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Rocky Mountain

National Parks

Of all the spectacular Western destinations, Rocky Mountain National Park is the closest to Kentucky. It is an easy two day drive out I-64 and I-70, with one overnight stop each way at the Lawrence (Kansas) KOA, the best commercial campground we've seen. Once you've build a skill and organizational background with trips to, say, Bryce and Zion, Rocky Mountain is a natural next step. It takes you into the high country, up on the Continental Divide. This is not a day hiker's park. It's a long distance backpacking park. The day hikes come as side trips from campsites way out on the trail. You can spend a week at the desert canyon parks with a minimum of equipment, but when you move up to Rocky Mountain NP, you need the long underwear, down sleeping bags, hooded parkas and sweatshirts, Goretex rain gear, and heavy duty tents. We've endured hail, sleet, ice, rain and snow, sometimes all on the same night, in July and August. Your odds are about 100% of experiencing heavy rain around 3 pm every day for about 30 minutes, and if you're up on the Divide, it will probably be accompanied by lightning and ear splitting thunder. This is no place for the fainthearted.
You're also going to come face to face with some big animals, in camp, sometimes challenging you for food or equipment. We've had mountain lions looking across at us while drinking from a stream. Porcupines have opened up our packs. Rockchucks have rummaged through our pots and pans. Birds of prey have coasted down to share a log with us while checking out the area for prey. Elk have awakened us at dawn peering into our tents. And, in one of our all time classic stories, a moose picked up a backpack in his teeth and ran off down the trail with it with its owner chasing it in his underwear, yelling and screaming and throwing sticks at it. The moose dropped it half a mile away.

Don't even think of a Rocky Mountain trip in June. The snow does not melt off the trails until July, and you'll still be crossing traces of it on shaded north facing slopes. There are a hundred great routes crisscrossing this park, and once you've been there you can look around and plan your second trip. But for your first experience, we recommend you take I-25 up from Denver, turn off at Loveland, and enter the park through Big Thompson Canyon. Resist the temptation to stop in Estes Park, and take Trail Ridge Road over Milner Pass, stopping at the Visitor Center up at 12,000 ft. Coming down into the west side of the park, camp that first night at Winding River Ranch, just outside Grand Lake. You're right across the road from Kawunechee Visitor Center, where you pick up your trail permits. You want reservations at Big Meadow, Timberline two nights, July, North Inlet Junction, and Cascade Falls. This will give you a seven day loop with two side day hikes. But you need to make reservations the previous September.

Next morning, you can drive over, park at the trailhead, and head out on the Tonahutu Creek Trail. Your entire first day will be a nice warmup, a level hike through a forested valley.You'll be heading steadily north, and by late afternoon you'll come to the footbridge leading over to Big Meadow campsite, an island out in marshy wetlands (see photo right). Any fishermen you have will fill your skillets with fresh trout. You'll watch elk and moose foraging in the marsh while you fix dinner. As the sun angles down, you'll see clouds of mosquitoes rising from the grass, which will fill you with paranoia, but hold on. You'll also see an army of dragonflies appear and mow whole swaths through the mosquitoes. It's an amazing sight. Once the sun totally sets, and the chill sets in, all the insects will be gone. You can sit around your campfire in your hooded sweatshirt in peace. You'll see various small critters hanging around, so you'll need to hang food and take all the usual precautions. But it's a beautiful campsite.
The second day is more challenging, You're in forest all the way, but the trail maintains a steady upward pace. You'll have people begin to straggle after lunch, as the trail climbs further and further and the altitude begins to affect oxygen intake. But even with an hour lunch break, you should begin arriving at Timberline campsite (elev. 11,000 ft.) by about 4 pm. Once everyone collapses for 15 or 20 minutes to rest their legs, you'll really enjoy this location (see photo at left). You have a stream splashing down off the mountain. Across the stream, you're looking up at a mile of cliffs, caves, boulders, ledges and rubble. Mountain lions inhabit those caves, and you are likely to see at least one, coming down for a drink or moving along the cliffs. You're also in elk and moose terrain, and they wander through your camp. We stay here two nights and day hike up to Haynach Lake while we adjust to the higher altitude and rest our legs for the difficult climb on the fourth day. Once the sun sets, temperatures here will plummet.
The Fourth Day is an athletic event. You'll be climbing Flat Top Mountain (12, 324 ft.), hiking across it, then descending the other side to July Campsite. The climb up from Timberline is a relentlessly steep grind. You leave tree cover behind as soon as you leave Timberline Campsite, so prepare to shed some clothing layers as the morning warms up. As you climb, the views open up, and eventually you'll be looking 360 degrees over the entire park. You could shoot several rolls of film, and you'll pause several times to rest your legs. But you can't stop too long. It is essential you get across the top of the mountain and at least partway down the switchbacks before 3 pm, because right about then the daily weather erupts. The hail, sleet, ice, rain, snow and wind will be bad enough. But the real threat is the lightning. This is more than a fireworks display. It's dangerous. You'd be the highest point on a treeless plateau at 12,000 ft. You'd need to find a depression, take off your pack, and lay down.
The trip across the top is surreal. You're crossing tundra, surrounded by patches of snow. The sun is bright but the wind is icy. The trail is marked by rock cairns, seen in the center photo above. You'll be entertained by rockchucks, cousins to groundhogs, who live in burrows or rockpiles. Also shown in the center photo, they whistle at you as you pass. You can put your pack down and chase them across the rocks and they'll disappear and reappear behind you with a whistle, cheerfully playing hide and seek as long as you want. Just east of the trail you'll be passing a dozen glaciers, although you'll have to walk over and look down to see them. And, after a lunch stop at the main trail intersection where the Bear Lake Trail heads down to the eastern section of the park, you can actually see the weather fronts forming down in the valleys to the west. Don't think that once you start down the switchbacks (photo at left), your day is done. You can see July Campsite in the trees below you, but the switchbacks are steep and footing can be treacherous. Snow will cover the turns. And if you're caught by a slashing rain or sleet, the switchbacks will be your worst nightmare. Keep raingear handy
July Campsite is so named because it is under deep snowdrifts until July. You'll find the snow gone and the forested sites beautiful. We only stay here one night, but if you hiked this circle in reverse you could make this a two night stop and spend a day exploring the rocks, shown to the left in another shot looking down from the switchbacks. This is the site where mule deer graze right up to our tents, porcupine dig into our packs, and rockchucks rummage through our pots and pans. And that's with our food raised and all the usual precautions taken. We always serve Shepherd's Pie this night because it's our group's favorite trail meal, and this is the most exhausting leg of the trip. Like Timberline, temperatures here will really chill down as the sun sets and the breeze begins blowing cold air down off the snowpack. You'll need your down bags and hooded sweatshirts. But we also sleep really well here after the trek over Flat Top Mountain. Mornings here come late, because we're tucked down under the mountain and the sun doesn't reach this valley until 10 am or so.
From here on we're coasting. The main trail is steadily downhill for three days, past beautiful water falls, through deep pine forest. So we have time to play. The backpack on Day Five is the shortest of the trip, downhill two miles to North Inlet Junction. We get there by late morning and set up camp along one of those old swimming holes you might see in a Hollywood movie. First, however, we take only our fanny packs and day hike the 2.8 miles up to Lake Nanita, in a bowl below Mt. Andrews. It's a great stop for a late lunch, with the view in the middle above. The trail switchbacks up past those other lakes. The hike back down puts us in camp by 3 pm, and we relax with a cool dip in the swimming hole. Day Six we hike three miles down to Cascade Falls. There are no side trails, but we can either play in the pool below the falls or explore off trail up either Nisa Mountain (10,788 ft.) or Mt. Enentah (10, 781 ft.). Day Seven we hike on through Summerland Park, an old resort, and out to the Kawuneeche Visitor Center.
Before heading home, you might consider a day in Grand Lake. You could eat in one of the restaurants, shop in the souvenir stores, and even stay in one of the motels with their hot showers. It's a classic old Western town, and we always get a kick out of it. Then you could drive out the back way, Route 34, hit I-70, and head home. Or you could retrace your route back to the eastern side of the park, spend a night in Estes Park with its crowds and yuppie atmosphere, and head out through Loveland. Don't forget to check out the old hotel used in the Jack Nicholson film "The Shining."
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