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  • Writer's pictureTrail Guide Joe

Rocky Mountain National Park!

Updated: Sep 30, 2021

 
 

This trip does indeed make me feel as if I were on top of the world! I have wanted to come here for many years and finally I have my chance!


This trip fulfilled everything I expect in a trip! For my "car guy" side, a long road trip behind the wheel of my one and only vehicle! For my adventurous, outdoor side? Mountain climbing, bears, hiking, and more!


This trip takes the number one spot in my book as it is my first self planned adventure and it went off without a hitch! Well... almost without a hitch.


Saturday September 10th, 2016

Getting up bright and early on Saturday I began loading roughly everything I own! Once packed, it was time to meet up with my travel buddy; time to hit the road!

First stop on the trip, just to break the half day drive into manageable pieces, was Wilson State Park in central Kansas! Not a bad place for a middle of nowhere place in an otherwise boring state.


Sunday September 11th, 2016

Getting up and back on the road again travelling from Wilson State Park in Kansas the rest of the way to Moraine Campground in Rocky Mountain National Park! Getting to Aurora Colorado, something doesn't seem right.... The truck is louder... Seems the muffler is wanting to break off from the front end at the inlet pipe. Quick clamp job and good to go again, right? But what's all this underneath the rear wheel wells? Splatter? From what? Brake cylinders?! No, fluid is good.... What is low then? Engine oil? We're sweating horsepower (blowing oil out of the engine all over the underside of the truck)? It was a challenge crossing the back half of Kansas with head winds forcing me into 3rd gear just to make 75 MPH. This was perplexing as every gasket and seal in the engine, except the head gaskets, had been replaced within the last few years.... Oh well, carry on! We arrive in the park, find our site, and the adventure begins!

 
Finally, after crossing Kansas for hours, the Rockies are finally within sight!
 

Home, sweet home! Although this was not quite the same view or experience as the Glacier trip earlier in the year, I have to say, it's hard to beat having a mountain behind your tent!

 
 

Time to take the first full day of the park by storm! First up, let's try out Bear Lake! It's short, good views, a popular site, and good enough to get this adventure started! Oh look, we could do Flattop Mountain while we're here! Only 4.4 miles (starting around 9,000 feet and climbing to 12,000 feet for total elevation gain of 3,000 feet making it much more than just 4.4 miles). Whether I did or did not say we needed food, it was almost certainly in the context of Bear Lake only and we most definitely needed food for Flattop.

Just before the tree line, I was dying having no energy left and running low on water. My buddy, a machine, just kept going and going and going..... We get above the tree line and the weather turns.... Storms moving in, lightning involved... Time to descend.... quickly. Back to camp and back to food!

Although we had been beaten today by a few controllable factors, Flattop Mountain would not win this war. We would return at some point and conquer the hike to the top. What we did see on our short hike however was very beautiful! The absolute right time of year to be here!


Tuesday September 13th, 2016

I'm up and ready to go having refueled after the Flattop fiasco however my buddy, the machine, started to show he was indeed human not as quick to bounce back. Today we stick to the easy stuff checking out Trail Ridge Road, the highest road in the United States at 12,183 feet!


Although this road is here now, it wasn't always and before then, there was a slightly more scary road to use, Old Fall River Road. This was the first road that would take visitors into the interior of the park. There is just a small segment of the road still in existence in its near original state as the west half of the road, connecting to Grand Lake, was repaved when Trail Ridge Road was built. At the top of Trail Ridge Road, we would find a bit of a surprise, snow! A snow shower had just passed over on our way up leaving a light coating of snow on everything. Just another perk of the trip! We would also take a moment to take a quick hike up to a vista at an elevation of 12,005 feet above mean sea level. Sometimes you just have to make it official with a sign.

 
 
 

Continuing on, we set our sights on Grand Lake in the western half of the park. As we crossed the continental divide, we noticed the trees started to change. No just the fall colors but the types of trees. On the east, the Ponderosa Pine was everywhere you looked. On the west side of the divide, Aspens were everywhere you looked. It was interesting to see how natural coped with natural divides.

Regardless of what trees were found where, the fall colors here were just as impressive!

We further explored the area and the route of the mighty Colorado River, much more of a stream at this point in its life, before heading back to camp for the day. I was also starting to notice elk would be more than abundant this trip! This was both anticipated and appreciated on this trip as it happens to be elk rutting season which I was hoping to see.

On our way back to camp, we would stop at Milner Pass, a spot right along the continental divide. Why is the continental divide so significant? As you can tell in the picture, water drainage has two paths it can take from this point. Should it fall on the western side of the side, no matter where it falls, it will intercept a tributary that will lead to the Pacific Ocean. If it falls on the eastern side, it will intercept a tributary that will lead to the Gulf of Mexico. It is a neat thought to dwell on if you remember the water cycles of the planet.

Continuing on towards camp, we would make another stop to watch a series of clouds float between the mountains below us. No matter how many times you see it, its still a weird feeling seeing clouds below when you're so use to seeing clouds floating overhead each and every day. Nevertheless, it's very cool! Shortly after, we would find ourselves back under the clouds as we returned to camp for the day.

 
A sea of clouds pouring into the valleys of the Rockies in Rocky Mountain National Park along Trail Ridge Road
 

Wednesday September 14th, 2016

I'm still ready for more yet my now very much human buddy is still aching from Monday's attack on Flattop Mountain. We decide to hit the trails again by visiting Alberta Falls, just across from Flattop Mountain, each visible from the other. I have to say, the fall colors found on the trail to Alberta Falls were unbelievably stunning! This still stands as one of my all time favorite photos, not just of this trip, but of any trip! I'm pretty sure I will never figure out how I managed to pull this whole trip off the exact way I did. It was one in a million!

Alberta Falls is a beautiful little waterfall and, for the hike it takes to get there, it's easy enough to reach. It was the perfect way to get a little more movement out of ourselves while recovery continued for my buddy. There is something special about the sights and sounds of tumbling water. It just seems to set you free in no other way possible. We probably could have spent the whole afternoon here at the waterfall if not for other things we wanted to see. After a break by the waterfall, we headed back to camp to resupply and prepare for the next objective of the day.

Following our short hike we would tackle Old Fall River Road just to continue taking it easy. The road, however, decided not to go easy on my truck as it claims the life of my muffler.... The road itself is well maintained by modern machinery, not the case back in the early days of the park when this was the main road into the interior. Aside from being really narrow, steep in spots, and almost always along a drop-off ledge, the road wasn't particularly brutal. It was very exciting to travel this road and it did provide a look into the way things use to be in the early days of the park.

Thursday September 15th, 2016

Today we ventured into Estes Park to do a bit of sight seeing and gift buying. I also decide to see about ordering a muffler as my truck is certain to scare off all the wildlife within a mile of the open exhaust. While meandering through the park, we also got some of the best views of Longs Peak, the tallest mountain in the state of Colorado.

To my surprise, that evening my buddy decided he had enough already and packed up aiming to leave that night. Giving him a hand, he loaded up and was on the road determined to make it 14 hours straight back home. I didn't realize just how hard the first hike up Flattop Mountain really was on him.


Friday September 16th, 2016

My buddy made it back around 9:30 AM CT having driven straight through since the evening before. Today the muffler ordered the day before is now in Estes Park. I go pick it up and put it on the truck in their parking lot. Why not? It fits perfect and I clamp it down and "Arkansas weld it" with some wire as I now have realized the rear pipe (previously discovered as broken before leaving on the trip) was maimed beyond use.

Having no real plan and no longer having a travel buddy, I take it easy exploring more of Estes Park since I'm already there. That night I catch up with the herd of elk in Moraine campground as they bugle, rut, and fight each other! This is what I was waiting for all week! I have never witnessed elk during mating season but tonight was the night!

 
The dominant male of the Moraine pack running off a younger male
 
Elk fight! This is what we all come to see, right?
 
The bugle call of the elk! That's really what we came here for!
 

Saturday September 17th, 2016 Today I would attempt to stay out of the park since the crowds from Denver usually pile in on the weekends. Not wanting to fight the crowds, I pack a few things and head off on a trucking day! First stop was a trip through the Eisenhower Tunnel! A car guy's dream of sorts.

From there I head to the second destination of interest, Royal Gorge, a 1,000 foot deep gorge where the Arkansas River flows through the at the bottom. For the price, this probably was not my most favorite stop and, after the fact, I thought of a few other places I would have rather visited. All things considered, it wasn't the worst thing I could have done with the time. The logging competitions were actually pretty entertaining to watch!

 
Hand saw competition at Royal Gorge.
 
Axe competition at Royal Gorge.
 
Log rolling competition at Royal Gorge.
 

After a quick lunch break and refueling stop, the third destination is another car guy stop off; Pikes Peak. Not arriving in any amount of time to hike it, it's time to stress the truck attempting to drive all the way to the top of the 14,115 foot mountain! With a lot of screaming from the transmission, the truck summits the mountain without a problem! Taking time to explore the top, it's time to set my sights on home as it will be a lengthy trip back to camp.

 
 
 

Sunday September 18th, 2016

The time had come to pack up and leave Moraine and head to the next campground on the trip, Aspenglen, where I will make my home for the remaining week of the trip. Since I was busy packing things up and getting moved over, I don't have a ton of pictures however, I do have one of the night sky over my Aspenglen home on the first night! Beautiful! In addition, after making camp in Aspenglen, I finally got to see bears in Rocky Mountain National Park! Now this was an awesome adventure!

 
 
 

Monday September 19th, 2016

Apparently bears broke into a car here in camp. A mother and cubs, possibly the same spotted just the day before, peeled the door open from the top, bending the door frame until the window shattered, and climbed in for a bag of Doritos left unattended! With everyone nearby awake during the break-in, they set off car alarms to scare off the bears while rangers show up firing rubber bullets at the bears scaring them off. I somehow slept through it all!

Not to be deterred, today I packed the kayak and headed off to Grand Lake where I intended to spend a fair amount of time. I had hoped to get a hike in to the top of Shadow Mountain but, after seeing what that would take, I decided against it. Besides, I wanted more time on Grand Lake once I got a preview of the stunning scenery all around! This proved to be well worth the time out on the lake for sure! Absolutely gorgeous!


 
 

On the return trip, I would scout out potential fishing areas which is another bucket list item I was looking forward to trying. I set my sights on the Colorado River from the Kawuneeche Valley area of the park. The area looked promising to me so I made it a plan to come back to this area tomorrow and try my luck at the river's edge.

Also noteworthy on this day, heading out to Grand Lake, on Trail Ridge Road just at Alpine Lodge, the truck rolled over 220,000 miles! I will certainly remember this milestone!


Tuesday September 20th, 2016

Today I break out the fishing gear, having purchased a Colorado State fishing license earlier, intending to catch a trout in Rocky Mountain National Park! First I attempt to catch fish along the Colorado River but there doesn't seem to be anything in the water. I continue to move along but eventually head back to the east side of the park towards Sprague Lake. Once at Sprague Lake, I take a quick hike around to get an idea of where to go before settling on the inlet to the lake where several Brook Trout can be seen in the water.

After a few casts with the tried and true rod, reel, and rooster tail, I move on to the fly rod receiving no interest in my usually successful rooster tail. With a bright yellow fly, it isn't long before I have something on the line! Just a little one but a live one nonetheless! Not hardly worth the effort in my book, I turn the little guy loose insisting he grow up a bit more before giving himself for dinner.



 
 

Wednesday September 21st, 2016

The return to Flattop Mountain. This time, having packed a whole package of cooked hotdogs and 6 liters of water, I am plenty prepared for the trek to the top! Maybe a bit too prepared.... everything is so heavy but I make it to the top and then a bit farther to accomplish another goal I missed in Glacier National Park; see a glacier up close! Fortunately for me, Flattop mountain is home to Tyndall Glacier, or what's left of it, which is right near the summit! I get my close up for sure! Mission success and time to get back down out of the wind and cold. Truly a great day on the trip!

 
The weather up near the peak was nothing like what it was down below where I started this hike
 
The end is in sight! Tyndall Glacier peeking out from the cirque of Flattop Mountain!
 
Victory! After the first brutal hike failed to see the peak, this was a great day!
 
Casting a glance back at the scenery below
 
The full 360° view of the peak of Flattop Mountain! What a great feeling!
 

Thursday September 22nd, 2016

I woke up this morning with noises right outside my tent. The bear break in, still quite fresh in my memory, left me quite nervous

being all alone now after my buddy departed just days ago. Hoping it wasn't a hungry bear, I poked my head out the door of my tent and to my surprise, there was a deer staring back! Climbing out of my tent, I was pleasantly greeted by an array of wildlife playing in my campsite!

 
 

I return once more to the west side of the park to hike along the Colorado River trail in an attempt to see where the famed river, responsible for carving the Grand Canyon, gets its start. I get as close as I can but the river starts well up in the mountains with melting snow and glaciers. While on the trail, I pass through the site of Lulu City, a former gold rush town that didn't even last 20 years. As you might expect, there was barely anything left of the ruins of the town. After taking in quite a bit of the beautiful scenery, I headed back towards Trail Ridge Lodge where I was surprised to find the area stuck in the clouds! Even more to my surprise, I got to be one of the lucky individuals to see a rainbow at Rainbow Curve on Trail Ridge Road! I can imagine that both happens a lot due to the position and angle of the curve but not so much as the conditions have to be just right. What a sight to see! The best look can be found in the compilation video below.

 
 
Rainbow reaching across the sky as I near Rainbow Curve on Trail Ridge Road!
 

Friday September 23rd, 2016

Today was a very important day. My last full day in Rocky Mountain National Park! It was sad to realize this amazing adventure would soon be coming to an end. At the same time, having been gone for 2 weeks, it would be nice to get back home and get back into my daily routines (yeah... right...). I prefer to think of it as, "the next adventure can't start until the current one ends" and I have plenty more adventures on my list!

I decide to take a peek at the Horseshoe Park area of Rocky Mountain National Park exploring the Alluvial Fan, a left over path of destruction from the Lawn Lake dam failure in 1982. The scour path is reminiscent of the Ameren reservoir scour back home in Missouri. I return once more to Old Fall River Road in an attempt to get footage of the road on my GoPro cameras. This time there are no complete exhaust failures though I have noticed from days before that my exhaust is once again louder. This time the break in the exhaust occurring at one of the two pipes leading into the catalytic converter.

I realized this would by my list time on this trip traveling any part of Trail Ridge Road so I made sure to stop at the overlook for the Alluvial Fan, where I had just hiked, and stop once more at Trail Ridge Lodge. I'm certain this will not be my list visit ever to Rocky Mountain National Park but it will likely be some time before I make my way back out here again.

 
 

Before I call it a day, I make my way to Pole Hill Road in Estes Park. The closest thing I can get to off-roading in the Rockies. The road proves to be too rough and I turn back.... Not because the truck couldn't handle it but because I was very much on my own if anything did get out of hand. Playing it smart rather than leave myself stranded. There is a segment of the road traveled in the compilation video found below!


Saturday September 24th, 2016

A light snow fell overnight, my last night in the park, completing one last goal of the trip! Snowfall while camping in a National Park! Much higher up on Trail Ridge Road, a heavier snow fell closing the road until crews could clear the road for travel once more. Today is the day I start my way back home. Time to pack and try to figure out how I got all this stuff out here in the first place! Once packed, it's back towards Kansas I go stopping again at Wilson State Park. Just in time to catch a very beautiful sunset!

 
 

Sunday September 25th, 2016

I wake and pack my stuff for the last time on this trip! Now on the home stretch, I fire the truck and take off heading east towards home! It isn't very far down the road that I encounter my next problem. After passing person after person for many miles, a trucker calls me over the CB to inform me the right rear is going down and that I might want to take a look at it. Leave it to Kansas to deliver poor fuel mileage once more... This time by powering through a very flat tire! Never felt it and likely wouldn't have either! Good thing one person managed to speak up about the imminent failure of my tire or it could have been a complete blowout. After unloading half the truck just to get to the spare, swapping out the flat with the spare, it was back on the road again at full speed! With a few more hours on the road, I make it back home safe and sound on what is truly the greatest trip I have ever been on! 

 
 
 

Span of 16 days; Approximately 3,061.7 miles; Approximately 222.78 gallons of gas used; Approximate average MPG 13.74 with the highest recorded MPG of 16.7 while crossing Trail Ridge Road and lowest MPG of 10.7 crossing the back half of Kansas heading to the park; Approximately $502.19 spent on gas for an average of $2.25 per gallon


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