Today was our first full day in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Breakfast, Part I: Coffee
We woke up exceptionally early, and drove just down the road to Bird’s Nest, arriving right before 06:00. We ordered a couple brown sugar pecan muffins and some coffees to go. They actually gave us the wrong muffins (apricot cranberry), but they were delicious nonetheless, especially warm out of the oven.
It took a while to get our coffee, but we finally left and drove through the Beaver Meadows entrance, and then turned southwest on Bear Lake Road. After a brief backup at the entrance station (timed entry reservations are required), we drove up the road, finally stopping at Sprague Lake.
Sunrise Wildlife Watching
According to my research, Sprague Lake is one of the best places to see a moose on the east side of the park, or at least the best that doesn’t require a hike. More on that soon…
We arrived at the lake just a few minutes before sunrise, so we scurried out of the car and headed up to the lake to see an amazing sunrise.
Faith and I walked around the lake for a while, paying particularly close attention to the marshy wetland on the south side of the lake. Several professional photographers were gathered in this area, so we struck up a conversation with one of them, who was particularly focused on tracking and photographing moose across several national parks. He provided some fascinating information – most of them were looking for a cow moose with twin calves that had been visiting the lake, but they had apparently moved on to another ecosystem in the park. There was a bull moose just over the next ridge line, but he had apparently decided to not come down to the water. One of the photographers had used an unmaintained (fire damaged and abandoned) trail to find his pit, and had a few great photos.
Two of the photographers were also beta testers for next-gen Sony Alpha mirrorless cameras (the same family that I use), so I enjoyed talking to them about upcoming models, and best practices for wildlife photography. I learned that I have a lot to learn!
After scouting for over half an hour, we collectively decided we were out of moose luck for the day. Disappointed but now well-informed about moose travel habits, Faith and I walked around the rest of the lake to enjoy the view and the crisp morning mountain air.
We met a man who graduated from Utah State University, and who worked for the Fish and Wildlife Service. He pointed out the cutthroat trout in the water. Once on the brink of extinction due to the introduction of invasive lake trout, the fish have staged a comeback and are now found in greater numbers. They are beautiful fish; their name originates from their bright red underbellies.
Breakfast, Part II: More Coffee
Leaving the Bear Lake corridor, we drove back to the condo and dropped off Mom, Faith, and Walker. Dad and I returned to Bird’s Nest for round two of breakfast, and then drove to The Country Market of Estes Park to get sandwiches made to take for lunch, and to get some ice and other supplies. We stopped for gas before picking up the rest of our party and heading back into the park for the day.
This time, we got a ham and cheese croissant, an almond croissant, a brown sugar pecan muffin (that they threw in for free since they gave us the wrong ones earlier), and a maple nut scone. All were good, especially the almond croissant.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Since this is our first time in Rocky Mountain National Park, I’ll include some info below. Click the drop-down boxes to read more.
- Established in 1915
- 265,761 acres // 415 sq mi of federal land + 253,059 acres // 395 sq mi of adjoining U.S. Forest Service wilderness
- 450 miles of rivers and streams, 147 waterfalls, 350+ miles of trails, 789 lakes/ponds
- Lowest elevation: 7,500′ (Fall River Basin)
- Highest elevation: 14,259′ (Longs Peak)
- Home to 67 mammal, 280 bird, 6 amphibian, and 8 reptile species
- 25 named peaks over 13,000′ elevation
- 60+ names peaks over 12,000′ elevation
- 77 peaks over 10,000′ elevation
- 3M+ visitors annually
- Home to the highest paved road in America – Trail Ridge Road is 12,183′ high
- Longs Peak is visible from over 100 miles away on a clear day.
- In the winter, mountaintop wind gusts reach over 100mph.
- The Ute Tribe inhabited areas of the park for hundreds of years before white settlers arrived.
- The park has four different ecozones – montane, subalpine, alpine and tundra.
- Snow can fall any month of the year and several feet can accumulate on the peaks.
- Over 39 miles of the Continental Divide wind through the park.
- The park has its own special subspecies of moose, the Rocky Mountain Moose, which is lighter in color and has smaller antlers.
- Pikas, little rock-dwelling rodents, don’t hibernate but stockpile “haypiles” of grasses to survive the long winters above tree line.
- The Alpine Visitor Center is the world’s highest, at 11,796′.
Just after re-entering the park, we spotted an elk herd lounging in one of the meadows.
We stopped to watch for a moment, and then headed back to the Bear Lake corridor so Faith and I could do some hiking.
A Hike Too Far
Back at the terminus of Bear Lake Road, Faith and I started our hike from Bear Lake Trailhead, while Mom and Dad stayed with Walker back at Bear Lake. The plan was to start by going to the three most popular lakes in the park (Nymph, Dream, and Emerald), going farther up the trail to Lake Haiyaha, then traveling southeast to Loch and Mills Lake Junction, and finally heading back north past Alberta Falls, completing the loop and finishing just below Bear Lake Trailhead at Glacier Gorge Junction Trailhead.
First, we arrived at Nymph Lake, famous for its lily pads. We made a quick stop to take a photo of the lake and a Stellar’s Jay, and then proceeded up the trail.
After trudging up the mountainside for a while, we came across a spectacular view of a glacial valley, and could see Nymph Lake below us. Eventually the trail lead us to Dream Lake, which had crystal clear water, and an interesting runoff area with lots of intertwined small streams and trees. Faith and I found a quiet spot in the shade and stopped to eat half of our pastrami and corned beef sandwiches.
After Dream Lake, we had to take a fork in the trail, which climbed a moderate slope up to Emerald Lake, which is probably the most famous and picturesque hiking destination in the park. The steep cliffs surrounding the lake are immense; it’s impossible to capture their scale with a camera. It was beautiful but crowded, so we didn’t stay long. We left Emerald Lake and descended back down to Dream Lake.
Our hiking plan had hinged on one assumption – that Walker would take a bottle while we were gone. Because there was no hot water at the park, Dad attempted to use the car’s heat vents to thaw the milk for Walker’s bottle. The milk thawed, but was still too cold; Walker refused to take it. Mom and Dad radioed us about the situation, so Faith and I decided to rush back through the remainder of the hike, skipping the side trail to Lake Haiyaha (which was supposed to be the star stop of the hike), and just barely pausing at Alberta Falls. So, please excuse the slightly blurry photos of the falls…I [literally] took them on the run.
We rejoined the car back at Glacier Gorge Trailhead, out of breath and exhausted. I hate we had to cut the hike short, but we learned an important planning lesson for the rest of the trip, and would not attempt a longer hike again.
Wildlife in the Woods
Tired of walking/running, we decided to drive over to Grand Lake, the town on the west end of the park. Trail Ridge Road starts on the Estes Park side, rises across the alpine tundra to over 12,000′, and then descends to Grand Lake – mostly following an old Ute trail. Since we had more time ahead of us to spend the park, we decided to drive across without stopping and find some dinner in Grand Lake.
Just before we got to Grand Lake, we saw a large black bear rambling through the woods, but I was unable to get a clear photo of it because it was in a burnt-out section of forest, far up on the hillside above us. We also saw a bull moose way back in the trees, but he quickly moved out of sight.
In downtown Grand Lake, we wound up eating at Sagebrush BBQ & Grill (not the chain), a western-theme restaurant that was very busy. All of us ordered two-meat combo plates: Mom got barbecue chicken and ribs; Dad got brisket and bison meatloaf with brown gravy; Faith got ribs and brisket; and I got bison meatloaf with red sauce and some very spicy elk sausage. It was a tasty and filling meal, though nothing phenomenal.
Sunset Wildlife Watching
Leaving downtown Grand Lake, we headed back inside the park, retracing our steps on Trail Ridge Road through the Kawuneeche Valley. We stopped at several turnouts alongside the road, looking for wildlife. After a dry spell, we finally spotted a herd of elk in the distance from Beaver Creek Picnic Area, and stopped to watch them for a while.
Since it was quickly getting dark, we decided to drive back across Trail Ridge before it got too late.
Near the highest point of Trail Ridge Road, a large herd of elk crossed the road right in front of us! We heard them bugle, as the bulls moved the rest of the herd (maybe multiple herds?) to new pasture. It was a surreal experience, especially to see and hear them in the otherwise still moonlit tundra. We stopped and watched the elk for a long time…it seemed like they just kept coming! Watch today’s video (below) to see the elk.
Many Parks Curve
Back below the tree line, we stopped at Many Parks Curve for a restroom break. While we were there, I snapped a picture of the glow of Denver in the distance, and we saw the Starlink satellites pass overhead in an eerie line.
We arrived back at the townhome and headed to bed, exhausted but happy after a long day and many miles underfoot.
The Best Things we Saw Today
The best thing I saw today was… “Dream Lake and the nighttime elk crossing”.
The best thing I ate today was… “the brown sugar pecan muffin or the almond croissant”.
The best thing I saw today was… “the bull moose through the trees”.
The best thing I ate today was… “ribs at dinner”.
The best thing I saw today was… “elk crossing the road”.
The best thing I ate today was… “a tie between bison meatloaf and the almond croissant”.
The best thing I saw today was… “elk in the dark, and getting to hear them”.
The best thing I ate today was… “cornbread at dinner”.
Here’s a video of today’s adventures.
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Tomorrow, we’ll continue exploring Rocky Mountain National Park, and maybe give sunrise wildlife watching a second chance.
– Isaac & Co.