Adventure Team | Aug 4, 2021
Jodi is an Information Technology Director based in Ohio who loves to travel, hike, and have adventures when she's not working. She has hiked the Salkantay Trail to Machu Picchu, explored Golconda Fort in Hyderabad, and stood inside the circle at Stonehenge. Due to her friendship with several Seven Corners employees, she has used their insurance products to protect her and her family.
State and National Parks and Monuments offer an amazing opportunity to experience the diverse geological features of the United States, from mountains to oceans, deserts to rivers. Jodi has hiked a number of these locations, this year, however, she decided to undertake a roadtrip out west, seeing the country and experiencing National Parks the way her family used to when she was a child. Here is her story....
Why a National Parks roadtrip? Nostalgia is the short answer, I suppose. As a kid, these were our most common family vacations – throw everyone into the car and go visit some of our country's most beautiful and diverse scenery. We packed the cooler and a bunch of snacks, camped or stayed in cabins, and visited different parks each year. With four kids, it was a cost-effective way to have a summer adventure.
Planning this trip as an adult, I wondered if it would live up to the memories. I decided to travel in May, before Memorial Day, as it would be less busy with most kids still in school but I'd hopefully already missed the coldest weather. I packed a bit of everything, from shorts and sandals to rain gear to the down coat and hat; given that mountains were involved and weather is unpredictable, I wanted to be prepared for every contingency. I also threw a bear bell and bear spray into the car, just in case.
While I had originally planned to camp, my Dad recommended against it. He sent me articles about the amount of snow still falling, low temperatures, and high water levels due to snow melt. Taking his advice, I switched from campgrounds to hotel rooms (this ended up being a smart move). Thanks to my friend Kim, a Seven Corners employee, I also took the Adventure Team flag on this roadtrip adventure with me.
Early in the morning, I threw the food into the car and hit the road. Going solo had some advantages over our childhood trips – I had control of the music, nobody was touching me, and I could stop whenever I wanted. The first big nostalgia moment was eating my sandwich standing up at a rest stop picnic table, because I'd already been sitting for too long. After an overnight stop in Kansas, I made it to Estes Park, Colorado the next day, despite encountering crazy traffic around Denver.
Estes Park is just outside Rocky Mountain National Park, the first stop on my list. I headed into RMNP in the morning, stopping at the Visitor Center for info on trail conditions. I was surprised to hear that the Trail Ridge Road was still closed for the winter, so I wouldn't be able to cross the Continental Divide over to the west side of the park. Also, there was a 5-6' snow pack on the trails in the Bear Lake area, my first planned stop. I should have packed my snowshoes! Undaunted by a little snow, I drove to the Bear Lake parking lot and joined a handful of other folks also gearing up to hit the trails. The funniest scene was a group of four young ladies who had evidently never encountered vault toilets. There was a lot of squealing, “Eww!” and “But where are the REAL bathrooms?!” involved. A few more experienced hikers and I smothered our grins and moved past them to the trailhead.
I was hiking the trail to three lakes, Nymph, Dream, and Emerald, which is rated 'easy' per the park information. An easy trail in the mountains, however, is not the same as an easy trail in the midwest! Between the snow and a starting elevation of 9,500', easy was not the word I would have chose. The air temp was in the 50's, so the snowpack was soft and slippery. A couple of the climbs were challenging,mas you would take a step up and then slide part of the way back down. One gentleman I met described it as “walking through a Sno-Cone” - an apt description. But it was definitely worth it, as the views were stunning.
Nymph Lake was first, a small lake that was still frozen and surrounded by trees. The trail continued past it, heading up to a great overlook with a view back to Nymph Lake below and the mountains around, then going on up to Dream Lake. Dream Lake was my favorite! The view of Hallet Peak, the rocky mountainsides, and the trees reflected in the shallow end of the lake, where the ice had started to melt. A couple filled their water bottles from that icy pool, while another rested on sun-warmed rocks nearby. I headed along the lakeshore, following the trail on to Emerald Lake.
The climbs here were steeper, and at one point, my left leg fell into a crevasse. After I levered myself back up onto the snowpack, I found that there was a boulder buried in the snow below and it was melting around the rock's edges. Luckily, I had good hiking boots and no injuries, so I pressed on. I passed a group of men, three of them complaining about wet bottoms, having wiped out trying to come back down the hill in the snow. I had been warned. Another couple I passed, the woman sat and slid down the hill, figuring it was safer than trying to come down on foot. Following that final climb, it wasn't much further to Emerald Lake, which sits under Tyndall Glacier. It was frozen but appeared to be carved right out of the mountainside.
Heading down the way I'd come, yes, I too ended up on my backside en route to Dream Lake. Once I'd fallen, I just went with it, sliding the rest of the way down the hill. At Dream Lake, I availed myself of the sunny rocks for a bit of a rest and to dry out my pants. There seemed to be more people heading up the trail than when I'd first gone that way, so it seemed that afternoons were more popular than mornings. This supposition was confirmed when I made it back to the Bear Lake parking lot, which was almost full. I chuckled to myself that there was now a line for those vault toilets, got back into my car, and headed to the Wild Basin area.
Wild Basin is still part of Rocky Mountain National Park but you have to actually exit the park and drive around it to get there. It was about 8,400' elevation, so there was no snow other than some patches here and there on the hillsides. Unfortunately, they still had winter restrictions in place, so I couldn't drive all the way to the trailhead. This impacted my plans to hike to the Calypso Cascades, as it was almost a mile and a half from the parking area to the trail start, so I wouldn't make it all the way there and back. I set out for Copeland Falls, hiking along a river that I think is called St. Vrain Creek. I saw one gentleman fly fishing in a calmer area but most of the water was rushing by pretty quickly.
The trail was mostly flat and was packed dirt, a nice change from the earlier snowy climbs. There were a few other cars in the parking area but I only passed a couple of people heading back as I was going out. It was much less populated than the main part of RMNP, which was kind of nice. Once I finally got to the trailhead, I could tell that the rangers hadn't done their spring maintenance yet; there were several trees down across the trail that you had to go over, under, or around. I expect that those would likely be cleaned up before the start of summer visitor season. Copeland Falls is split into two, Upper and Lower. I started with the Lower Falls, which was nice and full of snow melt, but I'm glad I saw the Upper Falls second, as it was definitely the better of the two.
After enjoying the waterfall, I started the return trek to my car and headed back to Estes Park. It had been a long, fun day of adventure but I wanted a shower and dinner. Plus, I had to get ready to hit the road again in the morning, heading to Great Sand Dunes National Park. Yes, there are evidently sand dunes in Colorado – who knew?!
Up early and back on the road, I'm once again confronted by traffic around Denver. This time, I-25 is actually closed due to an accident and then traffic remains heavy for a long time. Why is everyone in Denver driving south on a Saturday morning? Finally, after Colorado Springs, things thin out a bit and I'm able to make normal freeway speeds, but I've lost an hour and a half that I'd planned to spend hiking.
Pulling up to Great Sand Dunes National Park, I'm surprised that there's a line to get in, which takes about 15-20 minutes to get through. Luckily, I have a National Parks Pass, so I got waved onward or the wait would have been even longer. Again starting with the Visitor Center, I confirm that all the trails are open and that Medano Creek is nice and full with spring runoff. I also learn that these are the tallest dunes in North America and, with an elevation of 8,300', there is no snow. Due to the time lost in Denver, I switch my plans from the High Dunes Trail to the shorter Montville Nature Trail. It includes aspen forest, which always makes me happy, a creek, rocky terrain, and desert brush, with a view of the sand dunes in the distance. That mile packs a lot of biodiversity!
Next, I head to for the Dunes Overlook trail, which starts at the end of the campground. It was a great hike, walking in sand through desert-like landscape but with mountains and the sand dunes also present. It was almost surreal in its combination of terrains, so much variety in one place. I had the whole trail to myself, didn't see a single person along the way, but sadly, the noise from the campground was carried to me by the wind the whole time. I'm all for kids having fun and being loud outside but I expect the scenery would have been even better with quiet as well as solitude.
I'll admit that I added Great Sand Dunes National Park to the list mostly because I was going to drive almost right by it, so why not stop. It ended up being one of my favorites and I wish I'd had more time to spend there. But I could see storm clouds forming over the mountains and I had a long drive to my stop for the night in Cortez, CO, which is near Mesa Verde National Park. Given the uncertain weather, I scrapped plans to visit Zapata Falls just outside of GSDNP, although it is supposed to be beautiful in the spring.
The drive to Cortez was an adventure in and of itself. Although lightning bolts flashing against the mountains are pretty, I could have done without the rain and sleet. Driving through Wolf Creek Pass, at almost 11,000' elevation, I crossed over the Continental Divide. There's a ski resort there that evidently gets the most snow of any resort in Colorado; Treasure Falls, which was in beautiful spring rush form; a tunnel through the mountain; and a single-lane road through the canyon due to construction.
I was glad to reach my hotel and even more glad that I'd listened to my father, as I would not have wanted to be setting up my tent in the dark, fighting with a fire to cook dinner, and sleeping in the rain. Between traffic and weather, the drive time estimated at 8 ½ hours had turned into 11 hours and I'd had to cut short my planned time in GSDNP accordingly. I guess that's part of the roadtrip adventure, adjusting to things that don't go as planned.