I woke up bright and early this morning with only one thing on my mind: hiking Rocky Mountain National Park. I had visited the park once before but did not get to actually hike into the park anywhere and have always felt the need to go back and redeem my lost time in the park. Today was the day I finally realized that dream.
I made a quick pit stop on my way out of Boulder towards Estes Park to do the most important thing I do every day… get coffee. I have heard there are many great places to grab a cup of coffee in Boulder and I decided to try out the Laughing Goat on Pearl Street. I enjoyed it quite a bit, the interior was cozy and work oriented while also being hip, modern, and welcoming. I ordered a Venetian Creme that was sweet and delicious. I also grabbed a croissant for a later day hiking treat.
It has been about six years since I last stepped foot in Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park. In many ways, my last trip to this place was the beginning of my life as a road tripper, but not quite in the way you might expect. Last time I was here all I wanted to do was leave. I just wanted to get home as quickly as possible with as few stops in between as we could manage. I was not a road tripper, not yet. But looking back on the squandered opportunities I had passed by in such a hurry to get no where made me re-evaluate my priorities and the things that meant the most to me. I had to go back, I had to do it again and after that I never stopped. So here I am, back again and ready to do this the right way.
I pulled into Estes as the sun was rising over the lake that held the reflections of the mountains surrounding it. I bypassed Estes for the time being and made a bee-line into the park where I had a hike in mind. I decided to hike out to Emerald Lake, which is a trail that stops by a total of four alpine lakes. The final lake lay at an altitude of almost two miles above sea level, but I had my eyes on the prize and didn’t plan on stopping until I could put my feet into the cold clear emerald waters of that final lake.
I packed everything I had (including Mama the Llama and my croissant my the Laughing Goat) and hopped on a park and ride that would take me to the first of the four lakes, the incredibly popular Bear Lake.
Bear Lake was just the tip of the iceberg as far as beauty goes for the day and its still waters made a perfectly wonderful start to the adventure ahead.
The path from Bear Lake lead upward into a Gorge with a glacier at its end, but everything from my point of view was all sunshine. The weather was splendid, perfectly warm but with a breeze that rustled the aspen leaves causing them to cascade gentle down from the sky onto the trail. The sky was a deep blue and you could feel the thinness of the air crisply in your lungs.
I made my way between trees and boulders, over rocks and fallen autumn leaves, and found myself standing on what felt like the top of the world. It was enough to make my heart scream at the top of my lungs; it is a moment like this that makes you feel truly alive.
After hiking with a smile from ear to ear on my face up the mountain side I arrived at the second lake of the day, Nymph Lake. Covered in lily pads and much smaller than the first, this lake definitely felt like little forest nymphs were hiding under the lily pads waiting for all of the hikers to leave before leaping from their hiding places to skip and dance across the still lake surface.
From Nymph Lake the climb continued and the air was getting thinner and thinner resulting in a harder and harder ascent for me and my sea level lungs. But every gasping breath was well worth the effort because every step I took revealed an even more beautiful sight than the last.
I repeatedly crossed over a stream that rushed by me from the third (and my personal favorite) lake of the day, Dream Lake. Just like Nymph Lake, the name accurately embodied the lake to come, it was dream-like in its natural splendor. I couldn’t help but think with every step that I took that people all over the world look at postcards or pictures of the places I have been lucky enough to step foot in and dream of someday visiting them, some with more realistic intentions of realizing these dreams than others, but still, I was there in this fairy tale place, a place of postcards and magazine covers as if it was my own backyard to play around in for the day. How lucky am I to have seen the things I have seen, to have done the things I am doing.
Dream Lake was rimmed with driftwood caught on the shores. The water was such a shocking emerald color it made me particularly dubious that the next and final lake, Emerald Lake, could possibly be closer to the color emerald than the waters of Dream Lake. Underneath the clear waters swam speckled rainbow trout that occasionally disturbed the still surface by pecking at bugs sitting on the water. The fish were everywhere, slowly drifting through the clear waters undisturbed and unafraid of the people surrounding the lake.
I pushed on from Dream Lake knowing that the end goal was not too far off (albeit up the steepest portion of the trail yet).
After befriending a young hiker ( a ten year old girl who followed me up the trail as her parents and brother lagged behind), we ascended the final portion of the trail. I felt light headed and a little faint by the end of the climb because we were almost two miles above sea level at this point and the affect was staggering. At least I had my little hiker buddy to keep me motivated and moving despite not feeling super well.
I rounded the final corner and there it was, Emerald Lake, the fourth and final stop on the hike. The waters were indeed emerald and beautifully pristine. Some hikers had stopped to eat lunch at the lake and were being casually attacked by a horde of chipmunks who were literally crawling on the backs of the hikers to steal crumbs. One chipmunk even tried to take a bite out of Mama the Llama until I chased it away.
The driftwood surrounding the lake was a massive accumulation of bone white tree trunks scattered on the rocky shoreline. With some difficulty, I made my way down to the water’s edge over the boneyard of driftwood and took a break with my bare feet in the glacial waters.
With the finish line crossed I made a decision that made the rest of my day perfect. I decided to return to Dream Lake since it was my favorite of the day and eat my lunch there instead of Emerald Lake. It was the best decision of the day. So I hiked back down to Dream Lake and found a perfect hammock spot on a rocky out cropping into the lake and set myself up with my croissant from the Laughing Goat in Boulder and my book. It was marvelous.
I sat there for several hours just basking in the sun and soaking in everything. It was truly glorious but I wound up getting pretty sunburned since I was so much closer to the sun up in the Rocky Mountains than normal.
After I was too warm to continue resting in my hammock I packed up and descended the mountain back to the first Lake where I took the shuttle back to my car so I could continue on my journey around the park. I decided to drive the Trail Ridge Road and go up to the Alpine Visitor Center that was over two miles above sea level. I stopped a few times along the road to marvel at the Autumn colors and take views of the valleys below the towering mountains I now stood atop.
I even managed to get photobombed by a chipmunk at the Rainbow Curve.
At the top where the Alpine Visitor Center sat I walked around the fragile Alpine Tundra environment that stretched across the ridge. I was above the tree line so there were only rocks and tiny shrubbery dotting the horizon line. The road going up there was slightly terrifying because there were no guard rails despite being precarious perched on a road with no shoulder and gigantic drops on either side.
The air was getting a little too thin for my sea level lungs though, which became my general thought of the day, and with my head swimming and seemingly floating on my shoulders, I decided it was time to return to a somewhat bearable elevation. Dropping back down to the valley I took some time to look at the colors and was rewarded with a bonus sighting, a small elk family consisting of a Bull, a doe and an adorable little baby.
The baby was eating while the parents were settling down to rest in the field and he was quite the photogenic little guy.
I left them be and exited the park exhausted but satisfied. I wandered slowly on sore feet through Estes Park and stopped to get some Nepalese food outside in the warm autumn air next to the river. It was a pleasant way to end a long but wonderful day and my drive back to Boulder was filled with thoughts and images of everything I had seen and experienced in the park. I could have stayed forever, but there was always more to see and time would not wait for me, not today at least.