Joel’s Journal: Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
By Joel Raeber
Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado offers some of the most spectacular scenic and natural wonders in the Rockies. With elevations ranging from 8,000 feet in the valleys to 14,259 feet at the weather-ravaged top of Longs Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park provides visitors with opportunities for countless breathtaking experiences. There are also many cultural treasures including ancient trails, ranches, and lodges.
The park is located along the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, about a two-hour drive northwest from Denver, Colorado. From Interstate 25, take U.S. 34 at Loveland, Colorado, or U.S. 36 from Boulder through Estes Park, Colorado. Both highways lead to the national park, west of the town.
There are five drive-in campgrounds that offer a variety of camping experiences in Rocky Mountain National Park. Three campgrounds, Moraine Park, Glacier Basin, and Aspenglen, are on the reservation system. Longs Peak and Timber Creek campgrounds are first-come, first-served. There are also 200 backcountry campsites for backpackers available with a backcountry camping permit.
Aspenglen Campground (elevation 8200 feet, 54 sites) is located on US Route 34, just west of the Fall River Entrance Station. Reservations are accepted and recommended. Recreational vehicle and trailer length limit is 30 feet. Loop A is for tents only, including walk-ins; B and C Loops allow campers and RVs. Generators are only allowed in C Loop.
Glacier Basin Campground (elevation 8500 feet, 150 sites) is on Bear Lake Road approximately six miles south of the Beaver Meadow Entrance Station. Reservations are available and recommended for Loops C & D. A & B Loops are first-come, first-served. Vehicle and trailer length limit is 35 feet.
Moraine Park Campground (elevation 8160 ft., 245 sites) is located in a ponderosa pine forest above Moraine Park on Bear Lake Road approximately two and a half miles south of the Beaver Meadows Entrance Station. This campground is open year round. Reservations are accepted and recommended from May through October. Sites are first-come, first-served the rest of the year.
Timber Creek Campground (elevation 8900 feet, 98 sites) is located along the Colorado River in the Kawuneeche Valley on US Highway 34 approximately 10 miles north of Grand Lake on the west side of the park. Recreational vehicle and trailer length limit is 30 feet. This campground is open year round, first-come, first-served.
Longs Peak Campground (elevation 9500 feet, 26 sites), located approximately nine miles south of the town of Estes Park on Route 7, is a tent-only campground, open year round. Campsites are all first-come, first-served. The trailhead to Longs Peak and other destinations is a short distance away.
The park’s entry fee is $20 for vehicles, valid for seven consecutive days. The National Park Service also has a variety of passes for seniors over age 62, handicapped and volunteers who have acquired 500 service hours. The camping fee is an additional $20/site/night. There are no electric, water or sewer hookups at any campsites, and water is turned off in the winter, even at the year-round campgrounds.
Trail Ridge Road is the Rocky Mountain National Park’s heavily traveled highway to the sky. Traveling the 48 miles between Estes Park on the park's east side, Trail Ridge Road (U.S. 34) winds across the mountains and tundra to its high point at 12,183 feet elevation before heading down to Grand Lake on the west side. The road offers visitors thrilling views, wildlife and spectacular alpine wildflowers. At all elevations, the drive on Trail Ridge Road is memorable. Put aside at least a half day for the trip. Trailers and RVs are not permitted along the drive.
Eleven miles of this high highway are above tree line, the elevation near 11,500 feet where the park's evergreen forests come to a halt. Trail Ridge Road travelers climb some 4,000 feet in a matter of minutes. Forests of aspen and pine change to a subalpine forest of fir and spruce, and at tree line, the stunted trees give way to alpine tundra where conditions resemble those found in the Canadian or Alaskan Arctic.
The tundra is normally windy and 20 to 30 degrees colder than Estes Park or Grand Lake with high ultraviolet intensity. But the views from the marked road pullovers are spectacular, sweeping north to Wyoming, east across the Front Range cities and Great Plains, south and west into the heart of the Rockies.
Pikas, marmots, ptarmigans and bighorn sheep are commonly seen. About 200 species of tiny alpine plants cover the ground, despite a growing season that may last just 40 days. Many brighten the green summer tundra with swatches of yellow, red, pink, blue, purple, and white. Moraines, heaps of earth and rock debris left behind by melting Ice Age glaciers, rise above lush mountain meadows.
The road crosses the Continental Divide at Milner Pass, where streams flow both east and west. Moose are often seen in the upper reaches of the Colorado River, which flows through the scenic Kawuneeche Valley near the Timber Creek Campground. Grazing elk are found in forest-rimmed meadows throughout the park.
More than 350 miles of hiking trails, ranging from flat lakeside strolls to steep mountain peak climbs, provide access to the park. The rangers at the visitor centers can provide advice about trails which are appropriate to different fitness and experience levels, as well as weather conditions.
There are also a variety of ranger-led walks to help you learn more about the park and bring you closer to nature.
At 14,259 feet, Longs Peak towers above all other summits in Rocky Mountain National Park. This flat-topped mountain is seen from almost anywhere in the park. Changing weather reflects Longs Peak's many moods.
In the summer, thousands of hikers attempt the climb to Longs' summit. The East Longs Peak Trail (Keyhole Route) is eight miles, one-way, with an elevation gain of 4,850 feet. The average time for a round trip is 12 hours.
The Keyhole Route is Longs Peak's only non-technical hiking trail. It is open for hiking for only a few months most summers, usually mid-July through mid-September. Early morning, way before dawn, is the preferred start time. Clouds build in the afternoon sky, often bringing in storms with heavy rain, thunder and dangerous lightning. The early morning start allows time for hikers to be back below tree line before the weather turns.
Campers and hikers, even very fit individuals, coming from lower elevations may experience altitude problems. Because of the park’s elevations range (from 8,000 feet to over 14,000 feet) your body will take a few days to acclimate to higher elevations, and full acclimation may take weeks. To minimize symptoms, drink plenty of fluids, avoid alcohol, don't skip meals and get plenty of rest.
Also, the "thinner" air at high elevations actually results in increased water evaporation from your lungs. Drinking extra water may prevent a bad headache or other altitude symptoms. Also, because there is less atmosphere for the sunlight to pass through, ultraviolet light is stronger in the mountains. Wear sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses if you are out in the sun for an extended period.
There are at least 60 mountains over 12,000 feet in the Rocky Mountain National Forest, topping off at 14,259 feet on the summit of Longs Peak. Although the great peaks of the Rocky Mountain Front Range comprise the essence of the park, the delicate alpine flowers, clear lakes and mountain streams have special appeal. Wildlife, from bighorn sheep, moose and elk to ptarmigan and coyote add life to the landscape.
The high country of Rocky Mountain National Park is noted for extreme weather patterns. The elevation, steep slopes, and exposure can cause patterns to change rapidly. Temperatures are often moderate at elevations below 9,000 ft. At higher points, like Bear Lake, Trail Ridge Road, or Longs Peak, it may snow even in July. Also, mountain weather often has a wide variation between day and nighttime temperatures. Summer days in July and August often reach the 70s or 80s and drop into the 40s at night.
Pets are permitted in the park, but not on trails or in the backcountry. They are only allowed in areas accessed by vehicles, including roadsides, parking areas, picnic areas and campgrounds. They must be kept on a leash no longer than six feet and attended at all times. Pet boarding facilities are available at several locations in Estes Park and Grand Lake outside the park.
Approximately 260 miles of trails in Rocky Mountain National Park are open to commercial and private horse use. Horse packing is managed to maintain the natural resources and unique ecosystems in the park. Horses, mules, ponies, llamas and burros are all allowed specified on park trails. Stock is permitted at established backcountry campsites. There are two stables located within the park at Glacier Creek Stables and Moraine Park Stables.
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