Camping in Rocky Mountain National Park: Ain’t Nothin’ Like It

Last weekend we managed to ditch our regular lives and disappear into that fantastic world of campfires, bird song, fresh air, and bear poo. It was my first camping trip of the year and I feel like the summer camping season couldn’t have had a better start. We left Denver early and drove the hour and forty five minutes to RMNP where the line of cars to get in was already frustratingly long. Unlike when we had the whole place to ourselves (on a rainy Wednesday) this sunny Saturday the park was packed! The only open campground in the off season is first come first served, so we were anxious to see if we would even get a site. We shouldn’t have worried though, because most weekend campers were apparently sleeping in and there were plenty of places to choose from. I took the photo below from a meadow across the camp road from us. You can see my little blue car in the center of the foreground, and the background is dominated by Long’s Peak. Incidentally the meadow I was in was full of alllll kinds of poo, but mostly elk and a little bit of bear.

We decided to make Saturday a lazy camp day. T.G strung up a hammock and decided to nap and read a book in the shade of the trees. I had a hard time staying still, so I decided to go for a wander and check out our surroundings. Although the weather had previously promised rain and thunderstorms all weekend we had nothing but sunny weather! This meant plenty of other people to contend with in the park, but I kept trying to remind my crotchety introverted self that it was good that so many people wanted to visit a national park. A very good thing. Besides, we were tourists too, and had no more of a claim on the park than anyone else.

Having a lazy camp day, in my opinion, should definitely involved sitting around with a book and a mug of wine. Also, a hammock. This we did for a few hours. Later in the day we went for a walk through some of the camp loops that are still closed for the season. It turns out that they are all stunning, and with the recent heavy rainfall, numerous ponds had appeared, and all were full of singing frogs.

While sitting in camp we observed the camp life going on around us. The kids next to us argued about stand up comedians. A single guy cooked gourmet food at his site, and a van with Minnesota license plates pulled up and a bunch of college students came spilling out, obviously thrilled to be out of the car. Maybe the most entertaining thing we witnessed (besides T.G’s new bestie Darrel, the firewood guy) was the enormous and oversized camper that pulled in. It was ironically named ‘Solitude’ and was about three times the size of my apartment. The man in the driver seat struggled- and eventually failed- to park it at one of the campsites. It wasn’t for lack of trying though; his wife was “helpfully” yelling instructions at him the whole time. It was a bit sad when poor Solitude finally gave up and drove off.

Just after sundown, in that weird twilight time, we walked through the trees to observe the vast openness of the part of the park we were in. This meadow has a stream winding through it and is enclosed by mountains on all sides. We saw Long’s Peak still illuminated by all the snow in the darkness. Evening birds were calling out. The sounds of minivans and trucks were gone.

We cooked (tofu) brats over the campfire and went to bed not too long after dark. Thanks to my magnificent sleeping bag (I think I probably wrote a love story about my sleeping bag in an earlier camping post) I was cozy and slept pretty well. It did not rain, but a cold wind blew through from time to time. Just before dawn I got up to use the bathroom and enjoyed the early morning peacefulness of the park. My only companions were some mourning doves and a couple of crows.

The next morning we were up early to drink coffee and get started on a long hike. We ate a leisurely breakfast and then packed up. We planned to drive to the trailhead and let someone else take over our campsite.

In December of 2016 I hiked part of the Cub Lake trail and loved it. I was not used to hiking, and that plus incoming snow turned me around before I finished it. This time we were going to hike it all the way through and then some. The trail starts off in the flat land and follows a small stream more or less as you head towards the mountains. In 2012 it was an area that was partially burned by wildfire and the evidence was in the burn scar on the hill and all the charred logs near the trail. We passed ponds and boulder fields, and eventually the trail began to climb. There were a few other groups hiking around us, but for the most part this area of the park felt secluded. At one point, in a woodsy section, a couple of other hikers gestured to us. “Do you know if elk charge?” On the trail right in front of us were about six bull elk casually walking by. They were absolutely enormous! We could smell the animal mixture of sweat and ammonia coming off of them, and see the fine detail of the fuzz on their new antler growth. We proceeded cautiously.

The hike was gorgeous. The halfway point was Cub Lake. We stopped to admire it for a bit, enjoyed the sight of some elk taking advantage of the water, and then headed on. By this point it looked as if some rain might come in, so we were motivated to finish the second part of the hike and get back to the car. We stopped for snacks along the way, but mostly kept moving. The trail now started going back down. I hadn’t realized how much elevation we had gained until we started to descend.

The last part of the hike was level and followed a creek. It was shadier than other parts of the trail and cooler owing to either the oncoming rain or the water, or both. I was pretty beat by the end of it, and glad to see the car at the trailhead. That doesn’t mean I was happy to be leaving RMNP though! I thought many unkind thoughts about the city and the crowds that were descending on my neighborhood for the Cinco de Mayo festival.

This has gone down as one of the best camping trips ever, in my book. Plus it was the first time I have camped in a national park and the whole experience was so much grander. The mountains and wildlife sightings definitely helped with that, of course. It also taught us about what to bring next time (obviously the hammock), what we needed for future use (hello pretty enamel camp mugs that-I’ve-been-holding-back-from-buying-but-now-I-have-a-reason), and what not to bring. I’m eager to go back, but with work getting busy and the summer tourist season approaching I’m not sure when that will be. Until then, I guess we can at least use our sweet annual pass to come back on rainy Wednesdays!

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