We saved the best day-trip for last! Denver to the Rocky Mountains National Parks was by far the most magnificent day that we spent in Colorado. That is saying a lot because our other day trips were rather amazing. I could have made an entire weeks trip from this one day. Here is what we did…
The Route to the Top: Peak-to-Peak Highway and a stop in Central City and SNOW!
In my opinion, the route that you take to get there is just as important as the destination itself. I love researching alternate routes and in this case we chose the Peak-to-Peak Highway. The Peak-to-Peak is roughly 55 miles long and goes along the Front Range. You have to make your way from Denver to the PTP and then drive the PTP into Estes Park.
Along the PTP you will wind through the Front Range, going through small towns and seeing some amazing vistas. One of my favorite finds along the way was Central City.
When you think of “main street USA” this is the town you picture in your mind. This is a true 1850’s gold rush town, now filled with small casinos. Casinos aside, the semi-original architecture is still standing (most of the original wood structures from the 1850’s were destroyed in a fire in 1874 and were rebuilt in brick and stone and are still standing today). Despite the casino interior, this is not a “Disney World” replica, this is the real thing!
As we continued winding on the Peak-to-Peak, the temperatures kept dropping and “rain” was falling from the sky and by “rain” we mean SNOW!!! Us Floridians were not prepared for this and just earlier that morning the temps were in the 70’s when we left Denver…INSANITY!!!
Of course we had to stop and get out of the van to catch snowflakes on our tongues! These may be flurries to you but for this Key West girl, this was snow.
Continuing our drive, we were told to look out for the Stone Church. There on the side of the road, nestled on a hill is the St. Catherine’s Chapel. It is a few miles up on the left hand side after you pass the city of Arrowood. This made a great stop before getting into Estes Park.
The Great Rocky Mountains: Elk, Moose and Goats…Oh my!
We entered the park from the Estes entrance. We were focused on getting into the park that we honestly did not spend much time in Estes. From what I hear, Estes is worth a trip in it self…next time.
We had barely paid our entrance fee, when we were greeted by the first slow roaming elk crossing the street (they are everywhere!). It was mid-morning and we had the rest of the day to explore the park. It was our plan to just drive into and to stop when we felt the urge, which was every .5 mile.
We used a simple PAPER map (kids learn how to read a real map and not rely on google or Siri) and it made for even more of an adventure. I had already mapped out a few key places that I wanted hike and we left the rest open for impromptu stops.
We took the Highway 34 to 36 “loop”, going up to Alluvial Fan, around Beaver Meadow, over to Bear Lake and looping back out to Estes Park via Highway 36. The entire loop took us about 4 hours with plenty of roadside stops, a picnic lunch, hiking up the Alluvial Fan, a ton of wildlife sightings, and an ice hike to Bear Lake.
Note:Pleas note that we went in the middle of May, crowds were minimal, the weather was indecisive and major parts of the park were still closed. The Trail Ridge Road was still closed due to upwards of 12 FEET of snow drift along the road. That being said, it was PERFECT for us!
Before our first hike at Alluvial Fan, we had a picnic lunch at one of the many picnic areas. The picnic lunch was simple, I grabbed a ginormous pre-made sub that we all split, a small veggie tray, a lunch pack for Liam, waters and snacks for Nolan. This was honestly one of the best ideas, there were very little, if any places to eat in the park.
The Alluvial Fan trail is fairly easy to moderate. It is about 0.7 miles in and back with about a 200 feet elevation gain. It was pretty rock (on the East side) and it is my understanding that they are constructing an accessible paved route on the West side, which was under construction at this time.
We chose to leave Liam and Nolan (both asleep) in the car with my mom. Liam could have easily climbed it with us, but Nolan would have been a bit of a struggle. We did not have appropriate “hiking gear” to wear him other than his Ergo and I think it would have been harder than what it was worth (just my honest opinion).
Tip:Layer, layer and layer some more!!! The weather can change on a dime, mild one second and snowing the next. Trust me, we were there in mid May and we experienced temps in the mid 70’s in Denver, mid 50’s around Beaver Meadow and full snow and 4′ of snow at Bear Lake, with sunshine and a rainbow.
I had read about Bear Lake while I was doing my trip planning and it was one of my main points of interest. I had read that it was a paved, stroller friendly path, with little to no change in elevation and it was perfect for the whole family. What I didn’t read was that it would be frozen over and under 4 feet of snow. Bu I wouldn’t trade this experience! It was MAGNIFICENT!!!
The snow made for a frozen, semi-ice skating rink effect on the trail, which made it rather tricky to walk on. But once you made it to the lake, it was a view like nothing I had ever seen before. Growing up in Key West, the closest mental imagery that I have to this is a sand covered beach. At points, we were the only people at the lake and for a few brief minutes I was there alone. I have never felt more at peace and balanced.
I fist walked this trail with my mom, then sending for Paul (who was in the car with the boys while the hard snow was coming down). We eventually woke Liam up to join us. He was NOT HAPPY with us at first. This Florida boy was in shock because of the cold temps, but he finally came around to it and we ended the trip with a massive snowball fight, as any right minded family would do!