Rocky Mountain Sunsets; Wildlife and Wildfires; Hidden Valleys and Rainbow Roads;
We needed to drive roughly two hours east to the Grand Lake entrance on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park from Steamboat Springs. We climbed nearly 10,000 ft as we drove through Rabbit Ears Pass, and on the other side, more smoke came into view layered behind the distant ridgelines.
Nearly 45 minutes later, we approached the familiar sight of Granby, Colorado. Visitgrandcounty.com describes this mountain town perfectly, "nestled in the majestic Rocky Mountain Valley at an elevation of 7,935 ft, surrounded by Rocky Mountain National Park with breathtaking views of the Continental Divide, Granby, Colorado is in the heart of something truly grand."
When my cousin and I made our first trip to Colorado in January of 2019, we drove from Steamboat to Granby. We stayed there for two nights while we shredded the Winter Park Resort. Ironically, we were closer to Granby Ranch, which has its own ski area. Below is the highlight video from our two days of snowboarding at Winterpark!
Becca and I were excited to explore Rocky Mountain National Park for a day. Still, as we neared Granby, we were also getting closer to what we later found out was the Cameron Peak wildfire. The Cameron Peak wildfire had started hours earlier. I immediately thought our trip to the Park might be in jeopardy.
Rocky Mountain National Park
We finally made it to the Rocky Mountain National Park entrance, and not a minute too soon. Rocky Mountain National Park was established in 1915 and encompassed over 250,000 acres. One of my favorite parts of the Park is the infamous Trail Ridge Road, which covers 48 miles from the Park's western entrance at Grand Lake to the eastern hall at Estes Park. Trail Ridge Road opened in 1932 and is the highest continuous paved road in the United States. It remains one of the most popular attractions here, according to National Geographic's "Guide to National Parks of the United States."
After entering the Park at the Grand Lake Entrance, we began our Rocky Mountain National Park tour via Trail Ridge Road. Within a few minutes, we had climbed from roughly 8,000 ft in elevation to over 10,500 feet. The mountainsides were blanketed with Douglas Firs and Lodgepole Pines, among other conifers.
Cameron Peak Wildfire
We had not entirely escaped the clutches of the Cameron Peak Wildfire. As we embarked above the tree line for the first time, it was as if we were now driving in the sky. We began the ascent to Alpine Visitors Center, which sits at 11,796 feet above sea level. Along the way, we decided to stop at a pull-off along the Medicine Bow Curve and take a few pictures of the wildfire. The Medicine Bow Curve was a gnarly switchback but provided for one of the Cameron Peak Wildfire's closest views.
Alpine Visitor Center
After taking in the sights of the wildfire, we continued our ascent along Trail Ridge Road to the Alpine Visitor Center for a hike up to 12,005 ft! Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, the Visitor Center was closed, so we grabbed some water and my camera gear and began the climb to the peak. Upon reaching the top, we came across some National Forest employees who were monitoring the fire's progression.
After learning that wildfires can be healthy for the environment since they can help prevent the overgrowth of trees and create a new and more vibrant ecosystem, I was curious about the National Parks methodology for fighting wildfires. Among others, their primary objectives in wildfire management deal with saving human lives and cultural resources. On this particular day, the wind was too strong to use aircraft to attempt to extinguish any of the fire. I'm incredibly grateful for all of the National Park and National Forest employees/volunteers that dedicate their lives to keeping these areas accessible and safe.
Elk on the Mountain Tundra
As Becca and I were catching our breath as we approached the parking lot, we turned around. We spotted this pretty lady roaming across the mountain tundra. The North American elk were once prominent in the area that is now Rocky Mountain National Park. But as manifest destiny reared its head, many were hunted, and according to the NPS, there were little if any that remained in the area by 1890.
The NPS states that the removal of predators, such as the grizzly and grey-wolf, paired with "hands-off" management of elk, helped achieve record numbers of elk in the late 1990s. Today, the NPS goal with regards to elk management is to "maintain a more natural population of 600-800 elk in the Park's low-elevation valleys during the winter."
Seeing an elk at this elevation was pretty incredible! This far above the tree line, the grass is about all the vegetation there is for this cow.
Gore Range Overlook
Our next stop was the Gore Range Overlook, where the Never Summer range never looked better! Well, that probably was not true, but either way, I was excited to see the legendary never summers. My cousin DJ has ridden a Never Summer snowboard since he got it new in 2016, so to be all the way out in Colorado and see its namesake was pretty surreal.
Hidden Valley from Rainbow Road Overlook
Continuing from the Gore Range Overlook, we drove on Trail Ridge Road's long stretches that were essentially going peak to peak. We even crossed the highest point of TRR at 12,183ft (3,713m)! My next stop was something that I had researched as being the right spot for astrophotography, so I wanted to see what it had to offer in sunset lighting. It was a beautiful summer evening as the sun was mountain tops were peaking out of Hidden Valley. I think being an eagle would be the most relaxed animal. Being able to just fly above the treetops through this valley and range would be the most incredible sensation.
We continued driving down Trail Ridge Road, which led us around Hidden Valley and down towards Beaver Ponds. However, I decided my best bet with the fleeting sun was to turn around and head back towards Forest Canyon Overlook. I had merely driven by it earlier on my way to Rainbow Road Overlook. Still, as Forest Canyon Overlook was facing west, I thought it would be a great place to capture the sunset.
Sunset at Forest Canyon Overlook
The sunset was breathtaking. Evenings are special to me on any given day, but when you are chasing them from peak to peak, it was an intimate game of hiding and sought. I would pull over at an overlook to snag some pictures, and it would sink further down. I finally arrived at Forest Canyon Overlook, eager to get my equipment and go. Becca was not feeling too great and decided she would lay in the 4runner and watch it from there. To be honest, applying in the 4runner is sometimes the best seat in the house, especially the way that wind was blowing.
According to the NPS, Rocky Mountain National Park's August 2020 visitor totals were down 30% from the previous August, which is reflected for every month of 2020 since March. Nonetheless, I kept my distance from the crowd of people down at the overlook.
Thank you for taking the time to read about my journeys! It's been such a thrill to travel to all of these incredible destinations and can't wait to share more of my exciting adventures :)
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