Eventually we had to leave Rocky Mountain National Park, and so we did. On our way out, we saw animals, picked up supplies, drove till after nightfall, and found a few things besides mountains to photograph. But mostly we wanted to hang on to the mountains for as long as we could.
Last Saturday, November 21st, Indiana got its first snowfall of the 2015-2016 winter season, a month ahead of its official kickoff. Three weeks earlier, I drove my wife up the side of a Colorado mountain just so she could throw a snowball.
As we promised last time: MOUNTAINS. We saw some.
Welcome back to Rocky Mountain National Park in beautiful Estes Park, Colorado.
Previously on “Rocky Mountain National Park: the Miniseries Within a Maxiseries”: the second half of Day Three of our road trip was spent in and on the way to Rocky Mountain National Park, amidst a splendidly arranged mountain collection that shames the pitiful hills of our Indiana homeland.
The most conveniently paved entrance to RMNP from the southeast is US Route 36, through Lyon and into the town of Estes Park, crossing here over scenic Lake Estes.
After I acquiesced to my wife’s demand for a slow, careful descent down Lookout Mountain, our scenic Day Three continued north with a two-hour drive along the east side of the Rockies, through Boulder (very fancy and well-manicured, though not a single Mork & Mindy statue in sight) and northwest to the cozy, wooded town of Estes Park, home of Rocky Mountain National Park.
The drive can be accomplished in less than two hours if you keep your eyes focused on the road and ignore your surroundings. That’s a terrible way to experience the Rockies, though. I had a hard time deciding how often to stop, which views might stand out the most on camera, and which ones to pass by without stopping. Along that entire stretch, beautiful vistas were as common as mile markers. We thought highly of them, anyway. I don’t know if people who live near mountains take them for granted or genuinely wake up appreciating them every day, but we’re used to the topography of Indiana, where the nearest mountains are in West Virginia and all those rolling hills in the southern half of the state stopped impressing me around age 5. Then again, I can imagine Kansans driving up and down State Road 37 between Bloomington and the Ohio River, oohing and aahing at how not-flat everything is. It’s all about your geographic context and personal perspective, I suppose.
I have to admit to myself here that God’s majestic monoliths don’t really beg for puny human captions. This is me stepping back, shutting up for the space of several pics (some taken inside the park, some on the way to the park, all clickable for plus-sized goodness), and letting you enjoy the kind of views that have inspired many a landscape painter, poet, mountain climber, and cinematographer.
We’ve never been so happy to have rain on our vacation. Our various Colorado clerks and service reps were even more joyous for any weather other than “hot with a chance of combustion.”
Our entire day was spent in, around, and hugging the Rocky Mountains, which we finally located once the storm system lightened up. Fortunately all roads dried quickly, and temperatures stayed in the low 70s all day long. As the driver, I was afforded the opportunity to navigate the winding, twisting mountain roads with half my mind paying attention to the road and the other half overwhelmed by dozens of miles of looming, gargantuan majesty.
We started at the Red Rocks Amphitheater, a concert venue built into a mountainside, reportedly with fantastic acoustics. Numerous joggers convene there early in the morning for workouts, zipping up and down the stairs, back and forth across the rows. A setup crew was working onstage for tonight’s scheduled concert (weather permitting), the Beach Boys, on their 50th anniversary tour and far from their natural setting. The reverberations were keen enough that I could overhear one-half of a conversation between two joggers standing fifty feet away, one of whom was facing the side wall.
The drive up Alameda Parkway to the amphitheater was scenic in its own right. Back at ground level, the same parkway leads in the other direction directly to Dinosaur Ridge, but Google Maps hadn’t taken into consideration that this straightforward route was permitted only for pedestrians, bicyclists, and shuttle buses. That meant we had to leave the parkway, drive back north to the interstate, drive to the very next exit, then drive back south to where we nearly began. The folks at the gift shop were among the friendliest we’ve met this week, but we made the mistake of taking a self-guided walk up the ridge rather than taking the optional shuttle bus with a helpful, informed tour guide.
Without the bus or the guide, our experience amounted to an uphill one-mile walk to view one set of dinosaur footprints, several examples of variegated stratification, some plant fossil imprints, and one or two very tiny, singular fossils embedded in the cliff walls, no full sets of skeletons. After missing out on whatever the tour guide told the paying customers, we found the subsequent one-mile downhill walk back to the car a little disappointing. The healthier, better equipped bicyclists zipping past us up and down the route each added just a few grains of salt to our wounds. That salt was then washed away when the rain returned for a few minutes. This was not our finest hour.
From there to Lookout Mountain was a jaunt of less than ten minutes, thankfully by car and not by foot. We weaved through a network of posh mountainside homes to reach the Buffalo Bill Museum and final resting place of the man, the myth, the legend, and his wife. Since the only other restaurant along the way had been shut down, our lunch wound up being at the museum’s Pataska Tepee cafe, decent diner food at gift shop prices. Mr. Cody’s gravesite, adjacent to a panoramic lookout, notes his accomplishments as a husband, an Indian fighter, and a Masonic lodge brother.
Even more fun than all of the above was the adventurous trip down the other, more dangerous side of Lookout Mountain. That led us northward through Boulder (which resembled some of our upper-class suburbs back in Indy, except Colorado has ten times as many bicyclists), up through Lyons and into Estes Park, where we later stopped to check out the famous Stanley Hotel, Stephen King’s inspiration for The Shining and filming location for the Steven Weber TV adaptation (not Kubrick’s version). Alas, its lot is gated, secured, at at first glance not welcoming to any busybodies without reservations. Also odd: whereas the fictional Shining hotel is isolated from civilization, the Stanley is a stone’s throw away from a dense, sprawling conglomeration of tourist shopping traps.
Estes Park is also the eastern gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, a natural smorgasbord of mountains, more mountains, animals, and still more mountains. Mostly I remember miles upon miles of looking and staring and pondering and then staring some more, with an occasional sidelong glance the road in front of me to confirm I wasn’t colliding with anything. In addition to the Alluvial Fan falls and the bighorn sheep meadow (empty today, alas), we also saw several squirrels, one weird black-and-white bird, and two sleeping snakes we didn’t dare disturb. By this time our legs were all damaged to varying degrees, so we enjoyed God’s grand works more from the car than I would’ve preferred, but it was a direct consequence of overextending ourselves. Enjoyed immensely, sure, but overextended nonetheless.
This is not unusual for us. Every one of our road trips has had its share of setbacks, oversights, and moments of humility. We accept the situation, note the results mentally for future reference, and make sure we took plenty of photos anyway. Today’s lessons learned the hard way:
1. Mind your altitude changes. The drive up Alameda Parkway, the walk up to the amphitheater, the excited walk down its sixty-odd steps, and the beginnings of the walk back up said steps combined with the thinner atmosphere to leave my wife dehydrated and struggling to breathe. We had all expected me, the least healthiest of us three, to succumb to illness first. No one would have bet on her to draw the short straw. I made the trip back to the car, fetched two bottles of water, and returned to where she left off, thankfully without falling ill myself. After some resting and drinking, her condition improved, but we paid more attention to our physical statuses the rest of the day. (Rest assured the subsequent Dinosaur Ridge two-mile round trip was marched at an extremely slow pace, foolhardy though it might’ve been nonetheless.)
2. Let your credit card company know your travel plans. My wife faithfully notifies her provider every year. I’ve always interpreted this as a polite courtesy on her part, not a mandatory task. When we tried to check in Sunday night at our hotel, my card was declined without comment. I wrongheadedly dismissed it as a card reader error. When we stopped for gas today in Boulder, lightning struck twice. Sure enough, after one unhappy phone call to my provider, I found my card had been flagged for “suspicious activity” because I’m out of town. We’re all straightened out now, but I was not excited about having to make other arrangements. I should be grateful that they’re watching out for my interests, but those two awkward moments in hindsight feel more as though I were subject to the whims of an overprotective parent.
3. Remember your time zone at all times. I keep forgetting we’re in Mountain Daylight Time rather than Eastern Daylight Time, and consequently failed to do the math in time to realize that Bunheads started at 7 p.m. here, not 9 p.m. I’ve another item to add to my back-home to-do list, then.
4. If someone offers you a shuttle bus that’s inexpensive or free, you say YES.