As I continue my northern trek up through Colorado, I sit at the crossroads. I want to visit Rocky Mountain National Park. Though I’ve been there before, it’s been many years, so I remember very little.
Besides, I am longing for some “ready made hiking.” I grow weary having to research every inch of my life. What are those noises and hiccups that the Winnie and Tracker make, and where can I get them fixed? What are the road conditions ahead? Weather research now includes not just storm clouds but smoke clouds as well. Where are the legal overnight spots? What are my best options for campgrounds?
And then, there’s recreation. Everything from this point north is an unknown which requires not just research, but a strong signal to do so, which is no small feat in Colorado with AT&T. So when I finally come to a place like one of our national parks, it’s a relief to know well marked hiking routes will be spelled out for me just like in menu form, with easiest to most difficult including the price to pay in distance and elevation gain. It’s nice to have my homework done for me for a change, albeit briefly.
But do I turn in a more northeasterly direction, heading towards Boulder and Longmont and approach Rocky Mountain National Park from the more popular, crowded east side of Estes Park? Or do I head northwest toward Grandby for the quieter western side?
I’ve got no reservations in a national park that reportedly books up six months in advance. And the only first come first served campground appears to be on the west side. But the east side has all the more noteworthy attractions, along with a shuttle service to the trail heads. Yes, there is a road that connects the two sides of the park, Trail Ridge Road, but at over 12,000 ft with hairpin turns, no shoulder and steep drop-offs with no guard rail, I am not keen to drive across in the Winnie towing a car. So I must pick one side or the other, east vs west.
If I head up toward the east, I can also make a stop to visit two of my favorite breweries along the way in Longmont, Oskar Blues and Left Hand. But it’s hot in the lowlands. Like 90 plus. In spite of the cold beer options in Longmont, I just can’t take the heat, so it’s settled. I want to stay at higher elevation as much as possible, so I’ll head west.
The little town of Grand Lake is the gateway to the western side of the park. It’s a quaint little mountain town developed alongside a small arm of it’s namesake, Grand Lake, the largest natural lake in Colorado. Its western-style main street is lined with the kind of restaurants with peanut shells on the floor. There are coffee shops and the ubiquitous homemade-style ice cream shop. But you’d better get what you need before 9:00pm, as everything, even the gas station and market close at 9pm. If one should discover, for example, their Diet Coke supply has just run out at 8:55pm, that person would be SOL. (Checked the Laundromat, scoured the hotel lobbies in town. Nowhere to be found…not even a freekin’ vending machine!! Addiction is a bitch! But I digress.)
Next up the road just before you reach the gates to the national park is the beautiful Grand Lake Lodge. Even though this lodge sits just outside the park, it is built in the early 1920’s style of the grand park lodges. Beautiful views can be had from their large front porch. Between the porch and the lake is a lovely terrace with huge fire pit and surround-seating area, with views overlooking the town and the lake. It’s a good place for a dinner treat and a wifi fix. Or at a minimum, a nice glass of red beside the fire.
Through the western side of the park runs the park’s only volcanic range, the “Never Summer Mountains.” I love that many of them are named after clouds. I am reminded of my high school science class as I read the names; Mt Stratus (12,520,) Mt Nimbus (12,706,) Mt Cumulus (12,725,) and Mt Sirrus (12,797.) The valley below the Never Summer Mountains, Kawuneeche Valley, is named for the Arapaho Indians who inhabited the area in the early 1800’s. Before the Arapaho, it was the Ute Indians, believed to be here for 6,000 years.
The RMNP Visitor Center on the west side of the park is named for the Kawuneeche. I stop in for info on hiking in the area, and overhear a conversation with a ranger when a visitor asks “Where can I see a moose?” to which he answers, “Just look for the cars.” It doesn’t take long to see what he means, as I come to stalled traffic on my way to the campground. Is it an accident? Construction? No, just a lone moose grazing on the side of the road.
Even arriving mid-week in RMNP’s only “first come first serve” site is risky for an RVer, as I get the last site large enough to accommodate my meager 24 ft in the tightly packed Timber Creek Campground. Were it not for the extremely helpful campground host who guided me in, inch by inch until the Winnie was within a hairline of hanging out into the road, I wouldn’t have fit in that one either. The site is so small, the itty-bitty Tracker must park in overflow!
The Colorado River runs right beside the Timber Creek Campground. In fact, it gets its meager start in the Never Summer Mountains forming from the Continental Divide, flowing through the Kawuneeche Valley, meeting up with hundreds of tributaries to flow 1,400 miles to the Gulf of California. The kiosk near the campground reads, “This vast watershed provides most of the Southwest with water for agriculture, industry, and growing populations. To meet these demands, modern civilization has harnessed this once wild river with many dams and diversions along its course – until only a trickle reaches Mexico.” Take heed.
Hiking is good on the western side offering views of old town sites, meandering along the clear Colorado River, and scenic vistas. I find enough to keep me occupied for six days. But I tell my friend Maureen in an email “It’s pretty….but it doesn’t hold a candle to the San Juans.” Albeit quiet with lighter crowds, I would discover a couple of weeks later why all the masses are drawn to the eastern side…