Tag Archives: camping

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. 

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Gateway National Recreation Area

Overview

Approximately 9-million visitors utilize the 26,600 acres of Gateway National Recreation Area annually, ranking it the fourth busiest unit in the National Park Service (NPS) System.  This is not surprising when you consider the number of people that live around New York Harbor.  The park is divided into three units: New Jersey’s Sandy Hook, and New York’s Staten Island and Jamaica Bay.

Highlights

Fort Wadsworth, Sandy Hook Lighthouse, Fort Hancock, Floyd Bennett Field, Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge

Must-Do Activity

On Staten Island, tours are offered of Fort Wadsworth, which sits at the base of the beautiful Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to Long Island.  It was part of the coastal defense system created to protect New York Harbor in the 1800s, which is clearly displayed at the outstanding NPS museum on the cliff above Fort Wadsworth.  In 1913, President William Howard Taft attended a ceremony dedicating the National American Indian Memorial to be built inside the fort, but it never came to fruition because of World War I.

Best Trail

Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge is a great spot for birdwatching or watching airplanes take off and land at JFK Airport.  The trail around West Pond takes about an hour to walk and feels worlds away from Manhattan, which is visible on the skyline.

Instagram-worthy Photo

The Sandy Hook Unit of Gateway National Recreation Area is located on a spit of sand that sticks out from the New Jersey shoreline.  It offers beaches, tours of Fort Hancock, and a lighthouse that dates back to 1764 (making it the oldest continuously operated one in the U.S.).  For photos of Sandy Hook, check out our fellow National Park blogger Theresa’s website.  Below is one of her excellent photographs of Sandy Hook Lighthouse.

Peak Season

Summer for the beaches

Hours

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

Fees

None, except for beach parking at Sandy Hook and Jacob Riis Park in Queens (plus toll roads/bridges).

Road Conditions

All roads are paved, plus many of the units of Gateway National Recreation Area are accessible by public transportation.

Camping

The NPS offers camping at all three units of Gateway National Recreation Area, so check the NPS website for details.

Related Sites

Statue of Liberty National Monument (New York-New Jersey)

Fire Island National Seashore (New York)

Thomas Edison National Historical Park (New Jersey)

Explore More – What famous U.S. coin was first publicly displayed at the 1913 dedication of the National American Indian Memorial at Fort Wadsworth?

Niobrara National Scenic River

Overview

When most folks think of Nebraska they imagine endless dusty prairie scenes of the Oregon Trail, yet between the wide Platte and Missouri Rivers also runs the 535-mile long Niobrara River.  The Niobrara cuts across the 100th Meridian of Longitude that roughly divides in half the continental U.S.  This special area is home to species representative of the eastern forests, Rocky Mountains, boreal forests, and prairies; consequently it has high biodiversity.

Highlights

Smith Falls State Park, Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, canoeing

Must-Do Activity

The 76-mile section of river designated the Niobrara National Scenic River in 1991 begins within Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge where the first 4.8 miles are closed to the public.  From Cornell Bridge downstream is the most popular portion for canoers, tubers, and people who float downstream in round metal cattle troughs.  The Niobrara River has a few big Class IV rapids, but nothing more than Class II through the first 27 miles.

Best Trail

Pull over in Smith Falls State Park for a short walk to a 63-foot tall waterfall, which is interesting because it pours off a prominent ledge instead of a cut bank.  You can also drive to the state park and walk over the Niobrara River on the Verdigre Bridge, originally built in 1910 and relocated here in 1996.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Do not miss the opportunity to drive the dirt road through Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge to see the bison herd, especially in May when the bison calves are born.

Peak Season

Summer, though water levels drop after June.

Hours

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

Fees

None for the river, but there is a launch fee in Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge and entry/camping fees at Smith Falls State Park.

Road Conditions

The dirt roads in Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge and Smith Falls State Park are well-maintained and passable to all vehicles.

Camping

Camping options are limited since most of the river banks are privately owned, though Smith Falls State Park offers a campground ($6/person/night) and other campsites are marked on river maps.

Related Sites

Missouri National Recreation River (Nebraska-South Dakota)

Agate Fossil Beds National Monument (Nebraska)

Scotts Bluff National Monument (Nebraska)

Explore More – Named for a town in Nebraska, the Valentine Formation holds what types of fossils?

Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument

Overview

Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument outside Flagstaff, Arizona is worth a closer look than a drive-by on your way to Grand Canyon National Park.  As its name suggests, this thousand-foot high cinder cone is stained red as though in perpetual twilight.  Volcanic activity last occurred here in the year 1180 AD, but even though geologists consider this area dormant, it is just possible that a new cinder cone might start erupting at any time.

Highlights

Lava Flow Nature Trail, Bonito Lava Flow, Lenox Crater Trail, O’Leary Peak

Must-Do Activity

A 35-mile loop drive through Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument to neighboring Wupatki National Monument passes through ponderosa pine forest and sunflower-filled meadows on its way to an arid, rocky high desert region that is dotted with ruins.  From the road you can see the San Francisco Peaks rising to the west, as well as a series of cinder cones outside the monument’s boundaries.  Several of these mini-volcanoes are accessible by roads, including our favorite: S.P. Crater.

Best Trail

To experience the black cinders you have to get out of your car and hike through them, but take your time as the elevation is around 7,000 feet.  Lava Flow Nature Trail provides interpretive signs along a partially paved one-mile loop.  You cannot climb to the top of Sunset Crater, but you can summit nearby Lenox Crater on a steep one-mile trail.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Sunset Crater and the Bonito Lava Flow are especially eye-catching when viewed from atop 8,900-foot O’Leary Peak, accessible by hiking to a fire lookout tower in adjacent Coconino National Forest.  The awe-inspiring vista will make you glad that movie producers were stopped from dynamiting Sunset Crater in 1928.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

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

Fees

$25 per vehicle, which also covers entrance to neighboring Wupatki National Monument.

Road Conditions

All roads paved

Camping

The U.S. Forest Service runs the Bonito Campground across from the Sunset Crater visitor center from May through October.  Dispersed camping is allowed in portions of Coconino National Forest.

Related Sites

Wupatki National Monument (Arizona)

Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve (Idaho)

Capulin Volcano National Monument (New Mexico)

Explore More – How many millions of years of volcanic activity have occurred in the area around Flagstaff, Arizona?

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

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