If you are an outdoors enthusiast and have been to Colorado, you’ll likely have been to Rocky Mountain National Park. It is located an hour northwest of Denver and is one of the original National Parks. It was established in the early 1900s to preserve the untamed wilds of the American west. Today, Rocky Mountain National Park is a draw for millions of visitors each year. With so many people visiting the park annually, you may think there isn’t much left that is wild in the area. But you would be wrong.
What to Skip
Your friends from the Colorado Front Range have probably got a nice trip to Bear Lake planned. Here’s some advice from a native Coloradoan: just don’t and say you did. First the positives. Bear Lake has some beautiful views and a nice lake to walk around. Located at the foot of the Glacier Gorge basin, you can see impressive mountains in the distance as well as reflected in Bear Lake itself. At 9,400 ft above sea level, the altitude is high, but fairly manageable. It sounds pretty nice so far, right?
Well the problem is this. Due to this being one of the most popular spots in the park, parking is nearly impossible. You will likely need to park somewhere else and ride a shuttle bus to the lake. There, you will encounter what you are probably trying to avoid. Lots and lots of people. Its advantage is that it is completely wheelchair accessible and close to rangers if you need help with altitude sickness.
What to see instead
Just up the road from Bear Lake is Glacier Gorge Trail. This trail is often busy for the first few miles, taking you up some steep terrain, past waterfalls and some amazing vistas. This system of trails will take you through a canyon cut by glaciers, where waterfalls still cascade through most of the summer months.
Following Glacier Creek takes you to Mills Lake, where you will find a stunning view of several mountains which make the Gorge. Different forks in the trail take you to other lakes in the area, which range in difficulty from easy to intermediate. No view from this trail will disappoint you. Even though it is within close distance to Bear Lake, it is much less crowded and no less impressive. A shuttle ride may be required to reach this area, but if you are going to take a bus, the area ought to be worth the trip!
RMNP is a very challenging visit for people, especially if they aren’t accustomed to the altitude. Trail Ridge Road takes visitors to 12,183 ft above sea level. Altitude sickness can strike quickly and become life threatening if action isn’t taken. Typically, returning to a lower elevation will alleviate symptoms. Worst case scenarios require the use of a hyperbaric chamber, similar to what deep sea divers use to overcome the Bends. Symptoms of altitude sickness may include lethargy, difficulty in thinking clearly, slurred speech, headache, or heart palpitations. Be sure you are physically capable of being at altitude before attempting!
A trick to overcoming and compensating for being at altitude is use of portable oxygen. These canisters are sold locally in gas stations and sporting goods stores. Also useful is ibuprofen, for headache and swelling, caffeine, and staying hydrated!
There is a saying in Colorado: “If you don’t like the weather, wait ten minutes.” While hiking, be sure to dress for nearly all weather. It has been known to snow in July in these mountains. Storms can roll in quickly, bringing with them wind, rain, lightning, hail, and anything else in between. Pack a lightweight windbreaker/rain jacket for a dry shell and a sweatshirt/sweater to keep you warm. Dressing in layers allows you to shed a layer if you get hot and add them if you get cold or wet. Bringing an extra pair of socks isn’t a bad idea either. Closed toe hiking boots are essential, but feel free to bring sandals to let your feet breathe on the shores of these mountain lakes.
You could fill several books with everything there is to encounter here. And many people have! Check into the area and do some research to see what interests you at Rocky Mountain National Park!