After leaving Rifle Falls, we continued our homeward trek east through central Colorado. We’d been up in the San Juans, the Western Slope, and the Central Mountains experiencing a great Rocky Mountain high for the past month. In two days we’d leave the mountains and be back down on the flat lands. But before that was to happen there was one more spectacular mountain high to experience and that high was Rocky Mountain National Park.
I planned an overnight stop for the small town of Granby, which is the western gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. This would be our last stay in the Colorado mountains. To get to Granby, I could have driven much of the way on I-70, but I wanted to take a more direct and scenic route.
We got off the interstate at Wolcott and drove north up to Toponas and then west over towards Kremmling. This part of Colorado is hilly country and very remote. The road is good but has lots of twist and turns and ups and downs. I was surprised how sparse it was with only a couple of towns that are just intersections with a couple of buildings. Most of the land appears to be used for cattle grazing.
We crossed over nondescript Gore Pass pass at 9,527 feet. The only town of any substance (and the only one with diesel fuel) was Kremmling. From here, we could see the snow-capped Rockies and Granby was just 28 miles.
We stayed over night at the US Forest Service Stillwater campground. This large campground (129 sites) sits on a hill overlooking Lake Granby. You can make reservations here but we just showed up early in the afternoon and luckily snagged the last site with electric and water. The sites are small and a little challenging to get level on. Most sites looked like they were made for tenters and could accommodate no more than a 30 ft rig. With my National Park senior pass discount, the site was just $14 for the night.
A couple of years ago, the campground had a tree beetle infestation and they had to cut down all the trees. Parts of it look awful with lots of tree stumps, but it now has 360 degree views. There’s great views of the lake and the Rockies. This looks to be a good spot to explore the town of Grand Lake and the western side of RMNP. We were on our way home, but after seeing the west side of the park (less busy than the eastern side), I would spend 2-3 days here next time.
The next day the weather was sunny and perfect. We took off and drove on Route 34 up to the Grand Lake entrance station of RMNP. There’s no lines here to get in like there are on the other side of the park. And with my Geezer pass I avoided the $20 entrance fee. (Yeah!)
Trail Ridge Road
My plan for the day was to drive over the Trail Ridge Road so my son could experience this incredible road. Often called the Highway to the Sky, the Trail Ridge road is the highest paved road in the US topping out at 12,183 ft. It’s a road that doesn’t go around mountains but rather on top of them.
The road is only open from early June to mid October. I visited RMNP in 2013 and drove the road from Moraine Park to the Alpine Visitor Center. I drove the road in early June just a few days after it had opened and there was lots of snow then. But I had never had seen the road beyond the Alpine Visitor Center, so this segment was new to me.
Route 34 goes straight north for several miles following the Colorado River valley. There ‘s a few hiking trail heads along here as well as a National Park campground (Timber Creek).
Shortly after Timber Creek the road starts climbing up through evergreen woods with several switch backs. We had no traffic going up. We crossed the continental drive at Milner Pass (10,758 ft) and then started to get above the tree line and see more alpine terrain. There was much less snow here at the end of June than when I was here in 2013 during early June.
The road going up to the Medicine Bow Curve and then to Alpine is very dramatic. There are steep drop-offs and no guard rails. Luckily we had no oncoming traffic so I drove the RV in the middle of the road and kept focused on hugging the double yellows. My son, who was riding shot-gun, had some minor some panic attacks as we drove this section.
We started to see traffic at Alpine. It seems like lots of folks just drive to the Visitor Center. We got to Alpine around 9:30 am and the parking lot was about 2/3 full with plenty of spaces for RVs. The park service had rangers at the ready because on busy days the parking lot fills by 10:30 am.
Alpine is an incredible setting. At 11,796 ft it’s the highest National Park service visitor center in the US. There was still snow in some places but not like what I saw in 2013. We got to see a herd of elk nearby. There’s a gift shop, food service, bathrooms, and info center. There’s also a couple of hiking trails that depart from here.
It was cool when we arrived with temps in the mid 40’s. We spent about 45 mins marveling at the scenery and then proceeded east on the road. The next 11 miles are all above the tree line and just incredible. You’re driving on top of the Rockies with tremendous views everywhere you look.
Once we left Alpine, the road traffic picked up. Most coming at us from the east in steady groups. At the Forest Canyon over look, the road starts a slow descent to the Rainbow Curve and then to the Many Parks Curve.
The road makes a long steady descent down to Deer Ridge Junction. As we went through this area, the road was lined with cars from hikers using the trails in this area. The eastern side of the park is a very busy place. It has more scenic places (Morraine Park, Bear Lake), more campgrounds, and several hiking trails.
We did a quick stop at Moraine Park to take some pictures and then went down to the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center to get my passport stamped. It was just a quick tour for us through this very popular and scenic National Park. I’m glad we did the Trail Ridge Road in the morning and from west to east. We had very little traffic on our side of the road. As we exited the park the cars were lined in about 20 deep in three lines waiting to get in.
Here’s a dash cam video I made of our drive on the Trail Ridge Road.
On the eastern edge of the park is the bustling tourist town of Estes Park. I would have liked to spend the night in Estes Park, but checking all the campgrounds in the area I found no vacancy. It was understandable for a Friday night the weekend before the 4th of July.
But we did park the RV at the Estes Park Visitor Center to do a quick walking tour. Finding a parking spot for an RV in Estes Park is a challenge. The Library or Visitor Center are the only options and the spaces are very limited. It’s a short walk into town from both places.
My son and I just wanted to have a leisurely lunch and soak up a little of the Estes Park ambiance. It was busy but we found a spot along the river to eat. We had some great gourmet meatball subs at Mama Rose’s and got sit and enjoy lunch by the river.
Finding no available campground spots in Estes Park, we began our descent out of the Rockies. We headed down Route 34 following the Big Thompson River to Loveland. This is another very scenic drive.
As we made our way down out of the mountains the temperatures began to rise. At Alpine we had temps in the 40’s. When we got to Estes Park the temps were in the 70’s. By the time we got to Loveland it was over 90. At these temps, I need to have air conditioning so boondocking at Sams Club in Loveland was out of the question. I had to drive 20 miles east to Greely to find a place with an available campsite with hookups.
Our four-week Rocky Mountain High had come to an end. I like spending time up in the Rockies. I especially like the small mountain towns that haven’t become overpriced playgrounds for the rich and famous. Towns like Salida, Westcliffe, Pagosa Springs, Ouray, Ridgway, Fruita, and Rifle. Most of these aren’t tourist towns. They’re special places where people live, work, and play. Over the past three years, I’ve been able to discover and enjoy several of these nice small towns.
The Colorado mountains are a great place to enjoy the outdoors during the summer months. There’s lot to do (rafting, fishing, hiking, biking), the scenery is jaw dropping, the temperatures are cool, and there’s no traffic, no bugs, and no crowds. And, the people I’ve met have been super friendly and engaging. I guess this is why Colorado has been my summer hang out for the past three years.
I hope to return some day so for now – Hasta Luego Colorado Rocky Mountains.