Rocky Mountain National Park

Our last full day on vacation had only one item on the agenda, to drive around Rocky Mountain National Park. This makes something like our fifth NPS property visited on this trip, all except for Mount Rushmore being very topographically oriented. Since we’d spent an inordinate amount of time in the plains the last few days, it seemed to provide a good opportunity to balance things out if we spent our last day in the mountains, and not just any mountains but some of the biggest around.

From Longmont, the trip to Estes Park and the gateway to the National park took a lot longer than the map would indicate, but maybe after driving 75 to 80 mph everywhere for the last week, my perspective was in need of recalibrating. Mom’s Golden Age pass got us into the park for free (normally $20 a carload), which leads me to wonder what is in it for the NPS to offer those things in the first place. They signed her up for one at Wind Cave for a total of $10, and since then we figure we were able to save over $60 in park admission fees, even including yesterday’s National Trails Museum, which isn’t even an NPS property. The only place that openly snubbed it was Mount Rushmore. It would be one thing if the pass was keeping money from the hands of greedy corporations, but I almost feel guilty taking money from the park service, since you always hear about how much they need the cash. Either this is some kind of mandate that’s being forced on them (and that they’re forced to promote, which makes it seem unlikely) or they’re getting some kind of kickback somewhere down the line.

Anyway, RMNP, as the signs in Estes Park call it, was busy, but not horribly so. It’s a big place, so it seemed to have enough room to absorb the throngs of cars without turning into a rolling gridlock like Acadia does at the height of the season. It was a bright sunny day when we got there, and true to form we were done with the visitors center and ready to enter the land of no lunches just about 11:15. We primarily drove up the main road through the park, stopping at one scenic vista after another along the way, each more spectacular than the last as the altitude increased, until we finally rose above the tree line and ended up at the Alpine Visitors Center, about half way along the road. This was the one place in the park that was overcrowded, at least for the time of day that we arrived, around 1:15pm, and it took probably 10 minutes of circling the parking lot before we could snag a space and then another 15 minutes standing in line at the “snack bar” before we could snag an overpriced late lunch.

It was too far to continue all the way to the other side, so we backtracked from whence we came, taking an alternate route towards the bottom by way of the Moraine Park, and bypassing Estes Park by following a long loopy descent through huge canyons along route 7 to get back to Longmont. Just as we were leaving the Moraine Museum the daily thunderstorm caught up with us and we drove through a brief deluge as left the mountains, but by the time we got down to the plains again it had cleared up, although the sky still looked ominous. We found a place in town called Martini’s Bistro to have a sumptuous, reasonably priced dinner, and for once were back at the hotel by 8pm already fed.

Reviewing the trip while waiting for dinner, the rodeo seemed to be a big hit, although it seems a distant memory already, and everybody liked Mount Rushmore and the various wildlife we saw at the different parks, buffalo, prairie dogs, etc. This was probably our most ambitious family vacation with the kids ever, and in spite of the frequent bickering and tantrums that come hand in hand with having them so near each other for extended periods of time, I think on the whole it went very well, well enough to consider doing it again. There are other parts of the country that could benefit from doing a similar circuit, too. But let’s not rush things just yet, there’s still six hours of plane ride to get through tomorrow.