Road Trip Day 28: Rocky Mountain National Park and Denver

It was awfully cold this morning. It had been cold all night, and when we came out of the tent we found that the ground was covered in frost. The tent area of the Elk Creek Campground (which is quite nice despite yesterday night’s experience; I would love to be able to recommend it) is surrounded by a creek, so you have to cross a little footbridge to get to the main building where the bathrooms are, and another little footbridge to get to where the tent campers park their cars. These bridges were quite white with frost – this is where I could see things getting dangerous in the dark, once the temperature drops. It was nice to have access to a nice warm bathroom. We got dressed and ready, quickly broke down our tent (with cold numb hands), and drove off around 8:15 am.

After I managed to get some tea at a little market in Grand Lake, we stopped just outside the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park, at the Kawuneeche Visitor Center. We explained to the ranger that we were visiting for the first time, that we were only there for the day, and that we were looking for a nice, flat, 3-4 mile hike. She gave us several suggestions and a couple of maps, and sent us on our way.

Her first suggestion took us back through the town of Grand Lake to a trailhead called East Inlet. Before we hit the trail, we sat in the car and ate the yummy muffins we had bought yesterday at the Moab farmer’s market. We then walked 0.3 miles to see Adams Falls. As we hiked in, we saw a deer quite close the trail, having her breakfast. A few yards later was another one, though further away and harder to photograph.

Adams Falls were lovely. The loop trail took us to an overlook above a particularly steep part of the falls (where they take a sharp left turn into a very cool gorge), then up above where the falls are a bit calmer, then back to the trail out. We saw the same deer, still having breakfast, and headed back to the car.

We drove back to the park entrance and officially entered Rocky Mountain National Park. Not far along the road we noticed that a number of cars had congregated along the road, usually a sign that there is some wildlife to be seen. We stopped and it took a while to see what they had been looking at. There was a moose – and, as I noticed some moments later, her baby – grazing behind some low trees at the other end of the meadow. Most likely the moose had been out in the open just before we got there, because a lot of people drove away just as we arrived. We couldn’t see them clearly, but we spent some time watching them anyway, trying to get a better view.

Our next destination was the Holzwarth Trailhead. Before we turned in, Dave spotted some wildlife here as well. Just off the parking lot, we could see an elk. As we joined a gaggle of tourists at the edge of the parking lot, I noticed that the entire herd was in the meadow just behind this individual elk, and that the viewing was much better from the trail. Dave hurried over to the trail with his camera, while I gathered our water bottles, since we were planning to hike that direction anyway. As I came up the trail, I was able to see a dozen or so elk mamas and babies, which were starting to gallop away. A volunteer ranger passed me and chatted with me a for a few minutes. “Nice little herd,” he said.

The trail here is a flat lovely half-mile carriage road through the main meadow of the Kawuneeche Valley and across the Colorado River. The river here is charming – just a few miles from its source, it’s more like a stream than the vast body of water it later becomes. We walked half a mile in to a grove where we found a grouping of historical buildings – the Holzwarth Historical site. The ranger there gave us, and the family who arrived at the same time as us, a little tour of the main building (known as the Mama cabin) and told us the story of the Holzwarth family. The site had originally been founded as a ranch, but when that became impractical, the Holzwarths turned it into a fishing resort. It was very interesting. When we exited the cabin, the ranger encouraged me and Dave to put on the vintage garb that was hanging on the outside wall – Dave dressed in a heavy buffalo coat, and I dressed in an apron and bonnet. The ranger chuckled as he took our photo.

We then drove just a bit further to the Colorado River Trailhead. It was here that we began our “long” hike for the day. The ranger at the visitor center described a spot, about 2.3 miles up the trail to the former site of Lulu City, called Shipler’s Cabin. She said that recently she had seen, and heard numerous reports from others, about a herd of bighorn sheep and lambs hanging out in this area. So we aimed for that, hitting the trail right at noon. The first hundred yards from the trailhead were awful – straight up to the main trail – but thankfully that was the only real climb. Though the trail did go up and down a bit, for the most part it was flat, and followed the banks of the Colorado River. We saw lovely meadows, some beautiful views of the Never Summer Mountains, lots of different kinds of plants and trees, and of course the river. There were quite a few people on the trail, but it wasn’t so crowded as to be annoying.

We got to Shipler’s Cabin at 1 pm and saw nothing more than a broken-down cabin. We were expecting at least a sign designating the spot as such. There were no sheep in sight. As a destination, it was underwhelming.

There was a little trail off the main trail that led to the riverbank, and here we sat and enjoyed peanut butter sandwiches for lunch. It was very peaceful. I was hoping to see some river otters, but there didn’t seem to be any in this area.

We headed back the way we came and were back to the car around 2:30 pm. As we arrived at the parking lot, a couple of different families asked if this was the Colorado River trail. We gave each of them some information, but we were slow to realize that what these folks were trying to do was play in the river. This isn’t really the easiest way to get to the river, actually. One of the families was actually deterred by my description of the initial ascent (I overstated it a bit by using the word “brutal”, though that word probably was appropriate considering they had three small children, one of which was already complaining that her sandals was hurting her feet). I redirected them to the Holzwarth site, where the trail is flat, you can see the river much easier, and the rangers can entertain the children with historical stories. They were grateful.

We continued along the Trail Ridge Road, and at this point it started to climb into the heights of the Rockies. After an initial climb part-way up the mountains where there was a series of five crazy switchbacks, we stopped at Farview Curve, where there was a magnificent view of the Kawuneeche Valley below, as well as a 360-degree view of the various mountain ranges in the neighborhood, particularly the Never Summer Mountains to the west. It was also a good spot to take note of the damage done by mountain pine beetles – perhaps 50% of the lodgepole pines in sight had turned brown due to these destructive little creatures.

Up and up, passing a sign informing us that we were now 2 miles high, and then continuing to climb. We arrived at Milner Pass and stopped in the parking lot here, took a photo of the sign for the Continental Divide, and also briefly admired Poudre Lake.

We continued along, stopping just before the Alpine Visitor Center at Medicine Bow Curve. Here is a breathtaking view of the Cache la Poudre River winding along the valley thousands of feet below, and the beautiful ridges that surround the valley.

We almost didn’t stop at the Alpine Visitor Center, but I managed to get a parking spot, so we got out and looked at the view a bit. There is also a hike from here to a point where you can see the entire valley. We didn’t want to take the time, nor did we feel like hiking at that altitude and in the 54 degree weather. By now it was 3:30 pm, and we needed to continue on.

It was not much further that Trail Ridge Road peaked at 12,183 feet, though there was no sign marking the occasion. We were now at the highest point in the highest continuous freeway in the United States. We stopped once or twice more for photo opps, but mostly continued along the road, now dropping inexorably in elevation. At one point, while we were still very high up, the road took us along the very top of a ridge, where there was no mountain wall on either side. I thought whoever designed this road must have been crazy. *smile*

We got to the valley on the east side of the park around 4:30 pm. We were pretty tired and ready to leave by this point. But we took a quick side trip to the Endovalley, driving past the Alluvial Fan, which actually looked a lot cooler from up above. Then we headed out of the park, spotting a couple of male mule deer on our way out.

As we approached Estes Park, I spotted another stimulus project. Unfortunately I’ve lost count of how many we’ve seen across the country, but rest assured that there were lots.

In Estes Park we drove past the Stanley Hotel, which was the inspiration for Stephen King’s The Shining. By 6 pm we were driving through Boulder, passing the University of Colorado. A bit later we drove through Broomfield, passing the Sun Microsystems campus there, which had not yet been changed to say “Oracle”.

The mountains were shadowy in the near distance. Just past Broomfield on Highway 36, there were a couple of prairie dog colonies along the side of the freeway, which I found very entertaining.

We arrived in Denver by 6:30 pm and found our hotel, a cute bed & breakfast in Lower Downtown Denver (LoDo) called the Gregory Inn. We got ourselves settled into our cozy room, enjoyed nice hot showers, and called a car around 8 pm.

Dave’s choice for dinner was the Wynkoop Brewing Company in downtown. He had been there before while at a Sun Microsystems conference, and was eager to return. We had drinks and a good dinner – buffalo taco salad for me and a buffalo burrito for Dave. (Note that in this part of the country, buffalo means meat from buffalos, not spicy sauce.)

We checked out the 16th Street Mall by riding the free shuttle up the middle of it, then walked from there back to our B&B, making it to bed by 11:30 pm.

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