RMNP, as it is affectionately called, is this month’s focus in our year-long commitment to National Parks. Contributor Katie Clurman is one of Rocky Mountain National Park’s biggest fans — and a lifelong visitor — and took the opportunity to share her unflinching adoration.
I grew up at the foot of the Rocky Mountains in Boulder, Colorado. From my parents’ kitchen window, on a sunny day, I could see Long’s Peak towering over the rest of the Mountains that signal west. The summer after I turned 10, my parents informed me that I would be going to a summer camp up in Estes Park, the town that serves as the gateway to 2 of Rocky Mountain National Park’s 4 entrances.
Despite some initial trepidation about spending 3 1/2 weeks away from my family, upon my arrival I immediately felt at home. What followed? Five more summers as a camper and then 7 more on staff, sharing my love for the mountains with young women from all over the world. I have been fortunate to be raised by the mountains and the community of people who belong to them, and it was here where I learned to appreciate all the park has to offer.
Must-Sees At RMNP
There are many different ways to enjoy the 265,769 acres of land that belong to RMNP. Rocky Mountain is known for being one of the largest parks — with the highest elevations — in the US. From the moment you enter, you are surrounded by grandiose peaks as the scent of pine and fresh mountain air fills your nose. Most of the park is “designated wilderness,” which means it has been conserved as a natural treasure, and relies dearly on its visitors to abide by “Leave No Trace” principles.
The fact that dainty wildflowers take root in gigantic rock faces where trees can no longer grow attests to the notion that RMNP is for everybody. If you are fresh off a plane in search of a leisurely stroll around Bear Lake, or you’re an advanced mountaineer looking to bag some impressive 14’ers, our park provides all of its visitors opportunity to feed their souls and connect with nature.
There are many hikes, such as Flattop and Hallett Peak, which ascend above the trees to the top of the world. There is no greater feeling than looking out from a summit and realizing how big and beautiful the world is, and how lucky we are to inhabit it.
If you’re visiting, be sure venture toward alpine lakes such as the peaceful and serene Black Lake, or Chasm Lake that sits at the base of the diamond of Long’s Peak (the tallest peak in the park). On any one of the 360 days of sunshine, you’re bound to catch some light reflecting from the softly rippling water.
Backpack to Sandbeach Lake. Just as you might expect, Sandbeach is home to a beach where you can kick off your hiking boots and stick your toes in the crystal-clear water, all while taking in the majestic Pagoda and Chief’s Head peaks. If you’re planning on spending the night, be sure to bring a camping hammock — no better way to give in to slumber than while swinging under the starry sky. Without the cacophony of the city, it’s easy to catch the whistling wind and birds chirping as the sun steadily rises.
There are numerous stables located around Estes and the rest of the park which allow you to explore on horseback. There are many “horse-friendly” trails, including one that takes you nearly all the way to Chasm Lake.
The drive over Trail Ridge Road itself can be called a magical experience. Trail Ridge extends from Estes to Grand Lake, with 11 miles of it above the tree line and nearing an elevation of 11,500 feet. Some of my favorite summer memories are from those drives to and from the trailheads, blasting early 2000s classics while watching people stop to take pictures of the elk and bighorn sheep that frequent the alpine tundra on either side of the road.
When in doubt, you can always stop by a ranger station or visitor center for advice, mountain or otherwise. (Park Ranger Barry is a wealth of life advice and will tell you a story. Find him at the Backcountry Office at the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center.)
Winter In RMNP
Winter also yields an amazing and surreal experience for visitors. Snowshoe from the Bear Lake Trailhead, or backcountry ski in Hidden Valley or at any of the long-abandoned ski resorts. A wonderful but sometimes eerie silence can be found while canvassing these snow-laden trails.
RMNP is a magical place that I hold close to my heart. It is where I grew up, where I found myself, and how I found my “forever people.”
It is almost impossible to sum up my love for this place in words, but nothing brings me more joy than sharing my appreciation with others. From watching the sunrise on the top of Mount Ida, to scrambling up a slightly frozen waterfall to Sky Pond, to running down the tundra when clouds have rolled in seemingly from nowhere over Long’s, my memories in RMNP are ones that I cherish and for which I am eternally grateful.
GIF by Jessie Kanelos Weiner. Photos by Katie Clurman.