Why Rocky Mountains National Park (RMNP)?
After the 2018 edition of our annual guys trip entitled as ‘NO REGRETS’ was a rip-roaring success, we upped the ante and choose Colorado for 2019. Why? because of its numerous offerings for nature enthusiasts – lakes, waterfalls, mountains, clouds, rivers and a plethora of activities for the doughty ones like us – Hiking, Camping, ATV rides, driving up the highest motor-able roads in America and others.
How to Plan your visit?
- Drive or Fly – we drove. Our ETA was 17 hours from Naperville with few breaks.
- Stay – You could camp or book cottages. We did the later as the weather was still around 40’s.
- Pick your scenic spots – With a gazillion scenic spots on offer, you have to choose your dose, we did these in RMNP: Chasm Falls, Trail Ridge Road, ATV Ride, Bear Lake, Lilly Lake and these in Colorado Springs – Garden of the Gods, Pike’s Peak.
- Time to visit
Our Trip from Naperville
May 23 – 27, 2019
Naperville to Estes Park, CO.
1001 miles, Google ETA: 14 hours. Actual ETA: 17 hours with few breaks and inclement weather during the overnight journey.
Castle Mountain Lodge
1520 Fall River Road, Estes Park, CO 80517
$1400 for 4 days.
What we loved
1. ATV Ride (Bunce School Road Trail)
2. Trail Ridge Road
3. Bear Lake
4. Pike’s Peak (Colorado Springs)
5. Garden of the Gods (Colorado Springs)
6. Big Foot Dam (Colorado Springs)
- Check weather forecast before anything you plan. Most of the areas were still covered in snow when we visited during the Memorial Day weekend in 2019.
RMNP Weather Forecast
- Choose your activities wisely. Rocky Mountains National Park (RMNP) has mother-lode of hiking, trekking and scenic spots for all ages and you should always plan ahead on which ones would give you best bang for your buck:
NPS Plan Your Visit
- Carry extra pair of Jackets in the car at all times. The temperature fluctuations are quite dramatic in Colorado.
Started from Naperville in the afternoon and drove non-stop to Estes Park.
Reached Estes Park at 6 AM. Visited Chasm Falls and the Trail Ridge Road (was open only till the Rainbow Curve due to heavy snow).
ATV ride on Bunce School (~800$ for four 2-seaters), Lily Lake, Beer Lake and Alberta Falls.
Checked out of Estes Park and rode to Colorado Springs. Visited Garden of the Gods, Pike’s Peak and Big Foot Dam. Did the All-Nighter straight from Colorado Springs to Naperville starting 8:30 PM.
Reached Naperville at 2 PM.
Castle Mountain Lodge
We had rented a three bedroom cottage which backed up to the Fall River. Despite the weather being on the chilly side, the place was a hit – be it the calming sound of the Fall River in the backyard or the lovely greenery around the place or may be it was the vibes of Estes Park! We would surely recommend this place for its convenient location, friendly service staff and the two cutest mountain dogs owner has.
Chasm Falls Hike
After a quick morning recharging breakfast, we headed over to Old Fall Road trek leading up to Chasm Falls. We parked our car at Endo Valley picnic spot and then did strolled through a moderate 1.5 mile trek to the falls. The falls were in full flight and the trek was worth it, you could even head longer on the same path and reach Alpine Visitor Center on top of trail ridge road, which was practically the only way to reach Alpine since trail ridge road was still closed due to heavy snow.
Trail Ridge Road
Rainbow Curve was the last point open on the iconic Trail Ridge road due to the heavy late spring snow. If the weather is good, you can go all the way to Alpine Visitor Center at the elevation of 11,000 sq ft.
As with most of RMNP, it was very picturesque drive to the sight seeing point. The warning which says ‘weather changes alarmingly here’ proved quite adequate since it turned dark, windy, chilly and even started to snow as we reached there. With mounds of snow around us, it was reminiscent with THE WALL in the recently concluded Game Of Thrones series. After clicking gazillion pictures, we headed down to the next adventure.
The Trail Ridge Road have several scenic spots and also some of the best star gazing opportunities, please refer: http://www.rmnp.com/RMNP-Areas-TrailRidge.HTML
We did the Bunce school road trail. The reservation was for 3 hours and you can choose among the many varieties of trails ranging from easy to hard based on your appetite. The 203 trail leads to crash site for World War-II plane, but the last stretch is hard.
We did routes 216 and 105, which were hard and easy respectively. We had no intentions to do 216 as it was marked as *hard* and most of us had not driven an ATV before and the fact that the ATV owners *strongly* advised against it with the risk of toppling the vehicle if you take a wrong turn. I was driving along with one of my friend and we were the first in our group of 7 people with 4 vehicles. After driving for a few minutes on 105, we realized there was no one around and then when we saw the route “216”, the heart sank, all the excitement node dived and we were just looking for the first opportunity to turn around. As we were turning back, we saw a few folks on motor bikes and looking at them relishing the driving, we felt we could do it as well. And we did! Yes, the track wasn’t overly dangerous as well, you just need to trust the vehicle and your judgement and go “over the rocks” as the ATV trainer recommends. After driving through “216”, our confidence rose, only to see ourselves getting stuck in four feet snow on our way to the WW-II plane crash site. Behind us, there was a convoy of ATVs which got blocked too. 1 hour later, when six of us gave up trying to Jimmy up my ATV out of the snow and went back in another friends ATV to get back to the base station to call upon the ATV owner to bail our ATV out. When we informed about our snafu, he gave us “These Tourists!” look and asked to sit behind him and his friend in another ATV as they zoomed towards our poor ATV. Me and Amol sat behind the ATV owner as he drove like being in the Himalayan Car Rally with only SINGLE hand on steering wheel and nonchalantly ignoring the extreme convulsions of the ride. Once in a while, he would look backwards to us while STILL driving with a SINGLE hand asking ‘ARE YOU GUYS OKKAY DOWN THERE!!’, only to have us nodding almost instantly so that he can go back to seeing where he is going.
We finally reached our jinxed ATV and amusingly, someone else had already got us of the snow and neatly parked our ATV besides the road.
On our way back, it was a childhood dream come true to zoom through the enormous muddy water pool at breakneck speed and dare to have a mud water bath, which is especially better if you are sitting in back seat, where you will have all the fun and get less water on you 🙂
Amol and I after crossing off the feared Route 216 of our ATV circuit
Take a vehicle with 2 or even 4 seating capacity as it is a lot more fun to do it with a team and also because the ride gets a little monotonous after a while.
On our way back from the ATV ride on Highway 7, we went to Lily Lake. It is a serene lake with a gentle, paved 1 mile hike around the lake. We tried at least 3 times to do the hike round the lake but were thwarted by the mysteriously co-incidental rain for all 3 attempts.
Lilly Lake view, courtesy John Carrel under Creative Commons
Bear Lake and Alberta Falls
We went to the Bear Lake afterwards, nice scenic road approaches the park and it has several touristy spots along the way to stop and strain your cameras. The Bear Lake is 250ft hike, perfect for young and the elderly. The lake was mostly covered in an icy mix and after few months of snowy Chicagoan weather, it was not much of an incentive for us. There are several other hikes as well, like Alberta Falls (1.5 miles) but they had harsh terrain with mix of snow and ice to we skipped it. This place is more suitable for June end time frame considering the time it takes for snow to melt.
A perfect summer day at Bear Lake, courtesy Cathy McCray under Creative Commons
Change of plans. Instead of staying in Estes Park on the last day and leave early AM for Naperville, we decided to check out at noon and visit Colorado Springs and then straight back to home from there.
Ride to Colorado Springs
Left at 12:45 PM. Crossed Boulder and Denver and then right before entering Colorado Springs, saw possibly world’s only restaurant IN a plane, aptly named as Airplane Restaurant. We couldn’t take a detour to the restaurant as we were pressed for time but seemed worth a visit for next time. We continued towards our destination and reached Garden of the Gods at 3:30 PM.
Garden of the Gods
Has several colored rocks with peculiar formation. Very light hiking required to reach most of the spots. Siamese twins and Balanced Rock are one of the most famous ones. The visitor center is well equipped too – has theater which runs shows depicting how these rocks were formed, there is a small museum detailing local flora and fauna. Keep few hours for the park as the traffic runs at snails pace for the most of the park.
Garden of the Gods, courtesy John Fowler under Creative Commons
View from Pike’s peak, courtesy Jennifer Boyer under Creative Commons
A must visit. This one holds title of second highest paved road in US with the summit boasting of 14000 ft final altitude. Needless to say, the ride to the top is riddled with several tight hairpin turns and awe-striking valley views. It is open all year but the timings to enter and exit the gates differ so please call (719) 385-7325 to know latest updates. No matter the ground temperature, the peak is always very chilly. The weather changes suddenly so recommended to dress up in water repelling clothes.
The views from up top would challenge your benchmark for the best ever snowy mountains view. The cold got to us fairly quickly and a small gift shop/restaurant on the peak was a savior.
You can take the train to climb up this towering mountain too, go figure 🙂
Pike’s peak train car, courtesy sailn1 under Creative Commons
Tip: Due to the turbulent weather up here, the train gets canceled a lot so please call (719) 385-7325 and confirm before showing up.
Big Foot Dam
On our way back from Pike’s Peak, we stopped at Big Foot Dam. An easy hike to the bottom of the dam and a view consisting of vast water, clouds, dam, Pike’s Peak mixed together awaits you. A must visit site for the Photoholics.
Please share your thoughts on this post or your own Colorado Road Trip ideas in the comments section.