Rocky Mountain National Park Colorado Snow!

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We really weren’t expecting snow on this trip.  I mean, September 30???  Snow???

Driving from Mesa Verde to Rocky Mountain National Park was tough on our RV.  The roads were  steep, “Awesome” was really straining sometimes. The view was really beautiful.   Then we had the wind. The forecast called for gusts of up to 75 miles per hour and we reached our KOA campground in Estes Park, right outside Rocky Mountain National Park,  just in time.  Even though we were protected by trees and other campers, the wind still rocked the RV.  Dan decided not to use the pop outs that night.  The next morning we still had wind, and storm clouds were gathering over the peaks in Rocky Mountain National Park. 

Our plan was to enter the park, and drive across Trail Ridge Road.  Trail Ridge Road was 8 miles across and  11,000 feet high  connecting the east side of the park to the west side.  It’s highest point was 12,183 feet.  With the winds, the coming storm, we knew this was not a job for “Awesome”.  Fortunately, nearby we were able to rent a very small car.  We  loaded up with drinks, cameras, snacks, and as we found out later, not near enough warm clothes, and headed into the gathering storm.

The roads inside the park are very well marked and maintained. It was easy to find our way.  First stop was the Ranger Station to pick up the Junior Ranger books, and watch a movie about the park and the building of Trail Ridge Road.  It was amazing to me that this road was started in the 1920′s.  How in the world did they have the equipment to do that??   Driving through the park we stopped at a turnout to watch a large herd of Elk, lounging in a beautiful meadow, below a snow kissed peak.  The road climbed quickly, and as it did, the sky got darker and the wind stronger.  Suddenly, the snow came, gently at first, then harder and harder.  Dan pulled the car onto an overlook and  we all got out to see the “view”.  The wind whipped the snow harshly into our faces, making it VERY cold and VERY hard to walk.  We loved it though!  We laughed, jumped up and down to keep warm, and the kids tried to catch snowflakes on their tongue.  Growing up in the midwest, sometimes we would get an early snowfall at Halloween, but snow in September?  Incredible!!!  When we couldn’t bear the cold any longer, we raced as best we could against the howling wind back to the car, laughing all the way.  Along the way we passed a group of young Asian tourists, laughing and enjoying the snow as much as we were. 

The higher we went, the harder the snow came down.  The wind grew stronger and the snow was really starting to accumulate.  We had reached the highest spot, 12,000 feet and we could barely see the road.  I kept telling Dan we needed to turn around.  Not only could we not see, there was a real danger of us getting to the end of Trail Ridge Road (we were almost there), the Park Rangers closing the road and not letting us go back.  If that happened, we would have to drive south, through the west side of the park, then head east, then back north to Estes Park, probably about a 4 or 5  hour drive.  Since it was nearly 4pm now, that would not be a fun time.  But where to turn around?  It was impossible to see.   We couldn’t see if anything was in front of us, or coming from behind us.  One side of the road was the top of the ridge, the other was a sheer drop off.  Good times!!!!!! Thankfully the car was small, and didn’t need much room. Dan took a chance and in a very long 5 point turn, had us heading back down the mountain. As we hit the lower altitudes, the snow turned into rain.   Later, we found out that at 4:00pm that day, Trial Ridge Road was officially closed for the winter. 

We spent the rest of our time in the park at the lower altitudes. There was plenty of see. elk, ealges, and a beautiful lake.  We spent a day in Boulder and found the best bookstore we have ever been in.  It was a local place called Boulder Bookstore and had 4 floors of books, used and new.  We were in heaven!  

Our campground was closing for the season in a couple of days, (another thing we hadn’t planned on) so we knew we had to reluctantly move on.  We spent another day driving through the park and watching the elk.    This was peak mating season and we were warned again and again to stay away from the elk.  For the first time we were able to hear their mating call.  What a surprise.  The sound was a high pitch bugle, followed by a series of yips.  During the “yip” part, the male Elk urinates on himself and that attracts the females.  Go figure.  Tristan and Tessa finally finished their Junior Ranger book, and after some serious quizzing by the Park Ranger, they received their 4th badge. 

With the winds staying high, we decided not to visit Pikes Peak (14000 feet) and instead headed straight for another tourist area, the Royal Gorge.

Grand Canyon

 

elk    We travelled 2 days, spending the night in a Bakersfield California RV Park, and a Williams Arizona KOA, just outside of the Grand Canyon.  We woke both mornings to a very cold RV, 55 degrees inside the first morning and 64 degrees the next.  It was time to use the furnace at night!

We pulled into the Grand Canyon late morning on the 21st.  Our first order of business was getting a campsite at Mathers campground inside the Grand Canyon, on the South Rim.    Luckily, we got the last spot, and it was a tight fit.  It had no hookups, but that was fine.  We were just happy to have a space.

After getting the RV set up, we walked through the campground and up the road a bit to catch the shuttlebus.  The Grand Canyon, like Yosemite, had a free shuttlebus that would take you throughout the park.  We stopped first at the Visitor Center so the kids could get the information on how to become a Junior Ranger.  The Junior Ranger program was basically the same as Yosemite, fill out the booklet, attend a ranger led program, and answer some questions.  There were two programs we really wanted to attend, the Ranger Walk around the rim, and the Condor program.  Both were later in the afternoon, giving us some time to walk the rim of the Canyon ourselves.

Ok, to say we were underwhelmed at first, by the Grand Canyon, would be an understatement,  I’m not sure what we were expecting but this wasn’t it.  For one thing, it seemed very commercial,  Whereas at Yosemite, the park services and lodges were discreetly mingled into the background, here they were front and center.  Mostly the reason was  there were no tall pine trees here to block them out.  The foliage here was the small Juniper shrubs, and whereas in Yosemite we were in the Valley, here we were on the top or the rim.  Yosemite had a lot of visitors too when we were there, but you didn’t really feel it.  Here you couldn’t avoid it.  It was very nice to see all the international travellers.  We couldn’t be sure of all the nations represented but Japan, Germany and Italy definitely had strong showings. 

Around noon, when the sun was overhead, not casting any shadows or depth, we had our first view of the canyon.  It seemed just alright.   Not amazing.  We tried different overlooks and had the same reaction.  Not bad but not great.  Maybe it was us.  At 2 pm we went for our Ranger walk.  Our ranger was good.  He led us on a short rim walk, talking about the birds of prey in the Grand Canyon.  As he talked, we were treated to Peregrine Falcons darting overhead. and an occasional red tailed hawk.  During the walk/talk, he told us to be aware of the elk in the park.  It was mating season and the elk were very unpredictable.  There were signs all over the park reminding us to stay 45 feet away from the elk, and he said it was very important to keep our distance. Fine.  I was really interested in seeing a bear, an elk?  Not so much.

After our rim walk, we hurried over to the Lookout for the Condor Talk.  California Condors are very rare and while they have been reintroduced into the Grand Canyon, they still aren’t often spotted.  During the ranger program she talked about the efforts to save and reintroduce the birds back into the wild.  With 5 minutes left in the program, as if on cue, a lone condor flew over our group.  We didn’t have time to get a picture, but we consider ourselves very lucky to see such a large graceful bird in the wild.

The kids finished up their ranger books and we headed to the Visitor Center for them to be sworn in and receive their badges.  After that we decided that watching the sun set over the Grand Canyon might be worthwhile.  We were right.  We sat at the Lookout and watch the sun’s dying light cast purple and red shadows on the rocks, highlighting a few deep canyons we hadn’t seen before.  The Canyon really needs the play of light, highlighting certain nooks, giving depth to the deepest areas, and illuminating the colors in the rocks.  Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay until dark, as our campground didn’t have lights, and our campsite was a fair walk from the shuttle bus stop.  Without sunlight, or a flashlight, we would never find it, so reluctantly, we headed to the shuttlebus stop.

Sitting, waiting for the bus, Tessa was sitting across from me.  All of a sudden she looks behind me and yells “Elk!”  I turned around, and sure enough, coming well within the recommended 45 feet safe zone, was a huge, male elk.  I had never seen an  elk in the wild before, and was just amazed by this one.  He walked only about 15 feet away from us, coming up from the parking lot below, heading to the grass near the lodge and bus shelter, stopping to graze on the green grass.  He was huge.  I imagined an elk would be very much like a big deer.  There was no comparison.  The size was one thing, but how he carried himself was another.  He walked calmly by us, head up, proud, his eye on us the whole time.  He wasn’t a bit worried about us, he wanted us to know we needed to be worried about him.  An elk’s antlers can weigh up to 30 pounds, and you could tell how heavy and powerful his neck was as he carried his head high.   I have really never been so in awe of a wild animal.  As he grazed, people got as close as they dared for pictures.  We watched him for a long time until our bus came and took us back to our campground.

It was warm enough that night that we were able to eat our dinner outside on the picnic table.  Dan built a fire and the kids roasted marshmallows.  The campground was so dark, we were able to get a great view of the Milky Way.  The kids and Dan went inside first, and I stayed outside watching the sky.  Soon it was too cold, and the dark campground was making scary noises, so I started to head in.  As I came around the front of the RV, I heard a noise, and scared myself, sure a huge elk was hiding in the trees.  Later inside the RV,  it was so quiet.  Too quiet.  Tessa, glanced toward the closed shades and said  “I saw some kind of light or something go by.”

I looked at her.  Tristan looked at me.  Our imaginations started running wild.  I was thinking of all the scary movies I had seen of people in the woods.  Dark nights, no lights, no one around, suddenly…….  BANG! BANG!  There was a loud knock on the door.  The kids and I nearly jumped out of our skin. 

“Dan,” I nearly screamed, “Some one’s at the door!”

Dan who had been in the back, watching something on his computer, walked to the door, looking at us like we were crazy.  It was a park ranger.  First, she informed us that we couldn’t run our generator because it was quiet hours.  (Yes, we noticed the quiet!)  Secondly, we had left our fire outside unattended.  As she said this, her hand reached for the gun on her hip and she said to Dan “Just give me a reason”

Sorry.  She didn’t say that.  She just told him to turn off the generator and not to leave a fire unattended.  Still, it was scary.  You know, people ask me all the time, don’t you get scared out on the ocean?  Your out there, in a strange country, maybe by yourself in a dark cove, aren’t you afraid of pirated?  I can honestly say, that doesn’t scare me.  I have been much more afraid inside the RV.  I guess because on the boat, we are as much outside as inside, even at night. In an RV, once you go in, everything is shut up, the doors, the curtains, you kind of cocoon.  Even though we sleep with the windows open, still we are locking ourselves away from the outside and that I think makes you more afraid.

Anyway, we made it through the night, woke up early and went for a short hike down the trail leading into the canyon.  We didn’t go very far.  On every trail are warnings telling you not to try to hike to the bottom and back up in the same day.  So far this year they have rescued nearly 300 hikers who have tried.  We just wanted to be able to say we went on a trail, so about a quarter mile down was enough for us.  The early morning light did change our opinion again of the Grand Canyon.  It was beautiful, and I’m glad we saw it, but I don’t feel a need to ever go back.  We hopped back into “Awesome” and headed to Sedona.

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