Tag Archives: backpacking

Sample Chapter from Our New Guidebook

We wanted to demonstrate how our new guidebook (A Park to Yourself: Finding Adventure in America’s National Parks) is different from this website, so we are providing a sample chapter for Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.  Here is a link to the Raven About The Parks blog post on the park.

The holidays are coming up, so order A Park to Yourself now on Amazon!

39. Rocky Mountain National Park

Colorado

265,795 acres

Established 1915

4,590,493 visitors in 2018

Overview

This truly is a National Park for all seasons.  In the summer, it is worth the extra time it takes to drive 11 miles up the unpaved curves of one-way Old Fall River Road to Alpine Visitor Center at 11,796 feet, then back down Trail Ridge Road.  Elk bulls spar and bugle in the autumn, when aspen trees briefly turn the mountainsides gold.  Winter is a wonderful time for outdoor recreation here if you are prepared for the icy conditions, even on a short 1.6-mile trip up to Gem Lake just outside of Estes Park, Colorado.

Peak Visitation Months

July (20%) August (18%) June (16%) September (15%)

Busiest Spots

Bear Lake Trailhead, Alluvial Fan, Alpine Visitor Center, Longs Peak

Worth The Crowds

Bear Lake Trailhead is the busiest area in the park.  Its huge parking lot fills up early year round, but a hiker shuttle is available during the summer.  While the trail starts above 9,000 feet elevation, it is only 1.1 miles with a steady ascent up to stunning Dream Lake ringed by jagged peaks.  From there, you can continue on to Emerald Lake or take the long loop around to Lake Haiyaha and Alberta Falls.  Even in the winter, these trails are generally packed enough that snowshoes are not required.

A Park To Yourself

The western side of the park is generally less busy throughout the year, but even less so in the winter when it is cut off after Trail Ridge Road closes each October.  Snowshoeing past Adams Falls up the East Inlet valley is breathtaking when the snow sparkles in the sun and the river gurgles deep under foot.  There are majestic mountain views once the forest opens up into a spectacular meadow.  Better yet, there is never a fee required to park at the East Inlet or North Inlet Trailheads. 

Iconic Photograph

Around Memorial Day each year, all 48 miles of Trail Ridge Road open to vehicles.  Its high point is at 12,183 feet, the highest elevation reached by a fully-paved road in the United States.  For much of its length, jagged black mountaintops lined in pure white snow surround the visitor on all sides.  Our favorite view is looking southwest towards the Gorge Lakes and Mount Ida from the overlooks at Rock Cut or Forest Canyon parking areas.

Scott’s Favorite Trail

Starting at the small parking lot at Poudre Lake, it is a steady climb five miles one-way to Mount Ida at 12,880 feet.  After a mile, it is less a trail and more following cairns along the Continental Divide.  Needless to say, above timberline there are first-class views of surrounding mountains.  Elk and bighorn sheep are commonly spotted on the route.  From the top you look down on the colorful Gorge Lakes and far across to Trail Ridge Road.

Tiff’s Favorite Trail

The Dunraven Trailhead is in Roosevelt National Forest, northeast of Estes Park.  From there a trail drops to the canyon bottom then follows the North Fork of the Big Thompson River 4.4 miles before it enters the National Park, and backpack camping is allowed without a permit along this length.  The views open up on the Mummy Range before the trail ends around Lost Lake.  You can continue to explore the other lakes past there, but overnight stays in this area require a permit from the National Park Service.

Bonus Winter Trail

In the winter months, the road off Highway 7 to Wild Basin shuts down, but it is still plowed for those entering on foot.  Adding the two mile road length to any hiking distance makes it about eight miles roundtrip to Calypso Cascades, which continues to flow beneath the snow and ice.  Snowshoes are recommended as this trail sees much less use than those around Bear Lake.

Camping

There are multiple campgrounds within the park, but only Glacier Basin is open year round.  Several National Forests surround the park and provide opportunities for dispersed camping, although near Grand Lake it does get crowded during the summer.

Backpacking

Backpacking permits are required and designated sites are reservable, including on the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail.  You must still pay the National Park entry fee, but there is no additional charge to get a permit to park at the Bowen/Baker Trailhead and camp in the Never Summer Wilderness outside the park boundaries.

Getting Around

Most of the park roads are paved and the two-mile long dirt road to Wild Basin Trailhead is well-maintained.  A hiker shuttle operates from Beaver Meadows Visitor Center in the summer.  Old Fall River Road typically does not open until July, but this 11-mile long one-way dirt road makes a great loop when connected with Trail Ridge Road (open late-May to October). 

Nearby Public Lands

There are no National Park Service units near this park, but it does border Arapaho National Recreation Area on the west side.  If you are flying in or out of Denver International Airport, a short detour from Interstate 70 takes you to Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, which contains bison, white-tailed deer, pronghorns, prairie dogs, and other animals.

Insider Tip

Estes Park is the gateway town to the eastern portion of the park.  There are often elk grazing in its neighborhoods and golf courses.  While there, we recommend the ghost tour of the Stanley Hotel, which inspired Stephen King’s The Shining.

Wildlife

In the summer, most of the elk herds head to high elevation, but other times of year they walk through the town of Estes Park and congregate near the eastern entrance stations.  Rock Cut is a great spot to watch the spastic wanderings of yellow-bellied marmots and American pikas.  Mule deer are found throughout the park, but moose are more common on the west side.  We commonly see bighorn sheep on Highway 34 through Big Thompson Canyon, but have never spotted one within the park, even at Sheep Lakes where they come to lick salt.

Journal Entry

March 2013

We never thought we would have an entire National Park campground to ourselves, but that is exactly what we found at Timber Creek one beautiful March weekend.  The ranger could not recall the last campers they had stayed there and it took some work to excavate a site from almost three feet of snow, but it was worth it.  Sitting around the campfire that night, the silence was palpable until abruptly pierced by the eerie cries of coyotes that echoed up the valley.  Snow camping is not for the faint of heart, but with proper planning we were well prepared for the 15°F temperatures that met us in the morning.  On a clear day, the winter scenery in the Rocky Mountains is unsurpassed. 

If you enjoyed reading this chapter, you can find all 50 chapters in our first National Parks guidebook!

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Overview

Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, with both sides offering incredible views.  The park is similar to Shenandoah National Park in that it was mostly purchased from private landowners before its establishment by the federal government in 1934.  With around 11-million visitors annually, it is easily the most visited of the 61 National Parks in the National Park Service system, perhaps because it has no entrance fee.

Highlights

Clingman’s Dome, Cades Cove, Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, Foothills Parkway, Oconaluftee, Appalachian National Scenic Trail

Must-Do Activity

Many interesting sections of Great Smoky Mountains National Park preserve the human history of the region, like the popular Cades Cove with its iconic old grist mill.  To learn more about the Cherokee indigenous to this region, visit Oconaluftee Visitor Center on the North Carolina side.  While there you might also spot a herd of reintroduced elk.

Best Trail

Even on the bumper to bumper Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, all you have to do is park and take a hike to find some solitude.  Grotto Falls Trail passes through old-growth hemlock forest, an area very popular with black bears.

Instagram-worthy Photo

As you can imagine, this park is incredibly popular in October and November because of the beautiful fall foliage.  Early in the season, head to 6,643-foot Clingman’s Dome, then drop in elevation as the autumn progresses.

Peak Season

Summer and fall

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None

Road Conditions

Newfound Gap Road is the major thoroughfare connecting the two sides of the park and it is plowed throughout the winter.  The 11-mile loop road through Cades Cove is open year round, but the 7-mile spur road up to Clingman’s Dome and the 6-mile one-way Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail are seasonal.

Camping

There are 10 campgrounds within Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but if you need RV hookups you will have to find a private campground outside the park.

Related Sites

Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area (Tennessee-Kentucky)

Blue Ridge Parkway (North Carolina-Virginia)

Shenandoah National Park (Virginia)

This design we created to celebrate Great Smoky Mountains National Park is available on a variety of products at Cafe Press and Amazon.

Explore More – While most National Parks do not allow dogs on trails, what are the two trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park that do?

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Overview

This truly is a National Park for all seasons.  In the summer, it is worth the extra time it takes to drive eleven miles up the unpaved curves of one-way Old Fall River Road to Alpine Visitor Center at 11,796 feet.  Elk bulls spar and bugle in the autumn, when aspen trees briefly turn the mountainsides gold.  Winter is a wonderful time for outdoor recreation if you come prepared for the cold and snow.

Highlights

Bear Lake, Dream Lake, Trail Ridge Road, Adams Falls, Ouzel Falls,

Must-Do Activity

From the famous Trail Ridge Road, you do not even have to get out of your car for amazing panoramas.  If you want to walk, the one-mile Toll Memorial Trail at Tundra Communities Trailhead is paved and flat enough to not be too strenuous at 12,000 feet in elevation.  Elk, pikas, and yellow-bellied marmots frequent the parking area around Rock Cut. 

Best Trail

If you are looking to climb straight up the side of a mountain, there are plenty of options, including popular Flattop Mountain and the strenuous climb up Longs Peak.  For a less busy trail, head to Ypsilon Lake and continue up the hillside, scrambling over boulders all the way to spectacular Spectacle Lakes.

Instagram-worthy Photo

In Grand Lake on the west side of the park, hiking or snowshoeing past Adams Falls up the East Inlet Trail is breathtaking in all seasons.

Peak Season

Summer is the busiest, but winter brings opportunities for snowshoeing.

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

$35 per vehicle ($25 for one day) or America The Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

Almost all roads are paved; one-way Old Fall River Road is gravel and only open a few months in the summer.

Camping

There are multiple campgrounds within the park and Glacier Basin is open year round.  Several National Forests surround the park and provide opportunities for dispersed camping, although around Grand Lake it does get crowded on summer weekends.

This design we created to celebrate Rocky Mountain National Park is available on a variety of products at Cafe Press and Amazon.

Explore More – How do the winter survival strategies differ between pikas and yellow-bellied marmots?

This photo from Emerald Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park is for sale on Imagekind

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

Dinosaur National Monument

Overview

As its name suggests, Dinosaur National Monument was first created in 1915 to protect an archaeological dig.  The 200-foot long wall of unexcavated fossils at Dinosaur Quarry outside Jensen, Utah is still the park’s main attraction.  A major addition of 200,000 acres was added in 1938, stretching into the neighboring state of Colorado.  More than 90% of the National Monument (click here to see where it ranks in our Top 10) is managed as wilderness and is best explored by whitewater rafting the Green and Yampa Rivers.

Highlights

Dinosaur Quarry, Harpers Corner Road, Fremont pictographs, Jones Hole Trail, whitewater rafting

Must-Do Activity

Whitewater rafting trips on the Green River can last a few hours or multiple days depending upon where you put in.  We highly recommend a three night trip starting at the Gates of Lodore with Adrift Dinosaur or one of several other outfitters.  They also offer multi-day trips down the Yampa River, which is undammed and only navigable during the spring snowmelt.  If you do not feel like getting wet, simply enjoy a quiet picnic on the shoreline at easily-accessible Split Mountain (or take a high-clearance vehicle down the rough road to scenic Echo Park).

Best Trail

The 4-mile long Jones Hole Trail is accessible to rafters on the Green River and from a fish hatchery at the end of a paved road near the Utah-Colorado border.  It provides access to Ely Creek Falls and the Deluge Shelter pictographs, which are approximately 800 to 1,400 years old.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Dinosaur Quarry may be the only mountainside in America surrounded by its own glass-enclosed, air-conditioned building.  It contains thousands of fossilized bones of giant creatures sitting in the same place they have been for the past 148-million years.  It is a completely different experience than seeing dinosaur skeletons reconstructed in a museum, although they have those, too. 

Peak Season

Spring and summer

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/dino/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

No entrance fees for the Colorado side, but $25 per vehicle to enter the Utah side to view the Dinosaur Quarry.

Road Conditions

There are many dirt roads in the National Monument, some of which are impassable when wet, so check at a visitor center before entering.  The roads to the Dinosaur Quarry, Jones Hole Trailhead, Deerlodge Park, and Harpers Corner are paved.

Camping

There are several campgrounds within the park accessible by paved or unpaved roads, as well as numerous backcountry campsites located along the Green and Yampa Rivers (plus, one on the Jones Hole Trail). 

Explore More – Who was the one-armed Civil War veteran that led the first exploration of the Green River (and named the Gates of Lodore after a poem) in 1869?

WONDON WAS HERE

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Overview

Carlsbad Caverns in southeastern New Mexico is the most spectacular cave in the United States (and #1 on our Top 10 List).  Exploring the Big Room at your own pace is a great option, but you can add to your experience with guided tours of off-limits sections.  The King’s Palace Tour is short but scenic; and Left Hand Tunnel was historically used for movies.  Lower Cave Tour requires the use of ropes and ladders to access unlit portions of the cave.  Slaughter Canyon Cave tour requires an extra hour drive, but visits some astonishing formations.  “Wild caving” tours include Spider Cave and the Hall of the White Giant. 

Highlights

Big Room, Walnut Canyon Desert Drive, Rattlesnake Springs Picnic Area, Bat Flight Program

Must-Do Activity

To enjoy the evening Bat Flight Program (where cameras are prohibited) you must come during the warmer months.  Brazilian free-tailed bats migrate to the cave from the south and around sunset exit from the Natural Entrance in clockwise circling swarms.  You will swear there are like a “Brazilian” of them, but the actual number is closer to 500,000.  For an experience you will hear more than see, come back before sunrise as the bats zip by your head down into the cave for their day’s rest.

Best Trail

For your first visit, we recommend taking the self-guided trail from the Natural Entrance down a steep, paved passage into the heart of the cave, since you can always ride the elevators back up to the surface.  After being surrounded by the natural cave formations, it was a bit jarring to come upon a modern restroom and cafeteria 775 feet underground. 

Instagram-worthy Photo

Nothing can prepare you for the immensity of the Big Room, which is big enough to fit eight football fields with a ceiling that rises up to 255 feet.  It defies belief that this cavity could have formed naturally.  Perhaps the best part of this section of cave is that you can take as much time as you like admiring the formations.  For the best photographs, we recommend using a tripod.

Peak Season

Summer, though it can be hot outside the 56°F cave.

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/cave/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

No entrance fee, but there is a charge for each guided cave tour.

Road Conditions

Main entrance road is paved, but Walnut Canyon Desert Drive and much of the route to Slaughter Canyon Cave are not.

Camping

There are no campgrounds within the park, but there is a private campground near the park entrance in Whites City, New Mexico.  Just down the highway in Texas, the National Park Service offers camping at Pine Springs within Guadalupe Mountains National Park.  Free permits are required for backcountry camping, with Rattlesnake Canyon off Walnut Canyon Desert Drive being a popular destination.

This design we created to celebrate Carlsbad Caverns National Park is available on a variety of products at Cafe Press and Amazon.

Explore More – Historically, what was mined from the Natural Entrance and Slaughter Canyon Cave?

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.