Things To Do Outside Denver Before I'm Dead
September 14, 2018 12:34 PM   Subscribe

Next week, I have two free days starting in the Denver area, and I'd like to explore the Rocky Mountain National Park. My main interests: viewing stunning wilderness and sensible solo hikes. Is there a tourist-friendly loop I could drive? I was thinking Denver - Loveland Pass - Aspen, but Google Maps suggests heading back to Denver along the same roads, and I'd like to get a change of scenery if possible.

Bonus question. Given that I have two nights outside Denver, what towns should I stay in? I'm not much of a camper.

Thanks in advance!
posted by roger ackroyd to Travel & Transportation around Colorado (14 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Estes Park seems like an obvious choice, except that there's no loop involved. Denver to E.P. and back is just the single route, or was a few years ago at least. I don't know if anybody would suggest solo hiking even on the more civilized side of RMNP, though.
posted by Flexagon at 12:56 PM on September 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: We did a week at RMNP last year and stayed in Estes Park. The hike to Emerald Lake is a great "bang for your buck" hike. It's pretty close to the park entrance, 3.5 miles/2-3 hours round trip, you see three lakes and a bunch of great scenic viewpoints, and it's well-trod so even when you are alone you are not properly alone.

For scenic drives, it's not a loop but the drive on Trail Ridge Road from Estes to Alpine Visitor Center is pretty great, and if you have time you can take part of it on Old Fall River Road. I loved driving it: it is a crazy one-way climb on a gravel road that is 11 miles long. Speed limit is 15 mph and some of the views are really stunning along the way.
posted by AgentRocket at 1:07 PM on September 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Um, do you mean, Denver - Loveland (the town) and . . . ? because Denver to Loveland Pass (which is outside of Silverthorn/Frisco) to Aspen is going away from RMNP, not towards it.

A really simple loop would be Denver to Estes Park (via either Loveland or Lyons), stay in Estes one night, go over the Divide and stay in Grand Lake the next night, then come back to Denver via Highway 40 through Winter Park/Berthoud Pass, then hit I-70 back to Denver. Staying in Grand Lake would also allow you to experience Kawuneeche Valley near sunset, when you have a great chance of seeing a lot of elk and moose! (For sensible solo hiking, I think that part of the park also has a lot of options, too.) If you don't want to go over the Divide, you could drive up through Loveland, then come back via 7 through Allenspark and end up in Lyons, Boulder, or continue south in Nederland to end up outside of Golden. (That's a lot of forest driving though - the route Winter Park would be much more open.)

It's hard to suggest a hike without knowing your experience level, but there are lots of good options. The best option, though, is to talk to a ranger when you're there, who can suggest routes knowing the current weather/trail conditions (it's that time of year to be wary!) and get feedback from you about what you feel comfortable doing. Just remember to carry the 10 essentials and let someone know your plans.
posted by barchan at 1:14 PM on September 14, 2018 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Also, one of the things I like about Grand Lake is if you stay near the marina there are literally hikes you can get to by just walking to the North Inlet Trailhead.
posted by barchan at 1:16 PM on September 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: We took a really nice hike in Estes Park with our kids several years ago that we still talk about, Gem Lake. It's not actually a lake at all, more like a pool of water in a beautiful rocky amphitheater, with great views along the way.
posted by ceejaytee at 1:21 PM on September 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

Best answer: If you really do want to include Aspen and make a loop, without going back the way you came from RMNP, you could go on to Buena Vista, maybe stopping at Mt Princeton Hot Springs before taking Hwy 24 on to Colorado Springs (great views of the other side of Pikes Peak) and then back up I-25 to Denver. Or not going quite as far as Colorado Springs, but taking Hwy 67 from Woodland Park back towards Denver. I liked that road a lot when I used to ride a motorcycle. Even with a couple of days, this seems like a lot of miles. Mountain driving can be pretty slow.
posted by danielleh at 1:25 PM on September 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: To clarify, I'm open to all reasonable itineraries. I sort of randomly selected Aspen and Loveland Pass as destinations while looking through earlier AskMes.
posted by roger ackroyd at 1:31 PM on September 14, 2018

Best answer: Even with a couple of days, this seems like a lot of miles. Mountain driving can be pretty slow.

This. Not only is mountain driving slow, driving in the park itself is very slow because the speed limit is 25-35 mph in most areas. Driving up any of the canyons is going to be slow, and driving over any of the passes will be slow. And it will be slow whether or not you're experienced driving in the mountains because of the other drivers/tourists/gawkers (moose jams!). If you're happy with spending your whole time in the car because what you really want is to see a lot of Colorado, going to Aspen (for example) is doable and fun, but driving is pretty much all you'll be able to do. But it sounds like you want to a more active visit, and see some wilderness, not highway, so may I suggest just sticking to the RMNP area (or any area that floats your boat)? It's my favorite time of year to visit the park - fewer tourists, the aspens are starting to change, and the elk are starting to bugle. I'm biased but I'd encourage you to take your two days and experience it. :)
posted by barchan at 2:04 PM on September 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

Best answer: My hiking buddy and I did 12 days of hiking in the Colorado Rockies in late July / early August. We started in Estes Park (4 nights) and did several hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park.

We did the following:

Colorado River Trail to Lulu City and back. Technically, this is an easy trail with elevation gains / losses of no more than about 500 feet.

Location in park: West side; from Estes Park take Trail Ridge Road up and over the Continental Divide.

Glacier Gorge Trail Head => Loch Vale => Bear Lake Trail Head. Technically this trail is moderate compared to Colorado River and you do pick up altitude, but for a fit person happy in his or her hiking boots, it is a nice workout with lovely scenery. (There is no fall-off-cliff-potential exposure risk.)

Location: Main part of the park; parked at Park and Ride and took the bus to/from the trail heads. Note: the park was jammed when we were there so the bus made sense; parking at the trail head itself required getting a very early start and my hiking buddy is a lazy bastard, so that option was a no-go.

Long's Peak Trail to Chasm Lake and back: This trail is a steady somewhat steep uphill climb along a flank of Long's Peak with a pickup in altitude of roughly 2,500 to 3,000 feet. (I'd consult my topo map to give you more precise information but I lent it to a neighbor currently in Colorado.) But I loved this hike: great views and a great workout.

Location: Trail is accessible from Ranger Station lot off Route 7 on east side of the park south of Estes Park.

Flattop Mountain Trail to summit and back: a nice up and back hike of 6-8 miles round trip with about 2,500 to 3,000 feet of elevation change (if memory serves).

The first time I hiked this one some years back, the weather changed, and we turned back just above the tree zone when we heard thunder. All holy hell broke loose when we hit the tree line, and instead of your basic 15-20 minute thunderstorm, the storm lasted the full hour and half it took for us to descend. Two snowballs-worth of hail collected on the back of my pack, and it took 2 days for my boots to dry out (the boots were waterproof, but my water resistant but not waterproof pants wicked water to my socks and into my boots (but the structural integrity of the boots was unaffected)). This remains the funniest thing that has ever happened to me on a hike, although it must be said that my hiking buddy (former alpine / mountain climber) was not amused.

Location: Trail from accessible from Bear Lake Trailhead.

Parking: for trailheads in the main sections of the park (Trails to Lock Vale, Flattop Mountain above), I almost always park at the Park and Ride and take the bus. The Colorado River Trail and the Longs Peak Trail (the flank we did) require driving to the trail heads.

That all having been said, there are loads of lovely trails in RoMo that range from the easy to the not so easy. Check with the rangers, get a map and always be mindful of the weather especially above tree line.

Have fun!
posted by cool breeze at 2:19 PM on September 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

Best answer: My in-laws live near Boulder and I have done good portions of barchan's itinerary with them — and I think it's the best bang for your buck. It's all spectacular and, though a decent amount of driving, broken up so that you could drive in the morning / explore in the afternoon or vice versa.

Also, if you do go, Estes Park is a ridiculous tourist trap but also somewhat charming and make sure to buy ALL the candy.
posted by dame at 2:21 PM on September 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone for these helpful answers! Each "best answer" can be cashed in for a beer should we ever cross paths in real life. (Barchan, please call a designated driver.)
posted by roger ackroyd at 4:56 PM on September 14, 2018

Best answer: You can drive the Trail Ridge Road and return in 1 day. Amazing views, literally into other states, ridiculous elevation, cross the Continental divide a couple times. Doesn't matter that it's not a loop, the views are great in both directions. This time of year, elks are looking for love (wookin pa nub) and will be bugling, bellowing, and making a spectacle of themselves. As with every Nat. Park I've visited, rangers will be able to help you select trails and see whatever's cool when you're there.
posted by theora55 at 7:44 PM on September 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

The beer offer is sweet, but your location is notable not populated in your profile. hmmmmm /smiley
posted by theora55 at 1:27 PM on September 16, 2018

I live in Colorado. . . and oh I know how to handle my beer! hahaha On a serious note, if you feel wary about hiking alone or just want company, hit me up in MeMail! (And don't worry if you might be slow or if the altitude change might affect you because I have knees that get angry easily.)
posted by barchan at 3:21 PM on September 16, 2018

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