After a 3-day stay in Grand Junction, we headed to the no-man’s land along the northern borders of Utah and Colorado for Dinosaur National Monument – if you know someone who is obsessed with dinosaurs, this place is worth the trip. We then spent a comfortable evening in the town of Craig before spending 2 days/ nights in the realm of Rocky Mountain National Park, a splendid gem of high-altitude beauty that attracts an enormous amount of visitors – almost enough that it can impede on appreciating all that there is to be seen.
- Day 1: Drive Grand Junction to Dinosaur National Monument; stay in Craig, CO
- Day 2: Drive Craig, CO to Rocky Mountain National Park (west side); stay in Estes Park, CO
- Day 3: Rocky Mountain National Park – Alpine Region and Eastern Side; stay in Estes Park, CO
- Day 4: Drive Estes Park, CO to Lincoln NE – the drive home
- Day 5: Drive Lincoln, NE to home
Dinosaur National Monument
For years, Dinosaur National Monument (DNM) has been one of the parks we have never been close enough to stop at. A few past road-trips had brought us reasonably close, but we never took advantage of those opportunities. DNM was a priority for this trip. The 3 hour drive from Grand Junction seemed like a reasonable amount of travel time, and the journey was another beautiful one to boot. Though there are Colorado entrances to DNM, if you are interested in seeing the dinosaur exhibits you have to enter through the Utah side, about 25 minutes west of the primary Colorado entrance.
Let me start off by saying my “eight year-old self” would have been in heaven at this monument – the opportunity to walk where dinosaurs once walked would simply have blown my mind, and it is still an amazing experience at my current age. We started with a quick stop at the visitor center, which provided orientation and where we caught the (mandatory unless hiking) shuttle for a 7 minute ride to the dinosaur quarry. We had done some brief reading in preparation and were familiar with the fact we would be seeing dinosaur remains within canyon walls. This literally seemed unbelievable.
In order to provide protection from the elements, a building was built to surround and house this wall of bones – over 500 visible dinosaur bones! Because we had to enter an actual building, there was a museum-like feel to the main attraction which took a little of the excitement away, but as an 8-year-old there would have been no way to contain the excitement of seeing so much in such a small area. The visible remains came to their final resting place after being caught in an ancient river where the bones had somehow collected like a log jam. We hung out for a bit in the two-story building using various vantage points to check out the wide variety of the skeletal remains.
Exiting the building, we walked a 1/2 mile path through canyonesque layers of sediment which contained additional remains. Though we looked and looked, we did not encounter any additional skeletal remains. This was a bit of a let-down. However, if we were 8-year-old detectives searching for bones and skulls we could have obsessively stared at and searched the variably colored layers of rock for hours.
We returned to the visitor center and decided to move onward for a short drive to an additional hike with opportunities to view multiple petroglyphs along the way. The brief hike began with a visit to a long-abandoned cabin of an early 20th century homesteader, before moving onto a wildflower-laced sandy path guarded by the red colored walls above.
I would never recommend bypassing an opportunity for visiting any of the National Monuments, and if you have kids interested in dinosaurs they would not be disappointed. Perhaps we have been spoiled by other dinosaur exhibits we have seen, but our thinking is this is a visit you need to carefully consider. It was interesting, and the bone wall was as unique as things can get, but you will have to go far out of your way to get there and there really is nothing much around for about 150 miles.
Rocky Mountain National Park
In short – the place is beautiful and I will provide more detail about that. However the crowds, particularly on the east side, are the largest crowds I have ever seen in a NP. This made it challenging to see the things we wanted to see, and time was quickly eaten up by having to use the shuttle to access scenic areas which fill up early, and by early I mean 7:00 am.
Our entrance to the park did not start with crowds, though. We entered from the west side of the park, hitting the visitor center before doing two very pleasant trails – Coyote Valley and the Holzwarth Historic Site. Both trails led us through valleys and meadows hugging the humble beginnings of the mighty Colorado River.
Though we passed a few families along the way, we walked the trails in solitude, and each left us feeling as though we were part of the Rockies. After an hour or so at each of those trails, we returned to our car and ascended the Trail-Ridge Road to the alpine area of the park.
We climbed above the tree line to over 11,000 feet, and though we had both felt the impact of high-altitude on other parts of the trip, it was very noticeable here. The surrounding tundra provided unobstructed views for miles around. Snow-capped peaks, alpine lakes, large meadows, and a few herds of elk made for our favorite scenery in the park. While gazing at one of the pull-outs, we noticed some squeaks in the field below. We adjusted our eyes to watch a groups of marmots at play as pika ran round and round collecting food.
We made use of the plentiful overlooks to just stop and stare, and with rapidly changing weather, the sky evolved from sunny to stormy-gray with lightning in a matter of moments. The visitor center at the top, filled to capacity on our first ascent, as well as the awe-inspiring vistas were certainly worth the return drive on Day 2.
We had done quite a bit on our first day here and chose to make our way down the other side of the mountain to the gateway to the park, Estes Park, CO where we had rented an RV for a glamping experience at the Dripping Springs property through Airbnb.
Tucked away in a small canyon off of HGWY. 34 a few miles outside of the main town of Estes Park, the camper was more than adequate and the grounds were amazing. We had access to the roaring river steps from our RV, with chairs in place to just sit and chill. For a very reasonable price of $150/ night, with the park entrance only 10 minutes away, this was a steal, especially since it meant we didn’t have to deal with the incredible crowds in the town. A little forethought helped with making the decision to stop by the local Safeway to cook our own dinner, helping us avoid what would have been frustrating congestion in Estes Park proper for dinner. The setting was also a perfect place to catch a glimpse of the milky way after sunset.
The next morning we were on the road by 6:45 AM in hopes of beating the rush to Bear Lake on the East side. No luck. The trailhead lot was full by 7:15, and we had to head back about 5 miles to catch the intra-park shuttle to the hiking trails.
Bear Lake is well known for a few reasons. It’s an easy .5 mile hike around a gorgeous lake, but the stop also provides stems to half a dozen other well-known hikes. We took our time strolling around the lake which was less crowded than we would have thought given the traffic at the trailhead. Once we completed Beak Lake we bee-lined back to the Alpine areas of the park, noting the entry way to the Bear Lake Area was now closed at 9:15 AM – park rangers were working with a one car-out- one car-in situation.
As I mentioned earlier, the Alpine areas literally and figuratively took our breaths away. There is not a lot of description I can provide that would do this area justice, but it is one of the more unique sites we have been to. While there are a few hiking opportunities, we chose to use the pull-outs to enjoy the wide open top-of-the-world scenery.
After the 1.5 hour round trip up and down the mountain, in addition to an hour spent up high, we chose to return to Dripping Springs for a break from the crowds and arrived just as stormy weather made its way to the area.
With evening on the horizon, the weather broke and we chose to make a few last stops to the park. We had been informed that once the rain clears the crowds also clear from the park and they do not return – and this advice was accurate. We made our way to Lily Lake for a chance to see abundant wildlife – ducks, smaller mammals, and a wide array of song birds were literally everywhere. We took our time circling the lake enjoying an incredible peace difficult to find at this park – we both preferred this quiet spot to Bear Lake though they are different experiences.
We decided to re-enter the main part of the park and on our drive to Beaver Meadow we came across a small herd of elk just laying around in a new construction site. This was an odd occurrence for us and being so close, we took a bit of time to observe from our car.
We re-entered RMNP through the Beaver Meadows area and made our way to catch sunset at Sheep Lakes in the Horseshoe Park area. The area’s meadows are known for dusk sightings of bighorn sheep, moose, and elk. We spent about an hour here as we enjoyed our last evening in the park. A herd of elk made their way to the valley in the distance as the setting sun made its way out from dispersing clouds.
We slept in late on our final morning, thus ensuring we would not do the one-day drive home as we had in the past, and instead made our way to the scenic drive through the quaint Glen Haven area. A beautiful drive made even better with incredible Cinnamon Rolls from the Glen Haven General Store made for a perfect ending to adventures in Colorado.
We took two days to make it home with a lengthy stop in Madison County, IA to see the famous covered bridges. I’ll detail that in another post, but I will say I-80 is not the way to experience the beauty that Iowa has to offer.
A final note on RMNP – it would be unfair and untrue to say RMNP was disappointing. Once out on astounding hikes, the crowds were hardly noticeable. However, unless you are willing to get there early or visit in an off-peak season, there are other National Parks which provide similar nature, and my hunch is that Colorado itself probably has similar experiences – if we could do it again, we would certainly make sure we hit the park outside of the peak season. It was a spectacular place where we hardly scratched the surface.