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Bill Leslie's Carolina Conversations

Breathtaking views, cool temps on display in Rocky Mountain National Park

Posted August 6

I did my part to help celebrate the 100th anniversary of the national park system by heading to Colorado a few weeks ago.

It’s a great place for a summer cool down. And what a wonderful park that sits between the towns of Estes Park and Grand Lake.

Rocky Mountain National Park is known for its majestic mountains, beautiful lakes and colorful wildflowers. The west end of the park is also a magnet for moose, elk and other creatures of the wild.

Trail Ridge Road is a gorgeous, winding and sometimes spine-tingling ride that takes you up to an elevation of 12,183 feet. Here, the air is thin but the views are spectacular.

My first night in the park I rushed up to the mountaintop hoping to capture a glorious sunset on camera. I jumped out of my car with my Canon bag and tripod and trotted up to the Rock Cut Trail. Quickly, I realized that my treadmill training at a Cary gym was no match for this demanding high altitude mountain.

My pace slowed considerably to a determined walk. I huffed and puffed and I finally made it to the top just in time to see the sun set on the Never Summer Mountains. That’s a pretty accurate name. A park ranger told me there are only 40 frost-free days in a typical year here.

Cindy and I stayed in Grand Lake on the west side of the park. We wanted to find a place in Estes Park but were late in booking a reservation.

Many of the lakes and trails on the Estes Park side of RMNP are extremely popular. Still, there is plenty of beauty on the west side.

And more wildlife! One day I registered a whopping 34,000 steps on my Fitbit hiking several great trails on the west side. Some of our west side trail favorites were Adams Falls, Lulu City, Cascade Falls and Green Mountain.

The weather was sunny and pleasant the entire week. Daytime highs were in the 70s with overnight lows in the 40s. It was almost a little too dry while we were there. We lathered up each day on moisturizer and sunscreen.

Mid-week we decided to get up at 3:30 a.m. and make a sunrise drive to Sprague Lake on the other side of the park. It was a little scary driving over there in the dark high up on Trail Ridge Road but we made it and the sunrise was spectacular. The rest of the day we hiked various trails on the east side of the park in the Glacier Gorge area and delighted in the beauty of Dream Lake. Later, we took a long hike on Ute Trail and saw spectacular tundra flowers in bloom.

The only visual negative of the trip was the devastation of thousands of trees mostly on the west side of the park from the pine beetle. Researchers say the warming of the climate has made the problem worse in recent years.

One of my favorite moments was taking a picture of a pine marten while hiking the Colorado River Trail. I would later learn from a park ranger that the marten is one of “rarely seen creatures” in the Rockies because of its reclusive and elusive nature. I must give my wife Cindy credit for this sighting. She has what I call “four leaf clover eyes.”

She sees the little things most people miss. Cindy also gets credit for securing the final shot in my video – an elk in a sunset silhouette. A few evenings later I would capture a bull elk in a tranquil tundra pose with a snowy backdrop.

We thoroughly enjoyed driving the Old Fall River Road on our final full day in the park. This gravel, one-way uphill switchback opened in 1920 as the first auto route in the park. The 11-mile road gives you a slow and intimate look at the alpine world of RMNP.

We drove back to the Denver Airport feeling great about our adventure. I want to take the entire family the next time we vacation here.

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