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4 days in Colorado's Rocky Mountains (2019)

D and I took my parents on a 4-day road trip from Boulder, CO to Colorado Springs, CO to see the Flatirons, Rocky Mountain National Park, and the Garden of the Gods. My parents are no longer physically capable of walking too far and for too long, so we mostly did relatively short and flat trails on this trip that were in the range of 3-6 miles total. D and my mom also had pretty severe altitude sickness and were basically incapacitated for most of the first full day of hiking. Note for next time: make sure your party is well-acclimated to the altitude before doing any hiking at all!

Day 1: Boulder and the Flatirons

So technically, this was day two, because the first day was a travel day. But I'm not going to count that. For the first official day of the trip, I spent the day working out of my company's office in Boulder, CO.

View of the mountains from the office
The office had some really nice views!
View of the Flatirons from the office
Pretty cool I could look at the Flatirons while working

As it slowly cleared out for Labor Day, it was my time to log off as well. We had just enough daylight left to make a trip to the Flatirons and do the First and Second Flatirons Loop. The loop is 2.8 miles long, with some solid elevation gain at 1,479ft. This might have been one of the triggers for D and my mom's altitude sickness later on, given that we only had one day to acclimate so far. We actually did not make it up to the summit because it was an extra half-mile detour that seemed really steep and would take my parents very long to do.

The land around Boulder has been inhabited by Indigenous people for over 13,000 years! The Núu-agha-tʉvʉ-pʉ̱ (Ute), Hinono'eino (Arapaho) and all other nations have ancestral ties to this land and nearly 50 different Native American tribes were in and out of Colorado throughout history. If you'd like to learn more about Boulder's Indigenous history, you can read more on Boulder's official website.

First Flatiron
The Flatirons look exactly as they are named
Flatiron Loop trail with Flatirons in the distance
The start of the trail

The trail starts quite flat and easy, with a very wide path, and eventually starts to narrow and climb as you get closer to the Flatirons. There's also a boulder/scree field to traverse before the loop starts descending back down towards the meadows. My parents had a bit of a difficult time navigating among the rocks, so keep that in mind if you're hiking with more elderly people.

Looking across a meadow to the Flatirons
The meadows were so pretty at golden hour

Day 2: Ouzel Falls and Trail Ridge Road

We got up bright and early to hit the Ouzel Falls trail. This was much easier in comparison to the Flatirons hike the day before, with only 984ft of elevation gain and 5.3 miles roundtrip. Your starting elevation is higher, however, than in Boulder, CO so if you have trouble adjusting to altitude changes, be careful here! The trail starts at close to 8,500ft in elevation and reaches about 9,500ft.

Wooded forest path
The Ouzel Falls trail
A fast river running over rocks
Took a couple long exposures here without a tripod -- pretty happy with the results
Full-grown trees on top of a large boulder
Plants are so cool. Can't believe these big trees were growing on top of a boulder and in such a thin layer of soil.
Close-up of a bonsai
A cute "bonsai" tree on the trail.
River cascading down boulders and over fallen trees
Ouzel Creek
Profile view of Ouzel Falls
You can peep Ouzel Falls before you start climbing up to get to the main falls

Ouzel Falls is cute. It's not a large waterfall or very tall, but I really like having water features on a hike, so it was still cool to see! It was also pretty neat seeing a portion of Ouzel Creek continuing down past the falls.

Me at the waterfall
A sneaky picture D took of me looking at the falls
D and I posing in front of the falls
My parents took this cute photo of D and me
D and I hugging in front of the falls
Another photo for good measure
Looking back up the river
A final look at the river as we came down from Ouzel Falls

The trail is pretty short and sweet. The woods are really beautiful and some of the aspens and birches were starting to turn gold for the fall season. The North Saint Vrain Creek runs parallel to the the trail and it was pretty relaxing to be listening to running water as you hiked. Other than that, I can't say this was the most exciting hike, but it is super easy and family friendly.

The memory that has really stuck with me about this trail is how I really needed to pee halfway through, but failed to bring any tissues and a trash bag. It became so urgent by the time we started coming down from the waterfall that I was in physical pain holding it in, but also trying to sprint to the parking lot restrooms at the trailhead because I was bursting. D followed me while my parents hung back and took their time, and I think this was the second trigger for the altitude sickness that hit him really hard later in the day. I still feel bad that he got so sick because he wanted to make sure I was okay hiking the last 2.5 miles back by myself.

After we all were back at the car and I was relieved in all manners of the word, we started our drive to Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP). The Rocky Mountain Conservancy and NPS websites both provide great information on the Indigenous history of the areas the park now covers. Both the Ute and Arapaho were forcibly removed and pushed onto reservations in Wyoming and Oklahoma as white settlers and the U.S. government arrived in droves for the gold rush. Many of the trails used by the Ute and Arapaho are still actively used in the park today, including the Ute trail (shown in some of my photos later in this post) and Trail Ridge Road!

Rocky Mountain NP in the distance with rain falling in the background
The view on the drive as we were near the park entrance

Trail Ridge Road is the main road that cuts through RMNP and connects two of the main regions of the park. The road climbs very steeply and quickly, reaching a high point of 12,183ft (3,713m). You start the drive near Estes Park, CO at around 7,500ft and it only takes about 90-minutes and 30 miles to reach the summit.

We had barely begun the drive up to Trail Ridge summit when both D and my mom started feeling super nauseous and developed pounding headaches. They both got hit really badly, and were basically incapacitated the rest of the day. Unfortunately, none of us were prepared for altitude sickness and no one brought any dramamine, advil, or any medication of the sort to help ease the sickness.

View of granite peak with large, forested hills in foreground
It was cool seeing snow on some of these peaks still. This was close to the Deer Mountain area.
Storm clouds loom over the mountain range
Very dramatic ridgelines on the way up
Picture of me at the Forest Canyon Overlook
Picture of me at the Forest Canyon Overlook
D and I at the Forest Canyon Overlook
D and I at the Forest Canyon Overlook -- poor D, he was a good sport about taking photos

All the overlooks on the drive are worth stopping at. Make sure you have ample time for the drive up because I guarantee you will want to stop at each turnout.

My favorite section of the drive was between the Forest Canyon Overlook and the Trail Ridge Road Summit. You've climbed up pretty high at this point, around 10,000ft, and on the left side of the road is this expansive view of the Rocky Mountains. You get to see the tall peaks of Mt Julian and Mt Ida and the jaw-dropping, stunning alpine lakes nestled in the valleys of the range. They look like they're just hanging on to the ledge. It honestly blew my mind.

An alpine lake nestled in a valley surrounded by peaks
One of the many alpine lakes you see on the drive; this one might be "Little Rock Lake", just based on the map of the area
Rocky Mountain range from Trail Ridge Road
I'm not sure why my brain can't process this, but it somehow feels contradictory to have plateaus on one mountain face and steep cliffs on the other?

Before you reach Trail Ridge Road Summit, you drive up Iceberg Pass, which is a series of switchbacks that wind up the tundra and around these massive lava cliffs. I've always thought of the tundra as a biome you could only see in Alaska, but I learned from the visitor center that there are actually two types of tundra: arctic and alpine. The arctic tundra is what encircles the north pole up in Canada and Alaska; the alpine tundra is located on mountains at an altitude where trees can no longer grow. So these beautiful, golden, treeless plateaus that we drove past on Trail Ridge Road were part of the alpine tundra.

Another thing I learned was that I did not pack enough layers for this trip. It was so fucking cold on Trail Ridge Road and especially at the visitor's center. There were some gusty winds due to the passing storms and some misting and light rain, all of which were freezing. I think with wind chill, the outside temperature was only several degrees above freezing. Be prepared!

Iceberg Pass and the lava cliffs on the right
If you look closely, you can see the road making an S-figure as it meanders up the pass.
Dramatic clouds and lighting on the mountains and meadows
The scattered showers and thunderstorms throughout the day created all this dramatic lighting

The Alpine Visitor Center is a good stop for a restroom break and the trailhead for the Alpine Ridge Trail.

View looking down the montane valley with small ponds in the middle
The view looking down the montane zone from the visitor center was so pretty with the little ponds dotting the greenery
The remains of a glacier on the rim of the valley
This was taken from the lookout at the visitor center. IIRC, this the last remaining stretch of what used to be a large glacier here.
The sign at Alpine Visitor Center stating that it is at elevation 11,796ft
We're so high up!

Since D and my mom were out for the count, it was just my dad and I who did the Alpine Ridge Trail and spent time exploring the visitor center area. The trail is pretty short and only about a half-mile, but you get some pretty amazing views at the top. Definitely worth the detour and very good ow-wow factor.

The tundra at the top of Trail Ridge
A view of the tundra and a trail offshoot from the Alpine Ridge Trail
View of the Ute Trail and Trail Ridge Road
You get some great views of the Trail Ridge Road and the Ute trail.
Looking down into the subalpine and montane zones, with forests and lakes
As a kid from SoCal where most lakes are seasonal, it's novel every time I see multiple ponds and lakes so late into the year
Two alpine lakes stacked on top of each other
This was the same alpine lake I took a photo of earlier, but at this higher vantage point on the trail, you can see there are actually two lakes!

I definitely want to return to RMNP some day to do some proper hiking, and hopefully D doesn't suffer from altitude sickness again. It felt like torture sitting in a car all day and watching the trails just pass you by.

The fam and I stayed at a cute little cabin in Estes Park, about a half hour from the park entrance. I unfortunately don't remember what the name of the lodge was, but you can rent a fully-furnished cabin with two queen beds, a living room, dining room, a full bathroom, and a full kitchen! It was actually priced pretty reasonably and I don't think it was more than $300/night. Oh, and you also get a hot tub.

Wooden cabin where we stayed
Our cute cabin was called the Bighorn cabin
View of the hot tub, outdoor area, and cabin
Really spacious setting with private parking to boot.
Two turkeys in the grass
We had some exciting visitors while we made dinner (don't worry, we're all vegetarian except D, so no turkeys were harmed). There was a whole flock of them gobbling and wandering around the property.
A cumulus congestus cloud lit up in rosy red and yellow sunset colors
This cumulus congestus cloud was spectacular to behold. The way that the colors of the sunset got absorbed into it and stratified like layers of a tropical cocktail was inspiring.

Day 3: Sprague Lake sunrise and the Emerald Lake trail

D and my mom were on the mend after a good night of sleep. I think D still wasn't feeling his best, but decided to join us on the hike we planned for the day. We all got up around 6am so we could catch the sunrise at Sprague Lake. Sprague Lake is on the same road as the trailhead for a multitude of hikes that begin at the end of the road, so this meant we could properly enjoy the sunrise without having to rush to drive somewhere else. The rose-gold colors on the mountains as the sun was just starting to rise were jaw-dropping. When I see photos, I still think, "did I really see that in person?"

Rose-gold colors on the mountains at sunrise
So so so beautiful, and none of my pictures did this proper justice.
Storm Peak at sunrise
I swear I'm not lying to y'all when I say that the saturation on this is already turned down to -20. I believe this is Storm Peak in the distance.
The first rays of light peeking over a still Sprague Lake
The lake was so still in the morning, we were able to get so many beautiful reflections
Full reflection of the mountains and forest in the lake
A portrait pano (yes I made this a thing) of the lake reflections
Portrait of D by the lake
Of COURSE we had to get photos by this lake, especially since there were hardly any people around!
Picture of me by the lake
Hi hello it's me
Couple picture of D and me
Couples photo!
Clouds and forest reflected on the lake
The gradients of blue on the water is just amazing

We were finished doing a loop around the lake when we realized that an elk herd was crossing the trail! It was INCREDIBLE!! I still get so so excited at this memory. They were enjoying their time feeding on the grasses in the lake. Each of the elk moms had little baby calves with them, and they were so fuzzy and cute. They still had the adorable, Bambi spots on their coats. It was one of the most magical things I've seen.

Elk mom and calf wading in the lake
Elk mom and calf wading in the lake -- look at the spots!
Two elk cows and two calves
The elk moms were keeping good watch on all of us and the other tourists who were starting to gather
Two elk cows standing in the lake
We made sure to step back and give them space as they moved around the lake and close to the trail
A train of elk wading through the lake
I want to give them pets and scratches so badly

Seeing the elk herd is a memory I'll never forget. I also didn't think we'd see calves in the fall since rutting season is typically in the fall and early winter, so it felt extra special to be able to see the babes walking with their moms. I was so reluctant to leave the lake, since I wanted to just keep watching, but we had a trail to do and a shuttle bus to catch.

There are several shuttle buses that run through Rocky Mountain National Park to alleviate some of the summer traffic. We read that the Bear Lake parking lot in particular, which serves multiple trails including the Emerald Lake trail, has very few spots and typically is full by the early morning. We had made reservations for the hiker shuttle using information on the NPS page here.

However, we didn't realize that the Park & Ride parking lot is also a hyper competitive space. We left our spot at Sprague Lake and drove back to the Park & Ride lot, didn't find anything, tried parking at the Glacier Basin Campground, and Hollowell Park (other stops on the Green shuttle line), and then also drove back down the road to try the parking lots at the Bierstadt Lake and Glacier Gorge trailheads on the Orange line with no success. I think we spent an hour total driving up and down Bear Lake Road trying to find parking, until we decided to just re-park at Sprague Lake (which had also filled up with cars struggling to find parking like ours). Parking here meant that we had to make a transfer from the Green to Orange shuttle bus. The Orange bus runs every 10-15 minutes, but the Green bus only runs once every hour. This complicated the calculus for how much time we had to hike since it was close to 1PM already at this point and it starts to get dark in the mountains around 5PM.

We caught the bus and were able to start the trail officially around 2:30-3PM. The trail is super easy and gorgeous, as all the scenery was. We did a loop around Bear Lake first, which is only about half a mile. A gorgeous, deep blue lake that had a lot of wonderful boulders to picnic on (or climb). I highly, highly recommend the Emerald Lake trail if you have your family with you because it's so chill and you get to see four different alpine lakes in the span of 2 hours.

Bear Lake
Lake #1: Bear Lake - that deep blue water is so pretty
Nymph Lake
Lake #2: Nymph Lake - full of lily pads and dragonflies!
Dream Lake in b/w
Lake #3: Dream Lake - super cool to see how a glacier once carved out that rock field under the peak
Dream Lake in color
Absolutely dreamy scenery
D at Dream Lake
D's adventure photo at Dream Lake
Emerald Lake
Lake #4: Emerald Lake - looking at the same glacier field as Dream Lake, but now we're right at the bottom of it
D and I at Emerald Lake
D and I at Emerald Lake
Creek flowing through the meadow and forest
The creek flowed from Emerald Lake into the rest of the lakes and follows the trail

We actually encountered a rescue team bringing someone down from Emerald Lake as we were coming down from the lake. It looked like they might have hurt their leg or ankle and were unable to walk, and I remember someone mentioning that they were going off trail. Kind of scary and it made me really appreciate all the national park rescue teams that have to rescue in these wilderness areas. The whole team was a group of about 10 people carrying gurneys and kits, gear, and big backpacks. They had to traverse the rocks, narrow paths, and a pretty steep, rocky staircase on the way down while carrying someone on a bed and with all the other gear. It's a good reminder that we all gotta do our part and stay on the trail, because when we need to be rescued, we're risking other people's lives in the process.

After we got back to the car, we did another drive down Trail Ridge Road because my mom wasn't able to enjoy it the previous day. We got as far as Farview Curve Viewpoint before turning back. Another super cool stop I recommend is where you get to see the Continental Divide at Milner Pass! The Continental Divide separates drainage to the Atlantic Ocean from drainage to the Pacific Ocean and traverses America from Alaska to Cape Horn in the tail end of Chile. You can actually walk from one creek that drains into the Atlantic, and another that drains into the Pacific, and they're pretty much right next to each other. The weirdest part for me was how the drainage creek to the Pacific was on the right side (going northeast) and the drainage creek for the Atlantic was flowing on the left (to the southwest) It's pretty wild.

A lake near the Continental Divide
Poudre Lake near the Continental Divide
Looking down to a meadow with creeks running through from a viewpoint
Farview Curve Viewpoint - you can see Beaver Creek, the drainage creek for the Pacific!

We were nearing golden hour as we headed back up Trail Ridge Road and back towards Estes Park. The contrast of red and gold tundra with evergreen forests and deep, blue and purple mountains never fails to fill me with wonder. I'm both happy and relieved that I had relatively sharp photos to choose from on this trip because I had to do most of the shooting from the car!

Cars look small driving up Trail Ridge Road, mountains and forest are the surrounding scenery
A look back on the road heading towards the Continental Divide as we climb back up
Rolling blue and green hills of thick forest
This is near the Medicine Bow Lookout
Layers of mountains, hills, and golden tundra
The first day of clear blue skies was sadly also our last day
Small lakes sit at the edge of a valley before dropping off into the mountains
I love the silhouette of the mountains here and the random lakes scattered throughout
Plateaus and leftover glaciers, possibly
Not sure if all of these classify as glaciers, but so cool to see big ice even though it was only September
Long's Peak
Long's Peak, a 14-er (aka a peak over 14,000ft), starts making its appearance in the far left
Elk relaxing on the tundra
Elk relaxing on the tundra
Tundra and blue skies
The tundra at golden hour is just *chef's kiss*
Portrait of Long's Peak
These Toy Story clouds are unreal. Someday I'd like to be able to hike Long's Peak and bag a 14-er!

We didn't make good use of the hot tub the first night because half of our group was asleep early due to altitude sickness, which meant that we needed to hot tub on the last evening in the cabin. RMNP has a pretty good reputation for stargazing and it definitely lived up to it! It was a little tough getting our eyes adjusted to the stars with the cabin lights around the complex. I think it took me about half an hour before my eyes had adjusted enough to see a lot of stars, and even a light band of the Milky Way!

The night sky filled with stars
Not an astrophotographer, but happy with this shot even though I had no tripod and completely relied on guesswork for the aperture and shutter speed

Day 4: Garden of the Gods

The Garden of the Gods is a National Natural Landmark in Colorado Springs, CO that has been visited by many native peoples and American Indian Nations since 1330 BC, including the Apache, Cheyenne, Comanche, Kiowa, Lakota, Pawnee, Shoshone, and Ute people. Many of these peoples have a connection to the Garden of the Gods; the Ute tell of their creation here, and petroglyphs have been left by them in the park. In terms of geology, the sandstone rocks were actually once sand dunes! When the sedimentary rocks were uplifted during the creation of the Front Range Mountains 65 million years ago, the softer rocks eroded and the harder rocks were left standing as the tall ridges you see in the park; in fact, some are as tall as 300ft!

I don't remember what trail we did here, but it was basically a loop that goes around the park. I'm not sure if we even bothered following a specific trail or if we just wandered down the paths that seemed most interesting to us; the trails in the park are all pretty well-connected anyway, so you don't have to worry too much about getting lost. Garden of the Gods is a pretty well-known and popular area for climbing, so we actually got to see quite a few people on the walls! D and I did some really baby "scrambling" (if you can even call it that) up a few of the rocks.

D hanging upside down on a rock
Do you even hang upside down bro
Sentinel Rock
This giant wall is called Sentinel Rock -- we saw people on ropes here!
D sitting on some rocks
D looking cute perched on this rock
Some spires and large red rock walls, the trail at the bottom
Some pretty cool off-width and crack climbing options here. Also, it's crazy thinking these sedimentary layers were flipped 90-degrees due to tectonic plate action.
Another large standstone wall, with trees growing on it
How is it that these trees can grow so well on the sides of this wall, but not at home where I fertilize and water them and baby them?
D pointing at a juniper
As you can see, D likes this tree
D standing next to the juniper
He REALLY likes it
D smelling the juniper
Junipers smell nice
Me sitting on the ridge line
D got this pretty epic photo of me that I used on my old website for years
Dramatic clouds with rays of light bursting through
Bruh the clouds and sunlight was so dramatic - you can see some of the rain that was falling to the lower left!
Rain falling in the mountains, lit up by the sun
I like can't process nature sometimes

Garden of the Gods was the last stop on our short stay in Colorado. We drove back to Denver in the evening and all went our separate ways the next day.

Fremont Bridge in the Bay Area
It's rare for me to sit in a window seat, so finally had an opportunity to snap a pic of the Fremont Bridge in the Bay Area!