It’s official – we have been away from Rocky Mountain National Park for far too long! But the count-down is on because we reserved our cabin for a trip at the end of May. In anticipation, I’ve been taking a look back through our family’s hiking journal and came across a hike that I haven’t shared before.
Back in May of 2016, we ventured to Hollowell Park because it was an area in RMNP that we had never explored. We hoped it would be a good place to hike with our toddler during the spring season when some higher altitude hikes are still covered in ice and snow. The Hollowell Park turnoff is approximately 8,300 ft in elevation according to the park’s website. In comparison, Bear Lake is 9,475 ft.
I took a picture of the sign at Hollowell Park to give myself a visual of all the destinations you can hike to including Cub Lake, Bierstadt Lake, and Bear Lake. Hiking from Hollowell Park is not the most direct route to these popular attractions, but it could be a good alternate route to avoid some of the crowds during peak visitor season.
Mill Creek Basin
We decided to hike to Mill Creek Basin, which is a less popular destination in the park. Our hike was 1.9 miles each way which began in an open grassy area and climbed an additional 600 feet of elevation through towering pines.
The trail followed a mountain stream called Mill Creek. Several snowy patches remained on the trail along with muddy portions caused by recent snow melt. We crossed over a small wooden bridge to get to the Mill Creek Basin, a meadow with aspens which I imagine are even more beautiful in autumn.
Avoid Crowds in Rocky Mountain National Park
If you are interested in additional trails that we think are good for avoiding crowds in Rocky Mountain National Park, I wrote a post about the Glacier Creek trail here.
Spring Hiking in RMNP
Spring can be a tricky season to visit Rocky Mountain National Park because the weather varies day-to-day. Here are some additional lower elevation hikes you might consider:
Lily Lake -this post really highlights the unpredictable weather in RMNP!
Best Hikes Under 5 Miles
The hike to Mill Creek Basin was just under 4 miles round trip. When we plan hikes for our young family, we typically aim for hikes that are similar in length. We broke down some of our favorite family-friendly ‘short hikes’ with details to help plan your adventure in the pages linked below:
I can’t see a hawk without saying ‘5 points!’ out loud. When I was a kid we took long family road trips from Kansas City, Missouri to Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and California. We filled the hours in the car by playing games. My favorite was the ‘animal game’ where we would spot animals and get points. Now that I’m a parent, I’ve adopted the game for all the animals we might see during our trips to the Rocky Mountains.
Animal Game Rules:
1. The first person who says the name of the animal they see out loud claims the points. 2. You can’t multiply your points when you see a herd, but for animals with antlers such as deer, elk or moose you can say both ‘male moose’ and ‘female moose’ which doubles your points. 3. You can get points for the same type of animal, but it has to be a newly spotted animal not belonging to the same herd.
We’ve assigned points based on how often we’ve seen animals in the Rocky Mountains.
Mountain Lions – 100 Points
We’ve never seen a mountain lion on our trips to Rocky Mountain National Park, but we have seen signage to be aware that they can be in the area.
Bear – 50
My husband is the only one in our family who has seen a bear (or two). He heard loud rummaging noises around the garbage near our old condo and spotted two large bears looking for late-night snacks. The complex immediately put in better bear-proof trash receptacles to make sure the bears weren’t drawn back to the area.
Male Moose – 25 & Female Moose – 25
We’ve spotted moose in several locations in Rocky Mountain National Park including Sprague Lake, the Cub Lake trail, Kawuneeche Valley and in the Wild Basin. We’ve also seen a herd near Brainard Lake Recreation Area. It seems like the easiest way to spot a moose is to watch for large groups of cars pulled over on the West Side of the park. A male moose is called a bull. This name serves as an appropriate reminder to give them space when you see them.
Male Bighorn Sheep – 25 & Female Sheep – 25
Sheep Lakes is located near the Fall River Entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. It is the only spot where we have seen a bighorn sheep inside the park. We have also spotted them driving down Fall River Road and along scenic Highway 34 on the route to Fort Collins, Colorado from Estes Park. We have never seen rams dueling and think that should be worth an extra 50 points if you want a bonus opportunity.
Coyote – 25
We’ve spotted coyotes a couple of times during the winter months in Rocky Mountain National Park. We watched a handsome coyote prowling for its food near the Beaver Meadows Entrance. We saw another sitting proudly looking over the valley near the Moraine Park Discovery Center which was closed for the season.
Fox – 20
One snowy morning, we hiked around Lily Lake and spotted a fox in the woods. I didn’t get a picture, but the image stands out in my mind as a special moment.
Marmot – 20
We spotted this marmot on a hike up Twin Sisters Peaks. We’ve also seen marmots basking near Timberline Falls, in the Alpine Tundra on the Ute Trail and even at Emerald Lake (which surprised me).
Pika – 20
Pikas also live in higher elevation. You can see them running around busily collecting food. I usually hear a pika call out before I see them because they are small and blend in well with rocks.
Eagle – 20
It’s always exciting to see our nation’s bird. We spotted this eagle near Lake Estes.
Owl – 20
If you want to spot an owl, a good place to look is right behind the library in downtown Estes Park, CO. Even with this clue, you will have to search hard because the family of owls that live here blend in so well to the rocky surroundings.
Snake – 10
To be honest, I’m scared of snakes and I don’t care to see them on our hikes. It makes me feel better knowing that snakes in Rocky Mountain National Park are not poisonous. We’ve spotted them near Lily Lake and on our hike through the meadow towards Cub Lake.
Male Elk – 5 & Female Elk – 5
It feels wrong to make elk spotting worth only 5 points in this game, but they are so prolific in Rocky Mountain National Park and Estes Park, Colorado that you might not have to leave your vacation rental to see one. No matter how many times I see elk, I still get excited. They are beautiful, but it’s good to remember they are massive animals (often with big antlers) and you need to give them space. I used my camera’s zoom to get this picture.
Elk rut season is in October. It’s exciting to hear the distinctive elk bugle calls and see the bull elks fighting for their harem – a group of female (cow) elk. When you see a scrimmage like this, you can add 10 bonus points.
Male Deer- 5 & Female Deer – 5
Like elk, deer can be seen all over Rocky Mountain National Park and around town in Estes Park, CO.
Chipmunk – 5
Sometimes I feel like we see too many chipmunks. Just kidding cute little fellow! But for real, these guys will steal your picnic.
Hummingbird – 5
Sweet little hummingbirds are fun to watch while I’m enjoying a meal out on the patio at restaurants along the Estes Park Riverwalk. I’ve also seen them on the Homer Rouse trail and near Lily Lake.
Hawk or Turkey – 5
We’ve seen turkeys crossing the road in Estes Park and also on my horse back riding tour into Rocky Mountain National Park.
Trout – 5
Trout are good at blending into the rocks of mountain lakes like The Loch and Sprague Lake. Earn 10 bonus points if you catch one, just make sure you get a permit first.
At the end of your trip you can add up all the points each person earned by spotting wildlife in Rocky Mountain National Park. Final step: Start planning your next trip back to the mountains for a redemption round.
Do you play your own version of the animal game or have any other road trip favorites?
Government (is still) shutdown
I had so much fun writing this lighthearted article about animals that I hesitate adding to the conversation about how the government shutdown is affecting the national parks. Unfortunately, the past three weeks have taken a toll. Here is a recent article from Westworld that helped me understand some of the impacts I wouldn’t have considered. The article also has some suggestions on how people can help.
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Weather in Rockies
We are packing our bags for our 2018 Labor Day trip to Rocky Mountain National Park. I’m excited because the weather is (hopefully) going to be beautiful. The forecast is showing mid-70s with pretty low chances of rain. At night the temperatures will drop to mid-40s. Here is a link to check the weather in RMNP. It’s colder at high elevations like Trail Ridge Road. It’s time to layer – I’m excited to break out my fleece jacket!
Beating the Crowds in Rocky Mountain National Park
The park will be busy. I’m hoping we can get up and out the door in time to get to our favorite hiking destinations before all the parking spaces are taken. We will probably need to leave by 6:00 AM (maybe even earlier). There are some park-and-rides if we get a late start. Here is a link to the shuttle service in Rocky Mountain National Park. Visitors can also save time by pre-purchasing a park pass online here.
Even in the most popular areas the further we hike the less people we see on the trails. Also, the West side of the park is home to family-friendly destinations that are typically less crowed. Here are a couple posts-from-the-past about the area:
Getting the Best Pictures of the Mountains
Sunrise will be right around 6:30 AM and sunset will be around 7:30 PM. I’m paying attention to my watch so I can photograph these magical moments in the mountains. It’s also a great time to spot wildlife in the park. I can’t wait to see elk and hopefully moose.
Wildlife in Rocky Mountain National Park
When I picked up my daughter from preschool today the teacher informed me that she is afraid of bears. Oh my! We live near Kansas City, Missouri so this isn’t an issue at home, but she knows that bears are in the forest including in Rocky Mountain National Park. We’ve never seen one on our hikes or drives, but I’ve heard sightings of these awesome animals are on the rise. It’s good to be prepared with some black bear knowledge. I found helpful ‘Be Bear Aware’ information on a Colorado Parks & Wildlife website. They also provide a fun bear coloring page.
Potty-Training/ Facilities in Rocky Mountain National Park
And speaking of my preschooler, it’s good to know where the best (flush) potty’s in the park are: Alpine Visitor Center, Fall River Visitor Center, Kawuneeche Visitor Center, Moraine Park Discovery Center, Hidden Valley, Sprague Lake. We also bring our own toddler portable potty because we’ve found vault toilets to be a little challenging.
Hiking with Toddlers
When we hike with our kiddos they like to walk a lot of the way. We’ve listed our favorite short distance hikes here. For longer hikes we use kid carriers. There are several shops in town that rent them out including Warming House.
Festivals, Food, Shopping, Parking and More in Estes Park, Colorado
The town of Estes Park, Colorado will also be busy, but they offer free parking and shuttle services which come in handy on crowded weekends. Learn more here. There is always a lot going on downtown Estes Park. Visitestespark.com has a great calendar of events.
This month we drove to the Wild Basin area of Rocky Mountain National Park which is 19 miles south of Estes Park, CO on highway 7. The roads are a little bumpy and narrow as they wind back to the Finch Lake Trailhead where we began our adventure.
The Finch Lake Trailhead was new to us, so our goal was to hike 2 miles in to explore where it would lead. At first, we regretted our decision because for nearly a mile we hiked straight up hill.
Eventually we turned sharply right and into a dense grove of aspens. The trail flattened out enough for us to catch our breath. We spotted signage that showed a route to the Allenspark Trailhead, but we continued on the main trail towards Finch Lake.
We decided to keep going…at almost 2.5 miles we stopped at a clearing with views of the surrounding mountains. We could see the Wild Basin Ranger Station below which helped us get our bearings and encouraged us to continue despite another steep uphill climb for .3-.4 miles.
We came to another trail sign that showed the ranger station via Calypso Cascades was 3.1 miles away. We turned towards that route knowing the extra 2.2 miles up to Finch Lake would be longer and more uphill.
We were amazed by the stunning views of Mount Meeker, Longs Peak, Mount Pagoda and Chiefs Head. We met a fellow hiker on the trail who told us about a national park fire that scorched the area in 1978. The fire opened up the view and increased the aspen growth.
We enjoyed a variety of wild flowers as well as the downhill path that lead us by some of our favorite spots including Calypso Cascades and Copeland Falls.
When we arrived at the Wild Basin Trailhead we walked less than a half mile back to our car at the Finch Lake Trailhead.
We ended up loving this hike! We did it with our 3.5-year-old and 1.5-year-old in carriers which was a bit of a (good) challenge for us.
Wild Basin is awesome! Here are 5 more posts we’ve written about hiking in this area: