanse of glaciated greens and purples.

IMG_20150628_092526
Alpine Ridge Trail begins behind this Visitor Center
IMG_20150628_094158
Climbing toward the sun (or thunder clouds)
IMG_20150628_095224
Interpretive signs help with identifying all the different wildflower species
IMG_20150628_094119
Looking back at the Visitor Center
IMG_20150628_100849
Adventures of Five at 12,005 feet!
IMG_20150628_100947
At the top of Trail Ridge Road, fourteeners look like tiny hills
  1. Tundra Communities Trail (1.1 miles)

Located a few miles from the Alpine Visitor Center along Trail Ridge Road, the Tundra Communities Trail traverses alpine tundra and offers tremendous Alpine Ridge Trail views with far fewer crowds. I wish we’d taken pictures of this trail, but we were too busy keeping an eye on the thunderstorm headed our way…and driving ourselves crazy trying to locate the elusive pikas that had us turning circles with their distinctive chirps! We could’ve sworn we heard thousands of them, but spotting these little critters would elude us until Grand Teton National Park a week from now. Still, we loved hiking above the treeline through tundra meadow and especially enjoyed the strange and wonderful mushroom rock formations along the way. Tundra Communities Trail makes for fantastic and worthwhile tundra exploration along Trail Ridge Road.

  1. Hidden Valley Trail (<2 miles)

With thunder clouds rolling in, we were anxious to descend Trail Ridge Road but couldn’t bring ourselves to leave RMNP just yet. As luck would have it, RMNP’s Junior Ranger Headquarters is located at the base of Trail Ridge Road alongside a picturesque picnic area and valley creek. With a pot of lentil soup warming our bellies, we set out to explore Hidden Valley. A short boardwalk looped around the picnic area, branching off into spur trails that led into the mountains. We followed the most obvious of these trails and found ourselves quickly gaining elevation–and just as quickly losing traction along the steep incline. We later learned that this area is an old ski area used for winter tubing, which sounds just about right given the slopes we encountered. Downed trees littered much of the trail ahead of us, so we decided to turn around before things turned sketchy. To be honest, I’m not even sure of the trail’s official name, but exploring Hidden Valley reinforced the old adage that it really is the journey that matters most.

IMG_20150628_134221
Main loop around picnic area
IMG_20150628_141849
So many wildflowers in Hidden Valley
IMG_20150628_133343
Creek view, Hidden Valley
IMG_20150628_134205
The yellow wildflowers were especially pretty here
IMG_20150628_141743
Hamming it up in Hidden Valley

Back at Jellystone of Estes Park, we’d barely finished 4 holes of miniature golf before thunder crashed across the Rockies, splitting the sky apart in a torrent of rain. I’d used the phrase “lightning bolt” before but had never actually witnessed one until that moment. Watching lightning zig-zag across the sky and strike the ground with an electrifying crackle was a terrifying and awesome thing. The boom of thunder echoing across the Rockies is something I’ll never forget. Safe and sound in our tent, we were so glad we’d heeded the ranger’s advice about Mount Ida!

A short aside about Jellystone of Estes: Though the staff was very welcoming and kind and the kids loved the Yogi Bear Mardi Gras parade, given the price of a tent-only site ($60 per weekend night) and lack of amenities such as a hot tub or pool, we probably wouldn’t stay here again. We’re happy to have tried it and enjoyed our stay, but we’d prefer to camp in RMNP next time.

As always, our time in RMNP was over too soon, but we were grateful to have sampled the sights and serenity that make this park so unique. Heading out of RMNP for South Dakota, we couldn’t help but smile at John Denver’s fitting send-off refrain. 

And the Colorado Rocky Mountain High, I’ve seen it raining fire in the sky.

You can talk to God and listen to the casual reply.

Rocky Mountain High, Colorado.

Also from Road Trip 2015: RMNP Trail Ridge RoadGrand Teton Day 1, Grand Teton Day 2, Badlands National ParkPANO_20150628_101243

Advertisements

Dinosaur National Monument + Rocky Mountain National Park: Trail Ridge Road

Let me come right out and say it: Dinosaur National Monument was not a destination high on our travel list. Like Mesa Verde, it was an afterthought of the we’re passing through, so why not? variety. Honestly? My expectations were embarrassingly low.

Oh, we of little faith! Because National Monument and Park status is not something so glibly conferred. Still, it took a Dinosaur National Monument visit to eradicate my heretical leanings once and for all. Spoiler alert: this unassuming park delivered in big and unexpected ways!

Salt Lake City

Summer 2015 began with a six-hour red-eye to Salt Lake City that sounded good in theory–cheap tickets with an early-morning arrival, allowing for a full day of SLC exploration. Turns out a 3 am (Hawaii time) touchdown makes for some very grouchy kids–and testy parents. Oops! Oh well, at least we got the cheap tickets part right. Luckily, the kids caught their second wind at Park Cafe. Trip Advisor nailed this SLC breakfast recommendation right: thick-cut slab bacon, in-house strawberry jam, and homemade hash that delivered beautifully in the surface area to crisp edges ratio department. Bountiful portions kept our hungry brood plenty satisfied.

From Park Cafe, we headed to Temple Square for a glimpse into the heart and history of the LDS organization. Regardless of religious affiliation, Temple Square represents a triumph of both architecture and the human spirit. It is easy to appreciate the immaculate grounds and reverent beauty found here. We spent the better part of the afternoon wandering Salt Lake Temple, the Family History Library, and LDS Conference Center. The Tabernacle, in particular, harkened back to childhood memories of watching the Mormon Tabernacle Choir perform around an old rotary-knobbed Magnavox on Christmas Eve (Whew, dating myself big time here. Anyone else remember standing up to change the TV dial? Bueller?).

IMG_20150625_133905
Afternoon walking tour through SLC

Melt-in-your-mouth pastrami burgers and creamy fry-dipping sauce from Crown Burgers made for a tasty early evening pick-me-up before a 3-hour drive east to Vernal. If you like pastrami, you’ll love this SLC institution! Vernal is a fun little town–a quirky, kitschy mishmash of dinosaur-themed memorabilia and potted flower-lined streets. Even the gas stations sport fun dinosaur statues. With two weeks of camping ahead of us, we happily splurged on a motel and settled in for the night.

IMG_20150625_140726
Crown Burgers with special fry sauce (It’s probably just mayo and ketchup, but I swear the stuff is like crack with that pastrami burger!)

Dinosaur National Monument

Dinosaur National Monument straddles the border of Utah and Colorado, sheltering a dinosaur fossil hotbed in Vernal and winding through dramatic canyon country in Colorado. Both regions are stunning. Unfortunately, we only had time for half a day in Vernal but earmarked both ends of the park for a return visit.

A quick stop at the Quarry Visitor Center gave us time to view the park film, pick up Junior Ranger booklets, and hop on the summer shuttle to Quarry Exhibit Hall a quarter mile away. Recently renovated, the Quarry Exhibit Hall was truly magnificent! The structure itself contains glass-paneled walls that allow you to see for miles into the quarry, but what is even more impressive is the fact that the building houses over 1,500 dinosaur fossils in relief. In the early 1900s, paleontologist Eric Douglass envisioned housing the exposed bones in relief, suggesting that such a site would inspire more awe than excavating the fossils. He couldn’t have been more right. With skeletons left untouched and exactly as they’d been discovered over a hundred years ago, we felt like paleontologists discovering this quarry for the first time. True, we were a small and biased sample, but the wonder and awe we felt walking through the display seemed to confirm Douglass’ vision. This was not some hodgepodge of bones, either; we were able to make out entire articulated vertebral columns, skulls, and Stegosaurus plates. We purchased a one-dollar guide that was invaluable in helping us identify the fossils and decipher what we were seeing; between the guide and the quarry, our youngest was in dinosaur heaven.

IMG_20150626_091719
Dinosaur National Monument, Utah 2015
IMG_20150626_094357
Riding the shuttle tram from Quarry Visitor Center in Vernal
IMG_20150626_095109
Quarry Exhibit Hall
IMG_20150626_100116
Quarry Exhibit Hall houses skeletons in relief
IMG_20150626_095653
Vertebrae in relief
IMG_20150626_095317
Comparing fossils against our reference guide

The Quarry Exhibit Hall also houses many reassembled fossil skeletons, among them a Camarasaurus discovered in Dinosaur. An interactive Junior Ranger Talk gave the kids an opportunity to touch dinosaur bones, test their knowledge of Jurassic trivia, and emulate dinosaur gaseous emissions with balloons–a hilarious activity that proved you’re never too old to find balloon flatulence amusing. 😀

IMG_20150626_100339
Dinosaur National Monument
IMG_20150626_101547 (1)
After striking out on fossils at California Academy of Science, he was so happy to see assembled dinosaur skeletons here
IMG_20150626_101333
Informing the vision behind Quarry Exhibit Hall
IMG_20150626_105010
Blowing balloons to emulate dinosaur flatulence
IMG_20150626_105037
Flatulent balloons never get old

In a state that boasts the Mighty Five, it’s easy to see how a park like Dinosaur might get overlooked for top billing. But perhaps it’s precisely Dinosaur’s quieter nature that makes it feel like such a find. We only had time to hike 1.2-mile Fossil Discovery Trail before our shuttle arrived, which is a shame because Dinosaur National Monument looks to have some incredible trails. We’d love to tackle more hikes as well as camp or river raft through the park someday. Kids or no, I suspect we all harbor some secret seven-year-old dinosaur zealot deep within. Call me corny, but there’s something nostalgic about reigniting that dormant zest at Dinosaur National Monument.

Rocky Mountain National Park: Grand Lake to Estes Park via Trail Ridge Road

From Quarry Visitor Center, we drove four hours east to Kawuneeche Visitor Center in Grand Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park. Coming from triple digit temps in Dinosaur, we found ourselves reaching for jackets to stave off the cold in Grand Lake. With a quick stop to view the park film, admire elk, and play with roadside snow, we ascended Trail Ridge Road.

Trail Ridge Road is a spectacular 48-mile stretch of highway spanning the heart of Rocky Mountain National Park and linking Grand Lake in the west with Estes Park in the east. Crossing the Continental Divide, Trail Ridge Road traverses alpine tundra at dizzying elevations of over 12,000 feet. The drive begins like any other in the Rockies–evergreens and forest views–but within minutes, Trail Ridge Road redefines itself as something else entirely. Pine forests yield to wind-sheared firs and then barren sky as you climb above the clouds–a literal expression, not a figurative one. Here in the vast alpine tundra, clouds mist across the road, cloaking snowy peaks below. Devoid of trees, the Rockies seem to go on forever, just one immense fourteen-footer after another. It is impossible not to be moved by the enormity of it all.

Spotting a herd of elk grazing amid the clouds, we felt certain we were at the top of the world. It wouldn’t have been such a stretch given the rising altitude and thinning oxygen. Where else but at the top of the world could you find startlingly stark beauty like this?

IMG_20150626_174048 (1)
The ascent…climbing into the clouds
IMG_20150626_173502
The views keep getting better and better
IMG_20150626_173835
From up in the clouds, those 14-ers look like little hills
IMG_20150626_174806
Turning a curve to see this herd in the clouds was amazing
IMG_20150626_174822 (1)
We sat here for quite a while admiring these beautiful elk
IMG_20150626_175156
Trail Ridge Road, 2015

With daylight fleeting, we were disappointed to make a hasty descent to Estes Park and Jellystone Campground, our home for two nights. With the beauty of Trail Ridge Road still fresh in our minds, we were excited to see what Rocky Mountain National Park held in store for us at Emerald Lake and Mount Ida the next day. For now, though, it was on to more pressing matters, like dinner and s’mores and the adorable bunny who so graciously allowed us to share his charming home.

IMG_20150626_200407
The adorable bunny who shared his campsite with us for two days, Jellystone Estes Park

 

Mesa Verde: A Quiet Gem of a Park

I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t know much about Mesa Verde National Park before I visited two years ago. I knew there were some preserved ruins; I knew it was a World Heritage Site. Beyond that, it had never stuck out in my mind like other “showier” parks, such as Yosemite or Yellowstone. But our southwest itinerary that summer had us driving from the Grand Canyon though Monument Valley and up to Arches National Park, so stopping at Mesa Verde just made sense. I figured we’d drop in just long enough to say we’d done it–check it off our National Parks list.

What I didn’t expect was to fall in love.

This little gem of a park grabbed hold of our hearts and didn’t let go.

We got into Cortez, CO a little after 4:30 pm and raced against the clock from the park entrance to the Visitor Center, trying to get there before it closed. I’d read online that the only way to enter the cliff dwellings was through a ranger-led tour, and having just come off the Disneyland length lines at Grand Canyon the day before, I was worried about not being able to get tickets. The ranger actually laughed a little when I expressed my concerns. Turns out we were the first family to secure tickets for the Cliff Palace tour the next morning! We picked up Junior Ranger booklets for the kids and called it a night.

With tickets in hand, we arrived at the fenced overlook for the Cliff Palace tour the next morning.

IMG_20140612_091436
Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde, as seen from the overlook

Words can’t describe the sense of awe and reverence I felt in seeing Cliff Palace for the first time. It was so much larger and more intricate than I’d imagined. We watched as other tour participants from different countries caught their first glimpse of the cliff dwellings and gasped or exclaimed in excitement. We all exchanged smiles that required no translation to understand: this tour was going to be amazing.IMG_20140612_095328

Our knowledgeable ranger, Sharon, guided us down a set of wooden ladders into the dwelling. Prior to the tour, I’d worried that the whole experience might be too educational to sustain the kids’ interest for an hour, but I needn’t have worried. The kids were just as fascinated as I was with how the ancient Puebloans conceived and built such amazing structures that seemed to have defied time. IMG_20140612_101154Of course, it didn’t hurt that Sharon shared that their preferred liquid for mixing mortar was urine! Sharon shared so many interesting stories, facts, and theories about Cliff Palace that the ninety minute tour flew by in a flash. I was amazed at how close we were able to get to the kivas; in certain areas, we were even allowed to touch and walk through structures.

IMG_20140612_102035
Kiva, Cliff Palace

One memory that sticks out in my mind was the colorful art we saw painted inside a tall tower structure. Sharon said that this was a clear measure of the vitality of the Puebloan civilization; art only exists in societies where all other basic needs have already been met. All I know is, you couldn’t help but feel a sense of connection to the ancient Puebloans who’d lived and thrived there so long ago.

After a quick lunch, we walked through Spruce Tree House, which is the only cliff dwelling visitors are allowed to enter without joining a ranger-guided tour. The kids had a great time descending a long ladder into a kiva-like structure that once served as a gathering place. The two rangers posted at Spruce Tree House went out of their way to engage visitors and share knowledge. We had a wonderful chat with one ranger, who upon learning we were from Hawaii, reminisced with us about his stint as a park ranger at Volcanoes National Park a few years earlier. Unfortunately, it seems that visitors are no longer able to tour Spruce Tree House; the NPS website says there are safety concerns due to falling rocks. It’s such a shame as as this dwelling was a real highlight for us.

We were looking for a good afternoon hike, and the lovely ranger we chatted with suggested Petroglyph Point Trail, an easy to moderate 2.4 mile hike. The kids had a blast scrambling over rocks along the way.

14 - 3
Petroglyph Point Hike, Mesa Verde
IMG_20140612_145842
Petroglyph Point Hike, Mesa Verde

IMG_20140612_171227What I recall the most was not the petroglyphs (impressive though they were); instead, I remember not passing a single person the entire 2 hours we were on the trail! We found such peaceful solitude on that trail and the kind of stillness and quiet that allowed us to fully connect with the essence of the park. Along the way, we came across many ruins that were not as well-preserved as Spruce Tree House–not even close–but these ruins felt special to us because it almost felt as though we’d discovered them. Having the trail to ourselves only heightened that feeling. The view was extraordinary as well. We were so high up that the kids took to jumping and cheering, “We’re on top of the world!” 14 - 1I couldn’t have agreed with them more.

After our hike, we completed the kids’ junior ranger badges and spent an hour or two driving around Sun Temple and other points of interest along the Chapin Mesa loop. Our itinerary called for us to return to Cortez by late afternoon, but none of us could bring ourselves to leave this beautiful park just yet. We decided to stay for dinner at Far View Cafe inside the park. We enjoyed the casual cafeteria-style fare and especially loved the incredible view (or perhaps I should say “far view”–clearly, the lodge was aptly named!) from the tall picture windows lining the wall. IMG_20140612_180403Determined to make the most of our final stolen moments at Mesa Verde, we drove to Park Point, the highest point in the park with an elevation of over 8,000 feet, and watched the sun sink behind the mountains. It was a memorable end to an incredible day.

IMG_20140612_203319-PANO
Park Point, Mesa Verde

IMG_20140612_202234

True, there are probably grander parks in the National Park System than Mesa Verde. And certainly, there are showier parks than Mesa Verde. But I’d argue that it’s precisely the quieter nature of the park that serves as its biggest draw. It beckons you with the kind of intimacy that can be harder to find at larger parks. This little park won our hearts and became an all-time favorite of our family’s because of the experiences we shared there–experiences woven into the collective tapestry of our hearts and minds. If I have one regret, it’s that I didn’t budget enough time here. Given the chance, we could have easily spent 2-3 days (or more) exploring the other cliff dwellings, mesas, and trails. Don’t let my mistake be yours! Explore Mesa Verde to the fullest, and I think you just might find that same quiet magic there that we did.