The Stairmaster of Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park

Summer Vacation 2020 – The “Are We There Yet Chronicles?”

When my family lived in Wyoming, we spent every Thanksgiving driving down to Fort Collins, Colorado to visit my mom’s aunt and uncle and other family members who lived in the greater Denver area. Part of that yearly trip included a drive in my great-aunt and uncle’s RV up into the mountains for the yearly post-Thanksgiving Day parade in Estes Park. The trip was always bitterly cold, required multiple layers, and usually included a reward of hot chocolate for making it through the experience without too much whining.

Then when Jeff and I drove out to Denver the summer before we got married, he and his older sister Kristen took me on my first ever real camping trip. I had camped a couple times before but never enjoyed it or appreciated all the ways that camping could enrich my life.

We drove up into the Rocky Mountains almost immediately after we arrived in Denver after driving through the night. While the decision was far from wise (after all, altitude sickness is a thing), I fell in love with camping and was finally able to share my love of the Rockies with my fiancé in hopes that he would someday agree to move with me to Colorado, a move that still hasn’t happened in nearly 19 years of marriage.

But despite that camping trip and living so close to Rocky Mountain National Park during the five years I lived in Wyoming with my family, I had never actually been in the park. When I made the vacation plans before COVID-19, I knew that we would need two days in the park to do what we wanted to do without overdoing it.

After we arrived in Estes, parked the camper, and set up camp, Kristen (who had joined us for the duration of our time in Colorado) and I drove to the entrance to get maps and Junior Ranger books for the kids. It was too late in the day to explore the park but we stopped at the visitor center and gift shop immediately outside of the park and picked up the books and the sticker stamps for our passport books. (And seriously, could there be anything more 2020 than a generic sticker stamp that reminds you that you visited the parks sometime during the most confusing year of your lifetime, so far?)

With most national parks going through a phased re-opening, we had to accommodate for the plans that the popular summer destination had put into place, which includes a time entry so they can 1) avoid handling any money or credit cards, 2) limit the number of visitors, and 3) stagger the visitors that do come to the park before 5:00 in the evening.

We had a 10:00 pass but didn’t get into the park until after 10:30, which was still pretty good for our whole family. The Bear Lake parking lot was reportedly full, so we parked in the park and ride and took the shuttle to the trailhead at Bear Lake. We were admittedly a little nervous about being in a closed space with strangers, but the park officials are currently working hard to limit the number of people in each shuttle and repeatedly emphasizing the importance of wearing a mask.

When we got to the trailhead, we had to make a decision. The Bear Lake trail was immediately to our right and a short half-mile hike around the whole lake. The hike we really wanted to take (Nymph Lake to Dream Lake to Emerald Lake) was 1.8 miles the other direction. We decided to take the longer hike first and do what we could of Bear Lake when we got back.

It was a wise decision.

The hike up to our destination was one long climb.

We stopped along the trail to sip water and take pictures, the kids becoming suddenly enamored by the chipmunks that run up and down the trail. We first reached Nymph Lake, 0.5 miles up the trail. I took pictures and then we continued on our way towards Dream Lake.

As we turned the bend around Nymph Lake, we got our first up-close look at the snow that still remained in the mountains, even in late June. It helped that the mountains had recently gotten dumped by another snowstorm that only appeared to benefit us over a week later. We were nearly to Dream Lake when our son announced that he was done and ready to head back.

We hadn’t seen the second of the three lakes and he hadn’t had a chance to play in the snow. Clearly, he needed a small snack to keep him going.

A rest and a snack at a waterfall and we were good to go. We came across a large patch of snow right next to the trail and we gave our two Texan transplants a chance to relive just a small piece of their early childhood by encouraging them to play in the snow.

Then we continued to Dream Lake, a huge body of mountain water surrounded by snow drifts that continued to entice both of our children. Neither kid wanted to leave the snow, so Kristen agreed to stay back with the kids and play in the snow while we continued on to Emerald Lake.

The hike to Emerald Lake was beautiful, full of waterfalls and climbs over snow drifts that still covered the path. It was also an unforgiving straight climb up. We climb stairs of stone, stairs made with timber beams, and rocky dirt paths that went nowhere but up. And we were doing this at an elevation at least 7,000 feet above our normal lives at sea level in Houston, Texas.

It was Jeff who decided, on our last leg of the hike after we had left the kids with Kristen, that this was the “Stairmaster of hikes.” I believe that says a lot about how he was feeling by the time we reached the back edge of Dream Lake and began our ascent to Emerald Lake.

But we pushed on. When we finally reached the top, we found a beautiful, peaceful lake surrounded by mountain peaks and snow.

sarahstyf | Accepting the Unexpected Journey

By the time we returned to our kids and Kristen, they were in the middle of their own version of Fruit Ninja but with snow and they had made a friend with a squirrel who our 9-year-old son declared he had a full-fledged conversation with. We continued our hike down the mountain, which went much quicker than the way up, made a stop at Bear Lake, and then waited in a long, socially distanced line to get back on the shuttle to return to our truck.

We capped the night off with pizza in Estes Park and ice cream from one of the two ice cream shops where Kristen had found Blue Moon, our son’s favorite ice cream flavor and a flavor that we have never been able to find anywhere in Texas. We almost beat the rain but eventually got stuck inside for the rest of the evening because of a powerful mountain thunderstorm that came out of nowhere. So normal Colorado weather.

The hike into the mountains and past three beautifully unique lakes was a reminder of the awesomeness of creation and a peaceful respite from the outside world. We may have returned home exhausted and ready to crash, but it was worth it for the time together without outside distractions.

We were just going to need some time to recover.

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