We accidently planned our visit to Rocky Mountain NP during a free admission weekend. We were nervous about crowds, so we decided to get an early start. I’m so glad we did that. We ended up being ahead of all of the crowds during the day and we were the only car on the road in the morning when this handsome guy stopped on the side of the road.
As we entered the park there were two cars in front us, way up ahead. Right after they passed, that elk came up from the bushes below and stopped right along the road as we approached. We both said it was one of our favorite moments from the trip.
Adam and I decided to start our day at Bear Lake. All of the articles I read said that the parking lot fills up early so we decided to head straight there first. We are so glad we followed this advice and I would strongly recommend doing the same if you ever visit. Don’t get distracted by the other sights along the way! You can stop on the way back. Anyway, the lake is just a short walk from the parking lot so it’s perfect if you or people in your group are unwilling or unable to hike much.
Bear Lake is absolutely beautiful and it was such a great place to start our day. The water is so clear and was so calm – look at the reflection of Hallett Peak in the water! We only walked around part of the lake, but the full trail is less than a mile and is rated easy.
Bear Lake is also where the trailhead for the Emerald Lake hike begins. There are so many different hiking trails that you can take in Rocky Mountain National Park (this site will help you sort by distance and difficulty). We looked at a few different trails, but we ended up picking the Emerald Lake hike based on convenience (we were already there and had a parking spot) and distance/time (the 3.5 mile hike only takes a couple hours and give us plenty of time to visit the rest of the park).
We also picked that trail because there are two other lakes on the way to Emerald Lake. The first lake is Nymph Lake and it’s a steady half-mile climb from the Bear Lake Trailhead. It’s a popular trail so a lot of it is paved and it would be a great short hike if you don’t want to do the full hike. I loved the lily pads covering the lake.
The trail to Dream Lake is fairly steep in some places and you gain a bit of elevation, but the higher trail leads to some amazing views along the way. It’s a little over a half-mile to the junction for Lake Haiyaha. Keep right and the foot of Dream Lake is just ahead.
The view is simply stunning and because we got an early start, there were only a few other people around so it was such a peaceful moment. The water is clear enough to see fish in the lake.
We shuffled across the rocks to the right and found a flat spot to relax for a bit. Hallett Peak is directly in front and Flattop Mountain is to the right. You can see waterfalls in the distance and with binoculars, climbers on Hallett Peak!
After taking in the view and surroundings we hiked the 1.8 mile return trip back to the car. Our next stop was Sprague Lake for our PB&J picnic lunch. We started to walk around the lake, but after seeing the other 4 lakes, Sprague Lake didn’t seem as impressive so we headed on to our next stop (sorry Sprague Lake).
After circling back on Bear Lake Road, we turned left on the main entrance road (US 36) towards Deer Ridge Junction. We took Fall River Road at the junction and headed to the Alluvial Fan. The drive through the park is so pretty. We pulled off a couple of times to take some pictures and check out the overlook areas.
Anyway, we did the short hike to the Alluvial Fan from the first parking lot, but later realized that there was another parking lot that was closer…oops! The alluvial fan was created when Lawn Lake flooded the area in 1982. It was interesting to see and I’d recommend it as a quick stop.
From there we took the Old Fall River Road up to the high country. Old Fall River Road is an 11-mile one- way dirt road that is only open part of the year. There are multiple switchbacks, some are very tight, and no guardrails along the road. But don’t worry, it’s safe and the road is pretty well maintained. We took our little rental Mazda up it with no problems. It’s a fun way to get more of a wilderness experience while driving through the park.
Well, we almost had problems. The last mile or so of the drive, it started hailing. By the time we reached the top, it was really coming down and turned to heavy rain not long after. I would have been a little nervous if we were still on that road during that weather…but we made it. At the top of the road is the Alpine Visitor Center. At around 12,000 feet about sea level, it’s the highest elevation visitor center in the National Park Service.
It’s crazy to see the change in landscape as you change elevation. The pine forest landscape is now alpine tundra. It was a lot colder up there and the high elevation was noticeable (especially with my asthma). The visitor center had some interesting exhibits on the tundra, a gift shop, and a cafeteria. We split a salad while we waited out the rain and prepared for our return trip.
Unfortunately, because of the rain our return trip down Trail Ridge Road was not as scenic as it normally would have been. We stopped at the Lava Cliffs to take a couple pictures, but a lot of the landscape was hidden by cloud cover.
Regardless, Rocky Mountain National Park is absolutely beautiful and we really enjoyed our day there. Hopefully we’ll make it back again so we can hike some of the other trails and explore the parts of the park that we missed on this trip. We were really happy with our itinerary for the day, so if you plan to visit someday, this would probably be a good starting point for your trip plans. I also want to mention a few tips: start early (you’ll beat the crowds and have more time in the park), bring your own food (there’s only a couple places in the whole park where you can get food), pack a jacket (it’ll be colder in the park than wherever you’re staying), and watch for wildlife.
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