We’ve driven by Rocky Mountain National Park so many times in our lives that we really have no valid excuses as to why we haven’t visited before. On our trip home this spring, we decided to finally take the plunge and visit the park. Most of the hotels in Estes Park were either full or didn’t allow pets, so we stayed a bit further away in Loveland for the night.
Since our years-long goal of finding burrowing owls was finally completed, we had a new goal: find a bighorn sheep. Little did we know that we would find them driving into Estes Park just before sunrise. Around a curve. In the middle of the road. This subsequently led to a small traffic jam while we waited for them to scramble up the steep, rocky slopes at the roadside.
Our morning trip into the park was just as spectacular for wildlife-watching- a tom turkey was crossing the road at the entrance sign. We learned very quickly that we should have put the camera together *before* we got to the park.
Because we had the dog with us for the trip, we were again unable to actually hike through a national park. Instead, we decided to drive the Trail Ridge Road, a 48-mile scenic drive that climbs through the park from the meadows of Horseshoe Park to the expansive alpine tundra at the top of the Rockies and winds over the Continental Divide a ridiculous number of times before descending back into the coniferous thickets of the western slopes.
One of the most idyllic areas of the park is located in Horseshoe Park. Despite the cunningly deceptive name of Sheep Lakes, we never actually saw any sheep in the area. We did, however, see ring-necked ducks, spotted sandpipers, mallards, and even Wyoming ground squirrels as they lolled about the expansive flats.
The drive to the top of the Trail Ridge Road is made all the more impressive by how many different environments it passes through. We were impressed by the amount of snow still present in June (in the vicinity of 18 feet high in some places), though the chilly melt was already starting to run across the road when we reached the treeline.
At the top of the world it seems, the mountains surround you, extending in all directions of the compass in varying hues of white, black, brown, green, and even blue where the shadows still touch. In this area, where it seems all life should stand still or descend to the more hospitable valleys, there is much to be seen- tiny flowers, marmots, pikas, even elk with their calves at 11,500 feet.
After crossing the road to the other side, we stopped for a picnic, some moose-watching, and photographing a very territorial hummingbird before heading back to the east.
On our return, just after lunch, the road was packed with traffic, and all the pullouts were full or nearly so. Because of the number of vehicles and people (and our goal to not ever drive in the dark in Wyoming ever again), we decided to continue out of the park from Sheep Lakes and drive north to Evanston, Wyoming, for the night.
We would definitely stop through this park again, perhaps to hike up the Fall River Road once it is re-opened. Despite the mid-summer heat and humidity at lower elevations, it was still quite cool at the level of the tundra, which made a good windbreaker or jacket necessary even in June. And hey, we have a continued goal: now that we’ve seen bighorn sheep, we need to get a picture of them. One day!