62 Parks Traveler started with one simple goal: to visit every US national park in one year. Avid backpacker and nerd Emily Pennington saved up, built a tiny van to travel and live in, and drove off. The parks as we know them are changing fast and she wanted to see them before it was too late.
Pennington is back on the road and is committed to following CDC guidelines to keep themselves and others safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. She visits new parks and closely follows best safety practices.
In Rocky Mountain National Park, I had one thing in mind: Alpine lakes. With a brief amount of time to explore one of the country's most popular parks, I made my visit a quest to discover as many shiny sapphire camouflages as possible during my stay.
Home to 147 lakes, 450 miles of creeks, 355 miles of upgraded hiking trails, and 124 named peaks, this outdoor mecca is a huge playground for die-hard mountain addicts looking to make a vertical profit and top it off with a dip in the freshness of snowmelt.
I heavily armed my partner Brian to get up extra early for an hour's drive from Boulder, Colorado. Our mission was to snag a coveted parking lot near Bear Lake and hike the most popular trail in the park, a 3.5 mile walk to Emerald Lake. At 8:30 a.m. the path was already full with day trippers sliding over the steep June snow without a microspike in sight.
It was a far cry from the idyllic scene I imagined when elves fed me grapes while I basked in the sunshine on the edge of a remote mountain lagoon. Annoyed, I packed my things and trudged back my way.
Next on my list was Mills Lake in the park's Glacier Gorge. While Brian was napping in the van, I refilled my water bottle and set off with the ambitious goal of speeding the 5 miles on my own in just two hours. It was time to burn some rubber.
My boots crunched as I climbed and hopped past thundering Alberta Falls to avoid mashed potatoes in the late season. Although I ran fast on a tight timeline, the lake itself kept me on my tracks.
As a lifelong hiking lover, I can safely say that this trail was one of my top 5 of all time. To my left Longs Peak and its craggy fingers, called the Keyboard of the Winds, jutted straight into the clouds, while Chiefs Head Peak, an imposing granite slab on the horizon, dominated the other half of my view. I could easily have stayed and stared until dark, but I was expected in the van again.
Day two would be different. Armed with a map, a Kindle, and a backpack full of snacks, I got up early and drove through the sweet morning light of Moraine Park, past piles of moose and wild turkey. My goal? Fern Lake.
I hiked through a charred fire zone from Fern Lake Fire 2012, over a wooden bridge and past a roaring waterfall that sprayed cool mist on my cheeks. When I reached the gently flowing waters of the lake, I was prepared for ultimate relaxation. I ate a huge lunch, took off my boots, and spread like a cat in the sunlight in the grass near the shore.
After three hours of carefree mountain bliss, I felt brave, so I undressed and jumped into the freezing water, sending a shock through my system that covered my whole body with goose bumps. Then something remarkable happened. Other people hanging around the lake jumped in too, screeching and laughing at the biting temperature. It was like loudly and publicly giving the excuse to others in the wild to do the same, and it was a pretty epic way of ending my sea search.
The first was too full, the second too fast, but this one … this one was spot on.
62 Parks Traveler Rocky Mountain Info
Size: 265,769 acres
Place: Northern Colorado
Created in: 1915 (national park)
Best for: Hiking, mountaineering, fishing, rock climbing, scenic drives, waterfalls, and wildlife viewing
Before you go: The northern part of the park is currently closed due to forest fires. Before you visit, check the National Park Service website for updates.
When to go: Due to the large differences in altitude, the weather in Rocky Mountain varies greatly. Summer (37 to 71 degrees) brings the best temperatures and the largest crowd, while spring (16 to 53 degrees) and autumn (18 to 61 degrees) are quieter and more suitable for exploits at lower elevations. Winter (11 to 31 degrees) is cold, but great for snow sports. (The reported temperatures were measured at Bear Lake Ranger Station at an altitude of 9,583 feet.)
Where to sleep: If you're staying in Boulder and want to indulge yourself, the St. Julien is an eco-friendly boutique hotel that's worth it (starts at $ 232). Enjoy wellness treatments after the hike and an incredible view of the Flatirons from your balcony. If you're on a budget and want to stay in the national park, Rocky Mountain has plenty of reserve campsites. The Moraine Park Campground, however, is characterized by its frequent moose sightings, year-round availability, and expansive views of the neighboring high peaks.
Mini adventure: Hike from Bear Lake to Emerald Lake. Go very early to avoid swarms of people and enjoy a stroll through a thick pine forest that spits you out at the base of the impressive alpine circle of Hallett Peak. Keep an eye out for sneaky marmots.
Mega adventure: If you are looking for a strenuous hike and a close look at Longs Peak (the only fourteen in the park), Chasm Lake is a fantastic 8 miles day hike. At 11,823 feet high, the trail offers visitors a great opportunity to explore subalpine and tundra zones.
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Main photo: Emily Pennington
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