The third weekend was the charm. On the first one, we arrived at our current house sit in Colorado and spent time with the owners and their dog. On the second one, it was raining and cold. And, the fourth one is when we are leaving again. So, it was all or nothing on that third weekend. The weather predictions for the Estes Park region were alright, we packed Zesty the camper, loaded up Oscar the dog, and headed north on Saturday morning. From the moment we left the house, the scenery opened up and entertained.
As in many national parks, dogs are not allowed on any of the trails in Rocky Mountain NP, so it was eminent that we gave Oscar – who is used to a lot of exercise – a decent walk, before hitting the scenic road. In the town of Estes Park, we planned to walk him around the lake on leash. Before we arrived at the water’s edge, we stumbled upon a dog park. Even better! He ran around, chased a couple of dogs and, once he found a ball, happily played fetch for a while. By the time we had walked back to the van, he was panting hard.
We chose the northern approach to Trail Ridge Road, the scenic drive across the Rockies. By doing so, we hoped to avoid the crowds, find an unoccupied picnic table at Endovalley for lunch, and give Oscar a bit more exercise. The other scenic road, a one-way dirt track and the original park road called Old Fall River Road, had just been closed for the season. Hikers, bikers and dogs were still welcome, so it was the perfect place for a walk in the mountains without having to worry about cars. An hour later, we were all out of breath and ready for lunch. In Oscar’s case, a comfortable nap on his bed in the camper was all he desired when we continued our drive.
Once we reached Trail Ridge Road, we joined the ranks of car traffic. Nobody was in a hurry, which was fine by us. Despite the crowds on this – probably – last fall weekend the road remained open, we managed to find a parking spot wherever we stopped to take in the views or go for a short walk.
Trail Ridge Road is the highest continuous paved road in the United States, reaching an elevation of 12,183 feet. It travels through three ecosystems: montane (below 9000ft), subalpine (9000 – 11,400ft) and alpine (above 11,400ft). Why drive all the way to the arctic when the same scenery and climate can be found in Colorado? The drive and surroundings were unique and spectacular, from the comfort of our van. Once outside, it was freezing cold. We skidded over snowy paths and battled against the strong winds.
I had looked forward to walk the 1-mile tundra trail, on the top of the world, to see if it reminded me of Northern Alaska. Part of it did, but most of the moss and minuscule plants were covered with snow. We carefully made our way over the white mass. I had to take it easy, because of the slippery trail, the freezing cold, and the high altitude. Two hats, a winter coat, two pairs of socks and hiking shoes did not prepare us for the icy wind slashing our face and bodies. The wind chill must have been well below zero. Breathing when walking uphill was treacherous. The scenery was awe-inspiring, but the temperature had us turn around halfway and slide back to the camper as quickly as we dared.
On the other, western, side of the park, we made a few more stops. We glanced at the lava rocks, took Oscar for a short walk at the Alpine Visitor Center (he loves snow!), observed the Continental Divide at Milner Pass, and contemplated investigating Holswarth Historic Site.
It would have been interesting to see how the first settlers lived in this area, but we decided to press on, since it was getting late. We kept our eyes peeled for elk and other wildlife in the meadows, but luck was not on our side. We had heard a lot of hype about the bugling of the elk, this time of the year, but somehow, it all passed us by. Dusk and dawn are probably better times to witness this event.
By 5pm, we parked at an easy-to-find free campsite near Stillwater Pass in Arapaho National Forest. Right in time for a drink. Once the gun-toting individuals went home in their big trucks, peace returned to the forest and we had an enjoyable night. Partly thanks to our heater, which now works at high elevations, after we installed a high-altitude pump during a freak snowstorm on Friday afternoon.
On Sunday, Mark and I went for a short walk to Adam’s Falls, back in the national park. Oscar waited for our return in the camper and happily joined us afterwards to check out Grand Lake.
The rest of the morning was spent in the Grand Lake Recreation Area, where we roamed the woods with no leash law. We crisscrossed over different paths, progress made difficult by logging equipment and fallen trees. It was a fun adventure nevertheless. After eating our sandwiches for lunch, we were finally rewarded with a wildlife sighting. A gracious over-sized fox with fluffy tail, strolled by, following one of the trails. And, you could have guessed it. That was the one and only time I did not have my camera on me.
The drive home took a few hours, involved a lot of climbing and descending, and brought us through more beautiful landscapes, from lakes to mountain peaks, to green forests and snowy slopes. The whole weekend was a pleasure for the eyes!
Extra Info about Rocky Mountain National Park:
- Entrance fee is $20 per vehicle. We didn’t pay anything, since we have an annual NP pass.
- Dogs are only allowed in developed areas (parking lots, roads, campgrounds)
- At this time of the year (October) many of the museums, buildings and roads had been closed for the winter already. They re-open late spring or summer.
- Part of Trail Ridge Road (the middle and highest section) closes for the winter as well.
- At high elevations (above 9000ft), it gets very windy and cold, so be prepared with warm clothing and snow-proof shoes.
Have you ever been to Rocky Mountain National Park? To Alaska? Or other arctic areas?