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.
If you don’t get more than 100 feet from your car when you go to Yellowstone National Park (YNP) in Wyoming that would be a shame, but I will not judge you… however I would encourage you to hike your way to the front of the line. In doing so, you’ll leave the vast majority of the parks visitors far behind. YNP has some of the most incredible roadside attractions nature can offer: steaming geysers, large herds of bison, elk and deer, as well as apex predators like wolves and bears. But all of this nature in one place has one big disadvantage: Disneyland-like crowds with no skip the line pass to make viewing it all easier.
My wife and I recently spent a few days in Yellowstone and roughly split our time equally between seeing large swaths of the park from, or very near to, our car with the other half of our trip walking into the woods to experience a much different Yellowstone than most people do. From the car, there are the massive Yellowstone Falls in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone as well as huge herds of bison that seem very comfortable weaving through the cars and people who dare to get too close. Bears are often seen here from your car and even wolves show face for those who are either lucky, or patient, or both. There are also thermal features within close proximity to parking lots such as the famous Old Faithful Geyser and the incredible colors of the Grand Prismatic Spring.
If you get out of your car and venture into the woods, you may be rewarded with a much more intimate experience in one of America’s most popular national parks. Our first hike in the park was 4.8 miles round trip to Lone Star Geyser, which can erupt up to 45 feet into the sky. This geyser erupts every three hours so timing is everything, and we lucked out and arrived (with no planning mind you) only 10 minutes before the geyser went off. The hike is uphill to the geyser but is not steep and follows an old road that has been closed to automobile traffic (bikes are allowed). A few minutes of waiting after reaching the end of the road, the geyser began to pick up steam (pun intended) and showed rumbling signs that an eruption would be coming soon. The geyser erupted for about 18 minutes with water shooting up first, then a few minutes of steam and it was a wonderful reward for the relatively short 2.4 mile hike to get there. We felt like our efforts to have hiked there were instantly rewarded as there were only about 10 other people there to witness this very cool display whereas Old Faithful can have as many as 2,000 people watching an eruption. It was also refreshing to have an unobstructed view of the geyser with no signs or ropes in the way and the best part was that it truly felt like this is how we were meant to see it, au natural so to speak. We worked for this experience and we were richly rewarded for our efforts.
Our second hike was to see Fairy Falls which is accessed near the very busy Grand Prismatic Spring area. Once you get past the large crowds of this popular spot, you’ll find a much smaller group of sightseers on the way to the falls. Fairy Falls is a very tall (197 feet) cascade, one of the tallest in the park, but for us the true gem of this hike unexpectedly turned out to be Imperial Geyser. This geyser bubbled and burped the entire time we were there and again there was hardly a soul there, this time only four other hikers. If you make this an out and back, the distance is around six miles, but there are also options to add more distance by linking to other trails in the area, which we did to add another three miles or so. While on one of these connector trails, we came across a lone male bison just off trail that really capped off what was a very unique hike. Seeing a big bison from your car can be intimidating so imagine seeing one out on the trail! We stayed back a safe distance to take some photos and didn’t want to end up on the news like so many others recently who have gotten too close to a wild bison.
Not everyone can hike but if you can, do. I’m not trying to diminish the experience for others who do like to see the park from the relative safety of their cars and only walk the boardwalks. We did our fair share of this type of sightseeing, just like everyone else and it was great. However, wildlife encounters seem to have a more authentic feeling when you see them from the trail instead of the road. The power of a wild buffalo is more pronounced when you don’t have your car to save you. Walking through forests that have grizzly bears heightens your awareness to your surroundings (carry bear spray) and that also adds a different dynamic to the experience. Geysers and other natural features experienced miles from the nearest parking lot mean that you might have it all to yourself, without man-made barriers.
So, if you can get a hike or two in during your stay, do it and you’ll be glad you did. Enjoy a more secluded Yellowstone experience because most people will be at the lodge, in their car, or never far from it, and that means you can experience something rare in Yellowstone, solitude.