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 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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Solo Camping Is A Practice in Meditation

It’s gotta be about 30 degrees inside the tent and even though I’m swaddled inside blankets, a sleeping bag, sweatpants, a woolen shirt, a sweatshirt, thick socks, and a hat I’m too cold to sleep.  Dog is snuggled up by my feet and appears to be impervious to the cold.  I don’t know what time it is (there is no way I am reaching my arm out of my cocoon to check my phone) but outside the night is very very dark.  At this point I hear soft and deliberate footfalls outside my tent.  They stop near my head and I hear sniffing.  What the hell is that?  I locked all the food in a cooler in my car and was careful not to leave any wrappers in the tent with me.  Whatever it is it isn’t human, that’s for sure.  It is also sniffing around inches from my head, separated from me by just the thin wall of my tent.  Dog hasn’t noticed anything and is still asleep.  I can’t decide if this is good or bad.  The list of suspects for my visitor includes raccoon, squirrel, fox, deer, mountain lion, and bear.  The footsteps circle the tent and come back to sniff near my head again.  I am completely still and thinking irrationally what if it is trying to smell me?

Flash back to fourteen hours earlier and I am standing in the Denver flagship REI staring at a display labeled “Bear Protection”.  There are all kinds of air horns, sprays, bear-proof canisters, bells, and whistles.  Bears were never a big deal back in Wisconsin.  Out here though, I am knowingly camping in bear territory, and even though it’s still early spring I’m not sure if the bears are still hibernating or not.  What if one of them woke up early and is hungry?  I ended up leaving with just some small and necessary purchases (headlamp, camp soap, socks) but I was still thinking about wildlife as I drove away.

I borrowed a tent and a sleeping pad from my roommates and loaded up the car with gear, food, and the dog.  We were headed to Golden Gate Canyon which is not too far from Denver, but which feels remote due to it’s vastness.  There are a handful of year round tent sites up on Reverend’s Ridge which are available on a first come first served basis.  Since it was a Sunday I was hopeful that there would be a site available for us.  Up a 19% grade and through some dizzying switchbacks we drove before we got to Reverend’s Ridge.  We lucked out and got one of the last sites.  The whole area was in a forest of aspens with views of snowcapped mountain peaks visible between the trees.  The air was cool, crisp, and clean.  There was a fire ban in effect so most of the other campers were off hiking or taking in the sights instead of sitting around a campfire.  As soon as the tent was set up and the sleeping gear was inside Dog and I set off to find a trailhead.  Nearby was the Racoon Trail, which was deceptively listed as being only a little over two miles.  With the hike from the campsite, it was more than three and included grueling uphill climbs, stunning panoramic views, and tough rocky descents.  Since it was a looped trail it deposited us back at camp tired, exhilarated, and hungry.


Camp was a little busier as people got down to business eating dinner and cracking open beers.  Dog and I ate our dinner and then headed out to explore the area.  Most of the camping loops were closed for the season so the landscape was peaceful and populated mostly by noisy little birds.  The sun was beginning to set and Dog and I decided to do a little night time walking in the woods…mostly so that I could try out my new headlamp. The temperature was dropping, but I was feeling snug and smug in my warm clothes.  *Side note* I have felt plenty of disdain for girls who wear nothing but their identical outfits of Northface fleece, leggings, and Uggs/moccasins, but I wore my newly thrifted Northface pullover jacket and was nothing but impressed with the warmth and comfort.  I think I might live in it forever.

Camping alone is a kind of meditation.  When you are out there with friends, a partner, or family members you play games, you cook meals together, there is often beer; all in all it is a rambunctious social event.  When solo, you are silent and thoughtful.  You fall into rhythm with the daylight, the cold and the warmth, the wind, and the animal sounds.


With no campfires allowed (I probably couldn’t have made a decent one on my own anyway) the campsites were all fairly dark.  Here and there larger groups had multiple lanterns or kept their car lights on.  I had Dog decked out like a Christmas tree between her light up red collar and green harness light.  For myself, I wore my headlamp.  I got Dog and I packed us up cozily inside the tent and spent some time reading.  It was the last time until daylight that I would feel comfortable.

Back to where I began.  I lay awake listening to the animal outside my tent and tried to think rationally.  This was difficult because I was sleep deprived, cold, and afraid.  The foot steps were too delicate to be a waddling raccoon, and too heavy to be a squirrel.  I doubted a bear could walk with that much grace either (phew).  The only things that I could think of as being an attractant (besides my tasty human self) was the dog water dish, which I had left outside.  In that case, perhaps my visitor was only thirsty?  A thirsty little fox even?  This was a comforting thought.  My visitor returned to circle and sniff three more times.  Later, I would look for footprints and find none.

The rest of the night was sleepless, but uneventful.  I was glad to see the run come up and decided to get out and hike around a bit to get the blood flowing and thaw.  Dog and I found a place to watch the sun come up.  It was dazzling and made up for the cold night.  I tried and failed to take a nice photo with Dog, so it’s just a picture of me.


As the sun came up the morning began to warm up too.  Dog and I returned to camp for some breakfast and I re-cocooned myself in the tent to read and wait for the air to warm up even more.  Around the camp people were beginning to stir.  My neighbors had left sometime in the night, but everyone else was making breakfast and sleeping, or packing up their sites.  We played a game of fetch and then decided to go on one last hike before heading out.

The last hike was on Mule Deer Trail, which proved to be just the right combination of hot and dry and steep to be utterly exhausting.  Instead of hiking along forest trails and dodging patches of snow we were exposed to the wind and sun (not quite strong) in a huge open meadow.  The trail skirted small streams and wound down and then up, up, and away into the foothills.  It seemed like rattlesnake country.  I was constantly dry mouthed and Dog was panting.  The sites were beautiful, but we needed to make it back to camp in time before our parks pass expired.  At the snail paced we were going, it was going to take a long time.  That hike took a lot out of me.  It might have been rewarding under different circumstances, but I was just tired and thirsty.  I was so happy when we finally made it back to the car.  Leaving a good campsite is always bittersweet.  We waved goodbye to our little spot and began the descent back down.  The temperature rose and the cheese its ran out.  Finally back at home I was sore and tired and so was Dog.  We both took long naps.

That was our adventure.  Next time I will bring more blankets.