Rocky Mountain National Park - Longs Peak
Rocky Mountain National Park – Longs Peak

Now that I’m back from my Thanksgiving Trip it’s time to get back to blogging about the previous trip! I need to catch up…

We had set aside a couple of days to spend in Rocky Mountain National Park. The closest I’ve ever been to the Rockies is in an airplane so I was looking forward to spending some time in my favorite terrain: above 10k ft.

After spending the night in the lovely Grand Lake, CO we headed into the park via the West entrance and stopped briefly at the visitor’s center. It was quiet and empty and a ranger took his time to talk us through some ways we could spend the two days we had in the park. My original plans were focused around climbing Longs Peak on Day 2 but recent storms had left the upper part of the peak ice covered and dangerous. Instead, we decided to check out some different places in the park and look for wildlife and fall colors.

Big Meadow, Green Mountain Trail
Big Meadow, Green Mountain Trail

Our first stop was the Green Mountain trail. It was a lower elevation relatively easy hike that would take us by some meadows where we might see a moose or two. The ranger had recommended it as our best chance of a sighting for that time of day so we took off from the car with cameras in tow. Alas, the moose hid from us and all we got to see was some nice mountain terrain. Darn. (yes that was sarcastic).

High-Elevation (12k) elk along Trail Ridge Road
High-Elevation (12k) elk along Trail Ridge Road

Since it was out first visit, we continued along Trail Ridge Road and did all the touristy stops and viewpoints. We saw tons of elk, pikas, and fall colors. It was beautiful and desolate and very different than my Sierra. I’m used to sharp granite terrain and high alpine meadows at 12k, not rolling gentle tundra. I was kind of surprised – my expectations of the Rockies being as dramatic as the Eastern Sierra were not met. However, it was quite beautiful in its own different way.

Tundra Trail, a 'tourist' trail at 11,000+ feet.
Tundra Trail, a ‘tourist’ trail at 11,000+ feet.

We made our way down to the Moraine Campground on the east side of the park by mid-afternoon. Many of the park’s campgrounds had closed the prior weekend for the winter season but we were able to book a decent site. It’s usually not our style to stay in busy campgrounds but it’s convenient to have a place reserved in a park where we’re not familiar with off-the-beaten-track alternates.

After settling in at our campsite we decided to spend the last few hours of daylight hiking the Cub Lake/Fern Canyon loop out of the campground. It was a beautiful loop with all kinds of bright fall colors. The surface of Cub Lake was blanketed in lily pads and ducks. On the return loop through Fern Canyon we walked by a really interesting looking cluster of boulders dusted with chalk – clearly a popular climbing place and I wish I’d brought my shoes.

Cub Lake and Fall Colors
Cub Lake and Fall Colors

As we were walking the final mile or so back to camp we heard the weirdest sounds – a whistling grunting noise. It took a few listens to determine that it was the elk herds in Moraine Meadows, rutting and making all kinds of commotion. Though it was quite entertaining they went all night and I had to put in my ear plugs to sleep through it.

An elk harem next to camp
An elk harem next to camp

The next morning we got up and drove to Bear Lake, a popular destination for fall colors. During much of the year they recommend a shuttle due to the overflowing parking, but we were there early enough that we got parking and headed off down the trail. Bear Lake was beautiful with its bright yellow aspens, but I really enjoyed the area once we got about 1/2 mile up the trail to Flattop Mountain. We left the tourons behind and had the trail mostly to ourselves all the way to the summit.

Flattop Mountain Trail Aspens
Flattop Mountain Trail Aspens

Pika on the Flattop Trail (click for larger)
Pika on the Flattop Trail (click for larger)

The summit of Flattop is, well, flat. And kind of boring. But the hike offers great views of the surrounding peaks (including Longs), fall colors (amazing aspen groves throughout the first mile) and lots of wildlife (I saw more pikas than I could count). We wanted something that would occupy our morning and it was a perfect morning hike.

Flattop Summit
Flattop Summit

By afternoon we were on the road to Boulder to begin the middle segment of the roadtrip – the Great American Beer Festival (with some interesting non-beer daytrips – the next post)!

Links:

Green Mountain Trail

Cub Lake Loop

FlatTop

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  1. Tom

    my expectations of the Rockies being as dramatic as the Eastern Sierra were not met.

    Try Wyoming’s Wind River Range.

    OK, there’s no 10,000 foot drop from summit to valley, but there is lots of impressive granite.

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