Driving above 12,000 feet in Rocky Mountain National Park

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Before Rocky Mountain National Park, I had never driven at such a high altitude that I encountered signs warning me about the possibility of rapidly changing weather conditions. Danger? Count me in.

rockies-warning-sign

Driving Trail Ridge Road to Forest Canyon Overlook

This mountainous section of Trail Ridge Road isn’t the highest road you can drive on in Colorado – that distinction belongs to Mount Evans, a 14,000-foot peak with a road that allows you to drive to the summit. But being above 12,000 feet is still really, really high. The road is closed from October to late May, because it’s way too cold and snowy.

In the summer, though, the sun is out and everything is clear. What a view.

rocky-mountains-from-above

I didn’t experience any “rapidly changing weather,” except for fierce winds whipping the entire time I was up there. Fortunately, my Scottevest kept me plenty warm.

glacial-landscape

The best spot up there was Forest Canyon, an overlook spot with views of snowy mountains, green forests, and rocky hillsides.

rockies-landscape

One of the coolest things about Forest Canyon was the presence of marmots running around on the rocks. This guy greeted me right in the parking lot. He didn’t even flinch as I pulled up the curb just a few feet away.

marmot parking lot

The marmots aren’t hard to find. Just look closely in all the piles of rocks. And listen for the constant meeping.

marmots

I wasn’t the only one doing my best to get an up-close shot of these critters.

photographing-marmots

The Forest Canyon Overlook is a great place to get one of those “top of the world” shots. If I hadn’t been flying solo, I would have taken several (dozen) of myself on the ledges.

forest canyon overlook

Props to the few colorful plants that are able to grow in tundra conditions.

flowers-rockies

From a distance, the overlook and its tourists were dwarfed by the mountains.

mountain-overlook

For those of us who don’t live at elevations like this, seeing snow in the summer is irresistible. This family engaged in the required snowball fight. I’m pretty sure they were in an area marked “no trespassing,” but can you blame them?

rockies-snowball-fight

On the long drive back down to my campground, I passed a few elk hanging out on the hillside. I like elk a lot more than deer, because they won’t run if you stop the car on the road next to them. Instead, they stand and pose like supermodels. Work it!

elk sighting

Hiking Deer Mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park

Later, I attempted to hike Deer Mountain, a 10,000-foot peak with an easy trail to the top. Or so I thought. I followed the trail for a good hour and just when I thought I was getting close to the summit, the trail winded around the backside of the mountain and started heading down. I was so confused.

When I got back to the trailhead and took another look at the map, I realized the problem. I was supposed to branch off at a certain point, because the summit is actually not on the main trail. If only I’d taken this pic before I started the trek.

deer-mountain-trailhead-map

The problem with Deer Mountain is there are no signs anywhere! You’d think there would be an arrow pointing to the summit when the trail reaches the part where it becomes necessary to branch off. But nothing. You fail, Rocky Mountain National Park rangers. Again.

I was slightly nervous during the hike because of all the caverns and caves created by giant rocks. Mountain lions could easily be living in there.

mountain lion rocks

I have little to no fear of bears. But mountain lions terrify me. There’s no mountain lion repellant spray. Mountains lions sometimes attack rather than moving away from people. And I vividly remember an episode of “I Survived” that documented a mountain lion attack on an elderly couple in this very park. Fortunately, this hike for me was lion-free.

The sunny, summer views were worth it.

rockies-hike-view

What’s the highest elevation you’ve ever reached?

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About Scott Shetler

Scott is a Chicago-based journalist and blogger who seeks out quirky sights and awesome destinations throughout North America and beyond.

12 comments on “Driving above 12,000 feet in Rocky Mountain National Park

  1. Scott, I was right at that point in mid October! Just started writing about it on my blog. They closed Trail Ridge Road for a few days because of the snow and opened it when I arrived (thank you, Colorado!). I took a photo of that exact glacial sign, though the landscape around it was anything but green. It was a winter wonderland instead 🙂

    I didn’t see any marmots, unfortunately, they look cute! And I think that even if you looked at the map before going on your hike, it would have still helped if the park actually marked the way. Rangers or no rangers, I love-love-love this park, and your photos make me want to go back when it’s colored green as well.
    Ayelet – All Colores recently posted..Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado: The Playground of Mountains and Clouds

    • I would almost be afraid to drive up there when there’s snow everywhere. You never know when another storm could roll through! I’ll have to check out your snowy pics of the park.

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