Colorado National Parks Road Trip: Part 4 - Rocky Mountain
Backpack up to the Continental Divide in the heart of Rocky Mountain National Park.
From Black Canyon, it’s a long drive to Rocky Mountain National Park, which we broke up into two days. We opted for a less direct route in order to drive the scenic road east to Salida, CO, then north to Grand Lake and the western entrance of Rocky Mountain. The area is strewn with U.S. Forest service campgrounds to spend the night at along the way.
For our introduction to Rocky Mountain National Park, we decided to spend two nights backpacking a loop along the Continental Divide Trail (permits required). Beginning at the North Inlet trailhead, we followed the shallow grade of the North Inlet Trail through dense conifer forest, at one point catching sight of a marten who had raided a bird’s nest for his meal. We camped at the North Inlet Junction campsite for the night, enjoying views of nearby North Inlet falls while we relaxed in the evening.
The trail began to climb soon into our second day, leaving the tree line behind and switchbacking into the alpine tundra. After topping out on the ridge, the trail briefly follows along the continental divide, the dividing line between the Atlantic and Pacific watersheds.
In every direction, the lofty heights of Rocky Mountain National Park stretched out before us. Glaciers and snowbanks clung to the shadowy slopes, stubbornly holding on till the winter. Farther down the trail, a herd of about 120 elk lazily relaxed in the tundra grasses, gazing dully at us as we passed by on the way to Renegade campsite, just below the tree line along the Tonahutu creek.
After a chilly and rainy night, we continued along the Tonahutu Creek Trail through several large sections of forest that have recently been damaged by fire. We spotted a bull moose grazing on the new growth in one area. As the creek makes a turn to the south, the forest opens up into a large meadow, the creak meandering through the tall grasses. The trail plunges back into the forest before looping back to the North Inlet trailhead.
One of the defining features of Rocky Mountain National Park is the Trail Ridge Road, which connects Grand Lake to Estes Park. The road winds into the mountains, traversing 11 miles of alpine tundra on its 48 mile journey, offering visitors stunning views of the park around them. It’s here that we got a sense of how popular the park is, Rocky Mountain being the third most visited national park last year. The road can get crowded, especially around midday, but be sure to stop to take in the scenery when possible.
On the eastern side of the park, you’ll find most of Rocky Mountain’s campgrounds, facilities, and hiking trails, as well as most of its visitors. Campgrounds often fill to capacity in the summer, and parking lots can fill quickly. Longs Peak is a popular draw for the adventurous, but unfortunately, we had little time for exploring this side of the park. It will have to wait till next time.
Our trip took us through 4 national parks and over 1,700 miles of road around the state. Colorado’s unique combination of environments throughout the state offer a wide range of activities for visitors. With all that we have seen, we’ve still only scratched the surface of all that Colorado has to offer, and I’m sure that we will return to see what else we can find.
Brewery to Visit: Elevation Beer Co. in Poncha Springs, for an excellent selection of styles on tap.