Guys, I have a confession. I have not been in the right frame of mind to revisit Rocky Mountain National Park. Yes, it was the most beautiful place on this Earth I have seen until now. Yes, it was a magical day of adventure and vistas. The place is almost spiritual, with the vistas and the mounds of snow and the quiet. It was so quiet and serene. Like I mentioned last week, we came before winter had melted into spring, and we saw almost no wildlife. But it also is a very painful memory. Confusion and hurt swirl through my head when I try to put the pieces together. I tried to disassociate the memories from the place for WEEKS before I sat down to write, and it just didn’t happen. So, if you dare, venture down this aching road with me to the most beautiful place on Earth. Because I can’t not write about it.
We entered the park through the main entrance and stopped at Beaver Meadows Visitor Center on our way in for the usual—maps, fees, water. My biggest advice here is to come prepared! This is usually my strong suit, in that when I’m not at a park I’m researching them online or planning what food and gear I’m taking with me when I go. (I really love food, but nothing beats picnics. NOTHING.) I failed this time. We showed up without even two water bottles! I mean, let’s be real here. Hiking fail, big time. Please don’t be like us. Bring too much water; bring your first aids kits and your snacks and your waterproof socks.
We snapped a quick picture with the sign, a national park must in my opinion, and went on our way. Trail Ridge Road is your main drag through Rocky Mountain National Park, and reaches elevations that they do not plow until Memorial Day. Since we were there the first weekend of spring, the absolute farthest we could drive was to Many Parks Curve. We stopped for the view, but we stayed for the snowballs. I try really hard to pretend that being from Atlanta saves me from the typical southern girl stereotypes, but when faced with that amount of snow, my true Georgia peach-ness hit me in the face. I visit Chicago in the wintertime often, but that’s city snow. It has been plowed and shoveled and touched. This old, ready-to-melt mountain snow was new for me. So we parked the car and enjoyed the view, but then we ventured past the roadblock to the wilder side of Trail Ridge Road.
After a short canter down the road, we returned to the car and headed back down Trail Ridge Road to Bear Lake Road. Bear Lake Road has got a lot of stops and trailheads that stem from it, some of which were blocked due to the season. We stopped at Sprague Lake first. This trail is fantastic for families and people who may not be up for a more grueling hike, and does not lack for views. That may go without saying at Rocky Mountain though, because I never even put my camera away in the car. You can’t open your eyes without seeing something incredible in this place. The trail at Sprague Lake is a flat, leisurely 0.75 miles around, you guessed it, Sprague Lake itself. Since the trail is a loop around the lake, you don’t feel like you are really in the woods here, and you are never too far away from your car. The scenery is staggering, and I had a great time snapping photos as we strolled around. This was also the location for our one and only wildlife spotting! Geese!
At the end of Bear Lake Road, you will find not only Bear Lake, but also the trailhead toward Emerald Lake. This was where we really became one with the woods. The Emerald Lake trail takes you uphill and surrounds you with trees. My southern qualities came to light again on this trail, when we saw people hiking in snowshoes. I never even considered the thought that snowshoes were a thing south of Canada, but we sure could have used some ourselves that day. We reached the first lake, Nymph Lake, and I had to laugh because I was actually expecting to see a lake. What I saw instead was a vast snow bank, with some ice peeking through at the center. We hiked past Nymph Lake, but not for long before deciding to turn back prior to completing the trail.
Our lack of preparedness really started to catch up with us. The trail was icy and downhill on the return, and I was concerned about our ability to make the trek back in a timely manner. It was late afternoon and overcast (it had been flurrying on and off throughout the day), and I did not want to lose daylight while we were making the trek back down the trail—we were already going a slower pace than usual due to the elevation, and adding in the snowy conditions on top of that was a just cause for concern! Also, my hiking buddy had stopped speaking at this point, which was a major red flag that he was not feeling well. Besides shortness of breath, I was not seriously affected by the huge elevation change between the Rockies and Atlanta. He, on the other hand, had a case of elevation sickness, which I could do nothing about because we were low on water and I didn’t bring my daypack with first aid! He put on a good face and tried to act okay, but I could tell that he was really out of sorts, and it was actually kind of alarming. Elevation sickness is real, people, and if you’re from basically sea level like us, do your research and know the signs. We had some pretty deep conversations out in the woods that day, and I couldn’t tell you if he even remembers them because he was so indisposed. I will reiterate: come prepared!!
We stopped shortly at Bear Lake before we made our way back to the car and decided it was time to go. I was really worried for his wellbeing, so we made a hasty getaway from a beautiful place and what began as a magical day. I blame myself for my lack of forethought; our day in the park, a wonderful day almost to the end, could have been more wonderful start to finish if I had thought to bring snacks, water, and simple first aid. I will learn from my mistakes and do better at my next park visit, Mount Rainier National Park!
I will hopefully return to Rocky Mountain National Park during the summertime at some point, so that I can visit the trails that were closed for winter, and drive all the way up Trail Ridge Road. I’m sure the park is beautiful over the summer too, but something about the quiet, snow-covered mountains was truly magnificent. March was a perfect time of year to see the trails covered in snow without the weather being too severe.
I wonder, though, if I will be able to return to the park without letting the past cloud my view of this stunning place. Unfortunately, I (and I’m sure many others) have the tendency to tie people and places together in a web of memories, and it might be a while before I find the strength to face those memories again. Memories that should have been as beautiful as the place they resemble, but are now shadowed by the deep hole inside me that gets deeper every time I think about it. Rocky Mountain National Park for me is a strikingly conflicting place of beauty and pain, but holds potential. Maybe one day I will return to face myself, conquer the fear and pain, and find that piece that might begin to patch up the hole inside me.