Staunton State Park, Estes Park and the Rocky Mountain National Park
19.05.2013 - 21.05.2013 21 °C
Staunton State Park is situated 8,100-10,000 feet (2,470-3,050 metres) up the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains about 40 miles (64 kilometres) south west of Denver. The park was brand new, having literally opened to the public for the first time only the day before, so we decided to give it a visit just in case there was any truth in all the hype that it would be an easy place to view wild elk relatively close to the city.
We walked up through its alpine meadows and saw wild deer through the trees below us but no sign of elk, so we climbed higher into the wooded ridges above us. We then got spooked by what looked like fresh bear scat on the path and began imagining that bears and mountain lions might be near us before reaching a yellow tape across the path that said our route beyond was closed! We then made our way back down, after a 3 hour walk at altitude (at 10,000 feet the oxygen pressure is only 70% of what it is at sea level so you have to breath harder) our quest to see wild elk would have to wait for another day.
We didn't have to wait long; a couple of days later we headed 2 hours north west of Denver to the Rocky Mountain National Park. The National Park straddles the Continental Divide with a third of its 415 square miles (1,075 square kilometres) above the tree line at 11,400 feet (3,745 metres) and containing 72 named peaks over 12,000 feet (3,658 metres) in elevation. On the way we passed through Estes Park, the Park's gateway town, and headed up a valley called Horseshoe Park along the Fall River Road.
Almost immediately the Park Rangers at Sheep Lakes pointed out to us a small group of wild elk grazing some distance away on the other side of Horseshoe Park and I was just about able to take a photograph of them at maximum zoom (x16 - not bad for a digital camera!). Horseshoe Park itself looks like something out of a school geography textbook with the Fall River meandering through it with oxbow curves that would have looked like horseshoes to early settlers (hence the valley's name).
In the early 1800s, French-speaking trappers in the area called the broad mountain meadows "parques" meaning enclosures. Later ranchers used these same large open basins to graze their livestock but kept the same name which is why so many of the local mountain meadows are still called "parks" today. Half way up we were able to stop at rocky outcrop on a sharp bend in the road called Many Parks Curve which had a terrific views across Horseshoe Park, Moraine Park and Upper Beaver Meadows back towards Estes Park itself.
We were climbing up Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous paved highway in the USA, famous for its breath taking views of high-altitude peaks and alpine tundra. At this altitude there were still deep snow drifts on the ground and the road itself was not was due to be fully opened until the following weekend (Memorial Weekend, a US public holiday the same Monday as the Spring Bank Holiday in the UK) so we were unsure how far we would get.
Eventually we reached a "road closed" barrier at Rainbow Curve on Trail Ridge Road and parked up to take in the view across Horseshoe Park. We did walk a little bit further to get a better view of Sundance Mountain (12,466 feet - 3,800 metres) but that was as far as we got. As advertised the final 31 miles (50 kilometres) stretch of Trail Ridge Road across to the Colorado River Trailhead was opened up the following weekend and the local tourist office posted the following speeded up 7:19 video of the opened road (it passes Rainbow Curve at 1:55).
Before we left Rainbow Curve I saw my first ever chipmunk, running around fearlessly near people like squirrels back home expecting to be fed. For our return trip to Estes Park we decided to take the southern road through Moraine Park and on the way down stopped for a very good view of Longs Peak (14,259 feet - 4,346 metres), the tallest mountain in the Rocky Mountain National Park and one of the 53 mountains over 14,000 feet (4,267 metres) in the state of Colorado affectionately known as "14'ers". We thought we'd seen all the elk we were going to see but stopped where we saw some other cars parked up beside the road and caught a glimpse through the trees of a male elk with antlers.
We then drove on towards Estes Park and before long were excited to see a small group of elk grazing close to the road on the edge of Moraine Park. After we stopped we saw there were some more on the far side of the road and then realised the whole valley floor seemed to be covered in grazing elk as far as the eye could see!
Having spent so much time looking for elk expecting to be disappointed it was thrilling to get such a close up unobstructed view of a large herd grazing. We then briefly stopped at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park; built in 1909 with outstanding views of the mountains it is considered the town's architectural gem and the best place to stay. The hotel's claim to wider fame though is that the author Stephen King once stayed there and it was the inspiration for his bestseller "The Shining" - something visitors still seem obsessed with all the ghost tours the hotel organizes!