It was the morning of September 17th 2019 when I departed the busy city of Denver to head north-west to Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP).
During my planning of the expedition earlier and knowing that I would be in Colorado for some time, I knew that RNMP was on my "must visit" places. Given the timing though I didn't know exactly when I was going to be there.
This left me with only one option, a first come first-served campground in the park. After doing some quick research on the park website I discovered that Timber Creek Campground was the only first come, first-served campground open during my stay. So I made the slightly longer drive to Grand Lake, CO, which is closer to the Timer Creek Campground than driving through the park on the east side.
If you're planning a trip like this, I would highly suggest the "NPS Visitor" and "NatGeo Trails Illustrated " map layers in Gaia GPS.
I arrived at the campground at around 5 p.m or so. Plenty of time to make camp and explore the campground. The campground does sell firewood on site. I believe it was $6 or $8 per bundle, you may bring your own if sourced from approved local sources. The campsite is now $30 per night, but has restrooms and water (seasonally).
Tonight's dinner was some lemon pepper chicken with a side of rice and beans. One of the benefits of overlanding is being able to bring along heavier equipment, tonight's dinner was cooked in my amazing 8" Lodge Cast Iron Skillet. Cast iron is amazing since you can pretty much cook with it over anything.
As I was finishing my dinner, a gentleman that I had interacted with upon my arrival to the camp had approached me again, he and his son were going "hunting" but not in the sense of what you normally assume. Loaded with a couple cameras they wanted to go see if we could "shoot" some elk. We could certainly hear the bugling nearby so we knew the elk would be close. I jumped at the chance to go, since the man had said they come here every year around this time, I certainly trusted their judgement on what the elk where doing (Note, I've never hunted before so I knew nothing about the habits of elk).
We set off on a small trail that led out of camp and came to this small stream.
Not two minutes later we turned a corner and spotted a cow elk, just staring at us around 200 feet away across the field.
She took off, down the field to a fence line that the forest service had put in, needless the say, the elk didn't car and came and went as they pleased. We cautiously and slowly followed to see if we could spot any others. Sure enough we got a glimpse of a bull elks antlers above the fence.
We decided to head back to camp after this encounter, it was getting late and dark and we didn't want to be caught out in the fields after the sun set. Making it back I enjoyed the families company for the remainder of the evening before I decided to call it a night.
I woke up the next morning and snapped this photo of the sun kissing the tops of the mountains from the inside of my tent.
Not more than 10 minutes later I was getting ready to climb out of the tent when I noticed something incredible.
The herd of elk had wondered into camp. Most of everyone else was still sleeping. I couldn't believe it!
Someone must have spooked them because shortly after this they ran to the left and across the road up the mountain.
Trail Ridge Road
For the rest of the days adventure I decided to travel the rest of Trail Ridge Road. This road is pretty much the main road through the park, as far as east to west travel is concerned. It gives some wonderful views of the differing ecosystems in the park from the lower mountain forest to high forest and eventually alpine wilderness.
There are a few spots where you can pull off and at this one I was able to capture the view looking back towards camp. You can spot the campsite near the middle of this photo.
Here's a collection of a few other photos I snapped on the drive up to the Alpine Visitors Center.
At the very top of the mountain on Trail Ridge Road is the Alpine Visitor Center for the park. Here you can get some pretty impressive views and see the high alpine / mountain tundra wilderness.
Below are a couple shots I took from the overlook at the visitors center. If you look closely at the 3rd photo you may see a heard of elk. Hint: Follow the grey line down the mountain on the far right.
Old Fall River Road
If you have a paper map of the park or the NPS Visitor layer on Gaia GPS you may have noticed an alternate route to the Alpine Visitor Center. Old Fall River Road, which is a one way, maintained, dirt road that will take you up next to Mount Chapin to the visitor center. The road is only open from early July to September and is around 9 miles long. There is also a small pull off and parking area for those that wish to stop up and hike the Chapin Creek Trail.
The easiest way to access Old Fall River Road is to enter the park from the east, coming through the Fall River entrance station on Highway 34. The weather was a mix of sun and rain the entire time I was there and the road was wet, but more than manageable. I saw probably every type of vehicle make this trek, so don't be shy to take this back road on your adventure!
Rangers do patrol this road and offer advice and small bits of knowledge if you ask. They will also help if in the unfortunate event you have a breakdown here (which I laid witness too). A tow is pretty expensive too, since they have to haul you up to the visitor center and then back down to town.....
The road follows a route traveled long ago by Indian hunters, who came to the park area in search of its abundant game. Early in the trip, travelers pass the alluvial fan scoured out by the 1982 Lawn Lake Flood and the site of a labor camp that housed state convicts who worked on the road project. For these men, crime did not pay. The laborers were forced to build the three-mile stretch of road to the scenic respite of Chasm Falls with no more than hand tools at their disposal.
Source: RMNP NPS Website
You can see from my (mostly) unedited photos, how quickly the weather changes here. Clouds were rolling through all day. Initially starting my drive up Old Fall River Road was blue, dark, and cold feeling (it was a little chilly out) but as I made the summit the sun managed to peak through and bring a little color out. If you're in no rush to get to the Alpine Visitor Center I would highly recommend taking the extra time to drive this route.
The Last Night
Then, almost as quickly as it started, my time in the park was coming to an end. Since the next day I needed to return soon to the city to meet another friend that was joining me for more adventures. Once again the family that took me "hunting" the night before had invited me out again.
Then off in the distance the other gentleman I was with (equipped with a pair of binoculars) spotted this elk out across the field from us. I quickly zoomed my camera lens as far in as I could and could only capture this image:
After staring us down, the elk headed off to the right. Once we returned to camp it was confirmed that the elk had made its way through camp quickly to the other side.
These photos are the sole reason I went and upgraded my camera lenses after this camping trip. After these encounters I knew I wanted to capture more wildlife photos and have better gear to shoot higher quality.
This wrapped up my last night "hunting" at RMNP. The next day I returned to Denver to cat sit for friend for a couple nights and then my other friend was driving to Denver to meet me and start our next leg of the adventure. Soon we would be traveling Black Bear Pass, Engineers Pass, and then westward to Utah.
These adventures where amazing and I can't wait to share them with you! If you're not already, consider subscribing to the newsletter. Subscribers get emails with new posts and content as soon as I hit the publish button. It's completely free, but if you enjoy my work you can upgrade to a paid subscription to support me!
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