Rocky Mountain National Park and Estes Park – The Four Seasons

Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) is the closest national park to my home in Colorado and I consider it my base park.  It takes me about an hour to get there and I’ve been there enough to know how different the seasons are in both RMNP as well as in its gateway city, Estes Park.  The seasons here are wildly different – from the extreme temperature swings to the number of visitors.  Here is my take on what each of the four seasons is like:

Summer

DB3A8735-6F53-46D6-86B0-5BD2D4C9447D
Death and Renewal

Estes Park – In the summer, Estes Park is completely overrun with tourists.  Despite this, it shouldn’t stop you from visiting.  The weather is nearly perfect and is typically at least a few degrees cooler than the cities below on the plains, like Denver or Boulder. If you’re really looking for a cool down, you can cool off even more if you head high up into Rocky Mountian National Park.  The town itself is a typical tourist town but with a mountain/western twist.  There are the obligatory t-shirt, salt water taffy, chocolate, and ice cream shops that you would see in almost any national park gateway town. What makes Estes unique is the surrounding scenery, which wouldn’t be out of place in the Swiss Alps, with its huge snow-capped mountains and valleys.  What is lacking though, in a good way, are flashy resorts as in other Colorado mountain towns like Vail or Aspen.  Here, there are mostly small motels and cabins along with the place that Stephen King made famous, the Stanley Hotel.

E4FEB49B-C96A-47FB-B24C-9C3EDEC449AD
15 feet of snow and it’s summertime

RMNP – The throngs of tourists are here too, unfortunately.  However, all you need to do is to start a hike on almost any trail and you can lose 90% of them after only a mile or so from the trailhead.  Hiking in summertime at these elevations means being prepared by starting early to avoid afternoon thunderstorms. If you don’t consider yourself a hiker, consider a drive up Trail Ridge Road, a journey which can yield a somewhat unique activity, a summertime snowball fight or building a snowman. The highest point in the pass is 12,183 feet (over two miles high) and that leaves enough snow year round for winter games, even in mid summer. The wildlife also move up to higher elevations in summertime, seeking greener pastures.  Up at these higher altitudes, you might see large herds of elk and bighorn sheep in the alpine tundra, way above the height where trees grow.

Autumn

8FAE2E29-0537-465E-92E8-A644C769BA97
The bugling elk

Estes Park – Surprisingly, Estes park can still be quite busy during the fall.  Some might think it has to do with fall colors but the area around Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park really doesn’t have an abundance of aspen trees. For most people, the primary reason they come up here in the fall is to hear and see elk during the ‘rut’ which is the mating season.  And why would you want to hear bugling elk during the mating season?  The reason is that their mating calls sound like a sort of ancient call that can be heard from far off. It is a difficult sound to explain and do it justice, but is a truly a breathtaking and mesmerizing experience to see and hear, and something that simply must be heard in person. This is the main reason people flock to Estes Park in the fall, the elk literally bugle as they’re walking on the golf course, through parking lots right in town, as well as on the grounds of the Stanley Hotel.

RMNP – As with in Estes Park, the reason to head into the national park at this time of year is to see and hear the elk.  Although being bumper to bumper with like minded people might not seem like something you want to do, you can still go into the park and hike into the woods where you might find yourself all alone on the trail in the middle of a large herd of bugling Rocky Mountain Elk.  Last October, my wife and I went on a hike, away from the main areas of the park, and started to hear bugling in the distance and were soon surrounded by around 100 elk on both sides of the trail without another human anywhere near us.  The park brochure cautions you against approaching wildlife, so by all means keep your distance. But if you happen upon a large herd while hiking the trails, excercise extreme caution and keep a safe distance.  I usually like to have a big tree nearby just in case.  The bulls are extremely aggressive during this time of year and they are big, averaging around 700 lbs, and strong enough to inflict great bodily harm if they decide you’re too close.

 

Winter

6399DBA7-4519-4B4B-99FD-C8D1CDF8C455

Estes Park – If you’re  looking to experience a tourist town without the tourists, this is the time of year to come to Estes Park!  You will not have to fight for a table at your favorite restaurant, there will be no bumper to bumper traffic, there’s plenty of parking, and you can have the place virtually all to yourself.  Unlike other Colorado mountain towns that usually see a massive influx of people in the winter, Estes doesn’t have a ski resort (although it once did) to anchor its winter economy.  Because of this, Estes sees a very dramatic drop in visitation in the winter.  As an added bonus, a stay at the Stanley Hotel in winter can give just a sliver of what inspired Stephen King to write ‘The Shining’.

RMNP – The park is at its best, in terms of scenic beauty in the dead of winter.  The mountains are usually covered with snow, sometimes approaching 10 feet.  Winter activities include snowshoeing, cross country skiing, and wildlife viewing (although seeing animals inside the park during winter is less likely). Some areas, such as around Bear Lake, are still crowded but it can be much easier to find areas of the park where you’ll need your snowshoes to walk through the snow. It is simply one of the most beautiful winter scenes in all of Colorado.

Spring

5C9C24BC-C2C0-427C-BEEA-2CA5E49A440B
Always snow up in the highlands

Estes Park – This town still doesn’t really get going again until late spring. In most places, spring begins a steady warmup towards summertime but at this altitude and being in Colorado, Estes Park typically experiences its snowiest months of the year in the spring.  Traditionally, February, March, and April are Colorado’s months for heavy snow and blizzards.  Eventually however, the snows slowly give way to longer and warmer days and the area begins to thaw and creak to life.

RMNP – Spring in the park is the beginning of the big melt.  The east and west sides of the park are connected by Trail Ridge Road, but due to heavy winter snow, the road is impassable until the weather warms and crews can begin plowing the road. When the road finally opens, it becomes symbolic of winter’s deep freeze losing it’s grip on the park. The animals get to moving again and the large numbers of people begin to make their way back to the park that had been tranquil for several months.

In any season, the area is unique and beautiful. During the cold winter months, it is quiet and peaceful.  In the warmer months, it is energetic and bustling but no matter what season, it is worth a visit and will not disappoint.

58FD70D3-185D-4DF7-9082-2C048AA24385
The less visited area of the park known as ‘Lumpy Ridge’
Advertisements

Boulder Colorado’s Mesa Trail

Some say that the Mount Sanitas Trail is Boulder’s quintessential hike.  The hike is 3.1 miles round trip and has an elevation gain of around 1,350 feet but to me, there are better hikes in Boulder and although the Mount Sanitas Trail is a great (short) workout, it is not the most scenic hike in the area, in my opinion.  To me, the hike that should be on everyone’s Boulder must do list is the Mesa Trail.

The Mesa Trail has almost the exact same elevation gain as the Mount Sanitas trail, but it spreads that elevation gain over a one way distance of about 6.8 miles.  It may actually be one of the flatest hikes you can do in Colorado since it parallels the mountains rather than climbing up them.

As far as scenery goes, there are few hikes anywhere in the country that can rival this one.  The Flatirons are the rock formation that you see in every tourist magazine that features an article on Boulder.  These five primary blocks of sandstone make for a spectacular backdrop for a day hike.  In additon to the Flatirons, this is one of just a few areas along the Front Range where the pine forest actually comes all the way down over the foothills and onto the prairie below.

image
The trailhead at Chautauqua

Another great aspect of this trail is its accessabiity.  The trail has three primary trailheads: The South Mesa Trailhead, the Trailhead at the National Center for Atmospheric Reasearch (NCAR), and the Chautauqua Trailhead.  Of the three, only the South Mesa Trailhead has a fee to park ($5).  All three can be very crowded in the summer tourist season and on any weekend day when the weather is good.  Go to NCAR if you want free parking and moderate crowds.  The view here of the Flatirons is really good too but go to Chautauqua for the best view (the downside is the bigger crowds.) For a less crowded section of the trail, start at the South Mesa Trailhead.  It is the least scenic of the three trailheads but it still has some decent views of the Flatirons, Boulder and even Denver off to the southeast.

image
Early summer flowers

The best part of hiking the Mesa Trail is that you have many options, and the hikes are all pretty accessible for most people.  If you start at Chautauqua and NCAR, you can walk right up to one of the Flatirons and touch them within about 20 minutes after leaving the parking lot.  Also of note is the many side trail options off of the main trail.  If you’re looking for a longer hike, the side trails heading into the hills are nearly endless and offer you the opportunity to get a workout as good or better than the one you can get on Mt. Sanitas.

image
One of many trails that can be accessed from the Mesa Trail, the Mallory Cave Trail

In my opinion, the Mesa Trail pretty much has it all: great scenery, the option for longer hikes while all are within the close proximity of the city of Boulder. For a great après hike food/beer option, check out the Southern Sun for a laid back vibe and great beer just down the hill from the NCAR trailhead.

image
For most of the winter, the trail is still accessible and can still be hiked (microspikes recommended though)

Cacti, Guns and Snakes – Hiking the Peralta Trail in Arizona

The Peralta Trail is a very popular Arizona hike, and with good reason.  Being a relatively short drive from the Phoenix metropolitan area, it provides easy access to great hiking for the majority of Phoenicians (and snowbirds too!).  Located on the eastern edge of town off of Highway 60, the drive really starts to get interesting once you leave the pavement of Peralta Road near the town of Gold Canyon.  If you’re lucky enough to catch a cactus bloom in the springtime on this section of desert track, you may not even want to get out of the car to hike.  There are so many cactus varieties and my botany background is weak but even I could identify flowering saguaro, ocotillo, and prickly pear, all blooming with different colored flowers.

image
Prickly Pear Cactus Flower, Gold Canyon AZ

The hike begins at the Peralta Trailhead in Tonto National Forest, although this forest is probably different than any other you’ve been to before.  This “forest” isn’t full of many trees like you’d see in a traditional forest, but it does have the aforementioned cactus and there are some trees and shrubs along the creek bed.  In those trees and shrubs, you may even have the chance to see an Arizona cardinal.  When the football team moved to Arizona from St. Louis, I thought for sure a name change was in order because I’d never seen a cardinal west of Kansas, but there are real cardinals in Arizona and their color stands out vividly from the desert landscape.

Most people hike up approximately 2.5 miles to the overlook of Weavers Needle and then head back down.  From the trailhead, the first 2.5 miles are almost all uphill with only a few spots along the way to get out of the sun.  Take full advantage of these shady areas as the temperature can get pretty hot on the trail.  Hiking in the spring and fall can offer temperatures that are decent enough, but summer hiking here would be borderline crazy. Temperatures in the Valley of the Sun can reach into the 110’s and sometimes even hotter.  The day of our hike was a near perfect 84 degrees.  Even still, we went through three bottles of water each and wish we would have had more.  As a side note, when I was at Sky Harbor International Airport, one of the souvenir shops was selling t-shirts that read “Keep Phoenix Hot” along the lines of “Keep Portland Weird” I guess.  Clever and I should have bought one!

image
Several trails can be accessed from the Peralta Trailhead

 

 

image
The trail

Once at the top, you get a spectacular view of Weavers Needle and the Nothern Arizona landscape in the distance.  The view is hard earned so savor it, we were really tired and pretty much only stayed for a few minutes.  A family sitting near us had packed sandwiches with them and I think my dad was about ready to pull out his wallet to try to buy one.  At least one of the kids in the family was also packing heat on his belt and had a Crocodile Dundee worthy knife on it too.  Arizona is known for having alternative politics and having kids with guns on a hiking trail is definitely a first for me.  We’d seen a few other hikers with guns holstered along the trail throughout the day.

Next up is down, downhill that is.  Hiking always seems harder going downhill for some reason.  You’re already tired and you’re having to use your legs to slow your body down.  This is also a good time to make sure that you focus because there may or may not be a rattlesnake on the trail, just sayin’!  A couple was stopped on the trail ahead of us and one of them turned up the trail towards us to let us know that there is a four foot rattlesnake across the trail and to be careful.  It was gone by the time we got there but our radar was definitely up from that point on.  The couple also warned another hiker on the trail to be careful and when he got to us he had a walking stick and a holstered handgun.  He said both were for the snakes.  On a serious note, you do need to keep an eye out for snakes.  Every place has its hazards.  After talking with a few hikers, this snake (allegedly – innocent until proven guilty 🐍) had rattled as a warning to a group of hikers earlier.  Here in the desert, the heat is a much bigger concern than the snakes but you need to be aware of both.  Wear sunscreen and a hat for the sun and drink plenty of water.  Walk softly and carry a big stick for the snakes or something like that says Teddy Roosevelt (not to hit them with of course but for gently nudging them to safety off of the trail, for their own good and for the good of anyone walking the trail, something I actually did a few days after this hike).

image
The view of Weavers Needle

 

After finishing the hike, there are many great Mexican restaurants in the Greater Phoenix area to choose from to load up on some of the carbs and sweat you lost out on the trail.  We chose the outdoor seating at Los Gringos Locos in Apache Junction.  I had a margarita, chips and salsa, a Dos Equis Amber, and a cheese crisp (basically an open faced crispy quesadilla) to cap off a great day hiking with family in the Arizona desert.