With a little bit of effort, you can access one of the most beautiful and scenic parts of Rocky Mountain National Park, an area not accessible by car. The only way to get there is via an 8.4 mile round trip hike to a high alpine lake known as Sky Pond, which has some of the most dramatic and stunning scenery anywhere in Colorado.
The hike starts from the Glacier Gorge Trailhead, which is in a very busy part of the park, but don’t let this crowded area discourage you. Trailhead parking is difficult to come by so get there early or take the free park shuttle. As with most trails, a large number of people will be congregated within the first mile or so from the parking lot, with most people only trekking to Alberta Falls, just under a mile into the hike.
The trail winds through coniferous forest and follows streams for a good part of the way leading up to Timberline Falls, Lake of Glass and eventually Sky Pond. Depending on the time of year, you may encounter snow on the trail (like I did, hiking in mid-June). The snow, combined with steep slopes, was difficult to walk up without falling but was significantly more difficult on the way down, as I fell twice. Micro spikes would have helped but I probably wouldn’t have worn them anyway, (some did though) since the sections of snow on the trail were short.
I found that this hike had two primary challenges, the first being the altitude. The pond sits at 10,831 feet so you will definitely notice less oxygen up that high. The other challenging part of this hike was a rock scramble up (and down) Timberline Falls. The added difficulty to this was, being a waterfall, the rocks were wet and therefore quite slick. A healthy fear of heights and the exposure was definitely a challenge but I made it to the top by being careful and methodical. I just told myself “don’t be a” (insert crass word), and I did fine. After successfully negotiating the falls, it was only another 15 minutes from there to the end of the trail.
Now for the payoff, Sky Pond. This hike was one of the best hikes I’ve done in Colorado because it basically had it all. The hike starts in the forest, gets up timberline, follows creeks and lake shores, all while being surrounded by high alpine scenery to rival anywhere. To me, I would rate this as a moderate hike when considering the distance traveled, the elevation gain, and that darn waterfall rock scramble. I’ll definitely do this hike again.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.