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When you turn another year older, there’s no other way to celebrate than with a road trip. In true Quirky Globetrotter fashion, that vacation had to be an adventure-filled road trip. Past years, I’ve road tripped to Michigan or had a staycation. This birthday I ventured to Rocky National Park, Colorado, where I camped and hiked to my heart’s content. Here is a detailed account of how I camped in Rocky Mountain National Park and tales on the road.
I left Minnesota at 5 p.m. in hopes that I could arrive in Colorado early in the morning. I wanted to arrive at Rocky Mountain National Park early before the traffic was horrendous and all the campsites were taken. With my current calculations, I should arrive at 7 a.m. with minimal stops.
I tried to drive through the night, but I struggled when I arrived halfway through South Dakota. Due to the rainy and stormy weather, I had to pull over at a rest stop for a quick cat nap.
Yet, my Google Maps went rogue and bypassed the short route, adding unnecessary hours onto my commute. I did get to see a spectacular sunrise in Wyoming though. That alone was worth the detour.
I arrive at Rocky Mountain National Park at 11 a.m. This was later than I had originally anticipated, which made me nervous. I did not have any camping reservations at the park. Since it was the Fourth of July weekend, I anticipated that many of the campgrounds would fill up quickly. I entered the park via the Fall River Visitors Center entrance, which helped me bypass a lot of the holiday traffic.
A majority of the campgrounds at Rocky Mountain National Park are first-come-first-serve. This can be tricky for travelers who really like to plan in advance.
Each visitor center and entrance will list each campground and whether there is availability. I arrived in the park before checkout, which is noon, so there was a chance that some campers were still checking out. All the campgrounds showed no availability, but I decided to take a risk and drive across the park to Timber Creek Campground near Grand Lake. To get there meant driving the Trail Ridge Road.
Trail Ridge Road
The Trail Ridge Road is the main attraction for visitors at Rocky Mountain National Park. This road is 48 miles long and runs between Estes Park and Grand Lake. Along the road, there are pull-offs and hiking trails that bless you with some of the best views of the Rocky Mountains.
Without stopping the Trail Ridge Road takes about an hour to drive. This is with moderate traffic and stopping for wildlife.
Timber Creek Campground
The stars were aligned and maybe it was a bit of birthday luck, but I was able to nab a campsite in Timber Creek Campground. Since I drove through the night, I quickly set up camp and took a short nap.
My campground was at the base of the Rockies. Between me and the jutting peaks, there was a little meadow. Little did I know that this meadow would be the hot spot for visiting critters throughout my stay. This campground would bring me a lot of peace and enjoyment over the next couple of days.
Colorado now has a booming marijuana tourism industry. In Colorado, it’s legal for visitors to purchase 1/4 an ounce of weed. The catch, weed can only be consumed on private property. There are various businesses that have catered towards this clientele and offer lounges and hangouts for individuals looking for a more social experience.
It’s important to note that marijuana cannot be smoked inside Rocky Mountain National Park. This also means that it cannot be smoked in public. Nearby towns such as Estes Park do not have any marijuana dispensaries or businesses that carry weed paraphernalia. This is an attempt by the town to keep it and Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) a family-friendly destination.
During my trip, I did visit a dispensary to see just what it was all about. When you enter the shop, you’ll be IDed to ensure that you’re over the age of 21. I visited Bonfire Cannabis Company in Granby. The workers are very informative and intend to educate the public about cannabis. They offer a hands-on approach in their store.
After visiting a cannabis dispensary, I headed back to Grand Lake to indulge in some much-needed food. After all, it was my birthday, so I was treating myself to a night out on the town.
Grand Lake is a rustic western town in the mountains. Mainstreet is lined with businesses adorn with wooden wagon wheels and Wild West wanted posters. It’s hard to get the image of cowboys and their bucking broncos out of your head.
I stumbled across The White Buffalo which boasted some pretty unique pizza options. I’m a huge fan of pizza, I actually aspire to try pizza in every US state, so I bellied up to the bar and ordered a Colorado brew, Amber Avalanche. I also sampled a Boulder Shake.
Ironically, I was not ready for the flavor explosion my mouth was about to experience. I ordered White Buffalo’s crowd-pleaser The Stampede. This pizza pie boasts high complex and dynamic flavors. Topped with pepperoni, buffalo, bacon, red onion, pepperoncini peppers, buffalo mozzarella, Mandarin oranges, and more mozzarella, this pizza does not disappoint. The zesty pie is then drizzled with the restaurant’s signature sweet and spicy sauce and their tangy, yet sweet BBQ sauce. This is all served on a traditional and delectable brick oven roasted flaky crust.
This was by far my favorite meal I have had to date in Colorado.
Short hikes at sunset
On my way back to Timber Creek Campground, I stopped in Coyote Valley. Earlier I had seen a few elk grazing in the valley, but that paled in comparison to the number I saw at sunset. I parked my car and took a short hike to see the elk up close for myself.
I did not expect to come within 15 feet of a male elk, but I did. It was so surreal to watch him graze and scratch his back legs with his fuzzy antlers. His herd was grazing in the meadow nearby and bugling at him to join them. I snapped a few photos and just admired the meadow as the sun set behind the mountains.
Finally, I rolled my overfilled belly back to my campsite and started a small fire. I stayed up for a few hours admiring the night sky before turning in for the night. Tomorrow was going to be a day filled with lots of hiking and exploring.
After a quick campfire breakfast of bacon and eggs, I made my way to the Trail Ridge Road. I’m a veteran when it comes to Rocky Mountain National Park. I’ve visited the park numerous times, so I had no intention of trying to see it all again. Instead, I focused on relaxing and truly just enjoying my time unplugged from the world.
I quickly realized that even though I had woked up early, I did not beat the crowds. The first couple of turnoffs on the road were jam-packed with tourists. The first hike I took was at Lake Irene.
The Lake Irene stop was the ideal spot for a picnic. Many families pulled into the turnoff to munch on sandwiches and fruit before embarking on the short hike. The hike is less than a mile and is easy. The hiking trail was a little muddy, but otherwise, the trail wasn’t steep and was well maintained.
Medicine Bow Curve Trail
Walk on top of a Rocky Mountain ridge at the Medicine Bow Curve. The trail leads to the Alpine Center. An insider’s hack is to hike to the Alpine Center because you’re only able to enter the visitor center if you’re driving westward and it’s a guarantee that the parking lot will always be full. There wasn’t a single time that I drove past the visitor center that there was a single open space in the parking lot. There was always 15+ cars waiting in line for a highly-coveted parking spot. Bypass this minor snafu and hike from the Medicine Bow Curve turnoff.
In Rocky Mountain National Park, many of the pull-offs at the highest part of the road offer very similar views of the Rocky Mountains. Many of these pull-offs have around 10 to 15 parking spots, which may mean there aren’t any spots available on a busy day, like Independence Day. Rest assured, if you miss one stop, the rest of the pull-offs at the top of the ridge offer similar views. The pull-offs that were most similar were Medicine Row Curve, Fairview Curve, Rainbow Curve and Many Parks Curve.
One of my favorite overlooks on the Trail Ridge Road is the Lava Cliffs. The beautiful stark cliffsides were crowned with snow offering a spectacular and unique view of the Rocky Mountains. If you look towards the east you can see the mountain range weave in and out. The different peaks seemed to melt and fold into each other, yet it was chaotically beautiful.
On Independence Day, the wind whipped through the mountain gaps and made me shiver. It was a surreal moment. I sat on the wall of the overlook for a few minutes just admiring this view.
When it comes to Rocky Mountain National Park, there is more to the park than just mountains. Moraine Park is the beautiful meadow area of the park. This is a great area for visitors to take in some wildlife. It’s nearby the Beavers Meadows Visitors Entrance and closest to Estes Park.
Moraine Park is where you find the Bear Lake and Sprague Lake hikes. On Independence Day, the Bear Lake parking lot was filled already at 11 a.m. When this happens, visitors are asked to park in nearby lots or at Visitor Centers and take the Rocky Mountain National Park shuttle bus to Bear Lake.
I recently visited Bear Lake in the spring, so I decided to bypass the popular Bear Lake hike and go on the Sprague Lake hike instead.
Similar to Bear Lake, the Sprague Lake trail circles the lake and offers some pristine views of the Rocky Mountains. What made this hike even more magical was the full-grown moose and her calf that I saw grazing in the nearby swamp. I sat and watched them snack in the bright afternoon. As a bonus, this was the closest I’ve ever been to a moose in my life.
For obvious reasons, I kept my distance from the mama moose and her baby. Mama moose are particularly protective of their young, so it’s a good rule of thumb to give them more than enough space to graze and relax. As always, take caution with animals in national parks. Park rangers advise visitors to leave at least 120 feet between themselves and moose and black bears. Extra precautions should be taken with black bears and mountain lions. If they attempt to approach you, making loud noises and do not advance towards them. For elk and bighorn sheep, at least two bus lengths or 75 feet is recommended. As always, calling or trying to attract wildlife in any manner is illegal.
After many hours in the blistering sun, I made a pit stop in Estes Park for dinner.
Estes Park is your typical tourist town nearby a national park. Mainstreet is decorated with bright colored ice cream and confectionaries. There is a delicate blend of touristy souvenir shops but also rustic shops that offer more local, artisan goods for travelers. Estes Park boasts both small-town charm but also as an oasis for travelers for are craving some human contact after a week spent in the wilderness.
Downtown Estes Park is a busy tourist stop. This is where the majority of the shops are in Estes Park. On the busy downtown boulevard, Elkhorn Avenue, the best Estes Park gems are located further away from the hustle and bustle on the western end of the street. This is nearby Regent Park, which is the ideal location to indulge in some creamy, cold ice cream.
Elk burger, coming on up!
The first stop visitors should make is to sample one of Colorado’s favorite delicacies: elk meat. I feasted on an elk burger at Grubsteak. This was a very quiet restaurant with an authentic western vibe. There were no wanted posters plastered on the wall. Rather, memorabilia of the old west hung on the restaurant’s walls and told the history and trials of the American West. I opted to sit on the patio and enjoy some of Colorado’s delicious brews. My favorites were Estes Park Brewery’s Stinger Honey Wheat and Longs Peak Raspberry Wheat. Avery Brewery’s White Rascal was complex brew filled with coriander and orange peel — definitely an eclectic mix or robust flavor that left an impression.
I ordered the Papa Lyle Burger which promised to give me a spicy kick in the mouth. My elk patty was topped with homemade guacamole, jack cheese, ghost pepper mayo and fried jalapeno and onions. I was expecting an over the top spicy kick, but instead was greeted with the perfect mix of savoriness and spice. The creaminess of the guacamole definitely settled the mayhem that the ghost pepper mayo could have waged on my taste buds.
Definitely opt to get the coleslaw or potato salad as a side instead of fries. You won’t regret it.
No trip to Estes Park is complete until you’ve had dessert. I could decide between a morsel of fudge or ice cream. I hardly ever crave fudge so I decided to indulge in my craving and sample a bit in a new candy store that opened in downtown.
The Estes Park Sugar Shack sells flavored popcorns as well as pounds of fudge. The wide variety of fudge flavors sit behind the plexiglass, anxiously awaiting your approval. I chose the Heath-flavored fudge and the chocolate fudge with walnuts, a more traditional classic. There were both delicious and while I was walking around, I got the urge to also sample some ice cream.
Lucky for me, I stumbled across Munchin’ House. I’m not sure if they opened before Colorado legalized marijuana, but it’s the perfect name if you ask me! The sweet shop is modeled after a retro 1960s sweet store with the checkered black and white floor tiles. Inside there’s not only ice cream, but also popcorn, fudge, and other chocolate sweets. If you want something savory, try their elk jerky. I walked out with a small, waffle cone with raspberry and chocolate fudge swirled ice cream. An extra bonus, all the products are locally sourced and made.
Not your traditional souvenir shop
In a busy tourist downtown, all the storefronts are usually bought by t-shirt shops, confectionaries, and the like. Yet, in downtown Estes Park there is a beautiful independent bookstore, Macdonald Book Shop.
What beckoned me inside was a curious sign that asked, “Have you found Waldo yet?” Inquisitively, I entered the shop and was welcomed by the warm and welcoming staff. This independent bookstore radiated peculiarity. The shelves weren’t filled only with bestsellers, but shelves highlighted exhilarating reads from Colorado natives.
The more I thought about, the idea of opening a bookstore in a nearby tourist town screamed genius. What better way to enjoy the great outdoors than to sit outside and admire it. After you’ve grown tired of staring, you could simply listen to Mother Nature as you read a new thriller or an older classic.
The shop also had all genres, so it’s guaranteed that you’d find something to read by the fire.
This was my last day in the park. I spent the morning driving along Trail Ridge Road and attempted to hike at Bear Lake before leaving. Unfortunately, the parking lot for Bear Lake and all the nearby parking areas were also full.
If it’s your first time to Rocky Mountain National Park, definitely take the time to take the shuttle to Bear Lake and hike. This is a spectacular area of the park. I’ve visited this area numerous times, so I decided to skip it this trip.
Even if you’re visiting Rocky Mountain National Park in the winter or early spring, Bear Lake is a must-see stop. It’s a surreal experience to be able to hike out on the frozen lake and get an up-close look at the Rockies.
I decided to forego Longs Peak, again, since I’ve seen it numerous times before. For a first-timer, this is also a Rocky Mountain National Park essential.
In search of some new adventures, I journeyed to nearby Boulder. But not without another quick stop in Estes Park for some ice cream. This time I stopped into The Danish Cone Factory for a sweet treat. I was in search of some very chocolate-y ice cream, and they definitely delivered.
I indulged in some Tiger Butter ice cream, peanut butter ice cream with a chocolate fudge swirl, in a chocolate dipped cone. Totally indulgent but so worth it. The sugar rush would keep me awake and antsy to reach my next destination.
It’s Saturday, which means that Boulder’s Farmers Market is in full swing. Nearby at Central Park’s amphitheater, a group of folk singers serenaded Mother Nature and sang of how she be loved and respected. In a matter of minutes, Boulder adopted a college town vibe with more artist, dare I even say hippie, roots.
Next door to the Farmers Market is the beautiful and noteworthy Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse. The exterior of the building was an immaculate mosaic of blue, purple and white tile. The inside of the teahouse was just as immaculate. I ventured inside and ordered some food and tea to enjoy on the terrace.
I felt as if I was transported to another corner of the world. Strong spices wafted from the teahouse’s kitchen. Behind the bar, there were hundreds of tins filled with fragrant tea leaves. I had a guest for dinner and together we sampled some of the teahouse’s finest offerings.
We feasted on Indian dosa and a Persian kotlet sandwich. I sip on white tea infused with peony and other lighter fragrant notes. My guest sipped on strawberry infused black tea. Everything was drool-worthy and I definitely wish I had more time to spend there.
I was also ecstatic that I made a detour to visit Boulder on the way home. A return visit is definitely in my near future.
After all the excitement that Rocky Mountain National Park and Boulder had to offer, my drive home was relatively uneventful.
Highlights of Rocky Mountain National Park
After visiting Rocky Mountain National Park for the fifth time, I can say that the scenery always trumps my memory and my expectations. With every visit, the Rockies seem to muster more grandeur.
During this story birthday vacation, I definitely enjoyed seeing all the elk grazing on Trail Ridge Road. What a surreal and honored experience to witness nature that closely.
This vacation I was able to embark on a few hidden gem hiking trails. As an added bonus, this was the best way to avoid the crowds in the park and have your own private paradise in the mountains.
Kicking off my birthday in Colorado was a spectacular gift that will be hard to top next year.