Road Trip to Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
via Nederland, Estes Park, Black Hawk, and Twin Lakes.
(23rd, 24th and 25th September, 2011)

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Rocky Mountain National Park

Sometimes it pays to be a bit dozy.  I didn't realize that the fall leaves would be at their peak right when I planned this trip!  I also didn't realize that the elk started bugling so early in the fall.  The idea was to take a two-day road trip up to Estes Park and visit the Rocky Mountain National Park, and to come home the scenic route via Leadville and Twin Lakes.  I took the scenic route in both directions.  (Here is the route I took.)  The drive from Colorado Springs to Estes Park took me about five hours because I got lost, twice (that's part of the fun of taking road trips).   It should have taken me about 2½ to 3 hours.  I got to Estes Park in the dark and spent the night at Tiny Town Cottages (now called Trout Haven Ranch), a self-catering set-up.

I was up bright and early Saturday morning, and after stopping at a gas station to clean my windshield, door windows and side mirrors, it was into the park I ventured.  Filled with apprehension and armed with my camera, two fully loaded batteries, and binoculars, I drove around taking in the extensive beauty and enormity of the mountains, trees, peaks, bushes, and sounds.  I entered the park from the Beaver Meadows entrance (stop and pick up a map of the park) on the east side of the park on Hwy 36, which becomes Hwy 34 at the Deer Ridge Junction.  To the right you go down a lovely drive towards Horseshoe Park and the Alluvial Fan, both of which are pretty.  The short walk from the parking area to the Alluvial Fan is where I spotted at least a dozen "ground" squirrels eating in a bush.
(TIP) If you start your trip through the park in the morning, I recommend you start on the east side and go west, as the rising sun will be behind you for the most part.  When I returned from Grand Lake in the afternoon, the sun was behind me for most of the way.

I continued my drive west on Hwy 34 (Trail Ridge Road) with many stops along the way.  It's not worth rushing as you won't see much unless you stop and look.  You can get through the park in about two hours but it took me close to five hours with all the stopping and looking and photographing.  A great place to stop and stretch your legs is Forest Canyon, and this is where I saw my first elk, lazing about right in front of the lookout area.
(TIP) Stop at the visitor centers for a bathroom break before you get into the park.  Not that there aren't any bathrooms, there are numerous, but often there are lines.

Saturday the 24th September was a national parks day, and the entrance fee of $20 was waived.  That being said, I was expecting zillions of cars and lots of traffic jams.  But, I was pleasantly surprised that it was rather sedate, and the driving conditions were easy and stress free.  Roads were for the most part new and easy to navigate.  However, there were parts that were hairy as there weren't any little walls to stop you from going over the steep edges.  Drive with caution.  The higher you went, the less the vegetation, and what you see from the distance thousands of feet below, is granite rock with brown grass/vegetation and some spots of snow here and there.  Quite beautiful up close, in its own way, I thought.

I loved the different trees, from pines, spruces, and aspens, to scrub bushes and dried up remains.  At such high elevations, looking out across forests of trees, you're often looking at the tree tops!  Depending on what time of the year you travel, you might get to marvel at the exquisite fall colors that the aspens show off each year.
(TIP) Make sure you have enough water on hand as well as enough food.  There are many picnic tables where you can stop and have something to eat and stretch your legs.  I didn't see any shops (thank goodness) in the park.  The park was spotless, so Please Don't Litter!)

Hiking trails are plentiful, and provided you equip yourself with all-weather gear and hydration, you should have a great time.  I noticed a large number of cyclists on the road.  Being a cyclist myself, I couldn't imagine tackling those steep inclines!  I'm not that kind of cyclist!
(TIP) If you're not used to high altitudes, make sure you acclimatize beforehand, and drink lots of water. 

My trip continued on a beautiful road towards Grand Lake through Timber Creek.  Grand Lake is huge and was teeming with motorboats, row boats, and one woman was even going waterskiing!  The little town is full of eclectic shops that beckon a look-in.  I had a huevos rancheros for lunch at a little Mexican restaurant, but the food was bland and not that exciting, sadly.  I ate at El Pacifico Mexican Restaurant and paid $8.63 (ex tip).  I got the customary chips and salsa which were nice.  Nice and friendly waitress.  (I'm on a mission to discover the best huevos rancheros in the southwest!)

My trip back through the park to my stop for the night took about 1 hour and 45 minutes.  I did stop for some time to enjoy the small herd of elk not far from the road.  Thankfully I brought along my binoculars so I could see them up close.  What a treat!  I even offered my binoculars to a few other people who didn't have any.  I didn't have enough time to include a trip down to Sprague Lake and Bear Lake, but got to see quite a large portion of the 415 square miles (1075 square kilometers) of park.  Upon my return to Estes Park, I breezed through downtown to fill up with gas in preparation for the early morning start home.  Town was all hustle and bustle as there was live music in the little park and throngs of people milling about.  I also made a quick sweep through the historic Stanley Hotel which was impressive.  My night was spent at the fabulous Beaver Brook on the River condominiums, also self-catering.  Just outside the condominiums, a male elk sauntered across the road, bringing traffic to a halt.  I was right up front in the traffic and turned off the road to follow this beautiful animal and get some shots of him.  He wandered through a park and to a pond in between a campground and trailer park.  While I loved being so close to this animal, the images are a reminder of how much humans have impacted these wild animals' lives.  See the gas tanks and trailers behind the elk in the photo.  See how much we've invaded their lives!  The photo of the young doe crossing the road shows how dangerously close to traffic she was as it was on a very precarious bend in the road—hazardous to both animal and drivers.


In the morning I headed down Hwy 66 to Marys Lake Road and then joined up with CO-7 (branching off to CO-72) which took me to Nederland.  This stretch of road was full of surprises, and had it not been so early in the morning and at the beginning of my homeward journey, I would have loved to have walked around Lily Lake.  I did stop for a few photos though.  This road seemed to be a favorite for bikers as I saw a great many enjoying the sights.  This stretch of road is also a great spot from which to see Long's Peak up close (just south of Lily Lake).  Another bright spot was the sight of a gorgeous church and a huge statue of Jesus in the middle of nowhere.  I had to stop and take some photos.

This area is also where I saw the most beautiful fall foliage bar that at Twin Lakes.  Fortunately there were very few cars on the road so I could double back to stop for photos whenever I pleased.  I stopped at Nederland for a spot of breakfast and a little walk around.  The cutest stores with colorful paint jobs make this an ideal place to stroll around in.  Breakfast was home fries (potatoes, mushrooms, onions, green peppers, and two cheeses) at Whistler's Cafe.  ($4.29 including tax for a half portion).  Do walk across the quaint covered bridge and admire the murals on the lower inside panels.  From Nederland I travelled south on CO-119 to I-70.

Fall foliage just north of Nederland.

After Nederland I made a brief stop at both Black Hawk and Central City, two little (I mean tiny) gambling towns shadowed by huge mountains all around.  Then it was off to tackle I-70 West to Copper Mountain where I turned off onto CO-91 towards Leadville.  I-70 wasn't that busy going west but the climb towards the Eisenhower Tunnel really tested the little car.  Spectacular vistas with bright yellow and yellowing trees all around.  Lake Dillon demanded a stop to admire this vision of water, mountains, and fall foliage.  There is an ample parking area above the I-70 where you can enjoy this marvel of nature.  This was a scenic stretch if ever I saw one.

CO-91 was peaceful and offered the most stunning fall foliage just north of Leadville.  I couldn't resist stopping and gawking at the beauty that surrounded me along this route, but do look out for the grotesquely scarred mountain where they're mining.  I had been to Leadville before so I drove right through.

By now the clouds were building rapidly, and by the time I got to Twin Lakes, it looked decidedly as though it would rain.  Dark and gloomy if not for the beautiful colors on the surrounding mountain slopes.  It was a joy to behold even though my photos don't do the colors justice.  The remainder of my return trip was uneventful but just as pretty.  Not so much with the yellow leaves as rocky mountains and beautiful formations.

Here is some of the wildlife I encountered on my trip.  Sadly I didn't see a wide array of animals, just a few elk, which I nearly missed, a few ground squirrels, a few marmot (hard to see), and a few birds.  I wasn't disappointed but I expected more.  I would imagine one would see more on hikes where you're not rushing by in a car.

Tiny Town Cabins   Beaver Brook on the River

Tiny Town Cabins, Estes Park, CO

I had cabin #6 which was just charming.  One bedroom with the biggest bed I've ever seen, a sumptuous bathroom with jacuzzi/whirlpool kind of deal, shower, loo, and lovely big vanity area.  The towels were beautifully folded and luxurious.  The kitchen had a stove, microwave oven, coffee pot, fridge, toaster, cutlery and crockery, and pots and pans.  You could eat at a little table in the kitchen or at the bar-type counter, or even on the patio outside the sitting room.  The sitting room had a cozy feel to it with a fireplace and a television.  All you have to do is show up with some food and you're home.  A useful list of nearby restaurants, things to do, stores, places of worship, etc., is supplied, as is free wi-fi.  The cabins are away from the highway so it's quiet, but you could hear the nearby river, which made a tranquil sound.  There are bears around, so be careful.  I arrived late and left early so I didn't get to meet the staff.  When dealing with them via email, they were always friendly and very helpful.  Contacts and links to their website are below.

Beaver Brook on the River, Estes Park, CO

My second night in Estes Park was spent at the Beaver Brook on the River condominiums (#8), which turned out to be very luxurious and comfortable.  It was ultra quiet but for the rushing river outside, which I found relaxing.  Well-appointed two-story condos with everything you would need to feel at home.  All you need to bring is your food and beverages.  Pots and pans, glasses and plates, new fridge and stove, washing machine and dryer, dishwasher, and even an iron and ironing board are available for your convenience.  Also to hand was a handy list of nearby restaurants, places of worship, things to do, shops, etc.  The condo was spacious—the sitting room had a fireplace, a large screen television, a desk to work at if you so choose, and comfortable furniture.  Upstairs were two bedrooms with ample closet space, huge beds, and a sparkly bathroom, (there was a second toilet was downstairs).  Downstairs is a little patio overlooking the Big Thompson River below.  There are also two hot tubs overlooking the river, which is a wonderful way to relax one's body after being in the car all day.  Free wi-fi is also offered.  Both of these accommodations beat hotels any day!  Contacts and links to their websites are below for more information.
My TripAdvisor Review.

The Colorado Springs airport terminal was my starting point, and from there I headed to the I-25 North towards Denver.  A left onto the CO-470 until I-70 West and a right onto CO-119 northwards to Nederland.  (I would have cut out hours of travel had I kept going on I-25 to Denver and went to Boulder and headed east to Estes Park from there, but I took the scenic route.)  Actually, I had wanted to take CO-93 north to Boulder but I missed the off ramp, hence the long time it took me, but it was such a beautiful and peaceful drive.  Much better than rush-hour traffic on I-25 on a Friday afternoon!  So, I took CO-119 North to Boulder (where I got lost) and then Hwy 36 to Estes Park.  On the return journey, I decided to double back but miss Boulder so I took Mary's Lake Road off Hwy 66 to CO-7 and branched off onto CO-72 South to Nederland.  From there I was on CO-119 South to I-70 via Black Hawk and Central City as brief detours.  I-70 West for almost two hours and then it was onto CO-91 South towards Leadville.  From Leadville it was south on Hwy 24 and right onto CO-82 to Twin Lakes which was the last stop before heading home.  Back on CO-82 to Hwy 24 and east all the way home via Buena Vista, Florissant and Woodland Park.  A roundtrip of 626 miles.  You could start at the one side of the park and finish at the otherside; start at Estes Park and end at Grand Lake.  If you need to get to I-70, it's easy on US-40 from Granby, which is just south of Grand Lake.


Enterprise Rent-A-Car (Colorado Springs Airport Terminal, CO): A Hyundai Accent for 3 days @ $10.89 (yes!) p/day with unlimited mileage = $51.04 (including taxes) plus your choice of insurance and gas.  I got this fantastic rate by scouring Enterprise's website for a couple of weeks!  It pays to be persistent.  I got approximately 37 mpg despite some awful hills I had to climb.  As it was just me in the car, it was okay.  Any more passengers and/or luggage and the car would have complained!  Nice size trunk and a comfortable ride all in all.
Enterprise offered me a great service (they don't offer the "we'll pick you up" service from the airport).  The staff were polite, friendly, and very helpful.  I highly recommend you try Enterprise.
Web:  Tel: (719) 591-6644   Toll-free (Reservations): 1-800-261-7331   Toll-free (Customer Service): 1-800-264-6350

Tiny Town Cabins - 830 Moraine Avenue, Estes Park, CO 80517
Tel: (970) 577-0202   Toll-free: 1-800-794-7857
Rates: from $90 to $165 depending on when you visit.  Minimum reservation is two nights.
Do visit their website for up-to-date information.

Beaver Brook on the River (Condominiums) - 1700 Hwy 66, Estes Park, CO 80517
Tel: (970) 577-0202   Toll-free: 1-800-794-7857
Rates: Please email or call for latest rates.
Please visit their website for up-to-date information.

Rocky Mountain National Park - 1000 US Hwy 36, Estes Park, CO 80517  Tel: (970) 586-1206
or 16018 US Hwy 34, Grand Lake, CO 80447  Tel: (970) 627-3471
Facebook at Rocky Mountain National Park
Flicker at
If you visit their website you'll get all the information about entrance fees, elevation, visitor centers, entrance stations, wildlife, road conditions, etc.

Prices quoted were correct at the time, September 2011.


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