If you read part 1 of my travels to Fort Collins then you know that we took a crazy overnight road trip, drank some amazing Colorado craft beer, and ate some wonderful food. If you haven’t read it yet, check it out here.
The entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park is located in the town of Estes Park in Northern Colorado. A cute mountain town, you may recognize Estes Park (and the Stanley Hotel) from the movies The Shining and Dumb and Dumber.
We picked what was perhaps the second worst day to visit the park – the Sunday before Labor Day. I say the second worst because one of the park rangers told us that later that day that they were expecting it to be their second busiest day ever with over 9,000 people. Their busiest was July 3 of this year with approximately 10,000 park visitors.
The drive from Fort Collins to Estes Park is beautiful. Once you get out of the Loveland area you wind through the mountains of Roosevelt National Forest, then into the bustling town Estes Park. We immediately encountered traffic. Slow, wait to get through the same stoplight 4x, traffic.
We had to make a pit stop at a sports shop so Dylan could get long sleeves. The temperature got progressively colder as we made our way into Estes Park, and we knew that as we ascended up the mountain he would need to have long sleeves (hey, what can we say – hiking is a new hobby to us and we don’t have mountains in Iowa, so we’re learning!).
After getting him some proper gear we wove our way into the park, wanting to start at Bear Lake. Bear Lake is a series of lakes that begin at a lower, but still high elevation of approximately 9,475 feet. The loop is 0.6 miles, but connects to a series of other lakes that were recommended we hike.
As we made our way to Bear Lake we were turned around because that area of the park was already too full. To give a little perspective on how full it was, there are 3-4 “park and ride” spots along the road that lead to Bear Lake. You can park your car and hop on a number of shuttle’s that come around every 10-15 minutes to take you to hike at Bear Lake. All of those shuttles, all of those park and rides – closed.
We decided to turn around head up Trail Ridge Road, which is the highest paved road in the United States at an elevation of 12,183 feet (that’s 48 miles tall, and 11 miles above the tree line!).
As you wind your way up you come to various scenic lookout points, as well as a handful of places to park and hike. Rocky National Mountain Park has approximately 350 miles of trails to suit each person’s level of hiking abilities, but the higher up you get, the more susceptible you are to altitude sickness which can present itself in a number of ways. We were lucky and only experienced mild headaches at that highest elevation.
The temperature dropped to it’s lowest at 44 degrees at that elevation – a stark contrast to the 90-some degrees that Fort Collins was experiencing that day.
The entire drive was beautiful. In the car we talked about how much more we appreciated this trip and the beauty of the area than we ever would have as kids. At 10 years old my focus was on the next water park I wanted to go to, but I’m thankful that as I’ve matured and grown up I’ve taken to really appreciating the mountains, nature, and all of the amazing natural beauty that the world has.
As we studied our map of the park we realized that we continued on Trail Ridge Road it would lead us out of the complete other side of the park, which was not Estes Park, and not where we needed to be. With over 400 square miles of land, the other side of park could mean an entirely different state, so it was time to turn around.
As we wound our way down the mountain we decided to try going over to the Bear Lake area once more. Signs indicated that parking was full, but the road wasn’t closed any longer which was a good sign. We parked at the very last ‘park and ride’ stop before Bear Lake and had the good fortune of pulling in right as someone was leaving the full parking lot.
This was the best stop we could have made to park. We were able to hop on the shuttle bus and 10 minutes later we were at Bear Lake.
The lakes were absolutely gorgeous and there were a number of different routes you could take depending on which lakes you wanted to see and the distance you wanted to go. I would definitely put this area on my list to camp at in the future!
We made our way back to our stop, got in the car, and made the s-l-o-w drive back out of the park. As we crawled forward at a snails pace we were thinking we would be coming upon an accident at some point, but instead there were groups of elk that were sitting right by the road, and people were stopping to take pictures.
I have mixed emotions about this behavior. On one hand I completely understand wanting to capture a photograph, but on the other hand I couldn’t imagine just stopping our car in the middle of the road because there weren’t any more parking spots available to get a picture. I just couldn’t in good conscience do that cause a major traffic jam. The benefit to us was that because of this traffic jam we were able to see the elk clearly from the car and take a couple pictures without disrupting the flow of traffic.
We eventually made it out of Rocky Mountain National Park and onto Fort Collins to get showered and ready for dinner.
Dinner was at a place called Restaurant 415. The menu sounded delicious and it was only a mile walk from our hotel.
We arrived around 7:30pm and were immediately seated at a table in the bar area. The bartender was lovely and attentive, immediately getting us our drinks and getting our appetizers and meals in. Then came the wait. Long story short, we waited quite a bit for our appetizers, and our server apologized, giving us a round of drinks on the house.
We weren’t upset at all; we were curious where our food was, but we were having good conversation and enjoying ourselves, not in any sort of major hurry.
After another 45 minutes I could see our server getting frustrated and continually asking the kitchen where our food was. It had been quite a while since we’d arrive and we’d watched other couples arrive, order, eat and leave while we hadn’t yet received our dinner. Still though, we didn’t complain. Our server wasn’t cooking our food and we watched her doing everything she could to get our meal to us. Why punish or be rude to someone for something that isn’t their fault? People who are rude to wait staff for no reason are the worst.
When our food did arrive the manager brought it out, apologized for the delay, and let us know that our entire experience was on the house. Food, drinks, and even dessert if we wanted it (which we were too full for even if we had been considering it).
Our food was fantastic, and while we did have to wait an exceptionally long time for it, we had great service and felt that the way that the restaurant owned up to their mistake and went above and beyond to make it right said more about them than if everything would have been perfect.
After dinner we headed back to the hotel and packed up for our 6:15am alarm to make the 12 hour drive home.
Although our trip was quick and a whirlwind, I’m so glad we took advantage of the holiday weekend to see another part of the country we’d never seen before. From the bustling and fun town of Fort Collins to the natural beauty of the rocky mountains we were so grateful for this little trip, and if you haven’t had the opportunity see that part of the world, put it on your list – it’s amazing.