Based on a limited sample of 5, our impression is that our National Parks are located in gorgeous places worthy of a visit, well operated and maintained, and extremely popular. As we approached Rocky Mountain National Park (known by locals as Rocky Park) after the kiddos had gone back to school, we expected diminished crowds and lots of options. Ha! A few days before we expected to arrive, we checked the on-line reservation system and found that of the 3 campgrounds remaining open in September, there was exactly 1 site available, at Moraine Park. We booked it, not expecting much. Turns out… it may have been the most beautiful campsite in the park!
We’re also thinking National Parks are an excellent use of our tax dollars. The National Park Service (NPS) does a good job maintaining the balance between preserving the natural, stunning environment and enabling access to it. In the case of Rocky Park, 4 million people visit the park every year. Rules are established and enforced to prevent environmental damage and maintain the natural beauty, yet key areas – roads, overlooks, hiking trails, campgrounds – are developed and managed to enable maximum visitor viewing and enjoyment.
Rocky Park is gorgeous! It spans the Continental Divide in northern CO, and includes views, views and more views of an impressive ridge of 13,000-14,000 foot mountains, including the ever-recognizable Longs Peak. Elk, moose, bear, different varieties of deer, and many smaller critters and birds move around freely in their native habitat. About a third of the park is above treeline where the not-necessarily-so-barren tundra features tiny animals and plants that have evolved to flourish (OK, only for 12 weeks a year) in the cold, windy, low oxygen environment.
The scenic route through Rocky Park is the 48-mile Trail Ridge Road. Originally a Native American (Ute) path, Trail Ridge Road has been continuously improved and managed since 1915. Like the scenic routes through the other National Parks we’ve visited, the Trail Ridge winds through the park, careful to take the traveler to the most beautiful views and overlooks, trails heads, visitor/interpretative centers, engineered in some cases to preserve the natural beauty. The guiding philosophy of the NPS is that spectacular scenery should be enjoyed and preserved for future generations. Again, a nice balance.
With Doug at the helm, we took the RV over Trail Ridge Road to new heights – 12,183 feet above sea level. (It had previously reached 6,053 feet on the Blue Ridge Parkway in 2015.) We crossed the Continental Divide and saw the source of the Colorado River, making its way to the Gulf of California. Every turn, every turnout, every overlook had a different jaw-dropping view to delight the Destinators. Even while driving, Doug continuously expressed ‘cool,’ wow’ or ‘this is just beautiful.’
The highlight of our stay in Rocky Park was our hike. Not yet fully adjusted to the 8,000 foot elevation, we opted for the 9-mile, kindly named ‘Lakes Hike,’ aka the Fern Lake, Odessa Lake, Lake Helene, Bear Lake Hike. This one-way hike would take us to a hikers’ shuttle bus that would take us back to the campground. The weather was perfect – cool with mostly blue skies. Little did we know, Lake Helene, at 10,620 feet, is the source of the Big Thompson River which feeds into the Platte River (did you read our Four State post?), touching the tree line and within sight of the Continental Divide. We truly enjoyed the day on a great trail, surrounded by cliffs, views, glaciers, and visiting the 4 lakes.
Although the terrain was rugged and difficult to farm and travel, the Utes considered the Rockies sacred, enabling them to climb closer to their creator. No matter what you believe, there’s something special about climbing high in the Rocky Mountains.