When I decided to visit Denver, the mile-high city, I expected to see forests, rivers, and snow-covered mountains, but I was disappointed when I landed.
At first glance, Denver looked like any other major city in the USA, with urban sprawl, a city center with tall buildings, and a sprinkle of parks.
But my disappointment was short-lived as I explored this beautiful city and the Majestic Rockies, a short drive away.
You can read more about Denver here, but this page is dedicated to the splendor of The Rocky Mountains National Park.
The park spans the Continental Divide and encompasses protected mountains, forests, rivers, lakes, and alpine tundra.
The park's mountains, alpine lakes, forests, and wildlife offer a wide range of activities and adventures for Denver area residents and visitors alike.
While at the park, you can enjoy hiking, fishing, rafting, a trip on the highest paved highway in the US, gazing at the snow-covered mountains, hunting, or skiing.
Many mountains in the park soar to an elevation above 11,000 ft, and the highest one, Longs Peak, reaches 14,259 feet.
When visiting a new place, I rely on local expertise to help me discover and explore. To experience the Rocky Mountains, I went with Aspire Tours from Denver.
Right away, I could tell that I had made the right choice. The check-in process was a breeze, and the vans were high quality with large windows – with a max of 16 passengers.
The meeting point was in front of Union Station, so I arrived early to enjoy breakfast at Snooze, which was delightful.
From the start, our guide Ty, kept us informed and entertained with his explanations of terrain, people, and history.
As we approached our first stop, the town of Lyons, he explained that the Denver area's environment is high Desert Prairie or High Plains, where short grass grows and small animals roam.
The stop at Lyons was mainly to collect lunch and water for the tour, but we also enjoyed coffee and pastries at Moxie Bread Co.
Lyons is famous for its sandstone quarries, a major source of sandstone bricks for many cities in the USA for a while. Nowadays, Lyons's claim to fame is the gateway to the Rocky Mountains National Park.
As we approached Estes Park's next stop, Ty regaled us with Rattlesnake Kate's story. Kate had ridden to a pond with her 3-year-old son, Ernie, to gather wounded ducks from hunters so they could have them for dinner. She encountered 140 Rattlesnakes and had to shoot her way through them. Read the full story here.
As we climbed through the national park on Highways 36 and 35, the scenery started to change, and the temperature began to drop.
We climbed from Denver's 5,280 feet elevation to 11700 feet at the Alpine Visitor Center, and the weather changed from a hot 93 degrees to cloudy with some rain and finally to a thunder snowstorm at the top.
The dramatic change in weather impacted our planned tour, but the tour guide and driver were flexible enough to give us alternate experiences.
To me, the experience of a thunderstorm with snow was worth the change in plan. If given a chance, I would have voted to spend more time at the top to run around under the deluge.
After a picnic lunch, a hike at Sprague Lake, and a visit to Estes Park, we returned to Denver. On the way back, Ty, our guide, offered recommendations on places to visit and the best restaurants in town.
I enjoyed my discovery time with Aspire Tours and would recommend this tour to first-time visitors to the Rocky Mountain National Park.
Highlights of the tour
Wildlife along the way
After reaching the top and turning back, we encounter a large elk feeding along a creek. Everyone stepped out of the van to take a closer look and selfies with an Elk, except we had to keep our distance.
The male Elk was alone, a rarity, as they usually graze as a herd.
Interesting facts: Only male Elks have antlers, which grow in the spring and drop each winter. Antlers can grow up to an inch a day.
Later, at a large meadow, we spotted a large herd of Elks near a watering hole.
Known as the base camp for Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park offers park visitors a last chance to shop for essentials or grab a meal.
You can go hiking, cycling, rock climbing, and whitewater rafting from this small town. You can also join a guided tour into the Rockies.
Interesting Fact: Many towns in the Rocky Mountains are named "Park." We learned that the "Park" identifier in a name indicates that it is a valley formed by glaciers.
On the way back from our tour, we spent some time on Elkhorn Ave downtown, home to unique shops, restaurants, and coffee shops, with a mile-long Riverwalk Behind the shops. It was cold with a drizzle but much better than the storm at the top.
Interesting Fact: The Stanley Hotel on Estes Park Lake inspired Stephen King's horror novel "The Shining".
The hike along the riverwalk was beautiful and refreshing, but You can take the trail around Lake Estes for a longer hike.
For stunning views of the valley and the mountains, take the Aerial Tramway, which whisks you above the treetops to the summit of Prospect Mountain.
Around lunchtime, we stopped at this scenic lake for a picnic with stunning views of the snowcapped mountains.
The lake is located on the south side of Glacier Creek, about two miles south of the Hollowell turnoff.
The area is named after Abner Sprague, who started a homestead there in 1874. Later, he opened a lodge for dude ranching, hunting, and fishing. To improve the fishing, he dammed the far end of the lake.
While our guides were preparing our lunch, we went on a half-mile walk around the lake, which is wheelchair-accessible.
The hike features boardwalks and bridges with Flattop Mountain and Hallet Peak views.
It is also popular for Brook Trout fishing and fly fishing.
Interesting fact: In 1919, at the Sprauge Hotel, guests paid $6.00 per room with a private bath and $1.00 for regular meals. The hotel, which no longer exists, stood near the present-day parking lot.
Trail Ridge Road
The Trail Ridge Road is the 48-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 34 that traverses Rocky Mountain National Park from Estes Park, Colorado, in the east to Grand Lake, Colorado, in the west.
Together with the connecting 6.9-mile Beaver Meadow Road (U.S. Highway 36), Trail Ridge Road forms the 55-mile Trail Ridge Road/Beaver Meadow National Scenic Byway, an All-American Road.
With a high point at 12,183 feet elevation, Trail Ridge Road is the highest continuous paved road in North America.
Bear Lake was not on our itinerary, but it is a major destination at the park and worth mentioning here.
It is a large, beautiful lake with great views of Hallett Peak and the Continental Divide and a trailhead for seven hikes of varying degrees of difficulty.
The lake was formed during the ice age by a glacier. Several moraines can be found downhill from Bear Lake.
The National Park is a hiker's paradise with plenty of trails to choose from. Some of the most popular trails are Emerald Lake, Sky Pond, and Chasm Lake. You can find more trails here.
Rocky Mountain National Park is spread over 415 square miles (265,807 acres) and encompasses a spectacular range of mountain environments with lakes, rivers, meadows, and high peaks.
To experience this massive park, you need to plan ahead. Visitors have to have a timed entry reservation or a camp/lodge reservation to enter.
Go here to make a reservation. While here, you can also purchase annual passes.
During peak season, parking may become difficult at the most popular spots, so consider leaving your car behind and riding the shuttle. The park shuttle starts at Estes Park, and you can visit your favorite places. Go here for more details.