For the 4th of July weekend, I was able to take a 5-day trip to the Centennial State. The plan was to visit Rocky Mountain National Park (hereto abbreviated as RMNP) and Aspen. Get in touch with Nature, hike, and decompress. Mission accomplished.
- Day 1 (Thursday): Arrive at Denver International Airport. Rent a car and drive to Boulder to stay overnight.
- Day 2 (Friday): Drive from Boulder to RMNP through Estes Park (Beaver Meadows Visitor Center). Park at the Park and Ride near Glacier Basin, and take the free shuttle to Bear Lake. Hike around Bear Lake and then hike towards Emerald Lake and Alberta Falls. Stay in Estes Park overnight.
- Day 3 (Saturday): Drive from Estes Park to Grand Lake via the Trail Ridge Road. Stop at several overlooks including Rainbow Curve, Forest Canyon, and Rock Cut. Hike the Tundra Communities Trail. Make a stop at Alpine Visitor Center. Pause at Milner Pass along the Continental Divide and head the rest of the way to Grand Lake. After some photos, drive to Glenwood Canyon and hike the Hanging Lake Trail. Following this, drive to Glenwood Springs for some much-needed rest.
- Day 4 (Sunday): Drive from Glenwood Springs to Aspen to hike and see the Maroon Bells. Afterwards, take the bus to downtown Aspen and explore before heading to the hotel for some Zzz’s.
- Day 5 (Monday): Drive to Independence Pass on State Highway 82. Stop for scenic views and continue to Twin Lakes. Proceed back to the airport 😦
Rocky Mountain National Park
- During the summer, many of the parking lots fill up quickly and these shuttle buses provide access during the peak hours. There are three different shuttle routes: Bear Lake Route, Moraine Lake Route, and the Hiker Shuttle Route (from the Estes Park town into RMNP). The bus dropped us off right at the Bear Lake trailhead.
- I did the Bear Lake loop (0.5 miles, elevation gain 160 feet), which was a nice, easy walk around the lake.
- Afterwards, I hiked to Emerald Lake (1.8 miles, elevation gain of 425 feet).
- This hike includes three lakes – Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, and Emerald Lake.
- From the trailhead to Nymph Lake is 0.5 miles, from Nymph Lake to Dream Lake is 0.6 miles, and from Dream Lake to Emerald Lake is 0.7 miles. Dream Lake was personally my favorite. I love the scenic views of the forests and the streams with the mountain backdrop. Emerald Lake is also very striking, especially since you’re so close to the snow-capped mountains.
- It’s not a very long hike but because of the high altitude, it took me a lot longer to hike the ~2 miles here than it would have if I hiked it somewhere with a lower altitude. So take that into consideration if you’re trying to squeeze in a lot of hikes in one day.
- Depending on how your body reacts to altitude changes, you may find yourself resting more than you think.
- Hiked back to the trailhead and then proceeded to Alberta Falls (0.8 miles, elevation gain 160 feet).
- The views on Trail Ridge Road are spectacular and awe-inspiring. I especially loved the Forest Canyon Overlook, and we even saw a ton of marmots and elk here. The marmots got really close; they had an insatiable curiosity (probably wondering if I had food).
- You’ll see a lot of alpine tundra terrain here, also known as the “land above the trees.” In this ecosystem, you’ll see lichens, flowering plants, and cushion plants (looks like clumps of moss).
- The alpine tundra ecosystem is very, very fragile. Recovery takes hundreds of years, so do not venture off the trail when you’re exploring this area. It’s very unique and very delicate.
- In the summer, thunderstorms often show up in the afternoons. Be careful and stay below the tree line during this time. I luckily didn’t run into any thunderstorms, only a few drizzles. In terms of wildlife, I saw moose, elk, marmots, pika, and squirrels.
Glenwood Canyon and Hanging Lake
- Just off I-70 in Glenwood Canyon lies one of the most scenic lakes in the state of Colorado. If you’re anywhere near the area, it is worth the drive to this attraction. It will be a more difficult hike, but it is most certainly worth it!
- If you’re driving towards Glenwood Springs, get off at Exit 125 and then double back and head east on I-70 until you reach Exit 121. There’s a small parking lot, but this is a very popular trail so you may find yourself waiting for a space especially during the summer. There’s a restroom and some picnic tables near the parking area.
- Hanging Lake is a geologic marvel. This is because the lake is a rare example of a lake formed by travertine deposition.
- Noteworthy for its clear turquoise color, the waterfalls that gush into the lake, and the hanging garden plant community that thrives in this environment.
- Steep, moderate climb from the bottom of Glenwood Canyon up through Deadhorse Creek Canyon to Hanging Lake. 2.4 miles roundtrip.
- There are a lot of switchbacks and rocks, but there are also several rest stops along the trail. Thankfully, most of the hike is in the shade and you’re hiking along cascades and streams.
- In the beginning and at the end of the trail, there are steep stairs.
- When you reach the end of the trail, you’ll see a boardwalk around the lake.
- There’s also an offshoot from the trail just before the lake that leads to Sprouting Rock, a waterfall behind Hanging Lake.
- DO NOT go swimming or touching the water, as this is a very delicate ecosystem.
- The view of Maroon Bells (which are two peaks in the Elk Mountains) and Crater Lake is one of the most popular images in Colorado. It’s considered the most photographed peaks in North America.
- In the summer from mid-June to early October, Maroon Bells can only be accessed by public bus between 8am and 5pm.
- Before 8am and after 5pm, you can drive your own car at a $10 fee.
- However, between the hours of 8 to 5, you need to park at Aspen Highlands ($5/vehicle) and purchase bus tickets ($8/adults) at Four Mountain Sports inside.
- The bus departs every half hour. National Parks pass WITH a Golden Eagle Sticker, Golden Access, America the Beautiful, and Maroon Bells Passes allow access for no fee.
- The bus will drop you off at the West Maroon Wilderness Portal. From there, you can walk down to the Maroon Bells Scenic Area, which includes Maroon Lake.
- There are a couple of trails in this area you can hike. Maroon Lake Trail is an easy, 1 mile round trip hike around the lake.
- There’s the Scenic Loop Trail (1.5 mile round trip), which takes you from the lake into the wilderness to see the waterfalls.
- There’s also Maroon Creek Trail (3.2 miles one way), which starts at the outlet of Maroon Lake and winds downstream along Maroon Creek through mountain meadows and aspen forests. The end of the hike will lead you to where the bus can pick you up at the East Maroon Portal.
- I hiked the Crater Lake Trail, which is considered for the more adventurous.
- It’s 3.6 miles round trip, so it is the “hardest” of the trails here. It’s steep and rocky, and the trail will take you through the forests to Crater Lake.
- There are lots of rocks and switchbacks on this trail, so it’s a bit more challenging. You’re rewarded with a gorgeous view of Crater Lake and Maroon Bells (the most popular image if you Google Maroon Bells). You’ll also see fields of wildflowers. Reaching Crater Lake, I took some time to soak in what epitomizes the Rocky Mountains.
- Dogs on leashes are allowed on the trail.
- WEAR PROPER SHOES! I cannot stress this enough. I saw so many improper footwear (e.g. sandals, flats, even running shoes) that won’t give you the necessary traction you need to traverse this rocky terrain. Plus, it often rains in the Colorado mountains so the trail will frequently be muddy. Wear hiking shoes for the best support.
- A popular scenic overlook at an elevation of 12,095 feet.
- The pass comes in the middle of a 32-mile stretch of State Highway 82 between the two winter gates, a corridor that is sometimes referred to in its entirety as Independence Pass.
- Aspen is 19 miles to the west and Twin Lakes 18 miles to the east.
- Wonderful views of Mount Elbert (the highest peak in the Rocky Mountains and in Colorado), La Plata Peak, the alpine tundra above the treeline, and open grassy slopes with wildflowers and shrubs.
- It’s a very short walk around this overlook, but it’s also very spectacular. For me, it was one of the last views I had of the Rocky Mountains before heading home.
- Driving through the pass can be somewhat challenging if you’re not used to navigating sharp turns and switchbacks on a mountain road.
- Be aware of the ever-changing weather like thunderstorms or snow and altitude changes. During the winter, State Highway 82 through the pass is closed.
This was a fantastic getaway! I love the great outdoors and National Parks, so this trip was definitely worth it. If you like views of majestic snow-capped mountains, wooded forests, lakes, and alpine tundra and/or enjoy hiking, backpacking, camping, biking, and wildlife…Colorado is for you!
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Gorgeous photos 🙂 Aspen was one of my favorite places to visit during my time in Colorado. Just wrote a short piece mentioning the spot, feel free to check it out! https://youthsgonewonky.com/2016/10/29/three-months-of-movement/
Thanks! Love your piece and your photos too. I went to UVA too – go Hoos!