It was Nicholas’ last day in Colorado, and while we were both too tired to snag a 14er, his request to hike above treeline could easily be accomplished in a much less exhausting way. We hadn’t visited RMNP yet in his 2 week visit, so we opted to tackle some of the easy, high altitude hikes along Trail Ridge Road. A win-win!
Forest Canyon Overlook | Rocky Mountain National Park
Estes Park, CO | 08/06/19 | ~0.2 miles | ~50′ gain
We’d intended on hiking the Ute Trail to Tombstone Ridge, but a semi-late start and a small 6-car parking area pushed us to find something else, as the lot was already full. We decided to just drive along Trail Ridge Road until we found something we’d never done before (with a parking spot of course). Luckily, all of the upper lots had plenty of parking at our “semi-late” hour of 8am. The first stop that peaked our interest was the Forest Canyon Overlook. Above treeline? Check. Parking spot? Check. What else do you really need?
Oh yeah, views. And also crowds. But alas, it’s RMNP, so we got over it. The Forest Canyon Overlook has a short paved trail that leads to a stone overlook. It was actually a decent stop, and we learned about the area’s wildlife and geology from the interpretive signs.
Crowds gathered within a few feet of marmots grazing, sunbathing, running around doing marmot things. We did what the crowds did and took a ton of photos of the little cuties, but we opted to stay back a bit farther. (Rule #1: Don’t approach/feed/pester the wildlife.)
After we had our fill of canyon views and marmot watching, we snuck off to the next stop.
Tundra Communities Trail| Rocky Mountain National Park
Estes Park, CO | 08/06/19 | 1.28 miles | 175′ gain
I was hoping the lot for the Tundra Communities Trail would have a spot for us, and wouldn’t you know it, the lot was almost empty when we pulled in! Somehow we had this popular trail nearly to ourselves. This trail has been on my radar for a few years now, but it seems like whenever I have a chance to do it, the lot is crazy busy. Today would be my day!
For as much as I like my harder hikes and mountain summits, I really do like nature trails. Give me interpretive signs to read and learn from and I’m a happy camper! The paved Tundra Communities Trail had an abundance of them, and many even had cute quotes that I’ll include here as well.
“The alpine tundra is a land of contrast and incredible intensity, where the sky is the size of forever and the flowers the size of a millisecond.” ~Ann Zwinger
The trail ascends slightly from the parking lot and crosses the tundra along a broad ridge. Stops along the trail include a geological feature called the “Mushroom Rocks” and a short scramble to a memorial at the end of the trail.
The mushroom rocks are made of two different types of rock; granite and schist. The granite stems have eroded more quickly than the schist caps, creating a mushroom shape.
“Who can imagine beauty so fine in so savage a place, but gardens are blooming in all sorts of nooks and hollows.” ~John Muir
Once you climb the initial 150′ or so from the parking area, the trail is almost completely flat, and we meandered slowly along. The scramble at the end of the trail was unexpected but easy enough, so we decided to summit and see what was up there.
The route up the blocks had a memorial, and the summit had a neat marker showing distances to other national parks. Fun! I’d never seen anything like that before. And of course, we also had 360 degree views of RMNP.
After we finished absorbing everything this trail had to offer, we decided to head to the Alpine Visitor Center to make sure we could get a parking spot before it got too busy. There were a couple of trails I’ve been wanting to do that started from the Alpine parking lot, plus we had planned on checking out the Visitor Center and grabbing lunch in the cafeteria style restaurant.
Alpine Ridge Trail| Rocky Mountain National Park
Estes Park, CO | 08/06/19 | 0.69 miles | 148′ gain
On the way to the Alpine Visitor Center, we had a small elk jam.
An elk jam is when there are elk visible from the road causing traffic to stop and block anyone else trying to get through. A traffic jam…due to elk.
After a few minutes of snapping elk photos and trying not to run over the tourists, we made a super quick stop at the Lava Cliffs before finally reaching the Alpine Visitor Center.
We had plenty of time to kill before lunch (it was only 9:45) so we decided to do all of our remaining activities before eating, even though I probably could have eaten lunch at 9:45 LOL!
The Alpine Ridge Trail starts from the Visitor Center parking lot and immediately climbs up a number of stone steps to an overlook. The trail is very short, but I think the hundred or so steps at 12,000′ does a number on the tourists. I’m almost always the slowest person on every hike, but on this day, I was the fastest. It made me feel good, even though it only means that I can do slightly better at altitude than people who just arrived from sea level (ha!)
Ute Trail| Rocky Mountain National Park
Estes Park, CO | 08/06/19 | 0.87 miles | 106′ gain
One more quick hike to fit in, as it was now only 10:15. We followed the Ute Trail opposite the Alpine Visitor Center parking lot for a short ways, just until it started descending, at which time we decided to turn around. The Ute Trail continues down into Forest Canyon and ends at another trailhead down there, but I really didn’t want to have to climb back up! Also, I was really wanting a hot dog as soon as possible.
“I cannot help but wonder if the Indian women and children who used this part of the trail enjoyed the plants that they saw, if they had names for them, and if so, what they were. And I wonder, when they walked towards the plains at the end of summer, if they too felt a sense of sadness at a summer’s ending.” ~Ann Zwinger
There are a number of trails in RMNP called the Ute Trail, all of which were historically used by the Ute people to travel to and from their montane summer hunting grounds. Of course that’s no longer the case, but it’s so important to remember the people who came before us, and following in their footsteps is a great way (I think) to do that.
We pulled off the Ute Trail to an extremely full parking lot, thankful we arrived when we did. It still wasn’t lunchtime (you’ve got to be kidding me!) so we decided to check out the Alpine Visitor Center. While I’ve been to the gift shop and restaurant countless times, I guess I’ve never been inside the Visitor Center because I was pleasantly surprised to find a wonderful, small museum. We spent 20 minutes or so learning about the different alpine plant communities and the flora and fauna that inhabit each. It was a wonderful way to spend time until lunch.