Remember last week when I said we wouldn’t be sticking around Colorado long because we wanted to explore some new places? Well…I lied. Actually, I only half lied. We’re still not sticking around long, but before we go we couldn’t resist a returning to a few of our favorite places. First up, Rocky Mountain National Park.
There’s no way I could choose a favorite national park. I probably couldn’t even narrow it down to a top five. But if I had to rank them, Rocky Mountain would be high on the list. And I’m not alone. This park receives an astonishing number of visitors every year. So many visitors that getting a campsite in or near the park is next to impossible. And crowded trails and clogged roads are the norm in the summer months. Which is why we prefer the quieter west side of the park. This is the side that’s harder for most people to get to. It’s farther from airports and highways which keeps the crowds to a minimum. We also think it has better camping options.
Three years ago we stayed at the Stillwater NF Campground in Grand Lake just outside the western entrance to the park. We spent the week gazing out over the lake and exploring the area. At the time we had our dog, Phineas, with us which limited our time in the park, but we still managed to find some dog-friendly trails nearby.
This time around we thought it would be fun to skip the campground and instead try out one of the boondocking spots listed on Campendium. According to the reviews, there are a number of spots on Country Road 4. The first few are reported to have the best views and cell service with the spots farther up the road sounding less desirable but still nice. Unfortunately, what the reviews didn’t tell us was that access to most of the road is behind a gate that doesn’t open until June 15th (we arrived on 6/4). Since the handful of sites before the gate were already occupied, that plan was busted. Feeling defeated, we headed to the campground.
Stillwater has a few first come, first serve sites. I think two have electric and water and the other 3-4 are dry camping. We choose a dry site with an amazing lake view. Technically, it probably wasn’t big enough for our 25′ trailer. The only reason we fit all the way in was because we were able to back over the cement barrier and hang our back end over the hill behind our site. Also, this site had an extra parking spot that was just big enough for the truck.
As is typical this time of year, the campground was nearly empty all week and then completely filled up on Friday and Saturday night. So for most of the week, it was just us and our view of the lake. Well… expect for those two nights when a fifth wheel parked near us and ran their contractor style generator several times a day (you know the kind of generator that should absolutely NOT be allowed in campgrounds). All we could do was laugh because it seems like lately this happens to us a lot. We must be magnets for noisy people.
Enough about the campground though. Let’s talk about the national park! Except for a few rainy days in the middle of the week, we went to the park every day for hiking, auto touring, and of course, animal viewing. The last time we were here the only animals we saw were a few elk roaming around near the Alpine Visitor Center. This time, the animals were out in full force. The first day we only had to drive about a mile past the entrance station before we started seeing herds of elk.
We also saw moose on several different occasions.
One day while out on a hike we spotted a group of mountain goats.
Right past them on the same trail we came upon more goats. These two were only about 15 feet off the trail and didn’t seem to care that we, along with another group of hikers, stopped to take pictures.
Other animals we saw but didn’t get pictures of were one chubby marmot, a sly fox crossing the road, a couple of mule deer, and the requisite number of squirrels and chipmunks. Our theory for why we saw so many animals this time around has to do with the snow pack higher up. It might be nice and green down in the Kawunceeche Valley, but a drive up on the Trail Ridge Road demonstrates just how much snow is still lingering in the higher elevations of the park.
As you can see, the animals are smart to stay down in the valley this time of year. For comparison, check out our blog post from when we drove all way from Grand Lake to Estes Park in the middle of July. Next up: Hiking on the west side.