Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Rocky Mountain NP - a Park for All Seasons

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, was established as the USA's tenth park in 1915, the National Park is approximately 80 miles north of Denver and sits between the town of Estes Park to the East and Grand Lake to the west. The park encompasses 415 sq. miles of protected wilderness and natural beauty, and boasts the highest continuously paved road in North America "Trail Ridge Road". The park elevation sits between 7,860 feet and 14,259 feet, and for those coming from sea level the altitude can make you feel light-headed and long for more oxygen.

The park is open year round (fee required), and each different season has something new to offer the visitor, late May through to late September sees the most amount of visitors.

The snow starts falling in the park in late Fall (or sometimes earlier). Trail Ridge Road closes typically mid-October, the crowds thin out, and wildlife and solitude return to this wilderness. I love visiting the park in the winter, you really get a feel for the harshness that winter brings, but at the same time, you get to feel a peacefulness without the crowds.
Depending on how harsh the winter is, you can easily explore the park still on foot or in the car, hiking may require snowshoes or traction devices, and backcountry experience if venturing off the beaten path.

Moraine Park is a large open meadow area close to the Beaver Meadows entrance and is a great place to spot wildlife year round. Cub Lake and Fern Lake trails start from Moraine Park and are both accessible during winter.

Windswept Moraine Park

Bear Lake Trailhead at the end of Bear Lake Road is probably the most popular destination in the park, mainly because it is easily accessible and has many trails leading from the car park. In the summertime, the trail up to Dream and Emerald lake can be a constant flow of people, in the winter this trail is much quieter, with many people staying closer to Bear Lake to snowshoe. If I were to recommend just one trail in the park to hike, Dream Lake would be high on my list.

Hallett Peak and Dream Lake

Gem Lake is a wonderful hike in all seasons including Winter, the trailhead is located a mile or so north of Estes Park and no fee is needed to access this trail system. This trail sits at a lower elevation than other parts of the park, it can still be icy though, so traction devices may be needed. The lake is fed entirely by rainwater and snowmelt, so can be just a dry bed in winter, but it is still as scenic.

Gem Lake

Gem Lake Trail in Winter

Spring is slow to arrive at the park, but once the temperatures begin to warm, the white/brown winter scenery gives way to soft lush greens and new life. Moraine Park bursts to life with Spring flowers and wintering animals return to graze, and the creeks begin to start flowing at full power once again.

Spring returns to Boulder Brook

Mountain Bluebirds return

Wildflowers come to life in Moraine Park

Summer is the busiest period for the park as the crowd's return, you can still find solitude by visiting the park early in the day. Summer is a short lived season at high altitude, and the Apline Tundra above 11,000 feet bursts into life at the blink of an eye. The winds can blow very strong across the Tundra, so most flowers up here are small and low to the ground.
Most of the trails are snow free this time of year, but it can still be pretty chilly, especially if you venture up above treeline. If you start out early and avoid the inevitable winds, then hiking the trails off of Trail Ridge Road really gives you a good sense of the vast wildness of the park.

Never Summer Mountains from Trail Ridge Road

Alpine Tundra along the Ute Trail

Rock Cut and Longs Peak from Trail Ridge Road

If you are very lucky, you may come across Moose on the eastern side of the park, although they are more frequently seen on the western side. These huge animals may look docile, but they can be quite fearsome, especially if they have young with them, approach with CAUTION!. Elk is more commonly seen throughout the park, and draw big crowds during rutting season (in the Fall).

Moose at Sprague Lake

Elk are a common sight in the park

Wild Basin (fee required) is another area of the park I highly recommend visiting in the Summer, this entrance station/trailhead is located 14 miles south of Estes Park on Highway 7. Wild Basin is home to several trail networks, the most frequently hiked is the trail to Calypso Cascades and Ouzel Falls. The trail follows the St. Vrain Creek as it rushes over huge boulders, wildflowers line the way, and often Deer can be spotted in the woods. Get to the trailhead early, the car park fills up fast!.

Calypso Cascades

Autumn is perhaps one of the most magical times of the year in the park, the Elk all gather in Moraine and Horseshoe Parks for their annual rut, and the hillsides turn from summer green to a vibrant yellow. The daytime temperatures are perfect for hiking, and the nights cool off quickly inviting you to sit around an open fire and sip hot chocolate.

My favourite Autumn hikes are any of the numerous trails that start from Bear Lake Road, the Aspens line the hillsides here and provide fantastic colour.

Boulder Brook in Autumn

View looking SW from Bierstadt Lake trail

Longs Peak as seen across Bear Lake

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