RMNP for Complainers

I used to complain a lot about how there is nothing good to do around here.  Social media has a way of infecting your mind with this notion.  I have a collection of friends that spans the globe.  A lot of them do things that I consider extremely interesting.  They travel to places I haven’t been but have lusted after for years.  They get there on motorcycles, airplanes (sometimes their own), ships, trains, and even on foot.  I have seen the omnibus of their collected travels and wonder what the heck I’ve been doing all this time!  The funny thing is there are actually psychological studies about this, and how social media actually makes you feel worse about yourself.

I live on the Colorado Front Range.  If I were to go outside right now, I could see the mountain range that makes up Rocky Mountain National Park.  Much like inhabitants of New York City, not a lot of Coloradoans go to RMNP unless they have friends from out of town they are showing around.  I can tell you from experience that getting a year long National Parks Pass is worth the investment when you live only about an hour away from this place.  Who knew that all this time, I was making my friends from other places jealous that this is what I can see after a 45 minute drive up the canyon.

Bear Lake

This is where all your Denver friends will take you if you are visiting town.  It is a big, beautiful glacial lake surrounded by mountains and there is a good chance if you have seen RMNP in pictures, this was the setting.  Avoid it like the plague.  Bear Lake is crowded.  I’ve seen less people at the Denver Zoo on a weekday.  Due to its popularity and ease of access, buses shuttle tourists in by the droves about every fifteen to twenty minutes. Their primary goal is to get off the bus, use the bathroom, try to adjust to the altitude before taking some pictures at the lake and then filing back onto the buses to head to lower elevations where they can breathe again.  Also, there are probably no bears.  Maybe some freeloading squirrels.

The good thing about Bear Lake is the shuttle makes other stops  One of these is an area called Glacier Gorge.

Black Lake

Hop off the bus at this stop and start walking.  Not as easy a trek as Bear Lake, Glacier Gorge Trail offers a little less foot traffic, a more challenging hike, and some stunning vistas heading up towards Black Lake and the North West side of Longs Peak.  The area itself is the backside of Longs Peak, which is just about the only mountain most people in the Northern Colorado end of the Front Range can name.


Mills Lake (better than Bear Lake!)


It was carved out by glaciers descending Long’s Peak and other mountains, crushing and grinding rock into majestic valley during the Ice Age.  Along the way are roaring waterfalls, Mills Lake (more impressive than Bear Lake, but with a less impressive name).

Even if you don’t make it all the way to Black Lake, there is some excellent hiking, less people, and actual wildlife to see other than squirrels and mosquitoes.  You can hike all the way back to Bear Lake too, if that’s your thing.


Gem Lake


Much like Bear Lake, this is a very popular destination.  Just a few miles of moderately difficult, yet well-maintained trail.  The attraction is an area that allows wading, a strip of rocky “beach” and a nice bluff of rocks where you can climb and catch some sun.  Very crowded at times, this trail has the advantage of being challenging enough for kids and adults to feel like they are on a good, healthy hike, without being lost in the woods.  Interesting rock formations, such as a natural keyhole, and a good vantage point which overlooks Estes Park are nice features too.


Gem Lake. You have probably seen this pic on someone’s dating profile.

Ideal for groups of people with varying skill-levels of hiking and plenty of places to stop and rest.  Gem Lake is the perfect place to get your boots off and soak your feet before returning to the car.  It’s also not a bad place to take some pictures to make your friends jealous on social media without beating yourself up too bad.

The trailhead actually starts not far from the Stanley Hotel!

Lawn Lake

More challenging and less crowded than Gem Lake, Lawn Lake is at the end of a six mile hike to the base of the Mummy Mountain.  The elevation gain is gradual, but I probably wouldn’t recommend it to anyone with altitude sickness issues.  The trail is well-maintained, yet challenging at times.  The Lawn Lake trailhead used to be more popular until decades ago when a dam burst and washed the area out entirely.


Mummy Mountain. And someplace in those trees is a hungry wolf and rumor has it, Lawn Lake.

I hiked the trail in November.  I brought snowshoes but didn’t need them due to lack of snow.  Only in a few places was the trail very snowy or icy.  Fun fact.  I never actually made it to Lawn Lake, since I saw a freakin’ wolf about a half mile from the lake.  I have seen my share of dogs, huskies, coyotes, and from 200 yards off, I could tell it was a wolf.  Since it was getting dark and I was hiking solo, I decided to listen to my instincts and head back down the trail before nightfall.  At this time of year, the trail had not been hiked for about a week about three miles in, so I was blissfully all on my own. Just off Fall River Road.

Hidden Valley

Not very hidden.  Everyone in Estes Park comes here to sled.  It’s a decent enough hill.  A little crowded for my tastes and nowhere near as good as the Walden sledding hill.

Trail Ridge Road

This is a beautiful place if your thing is tundra, craggy peaks, snowy alpine passes, and lots of elk.  The wildlife here is diverse, from adorable pica, to chipmunks, to giant marmots.  You might even see ptarmigans!  Unfortunately if anyone sees elk, it can turn into a parking lot.  A nice windy drive to the western side of RMNP which is often more wooded, but less crowded.  Also a good way to explore Grand Lake, Granby, and even Winter Park beyond!  The gift shop at the top of Trail Ridge Road is a lot of fun to visit too.  But don’t forget Specimen Mountain and the headwaters of the Colorado River! Warning, the pass is very, very high and caution should be taken if you are not used to the altitude.  Also, traffic can suck.


Trail Ridge

Horsetooth Reservoir Lake-yaking

Last summer, I got to take advantage of one of the perks of the day job, which is some free access to some pretty great outdoor recreation equipment.  I can check out tents, packs, snowboards, mountain bikes, canoes, paddle-boards, and sit on top kayaks.  So really I have no excuse when it comes to getting out more when it comes to equipment.

On a hot day in June, I checked out a sit-on-top kayak (since all the paddleboards were checked out) and headed to Horsetooth Reservoir west of Ft. Collins, Colorado.  The fee is pretty reasonable to get in, I think around $7 for the day.  Parking wasn’t too bad when I arrived, but it has the potential to fill up.  When I loaded the kayak onto my Jeep, it was pretty easy, but since I do most of these trips myself or with my kids, I realized that it was a little bit more difficult to unload the kayak than it had been at the campus gear shop when I had help.


Kayaks work better in the lake.  Who knew!

The equipment I was given was a kayak paddle, a kayak, and a lifejacket.  I brought along water, snacks, a lunch, a jacket and plenty of waterproof sunscreen, because being on a lake in the summer in Colorado is much like being a bag of microwave popcorn.  Second and sometimes third degree burns are not uncommon, even on cloudy days.

This is probably awful for me to admit, but once the boat was in the water and I started trying to figure out how to paddle the sucker, the lifejacket soon lost its charm.  I was rarely more than a short distance from the shore anyway, unless I decided to paddle to the other side of the reservoir, in which case, there are plenty of tall wakes and speeding boats to navigate.  There’s something to be said about being a couple hundred yards from shore paddling your way across the grain from boats going 30 mph or more.  The lifejacket went back on in that case.

Mostly I followed the shore line and went into a few inlets, one where large boats were docked year round, and the other which was just the thing for being on calm, flat water without 5ft. wakes to contend with.  Sunbathers, fishers, and people killing beers in the sun drift in and out. Everyone is friendly. On a kayak, it was a good place just to drift and work on the tan.

With following the shore and a few crossings, I probably did anywhere between five and seven miles of paddling that day.  By the time I reached my jeep, I had to lift the boat onto the roof myself.  My eyes were sunburned, my arms, back, and core were aching and that 150lb boat must have weighed a few tons.  It was marvelous.

The second trip to the reservoir was with friends, whom I had told about the kayaking trip, but unfortunately the gear shop was out of kayaks by the time we coordinated plans to meet up. What we were left with was a three person canoe.  We followed much the same course, opting against crossing the reservoir and instead just following the shore to a few of the inlets.


Do a back-flip! Photo by Jamie Price

We met a lot of friendly folks.  One man even did a back-flip off his boat before giving us beers.  Canoes are a whole different critter than a kayak, with so much of your effort being dedicated just to moving forward in the water, and trying to maintain some kind of course.  It’s exhausting.  Wet.  And when you are done, you have something even heavier to attempt to lift onto the roof of your vehicle. They don’t handle speedboat wakes very well either. My recommendation, leave the canoes at Summer Camp where they belong and indulge yourself in either a powered watercraft or a kayak or paddleboard of some kind.  But they are still a lot of fun if that’s what you are stuck with!

If you are interested in Horsetooth Reservoir, here’s a map!

Tips for paddling on the lake.

  • Stay hydrated!  This is extremely important.
  • Use lots of sunscreen.  Even after caking myself in the stuff, I still got a decent burn.
  • Sunglasses are a must.  By the end of my first trip, I felt like I had sand in my eyes.
  • Food.  Bring snacks to keep up your caloric intake.  You don’t want to bottom out when you are miles from your car.
  • Drink responsibly.  Drinking doesn’t mix with much else.  Driving.  Boats.  People you meet in bars you might think are attractive at the time.  Dares.  Really, drinking doesn’t mix with much else. Including dehydration.  Sunburn.  And other bad decisions.  If you can’t do it right, just don’t do it at all.
  • Pay attention!  It’s not hard to get hurt out on the water. Keeping an eye out for other boats, waves, paddles, and paying attention to the terrain will probably save you a trip in a helicopter to the hospital.  (Especially if you decide against the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man life jacket).
  • Be friendly!  Not only does this get you free beer, but it makes the day so much more enjoyable!  You might find yourself crashing a bachelor/ette party, making new friends, or just adding to the experience of getting out more and doing stuff.

Don’t forget to do something afterwards.  My friends and I got appetizers at Old Chicago.  After that much physical activity, you need to fill the tank up again.  And allow some time to stop feeling the up and down pitch of the boat.  That took a couple days for me!


Arr! There be pirates! Photo by Jamie Price