RMNP via Grand Lake, need non-hike options and how do our passes work?
July 29, 2022 8:45 AM   Subscribe

We are staying in Grand Lake in August and have obtained requisite passes for RMNP. Our group of 6 adults and two teens has 1 non hiker, a dog, and so many questions. We do know the no-dog policy for RMNP, and have passes. RMNP is huge, is there One Entrance in Grand Lake and One Entrance in Estes Park? We plan to experience both areas, and are staying near Columbine Lake. Way more below the fold, including ideas for short side trips, a birthday dinner ideas (The View?). Please help!

Our non-hiker could drop us off and stay with the dog, returning to pick us up if we knew entrance logistics, (there are 8 of us and 2 cars) but we are unfamiliar with entrance logistics and locations and know we should park inside RMNP while there is parking to be had. Help us understand what we are driving into, or perhaps wandering into as we explore Grand Lake to get our lungs acclimated?

The dog is an extremely well behaved Doberman and we don’t want to shirk appropriate limitations. Dog parent has said they are willing to stay behind, like when we are hiking Estes Park, but surely Estes is a dog-friendly town. They are from CO, so they were very surprised about no dogs in RMNP.

On to the non-hiker, a parent, we are looking for nearby options that aren’t so walking-intensive, like under a mile, so if one of the adult kids wants to spend time with them, they can sit & visit without buying a meal? Public benches in pretty places, as well as people watching, may help with context. They will likely be routinely using a cane by the end of the week.

Said non-hiker is dangerously close to seeing all 50 states. How practical is a side trip to Wyoming after hikers are underway near dawn at Estes? We plan to be off all mountains by 2/before afternoon storms roll in.

Birthday adult will be celebrated on Thursday when we’ve spent a day in Estes Park hiking. The View was suggested and it’s at the top of our price range. We have foodies, including hunters that cook game, and prefer a lighter touch. We would pass on creamy decadence or heavier entrées. Should we just stay with The View?

Finally, we are a family of geeks and love a good museum. What is worthwhile in this large area? Eclectic is great, history is too, though we’re almost saturated with mine-related places.

I know this is a sprawl of a question if you have insight on one aspect, tell me about That One Museum and skip RMNP! Typically I research all of this but July included the AC being replaced in our home, so our time has been pinched. Thanks in advance for sharing your insights and experience!
posted by childofTethys to Travel & Transportation around Grand County, CO (6 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I haven't been to RMNP since they added the pass system, but I'm about to go again, so hopefully my research can help you a bit.

There are actually four entrances to the park. Three on the Estes Park side: Beaver Meadows on highway 36, Wild Basin on highway 7, and Fall River on highway 34. On the Grand Lake side, there's only the Grand Lake Entrance on highway 34, just north of the Kawuneeche Visitor Center. The Beaver Meadows Entrance is right next to Bear Lake Road, so you'll probably end up in that area if your passes include Bear Lake access. Highways 36 and 34 meet at Deer Ridge Junction inside the park.

Speaking of passes, did you purchase one per car? As long as the first time you enter is within your reservation window, then your non-hiker can leave and enter again later in the day with one of the cars.

There's a decent amount of parking at the Beaver Meadows and Fall River Visitor Centers. Fall River is a fairly new facility.

If you head to Fort Collins from Estes Park, the town of Cheyenne, WY is an easy drive straight up I-25.
posted by neushoorn at 11:07 AM on July 29

Best answer: A day trip to Cheyenne for the non-hiker is definitely doable. The drive from Estes Park to I25 is breathtaking for most of the way, and then I25 north to Cheyenne is a bit construction-heavy now but a pretty easy drive. Total time is just under 2 hours.

Keep in mind that Cheyenne is a pretty small town. There are a few things to see, most likely, and the Capitol building (recently renovated) is easily accessible and explorable, but it might not be worth spending theee and a half hours on the road just to say you’ve been there.
posted by sesquipedalia at 3:49 PM on July 29 [1 favorite]

Best answer: So much to unpack here, but I'll lead with - I really love the Grand Lake side of RMNP and I think it's absolutely underrated. It's basically one long north-south valley along the Colorado River (these are its headwaters!) and Trail Ridge Road, which leads from Grand Lake into the park and over the divide.

There are several great nature walks in the valley. It's possible that your non-hiker would be able to do a bit of walking there - they're generally short, flat, and with lots of benches for sitting. There's a decent chance of seeing moose! For your non-hiker, there are also some nice places to sit along the lake in Grand Lake.

I don't think you asked, but if you're looking for a good hike for the hikers on that side of the divide, and you're willing to do something fairly strenuous and are somewhat experienced hikers, Mt. Ida (~10 miles round trip, 2500 feet of elevation gain [definitely hits harder at this altitude, ending at 12,889']) is one of my favorites. It's glorious, almost all above tree line, and has a lot fewer people than hikes on the other side.

Since you mentioned crossing to Estes Park a few times, I'll say that the drive over the mountains in the park is quite a trip - since some of you are from CO, I'm sure you get it, but if you're not used to it, mountain driving isn't highway driving, and National Park mountain driving isn't regular mountain driving. Roads were designed decades ago, are very twisty, and there's a non-zero chance of traffic jams caused by folks rubbernecking (justifiably so as the views are amazing, but come on, hit the gas, people!). Expect an hour to an hour and a half each way between Grand Lake and Estes Park, not including queueing to enter the park. We stayed in one of the park campgrounds on the Estes Park side and I did the crossing four times in one day once (to Mt. Ida and back, and then to the Grand Lake valley to look for moose and back, the last one at night) and it was doable but it was a lot of driving and I was beat afterward. Keep that in mind for your non-hiker going to Cheyanne and for all of you crossing back from Estes Park after dinner.

For a museum, make sure to visit the Moraine Park Discovery Center in the park. It's not so much a GREAT museum, but it's definitely quaint and enjoyable in the rustic NPS style.

Hopefully some of this is helpful - have an awesome time, and stay off the alpine tundra!
posted by Special Agent Dale Cooper at 10:04 PM on July 29

Best answer: The park is breathtaking so you will have a great time. Looking at this map, on page 2 shows Rock Cut to Toll Memorial which I believe is the highest part of the park that is car accessible. It is a easy, short walk out to the memorial where there is wrap around, 360 degree vista of peaks. Even in August there will be pockets of snow visible.

The map also shows the hike from Milner Pass to the Alpine Visitor Center. This can be a nice place to split up and let the non-hikers take the car while the hikers meet up at the visitor center.
posted by mmascolino at 6:50 AM on July 30

Response by poster: These are all very helpful responses. Non-hiker has taken Wyoming off the list of possibilities as they arrived early and the altitude has been a significant challenge, even if feeling lightheaded/shortness of breath with mild exertion abates. I promise to give a full report on our experience when we return.

We do have timed entry passes for each car, and 3 of us have National Park Annual Passes. The details about where the gates are is Very Helpful. For Adam’s Pass, we’ll use the in-before-9 option if we’re ready to hit an easier trail on our first day.

Continental Divide to Mount Ida is on the short list for a bigger hike at the end of the week. I had no idea about Rock Cut to Toll Memorial, that sounds perfect for our whole group, as the scenic drives sound amazing for hikers taking a break and the non-hiker.

We’re planning on checking out the visitor centers, and the NPS history should be great!

If anyone has more to add, please do!
posted by childofTethys at 8:05 PM on July 31

Best answer: I just spent a couple of days in RMNP and Estes Park, so I can update my answer with some more details.

First, Estes Park. I had dinner at The View and did not feel it was worth the price. The food was just average and the view isn’t all that special, especially after having been in RMNP. I ate at Claire’s Restaurant & Bar twice and loved it; it’s not a fancy venue, but the food is excellent and they have an interesting cocktail menu. They only have one big table outside (not sure about inside), so you might want to call ahead. Traffic and parking are pretty rough. The big parking lot by the library is only $2/hour but it does require walking. There are a lot of designated loading zones on E Elkhorn Ave between Riverside Dr and Big Horn Dr.

On the Grand Lake side of the park, pine beetles and/or fires have really wrecked the trees around the Green Mountain and Onahu trailhead areas. Maybe it’s better on the hikes themselves, but from the road, things look pretty grim until you get to about the Coyote Valley trailhead area.

The Bear Lake Corridor requires a different timed entry permit (https://www.nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit/timed-entry-permit-system.htm). There’s an additional checkpoint at Bear Lake Road to make sure you have a permit. There are places to do Park+Ride along the corridor and buses seem to run pretty often. A tip for the Bear Lake Trailhead parking lot: it’s one-way and you can’t make a U-turn at the end, so if you see a spot, grab it. The walk around Bear Lake itself is ~3200 feet and is super nice.

My experience with parking in the park:
- Impossible: Rock Cut, Storm Pass Trailhead, Bierstadt Lake Trailhead, Glacier Basin
- Hard but doable: Bear Lake Trailhead, Alpine Visitor Center, Sheep Lakes
- Moderate: Rainbow Curve, Gore Range, Forest Canyon
- Easy: Many Peaks Curve, Moraine Park Discovery Center, Hidden Valley, West Horseshoe Park

The snack bar inside the Alpine Visitor Center is fairly big and you can probably sit there for quite a while. The view there is incredible.

The Fall River Visitor Center is outside RMNP, about a 10-minute drive from Estes Park. There’s plenty of parking and there’s some (limited) seating outside the gift shop next door.

Dogs are allowed in RMNP, it’s just that they’re restricted to roads, parking lots, campgrounds, and picnic areas, and they have to be leashed: https://www.nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit/pets.htm

You’ll be offered a free map at the entrance and it’s worth taking one.
posted by neushoorn at 4:58 AM on August 7

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