Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Road Trippin' in Rocky Mountain National Park

No drugs needed, but you’ll feel a “Rocky Mountain high” when driving the Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. The famed highway ranks the highest continual paved road in the US, reaching an elevation of 12,183 feet.  Drivers enter the park from either Grand Lake on the west or Estes Park, Colorado on the east. Denver is just two hours away; a dramatic contrast of city to nature that makes an easy and alluring getaway.
Officially entering the National Park. 

The Good Girls were staying in a lakeside cabin while visiting the charming town of Grand Lake. The cutesy Main Street fronts eye-inviting bakeries, fun restaurants/bars and, of course, many gift shops. We wanted to beat the Sunday crowds in the park, so arose early.

Those facing the famed “highway to the sky” either see it with glee or anxiety. Depends on your prior driving experience and perception of scary challenges. We couldn’t wait for our turn at spinning up and down the 48 miles of twisty, hairpin turns, and steeply graded pavement next to sheer drops.

The Trail Ridge Road is only open in the summer.

The plan: Judy would drive to Estes Park, and Debi would jump behind the wheel for the return trip.  As always, scenic overlooks would be mandatory stops.

Route 34, or the Trail Ridge Road, starts near the Grand Lake turnoff and then passes through a vibrant canopy green valley of ponderosa pines. If only we had a convertible! We pulled off to take it all in, to breathe the calm serenity of the morning and warm sunshine.

Start of our drive up and down the Trail Ridge Road.

In no time, we left the pines behind and entered the aspen forest at mid-mountain, called subalpine.  Requisite photos were taken at the first major landmark: the Continental Divide along the Milner Pass. The Divide marks the split where rainwater falls either to the East or the West. 

The Ponderosa Pines 

Imagine how pleased we were to see snow in July, as two days earlier we were sweating from hot temperatures while hiking in the red rock canyons of Utah. The unquestionable variety of landscape within the U.S. is surely a national treasure.

The Continental Divide Sign makes a great photo op. 

We drove on and ogled the aptly named Never Summer Mountains at another parking slot. Good thing we didn’t have that convertible; the temperature continued to drop. We put on our jackets.
Never Summer Mountains

The vertical rise will likely make your ears pop, and whoas and ohs (or perhaps something stronger) will slip from your mouth. Even if you don’t get out of your car, Rocky Mountain National Park smacks you in the face with bold scenery; it envelops you and sent my heart soaring. If you don’t feel the beauty and wonderment of the wilderness here, you must be a staunch city slicker.

The treeline dwindled, the wind picked up and soon we were cruising through barren landscape near the peak. Almost everyone stops at the Alpine Visitors Center (elevation 11,796 feet), and we heartily recommend it. The gusty cold whipped us, and we hurried into the National Park building to see the alpine tundra exhibits. Displays speak to the harsh conditions that confront animals and plants that attempt to survive the altitude.  

Alpine Tundra Exhibits in the National Park Center.

Don’t miss the Trail Ridge store next door for indoor bathrooms, hot coffee, and the best darn National Park gift shop we’ve ever encountered. No one leaves without buying something from the vast and colorful collections. Kids search through the array of inexpensive rocks, small gadgets, and mementos. They can choose a stuffed animal from a display of nearly every species on the planet.

Hikers, campers, and outdoor enthusiasts find all the essentials and wish- list high-tech items for extreme conditions. Tourists eye souvenirs among the plethora of tee shirts, sweatshirts and quality designer wear, books, prints, and snacks.

Don't miss this store and cafe at the top. 

We appreciated the warmth and honestly loved the store (and we’re not big shoppers).  For those wanting to hike a short distance to the trail summit, follow the route that leads from the side entrance. Be sure to bundle up.
Hikers near the summit.

Telephoto shot of the mountain tops.
Photo @Debi Lander

Back in the car, we began our descent, a roadway I’d rate as more enthralling than the uphill. The panorama changes around each turn and thankfully there are many pullouts and small parking lots. The literally breathtaking, high altitude views extended to eternity and beyond. Sharp, snow capped mountains, rolling hillsides and deep valleys extol the diversity and depth of wilderness beauty.

A grand view of the Trail Ridge Road

The highway became much busier, but we gradually made out way down the mountain. One of our stops included some beautiful wildflowers. After passing the park exit, we continued to Estes Park. 
Almost down!

After lunch, we retraced our journey but got stalled at a long line waiting for entry into the park. Being over 62, we used our lifetime senior passes to the National Parks, one of the greatest bargains ever. As of September 2017, they are going up to $80.  That’s still a great deal because the lifetime card gives free entry for up to three others in your car.

The valuable National Park Senior Pass

The traffic had more than quadrupled since the morning, so we decided to drive directly back, stopping only once. The parking lots were crazy with folks vying for spots. Over one million people pour into the park within a six-week period, so rangers must occasionally limit entrance. Anyway, our brains were in sensory overload, but in the best way.

Breathtaking views of Rocky Mountain National Park from each stop.
Photo @Debi Lander

Rocky Mountain National Park reminds me of Smoky Mountain National Park because it can be viewed and adored from the car. The designated All American Road, therefore, becomes a bonus for those with disabilities. We wished we’d had time to hike to Bear Lake, but perhaps that can happen on a return visit.

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