Visit Rocky Mountain National Park, as fall moves into winter…

Majestic bull elk monitors his herd of about 25, just off Hwy. 36 in the park.

Rockies to the northwest, looking from the Many Parks Curve area on Hwy. 36.
Hikers set off on snowy trail into Hidden Valley in the park.
Rockies to southwest of the park show snow descending at elevations above 9,000 feet.
A splash of color remains at lower elevations of the park as winter approaches.

Find majesty in Rocky Mountain National Park, as fall moves into winter…

We were staying in Denver/Broomfield, CO, for all most two weeks (house-sitting through the Affordable Travel Club) and used the time to take our first late fall trip to Rocky Mountain National Park, just 60 miles to the north west. The park is a majestic place, with peaks rising to 14,000 feet highlighting high alpine meadows. The fact it was also the season for the elk rut also offered unique opportunities to see these majestic animals up close.

We took US Highway 36, through Boulder and Lyons, two prosperous looking towns before ascending into the bowl of Estes Park, picturesque on the shores of Lake Estes, at 7,523 feet elevation. The Beaver Meadows Visitor Center and entrance station into the park is just on the edge of town.

One quickly has a choice to take a left and follow the Bear Lake Road all the way to Bear Lake, crowded with mid-October visitors as we reached the zenith of the road that dead-ends at the picturesque lake. We discovered two campgrounds (with mule deer posing for photos) on this road for a summer or fall visit, Moraine Park and Glacier Basin – noting them for a summer return (one can reserve these popular campgrounds, online, through recreation.gov – but only six months in advance).

We retraced our steps back to the main road and turned west on Highway 36, seeing elk below the road, then, a few miles further, a larger herd in the midst of elk rut, with a large bull elk attempting to keep his flock intact.

Touring west, our view, both left and right, was of towering peaks, with clouds and snow billowing, from 10,000 up to about 13,500 feet – the sun and cobalt blue skies making it a sparkling drive. Here and there we found stands of colorful ash and aspen, though the best of the fall colors reportedly was a few weeks earlier.

The route continued past Beaver Meadows with a big variety of hiking trails fanning out in westerly directions, up to you Rich and past the Deer Mountain trailhead, past Beaver Ponds wayside and up to Hidden Valley.

Hidden Valley was the site of a former small ski area, which, when deconstructed due to its inclusion in the park lent its old timbers to construction of buildings throughout the park. Here the road steeply ascended, covered in snow and ice on portions, causing vehicles without four-wheel-drive or chains to abandon their climb.

Just a few miles above, we hit the winter-end of the road, Many Parks Curve, a lofty 9,640 feet with spectacular views of snowy peaks extending over 270°. For hikers, snowshoers or cross country skiers, the road continues ever higher. In the summer and early fall, one choice is the Old Fall River Road, which ascends to more than 11,800 feet, the highest paved road in America.

The park features three distinct ecosystems, montane (below 9,000 feet) subalpine (9,000 to 11,400 feet) and alpine (above 11,400 feet). You enter the park through the Montane ecosystem at any of the three entrances, through forests of ponderosa pine, lodgepole

pine and Douglas fir. Juniper, current and choke cherry bushes blanket valleys, with birds and insects at work. Elk gather here in the fall to rut, eating aspen leaves and soft inner bark.

The subalpine zone gets more precipitation and Engleman spruce begin to make an appearance. Blueberry, wax current and huckleberry bushes are found, and a proliferation of wildflowers can blanket the summer and fall slopes.

The alpine zone, with thin soil, intense ultraviolet light, drying winds and colder temperatures make for a tundra-type environment. Here you’ll find marmots, bighorn sheep and White tailed ptarmigan, a bird that lives all winter in this zone.

On our return down, we came upon a herd of about 25 elk Deer Ridge Junction, just steps off the road – leading to our first “elk jam” as visitors parked helter-skelter, some in the middle of the road, and scrambled to take photos. We all watched a huge bull elk, much larger than its younger male competitors, react with majestic alacrity to keep its herd in check.

Estes Park Is a delightful town for motels, restaurants and shops, and offers almost all provisions one might need. The Estes Park Brewery made a good stop for lunch and libations, including a blueberry-infused ale with blueberries straight from the park!

An optional entrance at park’s westside, the Grand Lake entrance on US Highway 34, allows similar access and closes for winter, mid-October, at the Colorado River Trailhead (in summer and early fall, the road from here to Many Parks Curve is open for some of the most exciting driving, hiking and exploration).

If you are visiting in late fall or early winter, bring your winter gear, binoculars and telephoto lens for your camera. The park is about 1200 miles east of San Joaquin County; we took Hwy. 50 to reach the Denver area, following the ‘Loneliest Road in America’, a favorite destination in its own right.

For more information: Rocky Mountain National Park, nps.gov/romo; (970) 586–1206; Colorado, visitcolorado.com; national park and forest service campgrounds, recreation.gov.

Reach Tim at tviall@msn.com, or follow at blogs.esanjoaquin.com/valley travel. Happy travels in the west.

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  • Blog Author

    Tim Viall

    Viall is a local travel writer who retired in 2012 after 10 years as executive director of Stockton, CA's, Emergency Food Bank and six years with the Downtown Stockton Alliance. Previously, a 21-year career in daily newspapers helped shape his ... Read Full
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