Rocky Mountain National Park provided the scenery I had so desperately been seeking on our road trip. They look quite similar to the Canadian Rocky Mountains, and it was nice to have a reminder of what it was like around where I live. However, the number of people was at least four times that of the Canadian National Parks, but that's fine with me since I'd rather have them down there than up here. Also included in this review is Estes Park, which is where most people visiting the park would stay, as it is just on the boundary to the national park.
We drove into Rocky Mountain National Park the west, after having spent the past week in Vail and a day in Utah. The driving on the two lane highway wasn't bad, at least not until we reached the beginning of the switchbacks that took you up to the ridge of the mountain (I don't see why they didn't just contour around the mountain). Once the switchbacks began a number of RVs and other gutless vehicles too large for the road really held things up, and passing wasn't exactly easy as you didn't have great visibility. Luckily, most of the people didn't seem to come to this side of the park, most would just go from Estes Park to the top of the mountain and then turn around. The western side of RMNP is where to go if you want to get more nature and less people. After the unnerving drive up and down the ridge you come to Estes Park (a town) where most people stay. Following our few nights staying at Estes Park we proceeded on towards the Black Hills National Forest in South Dakota.
We didn't do much of anything on the western side of the park, as there didn't appear to be much other than some rest stops. However, there are hiking trails, just not the typical tourist ones that get heavy traffic. The scenery mainly consisted of pine trees, marshes, lakes (prime moose country); the mountains were growing rockier looking the further east you went.
Once you get above treeline on the ridge road, more and more cars begin showing up and the views obviously improve. Near the highest point of the mountain is a fairly large visitors center that was incredibly busy - the gift store had about 100 people in it, the cafeteria had too many to count, while the educational area had maybe 5 people at a time. There were some very neat pictures of the area in the visitors center. A little ways further along the road at a slightly higher point we went for a short walk, where we saw some mountain goats. I also witnessed a family from Massachusetts that couldn't comprehend the signs that said, "stay on the trail." Perhaps they couldn't see the sensitive alpine flowers they were walking all over and connect the two things together...
Driving down the other side wasn't really any better for traffic; it actually got worse with the increased vehicle volume. There wasn't anything terribly interesting along the way that I noticed, but I've lived near similar scenery my entire life so that comes as no surprise.
Estes Park was an okay town - around a 4/5. We had made reservations about a week before for a campsite, and didn't have any difficulty finding a spot. There were also a number of hotels and motels, with prices ranging from $60 - $200 a night; I didn't see any hotels that looked incredibly nice. About 1/3 of the hotels had No Vacancy signs up at night, and the campground only filled up one of the three nights - and it was late in the day. I believe the campground we stayed in was called Mary's Lake Campground, or something like that, and it wasn't great, but the washrooms were clean. Our site was right next to a road, so every time a car drove by the tent would light up as if it were being abducted by aliens; and two of the three nights had people partying in a site near ours, so sleeping wasn't great. We only tried one restaurant, and I can't recall the name of it but it had something to do with ducks (there were all sorts of birds flying around outside). The food and service was all good, but the prices were a bit high for what you got. There was a number of stores to go shopping at during the night, but nothing seemed unique to the area - just the typical tacky American souvenirs.
As for hiking in the park, our main hike was about 16 miles (round trip) into Black Lake. We started early and therefore were able to park at the trailhead (it's marked as the trailhead to Alberta Falls), and not need to take the shuttle. Once we passed Alberta Falls (they were nice, but not something I'd say you shouldn't miss), the number of people greatly decreased and made for a pleasurable time. I would say it is a moderately difficult hike, not something for families, but nothing too tolling. Black Lake was actually blackish when you went up higher and looked down at it, but at its shore it's just a typical mountain lake. As an option you can go up further to a second lake, and we started doing that but then the daily lightning/hail/rain storm began and it was fierce, forcing us to turn around. It lasted for about 15 minutes, and by the time it was over there were drifts of hail all over the trail - it was quite chilly on the feet. We took out a tarp to shield us from the hail, as you would be surprised how much something so small can hurt so much. Weather is a major concern if you are going out into exposed areas, as almost every day there is a lightning storm at about 3:30 pm, and therefore people attempting peaks like Longs Peak must start very early in the day for there safety. I highly suggest the Black Lake trail if youre up to it, it really was quiet nice overall.
Another hike (it was more like walking through a mall) we did was a short little one to Emerald Lake that had some nice scenery, but being the anti-social person that I am, it wasn't too enjoyable for me. It's one that you would do if you have a family and rarely walk, as the trail is paved much of the way and very easy. It was quick and easy, and if you get there early in the day or late in the afternoon you'd avoid some of the crowd.
I wish I had a few more days in Rocky Mountain National Park, so I could do a few more hikes, but we were sort of on a schedule that wasn't too flexible. I liked the area, to spite the throngs of people, and of all the areas in Colorado I did visit, it was the only part that was close to what I did expect. In the winter I doubt there is much you could do, maybe a little bit of cross-country skiing and that's it. If you can block out the people and just go with the flow, you should thoroughly enjoy the park.
If interested in the rest of the road trip, here are links to the other portions of it:
Yellowstone National Park
Grand Teton National Park
The Vail Area
Rocky Mountain National Park
Arches National Park
Jewel Cave National Monument (South Dakota)
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Best time to go: June-August