Estes Park, Colorado: In Search of a Rocky Mountain High

Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park. Sprague Lake. Photo by Linda Ballou
Sprague Lake. Photo by Linda Ballou

When I crested the bluff overlooking Estes Park, the sun pushed away the gray that had followed me all the way from Denver (an hour away) to reveal blue bird skies. Estes Park, Colorado, that sweet mountain town guarded by 14,000-foot peaks of the Rocky Mountain National Park, rests in a cleft carved by the Big Thompson River.

I was drawn here by the vivid descriptions of this magical realm by Isabella Lucy Bird, a 19th-century English explorer, writer, photographer, and naturalist who journaled her stay as she rode 800 miles solo on her trusty mare Birdie in 1873. Her book, A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, gives unique insight into the Colorado of the past.

Estes Park, Colorado

Today, Estes Park is a bustling tourist town filled with mountain kitsch, outdoor gear shops, singing cowboys, and a few good eateries. A delightful park cooled by the spray of the Big Thompson that runs through the heart of town is a welcome stop.

Estes Park is a haven for hikers who want to know the beauty of the ethereal high country. People of all shapes and sizes line up for shuttles in town and in the park that take them to well-marked trailheads.

Estes Park. Alberta Falls. Photo by Linda Ballou
Alberta Falls. Photo by Linda Ballou

What to Do in Estes Park

A local woman told me the hike to Loch Lake was the best one for me—a fairly fit boomer. I had planned on staying at lower elevations, but not wanting to miss out on the full-tilt Rocky Mountain experience, I set my sites for the glacier-fed lake.

I hopped off the shuttle at the Glacier Basin stop. I was told that the Bear Lake stop will take you to the lake as well, but that it is a more difficult approach. The first leg of the inviting path took me over a footbridge crossing a chuckling creek lined with lush grasses and fern fronds. A stair-stepper climb later found me at Alberta Falls.

Energetic water charging over immense boulders carves a gorge framed in orange rock formations striated with mineral deposits. Once the territory of gold seekers, hunters, and cattlemen, Rocky Mountain National Park (established in 1915) is preserved for all of us to enjoy. Young couples with baby carriers on their backs to seniors with walking sticks shared the beauty of this bright day in late June.

The intoxicating air, the promise of more solitude, and the mystique of the crystalline alpine waters pulled me up the canyon. The altitude was affecting me, so I took many rest stops beneath shady Ponderosa pine or the spinning leaves of aspen trees.

The mountainside trail that led to stunning vistas of granite precipices overlooking the river was lined with a profusion of wildflowers: lavender lupine, fire engine red penstemon, and yellow wallflower to name a few.

Yellow Lupine at Rocky Mountain National Park.
Yellow Lupine at Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo by Linda Ballou

I was getting quite tired when I ran into the woman who had recommended this trail on the way down from the lake. She was leading a hiking group from Germany.

“Am I almost there?” I asked hoping she would tell me to throw in the towel and go back down to the safety of lower elevations.

“You are just three switchbacks away. Don’t give up.”

“It’s worth it,” called a beaming German lady marching briskly down the rock-strewn trail.

Now I couldn’t turn back without reaching the promised nirvana.

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