Exploring Rocky Mountain National Park

By: Tom Malone - Summer 2018

Denver, Colorado - As the sun began to rise, I drove into the small mountain town of Estes Park on an autumn morning hoping to see some of the famous elk that roam through the streets without a care in the world. No luck.

I pushed forward, following the surprisingly discrete road signs to Rocky Mountains National Park, whose entrance lies a few miles outside the town. I had heard about the park’s insane lines that build up at the pay stations, but I must have been too early for the lines. Fine with me.

As I drove into the park without a car in sight, the mountains unfolded before me in their purest form: tall, jagged, impressive, majestic, and foreboding. My car pushed forward and upward until the road weaved into a set of switchbacks that allowed me to climb a few thousand feet without a second thought.

I pulled off the road, threw my backpack over my shoulder, and trekked into the woods along a slender dirt path that led me to a wooden overlook. Jumping off the platform, I waded through the mud along a stream a fished for a few minutes, not know how long the rest of my journey would take me.

Back in the car, I rolled the windows down and let the crisp Rocky Mountain air flow. Each curve in the switchbacks produced a more magnificent view than the last. Through the trees, I saw valley floors and opposing vertical mountains. And then, the trees stopped.

My car chugged above the timberline along Trail Ridge Road; we finally crested the summit above 12,000 feet. I stopped at a few specified hiking trails along the way, and made sure to stay on the path (as unadventurous as that sounds, it protects the ecosystem at that altitude).

The alpine tundra ecosystem within the mountain range is exposed to the most extreme circumstances: 100 mile-per-hour winds, subzero temperatures, shifting snows, and unfiltered sunlight. It’s a miracle that anything grows their at all. And it does. Small grasses bud with yellow and pink flowers. Marmots burrow in the rocky outcrops. And all this at a comfortable cruising altitude for a passenger airplane.

As I made the descent to the other side of the Rockies, I saw a river weaving through a valley below. Looking at my map, I realized it was the headwaters for the Cache la Poudre River, a prime fly fishing river outside of Denver.

I pulled over, quickly grabbed my gear, and trekked into the forest. With no human interference or sound, I continued my trek for 30 minutes until I realized that the path would never meet up with the river. Knowing I was in a more forgiving ecosystem than the tundra, I went off the trail and trekked down to the creek. With my Tenkara rod, I caught a few small trout and released them back into their patch of stream.

After hiking out, I drove along the road for approximately three minutes before I reached a sign that indicated the Continental Divide. Of course, I stopped and hiked along a trail that would connect with the Continental Divide Trail. This time, I was joined by a few companions: a group of 15 mountain goats. I paused and let them pass before fishing the headwaters of Beaver Creek (no luck this time).

With the thrill of hiking with mountain goats checked off my list, I drove down the mountain until I reached the headwaters of the Colorado River. At this point in its journey, it wasn’t much more than a creek, but it flows on to carve the Grand Canyon before powering a large section of California. I fished the river without a person in sight (or sound).

I could have stayed by the Colorado River and fished all day, but I knew I had to return over the mountains before the usual noon thunderstorms hit. I sped up the mountain as I retraced my steps. This time, I saw the same views from reverse angles.

This quick five-hour trip through Rocky Mountain National Park was enough to force me to return and explore the hidden, off-the-beaten-path spots that make this park so enticing: hiking, backpacking, fishing, and camping spots abound. But for a spontaneous beginner’s tour of the mountain’s majesty, it was quite the adventure. Rest assured, I’ll be back.