The “family” part of our trip began on the Saturday we arrived in Estes Park. My sister Meg and her husband Luiz had driven up from their Denver home that afternoon. The five-person Buffalo group flew into Denver that morning and rented a van to drive up from the airport. It included my sister Marian and her husband Bob, my brother Tom and his wife Karen, and my sister Anna. My sister Meg had rented a three-bedroom “cabin” for the week where she, Luiz, Marian, Bob and Anna would stay. Tom and Karen had a room at the same family resort motel as Andrea and me, about two miles from the rest of our family.
Everyone was happy to get settled in their respective digs. The Buffalo crew was especially fatigued from their long-layover flight and ensuing drive from Denver. Communication was a challenge in that only half of us had reliable cell phone service. Once we figured out who did and who didn’t, we were able to agree that we would all rest for the evening and get together on Sunday. Andrea and I connected with my brother Tom and his wife Karen and made a date to do some grocery shopping that evening. They were without their own car for the week, and we were happy to help with their logistics.
First Forays into the National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) encompasses 415 square miles of mountain wilderness in northeastern Colorado. It includes some of the Rockies highest peaks along the Continental Divide – the geographical backbone of the North American continent. The entire park received official “wilderness” status by the U.S. Congress in 2009, further safeguarding its pristine natural state.
Andrea and I made our first drive into the park on Sunday via the Fall River entry station on Route 34, about five miles west of Estes Park. A welcoming Park Ranger greeted us at the booth, scanning our recently acquired National Park entry card and driver’s license. We’d heard of strictures on the number of car s entering but the Ranger assured us that we could go up as far as we wanted that late afternoon. Our goal was to drive in just far enough to get a taste of what was in store. Route 34 becomes Trail Ridge Road at the Park, the highest continuous 2-lane highway in the country.
The excellent RMNP brochure and map accurately describes three distinct natural environments. The large area below 9,000 feet is called “Montane”. We entered this area at around 8,000 feet and immediately passed through an expansive meadow area with good views of the approaching peaks. After a few miles we entered a heavily forested area and really began to climb. The trees were mostly aspens and tall ponderosa pines whose fragrance wafted into the car.
It wasn’t long before we entered the next major ecosystem, the “Subalpine” level of 9,000-11,400 feet. This is a generally wetter environment with smaller size spruce and fir trees and lots of undergrowth. I made a note about an intriguing turn-off to “Hidden Valley trail” as we continued to ascend on a series of switchbacks that offered great vistas and a somewhat scary view straight down from the steep edge of the 2-lane road. We remained in the Subalpine level for another five miles or so, stopping to park and walk at two well-known vistas: “Many Parks Curve” and “Rainbow Curve”. Both offered fabulous views of some of the highest peaks and we were happy to join the parade of other tourists, mostly families with children, eager to catch the view and stretch our legs.
The official RMNP brochure describes our experience well: “To ascend Trail Ridge Road is to leave this world and enter another. It carries you, breathless with wonder and altitude, into a wild yet fragile alpine realm.” We took a lot of photos, but none of them do justice to the expanded feeling brought on by such altitude and such intimate proximity to this wild, rugged mountain range.
Acclimating to Estes Park
The National Park was certainly the major draw, but definitely not the only source of fun and relaxation for the week. For one, the cooler, drier, clearer weather all week was a welcome relief for those of us who had been enduring still another hot, wet, humid summer back east. Waking up to temperatures in the 60’s was a real delight. Some afternoons made it to the low 80’s, but the humidity seldom went over 60%. Heavy clouds masses would often blow in from the western mountains in the afternoon, and we even had an impressive hailstorm on our second day. But by evening the skies had usually cleared and temperatures dropped.
We had some delightful times at our own family resort as well as at my family’s rented “cabin” on the other end of town. Andrea and I are both swimmers and our daily afternoon dips in the outdoor pool never failed to refresh. The adjoining hot tub was an added bonus. I’d been suffering with some chronic neck pain and discovered that I could position my neck on the tub’s jets in a way that was amazingly relaxing. I also purchased some CBD oil that the resort had for sale and received a noticeable decrease in discomfort after twice daily doses for the week.
The family cabin was actually a very comfortable 3-bedroom, 3-bath home set on a hill with a great view of the surrounding Rockies. The cabin was owned by the Clatworthy family, who had been a major force in bringing a culture of quality photography to the region in the previous centuries. On Monday, we all walked from the cabin into town along the impressive Big Thompson river. There was a weekly artists’ market open along the Riverwalk downtown, and we all enjoyed the scenic walk down, as well as perusing the quality arts and crafts there.
Excursions to Hidden Valley and Kruger’s Rock
On our second trip into RMNP we returned to Hidden Valley, at a signpost I’d noted Sunday. We set out in the afternoon again and the clouds began building up up to menacing greys and blacks. By the time we arrived at our destination’s parking lot and trailhead, thunder was rumbling loudly. The wind picked up and it started raining quite hard, forcing us to wait in our car for over 30 minutes. The rain stopped, the clouds lightened and soon the afternoon sun was shining down again, creating a sparkling play of waterdrops on grass, brush and trees.
Hidden Valley is a classic Subalpine environment. We took the mile-long trail out and back, crossing a strong running creek, stopping to take photos in the magnificent light. It was a great pleasure being there in the magic time after the storm and we lingered on for a good long while.
Before leaving we took note of a National Park sign describing the history of Hidden Valley. It turns out that it had been a popular ski area for many decades. But beginning in the 1980’s, snowfalls became progressively less until snow-making machinery had to be used. By 1992 even that wasn’t enough snow and the ski area closed down for good. It was a sober reminder that even this pristine natural paradise was not immune from the climate crisis we are already far into.
We took a different exit from the park and drove south to Estes Park’s famous YMCA Conference Center. A friend had told us he attended a spiritual retreat for over 900 people there some years ago. As we entered the large campus with surrounding mountain vistas, I had to alter my prior conceptions of YMCA as an urban phenomenon. Here was a massive summer camp environment with large dormitory buildings, conference rooms, and dining halls. It was supper time when we arrived, and we were happy to join the thronging kids and few adults in one of the cafeteria lines for a high-quality meal at a reasonable price.
The next day we got up early to hike a trail up to Kruger Rock, a 9,000-foot promontory overlooking Estes Park, contained within a local county park (Hermit Park) about five miles south of town. There were far fewer people there and we enjoyed the peace and quiet of morning in the Montane with a bounty of multi-colored wildflowers and fragrant ponderosa pines. We found a great lookout spot shy of Kruger Rock itself and relaxed on the rocks to take photos and examine the town below with binoculars.
Coming down we came upon a boy furiously peddling his mountain bike up the steep, rocky path. He looked overheated and upset and Andrea stopped to ask if he was okay. He wondered if we had seen other mountain bikers going up. We said no and he said he’d gotten separated from his family. She suggested he might have taken a wrong turn at the fork a few hundred feet below. We were actually able to text his grandfather and saw the boy a little later re-united with his family in a pickup truck laden with mountain bikes.
Lily Lake and the Church on a Rock
One morning mid-week we all gathered at the cabin for a ride up a nearby cable car to Prospect Mountain, another peak over Estes Park. When we saw the long line, we decided to postpone that ride and drove instead to a beautiful mountain lake about 10 miles south on Route 7.
Lily Lake straddles RMNP but is accessible without entering the park itself via a large parking area off Route 7. The lake features a flat, mile-long hiking path on its perimeter which was perfect for a family jaunt (we even encountered people in wheelchairs). The lake was surrounded by a meadow bursting with wildflowers, with the towering Longs Peak visible to the west. The easy hike gave us an opportunity to socialize and take photos.
We all drove (in our two rented cars) a few miles further south on Route 7 to what Meg was calling “the church on the rock”. St. Catherine of Siena chapel is indeed a small stone church perched above a large outcropping on the side of the road. We all got out to visit the inspiring little sanctuary and adjacent visitor’s center.
Ascending to the Alpine Heights
Near the end of the week, Andrea and I took a morning drive back into RMNP via Trail Ridge Road. This time we stayed on past the Rainbow Curve lookout, making our first stop at the Forest Canyon overlook. This was the Alpine realm (above the tree line at 11,400 feet) and the air was noticeably thinner and the views all the more spectacular. The canyon was cut by the Big Thompson, the same river we’d been delighting in all week at the Estes Park Riverwalk. (We thought of our friend Linda trekking down into the Grand Canyon that very week.)
Andrea connected with two older gentlemen from Estes Park who were volunteering as aides for the Park Service at the lookout. She asked about the patches of dead pines we’d seen a few miles back and they described an infestation of pine beetles that had appeared with the warming climate.
Our last stop on the Trail Ridge was the Park’s Alpine Visitor Center at just above 12,000 feet. By this point there were numerous snowfields on the nearby hills and cliffs. The parking lot was almost filled but we found a spot and toured the impressive gift shop and café. Fortified, we ascended the trail to the 12,400-foot summit where we had a fabulous 360-degree view of the Continental Divide. The climb left us light-headed but happy, the culmination of our summer mountain adventure.
A Last Meal on Lake Estes, and Further “Chance” Encounters
We had a memorable last meal back in Estes Park at a quality restaurant with a great view of Lake Estes. Our family from the cabin joined us that Friday evening as we savored the last of our time together. Andrea and I had eaten there earlier in the week and met a charming Russian waitress – a student working there for the summer. Meg’s college son Inti was a Russian major at PENN State and was currently in St. Petersburg in an intensive language program. We were happy to have the same waitress that evening, and to share in the surprise and serendipity of our Russian connection.
Earlier that day, Andrea and I had stopped for coffee in a charming shop near Mary’s Lake. There we encountered a man from the DC area, like us. After a few minutes of sharing pleasantries, we discovered that this gentleman was a close friend of a couple we knew well back home. We celebrated that synchronicity by taking selfies and texting the photos to our DC friends, much to their surprise and delight.
On the plane ride home from Denver the next day, Andrea happened to sit next to a man who she discovered was a close business associate of some other close DC-area friends. A memorable delight of our trip were these “chance” encounters that gave a magical feeling of connection and mystery.
John Bayerl, 8/23/2019