With our time in Colorado almost up we had one final goal, to visit the Rocky Mountain National Park. This will be the first in our National Park tour. Once we leave Colorado we’re heading north to visit Yellowstone and Glacier! Stick around and enjoy the scenery, deer herds, and bison from the comfort of your favorite chair.
We left the James M. Robb State Park before 7am, on our way to the Boulder County Fairgrounds in Longmont, Colorado. We were so pleased with our fairground camping experience in Durango that we decided to give it another shot. Also, most of the other campgrounds in the area were full and we were looking for something cheap because we would be leaving the RV parked for a few days while we tent camped in the Rocky Mountain National Park. No sense in over-paying for a camping spot we’re mostly just using for storage.
The drive was less remarkable than what we’ve been seeing the past few weeks. We were on I-70 the entire time. The interstate was dull, like most interstates, and very bumpy. Every so often we would hit a pothole and our fridge door would fly open, sending the ketchup, pickles, and last night’s leftovers onto the floor. I was napping in the passenger seat and kept waking up to the sound of food flying across the RV. Each time I would leap out of my seat to shut the fridge and clean up whatever fell out this time. Luckily, the only thing that actually busted open and spilled was a carton of yogurt. We didn’t really like that flavor anyway.
Camping at the Boulder County Fairgrounds is first-come first-serve but there were plenty of spots left when we arrived. This park is set up more like a traditional RV park than the Durango fairground had been. There were about 50 spots but they were all pretty narrow. For the most part there are no staff at this park. You pick your own spot from the available empty spaces and pay at a kiosk. But we didn’t have any problems and all of our neighbors seemed to be doing fine as well.
Once we were settled into our spot we made a store list and picked a spot for lunner. Our choice was a place called the Roost in downtown Longmont. It was excellent. They had shaded rooftop seating and an interesting menu. I had Thai pork tacos and Brandon had chicken fingers and a spiked sweet tea. How southern of him.
We were honestly pretty impressed with the suburb of Longmont. We were expecting another boring suburb full of Costcos and Targets and with no discernible center. Instead, we found a lovely main street with lots of local shops and eateries. It was also very clean, with people out and about everywhere and ample parking. Sure, not all of Longmont is picturesque but it was much better than we expected. We picked Longmont as our home base because we wanted to be within driving distance of Rocky Mountain National Park as well as Breckenridge where we had a potential off-road trip in the works. Also, just about everything else in the area was booked. The off-road-trip fell through but our choice of spot still worked out well.
Our main goal for our first night in Longmont was to pack for our camping trip at Rocky Mountain National Park. All of our camping gear was stashed in the lockers underneath the RV. We needed to drag it all out, make sure everything is in working order, and strap it all to the roof rack on the Jeep. This would be our first tent camping experience of the trip and, actually, the first tent camping trip we’ve ever been on with just the two of us.
In the morning we packed our cooler with enough food to feed a family of six. I think we both suffer from a bit of Italian Mother Syndrome, we just can’t seem to cook, pack, or shop for only two people. We always have enough to feed us and whoever else might be hungry. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We always have enough to eat, plus leftovers for lunch. It’s just that we didn’t do it intentionally. Brandon grew up with a big, close family (he has three younger siblings, lots of aunts, uncles, and family members whose relation I am still trying to figure out) and I was raised by a mother whose spaghetti recipe used to feed an entire club full of hippie singer-songwriters. So, it’s not our fault. It’s hereditary. But if you’re ever camping near us, stop on by. We’ll fix you a plate and pour you a glass.
We were camping at the Glacier Basin campground in the SE section of the park. Glacier Basin is not one of the more popular campgrounds because there is not any shade. Most of the trees in the campground were killed or damaged by the lodgepole-pine beetle infestation and had to be removed for safety reasons. But without the trees we had a killer view of the mountains. It was sunny at Glacier Basin and hotter than we expected. It reminded us that we need to buy some sort of shade tent. After setting up camp we planned our driving route around the park.
We had originally planned on touring the park the following morning but after seeing how sunny it was at camp we decided to get back in the Jeep and drive. Also, the Jeep had felt very heavy driving up the mountains along scenic Hwy 36 on our way to the park. We knew that touring the park would involve some mountain climbing and decided this would be better done in a Jeep that wasn’t loaded down with camping gear.
Our plan was to take the Old Fall River Road (the original dirt road through the park) to the Alpine Visitor Center and Trail Ridge Road (the new and improved road through the park) pack to camp. The two roads make for a lovely loop through the majority of the park. Well, the sections of the park that are navigable by car. There are miles and miles of trails that access the backcountry areas of the park that we never saw. Including stops for photos our tour took about four hours.
We thought Old Fall River Road was going to be more like a real Jeep trail and less like the dirt roads we both grew up driving down. Seriously, my parent’s driveway is in worse shape than Old Fall River Road (no offense guys). After driving the trails in Ouray we keep expecting these old park roads to be a little more “off-road” and it’s disappointing when we spend the whole drive following behind a Prius. But it’s really for the best. This means that everyone can experience the amazing views from Old Fall River Road, not just people with Jeeps and other off-road vehicles. The road is entirely dirt but is remarkably well-maintained. No vehicles over 25 feet are allowed and no trailers. Just about anyone else will do just fine.
The road is winding and beautiful. You pass through picturesque mountain valleys.
Stop at rushing snow-melt waterfalls.
Marvel at snow still clinging to the side of a mountain in July.
And gawk at the wildlife. Such as this Yellow-Bellied Marmot.
And this quizzical deer.
“Are you gonna share some of those crackers or what?”
The road climbs up and up until you are above the tree line at around 12,000 feet. This environment is actually alpine tundra. It is substantially colder and there is about half as much oxygen. You can get light-headed and out of breath very easily.
The dirt road ends at the Alpine Visitors Center. There is a snack bar and a very nice gift shop. We were starving so we bought some cookies, jerky, and bottled water.
The main activity at the visitors center is hiking up a very long set of stairs to a viewpoint. There are a ton of stairs and at 12,000 feet this is actually pretty difficult for the unacclimated. At the top you can see for miles.
As a bonus there was a herd of mule deer (or elk, I’m not entirely sure) just hanging out at the top. I don’t know if the animals regularly hang out here or if we just arrived at the opportune time. The deer seemed to be very used to people and just stared at us while they continued to munch on the plentiful alpine grasses.
Their lady friends and children were grazing a bit further down the road.
On our trip home we took Trail Ridge Road, which didn’t take nearly as long (despite being longer by mileage) because the road was paved. We also did not stop for nearly as many photos. We were both ready to get to a lower elevation. We’ve both been in Colorado for about three weeks but we still do not feel fully adjusted to the higher altitude.
Back at camp we had a chance to be good Samaritans.
It started sprinkling on our way back to camp. And it looked like it would be pouring soon. All of our stuff was secure in our tent but our neighbors had forgotten to bring the rain fly for their tent and were making a futile attempt at waterproofing their tent with kitchen-sized trash bags. We happened to have a spare rain fly in the Jeep from a tent we no longer own. We had thought of using it as a shade cover but without any trees to tie it to it was essentially useless. We decided to pass it on to our neighbors so that they wouldn’t be totally rained out or have to sleep in the car. They were very thankful. Within 20 minutes it was pouring rain.
We sat out the rain from inside the Jeep while enjoying some end of the day beers and whiskey.
Brandon made burgers for dinner and we built a nice campfire. Luckily, the firewood we had purchased back in Palisade was wrapped in plastic and stayed dry.
We got a kick out of watching our other neighbors. They were a young couple, probably just barely out of high school. They struggled to set up their gear and forgot their matches (we loaned them our torch). They were adorable. Their camping spot didn’t have a bear locker so they shared with us. We observed that the only food they brought was packaged cheese crackers and marshmallows.
Up here in bear country you have to stash just about anything with a scent in a bear proof container. This includes food, trash, dishes, toiletries, anything you wore while cooking, etc. While checking in, the park ranger assured us that this was no joke by recounting a story from last summer when a bear broke into someone’s tent for their chapstick. We made judicious use of the bear locker.
We stayed up late drinking whiskey around the campfire, enjoying the sunset and later the millions of stars in the sky.
Brandon thought he heard bears in the campground overnight. We didn’t find any evidence of bears in the morning but he heard heavy breathing from a large animal near our tent. He didn’t sleep well after that. I slept through the whole thing.
We got up early the next morning and broke camp. We decided to get a late breakfast on our way out of town but first we wanted to drive down to Bear Lake near our camp. We hadn’t been the day before and it seemed to be a popular destination within the park.
At the entrance to Bear Lake a Ranger stopped us and said, “First, awesome Jeep. Really, a beautiful car.” Brandon’s hat started getting a little snug. “But there is absolutly no parking left. Just keep on moving and try again later.” It was only 9am. He said we could try the park and ride bus system but that parking lot was nearly full too. We saw the last park and ride spot fill as we drove past on our way out of the park. This was our first real sight of the craziness that is touring large national parks during peak season. Cars and people everyone, all trying to get the perfect photo and fit as much fun as they can into their alotted two-week vacation. I can only imagine what Yellowstone is going to be like.
But we did manage to find an excellent spot for breakfast in Estes Park. If you’re ever in the area try out The Egg & I. The benedict is spot on.