I remember the first time I saw the Rocky Mountains, rising up dramatically in the west as I approached from the plains in the back seat of my Aunt Pam’s old sedan. I was only 18 years old at the time, and while I had seen the Appalachian Range, and part of the Ozarks, these grand mountains were something else entirely; majestic, aspirational, and far more compelling than the river bluffs at my home on the farm in Missouri. Sadly though, that first visit ended up being rather challenging, when I discovered that I’m sensitive to altitudes at levels far below what bothers most people. I had to cut my visit short. Since then, I’ve learned to manage through those first few days at higher altitudes, and to pace myself so that I’m still able to enjoy these beautiful mountains.
This time, I had the perfect excuse to stop for a few days in Boulder to adjust, since my son was graduating from the University of Colorado, Boulder. We were able to spend the morning before his graduation ceremonies hiking the area around Red Rocks, and when the festivities were over, headed up to the area around Estes Park. If you don’t live in a high altitude area, I highly recommend doing lower elevation hikes for a day or two to acclimate a bit. The areas around Boulder south to Colorado Springs offer a lot of choices and they all have beautiful views!
We visited the Rocky Mountain National Park in early spring, before the famous Trail Ridge Road had been cleared of snow, but managed to drive as far as Rainbow Curve, for spectacular views of Horseshoe Park.
Since we arrived late afternoon, we used our first day to do a short hike and plan the next day. There was a significant mismatch of physical abilities between us. My son is 23 years old, in fantastic shape, and completely acclimated to higher altitudes, having lived in Colorado for several years now. He loves to hike, especially straight up. I am 54 and a little out of shape after a bout with pneumonia last winter took longer than I expected to recover from. We had to find a compromise. I agreed to keep going as long as he wanted, but we had to stick to trails that had minimal climbing involved, and he needed to slow down to my pace. The “no whining allowed” clause was also agreed upon, as is customary in our family, and with the recommendation of the resident Park Rangers, we headed out for three hikes.
Within the park boundaries at an elevation of about 11,000 feet, Lawn Lake was originally a natural feature, but in 1903 a group of settlers from Loveland decided to build a dam in order to increase it’s size so that it could provide irrigation water to their community. For decades, the dam was regularly inspected and repaired as needed, but over time the road that permitted access fell into disrepair and those inspections ceased. Unfortunately, the dam began to suffer undetected internal erosion, and on July 15, 1982 at 5:30 a.m., the lake broke through the terminal moraine that had held since the end of the last ice age. Without warning, 29 million gallons of water flooded down the mountain, sweeping trees and huge boulders as much as four miles through to the valley floor.
The boulders, rocks, gravel and sand all spread into the valley, creating a massive alluvial fan. The water rushing downwards created a raging flood that swept three campers in the park to their death. The force of the water slowed as it submerged the meadows of Horseshoe Park, but still continued on to flood the town of Estes Park to a depth of six feet, impacting roughly 75% of businesses. Lake Estes, located to the east of town, managed to contain the floodwaters, preventing further potential damage to communities along the Thompson River.
Today, you can hike through the boulders of the alluvial fan created by this tragedy, and geologists come from around the world to study it. The path is very rocky, so I’d recommend good sturdy hiking boots, but it’s a relatively short and easy hike past the waters of the Roaring River and up to a lovely waterfall. We had just enough time in the late afternoon of our first day to wander around this interesting formation. The geeky kid in me (the one with an awesome rock collection) had a great time with this hike!
Hike to Chasm Falls
This is an easy hike through beautiful and mostly shaded trails. The terrain is rough in spots, and I recommend sturdy shoes. In early spring, it wasn’t crowded at all but my understanding is this gets pretty busy during the summer. We accessed the trail head by driving past the Alluvial Fan area, continuing on the road as it changed to gravel, all the way to the parking area with restrooms, where you’ll find a sign for the trail head.
This was one of my favorite hikes, in any of the parks, because although it’s centered in the middle of mountains, this trail somehow made me focus on the smaller things around me. There was color and texture everywhere, and at one point the trail passes a shady resting spot where a large rock is shaped like a face, as though the mountains are looking back at you. We turned around once we reached Chasm Falls, where the Thompson River narrows and crashes down over a rocky 25 foot drop. It’s a beautiful spot.
On the way to our next hike, we stopped for a bit in the Moraine Park area to admire the meadows filled with Elk.
Located an an elevation of 9,475 feet, this trail is a short and relatively flat hike around the perimeter of the lake. I was perfectly satisfied with the lack of any major challenge, but watched my son ogle the many trails leading up to higher elevations, obviously making mental plans to return with friends. There was still plenty of snow pack here, and at times the trail disappeared altogether, so we naturally began to just follow the tracks through the snow. This is not a smart thing to do though, and at one point I noticed that we had followed the snow tracks directly onto an ice ledge over the lake. Oops. We worked our way back to the correct trail, but once again I was thankful for my awesome hiking boots as the trail alternated between icy and slushy snow, while my feet stayed warm and dry.
We stopped briefly at Sprague Lake before heading back to town for a late lunch. There is a loop around the lake that is a lovely, and can be done without sturdy footwear. If you’re looking for a gentle hike, this is a great place to stop and there is a nice picnic area as well.
The Rocky Mountain National Park receives one of the highest number of annual visitors in the park system for good reason. Whatever your reason for wanting to be outdoors, this park has something for you to enjoy. I liked the large variety of trails, and easily found hikes that were in my challenge category. Opportunities for beautiful photographs were everywhere, and the wildlife viewing rivals Yellowstone. I’m planning to head back for another trip in the autumn season.
Sadly, my camper was back in Connecticut so we stayed at a hotel in Estes Park that was about $120/night with an experience I can’t recommend. If I am back in the area without my camper again, I would probably splurge and stay at the historic Stanley Hotel. With camper in tow, I would shoot for one of the campgrounds within the park. Dining options are available at all price points in town, but we especially loved Ed’s Cantina, which is located on the main strip downtown, is moderately priced, and the food was delicious. We also stumbled onto Raven’s Roast coffee shop, which is tucked away in a quiet spot, with a terrific selection of both coffee and tea, and a fascinating collection of Raven themed artwork, much of it Celtic or Scandinavian in origin (both cultures have very interesting raven lore.) Downtown Estes Park is filled with shops that have all sorts of interesting offerings, and it’s worth devoting some time to wandering around.
Special note on the challenge of high altitude environments for my fellow canaries:
If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you may remember my previous laments about how challenging the altitude can be for me. Even in my teens, I had trouble with it, but as an adult who has lived through pulmonary embolisms and collapsed lungs, breathing when the air is thin poses serious challenges. I don’t want to limit my life around that though, so I’m sharing with you here how I manage through this particular challenge, because I have heard from many people who struggle with this same issue, and often to the point where they avoid high altitude environments altogether. This is what works for ME. I’m not a doctor and I don’t know what will work for you, but I’m posting MY list, because talking to my doctor and trying different things means I can continue to enjoy high altitude environments, and that is something I hope everyone else can do as well. During this visit, I managed to do 8 miles of high altitude hiking/walking around with no problems in a single day.
- Cardio exercise is key. The best way to keep my lungs healthy and ready for challenges is to make sure I get my cardio exercise in. It’s often not fun for me, especially if I happen to experience any kind of lung issue (like the pneumonia of last winter), but I just consider it non-negotiable and make time for it.
- Water. Staying hydrated is key at high altitudes.
- There is an over the counter product called Zaca that I find is extremely helpful. It’s a little on the expensive side, but I find it so helpful that I’m happy to fork over the mullah. 🙂 I keep a stash on hand for travel now, because I find it also helps with jet lag. Maybe it will work for you, maybe not, but I have never noticed any kind of negative side effects from it.
- Canned oxygen. You can buy this on Amazon as well, and I find it fits easily into my day pack. I didn’t need it on this trip, but I’ve used it in the past and found it very helpful, especially when I’ve done hikes that involve vertical climbs.
- Since I am a bit of a tough case when it comes to altitude, I have two prescriptions from my doctor that I bring along. The first is for a diuretic that I take for the first two days when I enter a high altitude environment. It helps a lot, but I can’t take it for more than two days before my fingers and feet start getting a painful tingling/burning sensation, and my understanding is that is a common side effect. I don’t like taking meds if I don’t really need them, but in this case I think it’s a worthy trade off, and I’m careful to limit it to two days and I make sure to drink extra water. The second prescription is for prednisone, which is generally not a good medication to take, but I am sensitive to migraines, and in particular complex migraines which can be serious enough to land me in the ER. If I feel like I’m at risk of a migraine, I take 5 mg in the morning. I generally only need to do this for a few days, and if I’m not having problems, I don’t take it. Drinking extra water can often prevent the need for this.
- At altitudes above 8,000 feet, I have often had trouble sleeping. I have a new CPAP machine which has eliminated that problem entirely.
- If any of these suggestions sound like they might work for you, please go talk to your doctor about them and don’t just rely on my experience. I am not a doctor and I’m not giving medical advice here, just sharing what works for me.
Happy travels and good luck!