One of the things I love most about living in Portland is the perpetual, snow-capped backdrop of Mt. Hood, the prominent 11,249-foot volcano that dominates the horizon to the east. Whether I’m crossing the Fremont Bridge or circling the top of Mt. Tabor Park, a glimpse of the lonely mountain always gives me a bit of a thrill—and not just because it signifies a temporary break in the rain.
So imagine the wonder I felt during a recent visit to Rocky Mountain National Park, where 98 peaks rise above 11,000 feet and a diverse blend of alpine tundra, dense forests, and meadow valleys straddle the Continental Divide. It’s a place where the Colorado River begins and the nation’s highest continuously paved road ends—and one that attracted nearly 4.2 million visitors in 2015 alone.
So lace up your hiking boots, conserve your oxygen, and read on for a few of my favorite Rocky Mountain experiences. It may not be a full three-day itinerary, but it’s the perfect place to begin.
Trail As Old As Time
With 124 named peaks, 147 lakes, and 355 miles of trails within the park borders, selecting a spot to begin your Rocky Mountain adventure can seem like a daunting task. But luckily for us, there’s the Trail Ridge Road, a 48-mile scenic highway that connects Estes Park in the east with Grand Lake in the west.
“It’s hard to describe what a sensation this new road is going to make,” said Horace Albright, director of the National Park Service, in 1931. “You will have the whole sweep of the Rockies before you in all directions.” Nearly a century later, the Trail Ridge Road continues to fulfill Albright’s promise, offering 11 miles of road that climb above the tree line and spectacular views that encompass both the distant summit of Longs Peak and the surrounding fragile tundra that covers one-third of the park.
Insider Tip: The road is full of scenic pull-outs and trailheads—and most of them are worth a stop. You’ll also get the best sense of the road, which is typically open between late May and October, by driving it in both directions.
Smarter Than The Average Bear
Nestled in the shadow of Hallett and Otis Peaks, Bear Lake is almost strangely accessible for a lake of its elevation (9,475 feet). Simply follow the paved road south from the Beaver Meadows Entrance Station to discover a tranquil landscape of jagged peaks, alpine ponds, and a network of trails that depart from the lake itself. A star among them is the steady 1.8-mile ascent to Emerald Lake, which also traces the shores of the lilypad-laden Nymph Lake and the aptly named Dream Lake.
Insider Tip: Arrive at Bear Lake early to secure a parking spot and avoid the inevitable mid-day crowds.
He Climbed Cathedral Mountains, He Saw Silver Clouds Below
Following eons of erosion and seismic activity, the summits of the Rocky Mountains are believed to contain exposed stone as old as two billion years. So it seems only right that you would spend a morning hiking one of these (slightly smaller, younger) peaks—and enjoying views of the others along the way. A wonderful place to start is the three-mile ascent of Deer Mountain, a gradual open ridge trail that begins at the Deer Ridge Junction Trailhead and climbs to the 9,937-foot summit.
A Few Notes
Between the summer wildflowers, the autumn aspens, and the majestic winter snowscapes, there are compelling reasons to visit Rocky Mountain National Park in every season. But if you time your visit for September, you’ll enjoy the sunniest weather, brilliant fall colors, and an elk mating season that brings the herds to lower elevations.
TITLE: The view of Longs Peak from the Trail Ridge Road | The view of Longs Peak from the Trail Ridge Road; a stretch of alpine tundra on the Trail Ridge Road; Nymph Lake; a stream on the Emerald Lake Trail; Dream Lake; Emerald Lake; the view from the Deer Mountain Trail.