Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Exploring the Alpine Side of Rocky Mountain National Park

In the past week we'd experienced some heavy afternoon thunder storms, especially in the local mountains. Knowing we wanted to hike on the alpine tundra, we picked a day with no rain in the forecast to drive Trail Ridge Road through Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) from Grand Lake (where we are staying) to Estes Park, and back.

We were hopeful that making the drive on a Monday would have fewer crowds...but that was not to be. Mid summer, on a beautiful day, and the crowds later in the afternoon seemed as bad as any weekend. We got a fairly early start (8:15am) on the day, so the trail was not too busy when we arrived at about 9:30am.

We chose to hike the Ute Trail at Ute Crossing. The trail sits right about treeline, 11,400 ft, and stays around that elevation for about two miles, offering incredible views of the surrounding mountains, before dropping steeply down to Beaver Meadows on the Estes Park side of RMNP. We just hiked the upper level, enjoying this amazing, unique terrain and several animal sightings too.

First though, the day started off with another moose sighting in the RV park! We've noticed that they are more likely to enter the RV park on the quieter week days...

It is so exciting to start the day off with a moose right outside your window!

View from the Alpine Visitor Center in Rocky Mountain National Park.

At a stop on the way to the trail head we saw our first group of bull elk:

Take a look at the view these elk get to enjoy all day!

The views into the alpine basins were amazing.

At the trail head we struck off across open tundra. The tundra here was different than tundra we have recently hiked near Ouray; it was drier and supported fewer and much smaller flowers. It reminded us of tundra we have hiked near Ustaoset, Norway: low, windswept mosses and grasses among small boulders...though this was much drier than Norway.

One felt dwarfed by the immensity of the landscape all around.

Close up of the tundra...nature's ground cover.
Scattered haphazardly all over the mesa were these lovely rock ponds.
A sampling of tundra flowers.

Nearing the edge of the mesa before it drops down in the direction of Estes Park.
The peak near the center is Longs Peak.
View down into Estes Park and Beaver Meadows.

Heading back towards the truck we went off trail to climb some of the big boulder piles nearby
and discovered a herd of female elk with their young just out of sight of the trail!

Another pretty pond...any "trees" growing on the tundra are very
close to the ground. Though small, they could be hundreds of years old.

Another fabulous view not far from the trail head. You can see we are right
above the tree line. Look closely at the rock in the center of the photo...

A couple of marmots sun bathing!

After this wonderful hike we continued our drive through the park. At this point we had reached the East side of the park, closer to Estes Park and much closer to major metropolitan areas of Colorado, and the traffic and number of people exploded! As we drove through Estes Park, headed for a grocery store, we were amazed at how congested the area was compared to Grand Lake, CO where we are staying. We were extremely happy we had chosen to stay on the West side of the park, away from this madness!

Following the necessary grocery stop, we took the one-way, dirt Old Fall River Road back to the West side of the park. This road comes out at the Alpine Visitor Center at the top of the park. It was shorter than driving back the way we had come, but was also rather frustrating. It's a good dirt road so many, many people take it, and some are driving 5 - 10 mph, with very few turnouts or places to park. If you drive this road make sure you are feeling patient!

Very little snow remains near the Alpine Visitor Center.

Notice the number of people on this short, paved trail at the Alpine Visitor Center!

We really enjoyed the hike on the tundra and seeing lots of elk during our drive and hike in RMNP. The summertime crowds in the park in the afternoon are extreme, and this was on a Monday. Get an early start to a day in the park and you won't be disappointed!


  1. Absolutely gorgeous photos. We cannot wait to hike there! We just traveled to New Mexico, and on a bit of a whim (i.e., we hadn't really trained for it), did the Wheeler Peak summit hike near Taos, which I highly recommend if you two haven't done it. Many of the views look somewhat similar, though we saw Mountain Goats instead of Elk. Marmots too! We are hoping to purchase our first RV next year and have been enjoying your blog. Very inspirational! Thanks for sharing your photos and stories.

  2. It is just amazing the difference in the park now and when we were there at the beginning of June. We saw about 50 yards of the Ute Trail but the rest was snow covered, as were many of the higher elevation trails. It was a wonderful time to visit as far as tourist were concerned but some trails were still too deep with snow. However, many trails were just opening up so we lucked out in some cases. The Ute Trail across the tundra looks beautiful. I love that you are wearing jackets.

    Estes Park had more elk population than people. Isn't it amazing how many elk there are! I have never seen so many huge antlers in one area. I have a ton of pictures as you can imagine.

    How neat that you got to drive the Old Fall River Road! Too bad others found it also. It was closed while we were there. It doesn't open til July:(

    Glad you are enjoying your time there. LOVE the moose photos. Keep them coming. Hope Rosie has befriended them:)