Introduction to Rocky Mountain National Park, Part 1

Rocky Mountain National Park is the gem of the Colorado Rockies. The Park spreads out on both sides of the continental divide and its mountainous terrain can be seen from the eastern plains of Colorado to the deserts of Utah. In the winter it’s massive summits are covered with up to 20 feet of snow, in the summer it is one of the best wildflower viewing areas in the Rockies, and in the fall there are tremendous displays of quaking aspen. As a result, Rocky Mountain National Park offers some of the best hiking, climbing and scenery in the American West.

Since I wrote this article while I was still a landscape photographer, it includes directions for finding and photographing some of the best scenic locations in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Long’s Peak can be seen from almost anywhere in Rocky Mountain National Park

There are several parts to Rocky Mountain National Park. The western part of the park near Granby and Shadow Mountain Lake is a good place to see Elk and to walk less crowded trails than those found in the busier parts of the park; the western side is very beautiful, but not as spectacular as the more famous eastern side of the park. The western and eastern parts of the park are connected by Trail Ridge Road which is one of the most famous mountain roads in the world. Here the high tundra areas are resplendent with high altitude flowers in mid summer. Near the middle of Trail Ridge Road, just east of Iceberg pass, a mass of lichen covered rocks called the Rock Cut offers a great view of Long’s Peak. This view of Long’s Peak framed in the Rock Cut at sunset is one of the classic views of Rocky Mountain National Park and one that makes a great photograph. 

The Mummy Range area is on the northern side of the Park and contains a huge area of lonesome trails as well as completely trail-less regions; it is a great place for the adventurer who wants to get away from the crowds. 

The Long’s Peak area lies in the south-east part of the park and can be accessed from highway 7; the main attraction here is climbing the Keyhole Route on Long’s peak which hundreds of stalwart hikers do every summer.

Even further south is Wild Basin which provides access into the Thunder Lake area, yet another great place to get away from the thousands of tourists that throng the park every summer; here one can visit some of the most beautiful lakes and streams of the Rockies. The cascade to the left is in Wild Basin.

However, the best known and most spectacular part of Rocky Mountain National Park is the Bear Lake area which is the subject of this article. I shall return to the other areas of the Park in subsequent articles.

Most people enter Rocky Mountain National Park through the Beaver Meadows entrance which is just west of the little town of Estes Park. After you pass though the entrance station, the turnoff for Bear Lake Road is about half a mile down the main road. In the first mile or so of Bear Lake Road there are a couple of horseshoe curves that take you down into Moraine Park, the valley below. Between these curves, before you get down into Moraine Park, there are some great views of Long’s Peak and the Front Range. Most people whiz right past this spot but it is a good place to return to later for a bit of photography. This is actually one of the very best places to photograph Long’s Peak in the park. This is mainly a long lens (telephoto) shot, even though mid range lenses also work well here. The view can be very spectacular at dawn with the first red rays of the sun on Long’s Peak. I have taken some very nice panoramic shots of the Front Range from this spot at dawn. This shot is definitely best in the morning. As a bonus, in June it is usually possible to find some very nice wildflowers in the area to the right of the highway just before you reach the valley floor; if you search around a bit, it is possible to use these flowers as foreground for shots of Long’s Peak.

Sprague Lake with Duck. Hallet peak in the background.

The next stop is Moraine Park, which is a great area. It is always full of elk and other kinds of wildlife such as coyotes and deer and Canadian Geese and fox. Mornings and evenings are the best time to see wildlife here and September, when the elk are in rut, is one of the best seasons. One September morning, before dawn, about eight or ten years ago, Joan and I parked at the entrance to Moraine Park to photograph. It was a beautiful, foggy morning and the meadow was filled with hundreds, possibly thousands of elk. Each of the bulls had his own harem and they moved in and out of the fog, bugling their challenges to each other as we walked down through Moraine Park. It was a truly magical experience walking through the fog, listening the elk bugling, feeling the presence of the thousands of huge creatures just out of sight in the surrounding fog.

When we visit Rocky Mountain we always stay at the campground at the western end of Moraine Park Road. This is a great National Park campground: the camp sites are quite far from each other for the most part and there are great views from almost anywhere in the campground. We always select a campsite somewhere on the outer edge of the campground. In the evening we always sit in the dusky light and watch the elk as they move down from the timber, where they often spend most of the day, and move out into the valley to feed and drink. We have spent a lot of memorable evenings watching the elk move around us as evening falls and the quiet deepens and the stars come out. Another magical experience.

There are a number of good hikes that begin the in Moraine Park area. The Fern Lake Trail heads west up the valley into the mountains. It is possible to make a round trip by beginning on this trail which runs alongside the Big Thompson river and then coming back via the Cub Lake trail. It is also possible to continue on the Fern Lake Trail to Odessa Lake and even Bear Lake for a really long hike. I prefer to start this hike at the Bear Lake end however. There are a lot of good trail guides to the park available at any of the visitors centers or on Having one of these will greatly enhance your visit to the park.

Elk Yearling emerging from Sprague Lake

One of my favorite places for taking pictures in Moraine Park is at the far east end of the valley. Go back out to Bear Lake Road again and turn right. Between here and the bridge over the Big Thompson river, there are a number of nice spots to shoot Moraine Park with the river in the foreground and the Front Range in the background. One of the nicest spots is on a little side road that dips into Moraine Park very slightly and then crosses over an old bridge. The shot up the valley from this bridge is really quite good. This is where the picture to the right was taken. It is also possible, if you arrive at dawn, to take pictures of Elk in the foreground and the front range in the background, all with the first rays of the morning sun warming them.

A bit further up the road is the Glacier Basin campground on the left and across the road, on the right, the huge parking lot where you can catch the shuttle bus to Bear Lake. In the full summer season, between early June and Labor Day, you cannot drive your own car up to Bear Lake, you have to ride the shuttle bus. This is a real bummer if you want to do some dawn shooting or early hiking further up in the Bear Lake basin. Fortunately there is a way around riding the bus: just get up early and drive past the bus station and on up the road. If you do this early enough in the morning, at 5 or even 6 AM, you should have no problem. It’s possible that this may be forbidden in the future, but so far, in my experience, it has worked just fine.

Rocky Mountain National Park is full of beautiful steams and creeks

The next point of interest is Sprague Lake which is accessed on a road off to the left. This lake is, in my opinion, probably the best single shot in Rocky Mountain National Park. Park your car in the parking lot, walk around to the other side of the lake and use the lake as foreground and Hallet Peak as background. There are all kinds of great spots to shoot from all the way around the eastern side of the lake and including the far south end of the lake. Good foreground includes shoreline grasses, reeds, logs, stumps, rocks and the water all by itself. The very best time to take this picture is at dawn when Hallet Peak will often light up a rosy pink color. However, I have shot here in the late morning and even the afternoon with wonderful results. Don’t miss this spot even if it is just to walk around the lake. There is nothing quite like waiting for the sun to rise behind you and slowly light up Hallet Peak and the Front Range. Since the vast majority of tourists don’t get up early, you are very likely to have the whole spot to yourself or maybe share it with one or two other photographers. The silence is pristine, you will probably see a muskrat or a beaver or ducks in the lake, and the reflections are magnificent. Even though I have all the Sprague Lake Dawn shots I will ever need, I seldom fail to do the dawn shoot ritual at Sprague Lake whenever I am in the park. Both the picture above and the one below are of Sprague Lake.

Longs Peak, meadow and Branch

It is hard to find a parking place in the next piece of road so I usually make my next stop the parking lot at the Glacier Gorge Trailhead. If you plan on getting a parking place at this trailhead you need to be there by 6:00 AM at the latest in the summer and fall. There is a reason for this congestion. This is one of the premier trailheads in all of Rocky Mountain National Park. If you happen to oversleep a bit and there are no parking places left, don’t worry. Just drive on up to Bear Lake and park in the large lot there. There is a short cut-off trail which begins on the lake side of the parking lot which will take you back down to the Glacier Gorge Trail.

Head up the Glacier Gorge trail which will soon be following right alongside Glacier Creek. There are several nice shots to be found in this very scenic stretch of creek. It is especially nice in the autumn. In a half mile or so you will come to Alberta Falls which is shown in the picture below. This is one of the most picturesque and photogenic waterfalls I have ever photographed. It is particularly nice in late September when it is surrounded by some of the best fall aspens you will ever see. One of the problems is that this place is always mobbed with people; however, if you left very early in order to get that parking spot at the trailhead, there will be no problem, you may be the only one at the falls. As a matter of fact, getting started on all hikes in the Park at dawn or before is always a good idea. There are lots of good reasons for doing this: you can find a parking place, you don’t have to take the shuttle bus, you are mostly alone on the trail, the light is perfect for pictures, you are walking at the very the best time of day and best of all, you get to feel quite virtuous for getting up so early.

The Rock-cut and Longs Peak from Trail Ridge Road

Don’t get right back on the trail after shooting or admiring Alberta Falls. Climb around the falls to the top and then follow glacier creek directly above the falls. Hardly anyone goes up here, but this little stretch of river is incredibly scenic. There are wonderful aspens, smaller falls, beautiful cascades, and gorgeous pools that are full of floating aspen leaves in the autumn. I have taken a number of pictures in this spot that I have been very pleased with.

Get back on the trail. A little further up is the North Long’s Peak trail which goes over Granite Pass to eventually connect with the regular Long’s Peak trail to the Keyhole. I haven’t been on this end of this trail yet but it looks like a long, steep, grueling, wonderful hike that I want to do someday soon before I’m too old to do it which I’m sure will be very soon.

At the next branch in the trail you can go left up to Mills Lake or right to the Loch, Lake of Glass, and Sky Pond. Andrews Glacier is also up this way. I highly recommend the Mills Lake hike, there are so many great scenes up there your mouth will practically water. It is a fairly steep hike up but very much worth while. The outlet stream of Mill’s lake is very pretty also. The picture with the red bush on the left further up on this page was taken there. If you have any energy left after the hike up to Mills lake, continue on up the Glacier Gorge trail to Black Lake which is also very scenic.

The Loch / Sky Pond branch of the trail is very rewarding also. All of this county is classic high Rockies country that will take your breath away. The last time I was up to Sky Pond was almost twenty years ago, in late September. I can still see scenes of tundra and black rock and moss and shimmering tarns reflecting the sky and most of all, small russet and red bushes and golden grasses that make me wish I was right back there this very minute with camera in hand. That feel of crisp autumn air and the late afternoon light and those russet bushes and golden grasses is one of my strongest memories of the Colorado high country, one that I am sure will be with me for as long as I live. It is great country, especially in the fall. After dredging up these memories to write this article, I’m thinking I’m going to have to hike up there again this fall before I’m too old to do this hike again also.

In the next part of this introduction to Rocky Mountain National Park I will continue this article by writing about the best scenic areas and trails right around Bear Lake itself. If I have space I’ll also try to finish talking about the rest of the places I like on the eastern slope of Rocky Mountain National Park.

Horse Shoe Valley with the Never Summer Range in the background
Unfortunately winters are no longer cold enough to kill pine beetles in the Rockies. The sight of beetle killed pines are now common in Rocky Mountain National Park. The above scene is on Trail Ridge Road.

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