Return to the Western Side of Rocky Mountain National Park

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.

Rocky Mountain National Park
The Never Summer Mountains dominate the landscape on the west side of the park

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.

Colorado River
Back in 2013 we had to seek out dog-friendly trails so this guy could come along.

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 National Forest Campground - Grand Lake, CO
Not bad for second choice

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.

Stillwater National Forest Campground - Grand Lake, CO
Tight squeeze

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.

Stillwater National Forest Campground - Grand Lake, CO
Yup, that’s a pretty nice view

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.

Elk in Rocky Mountain National Park
One of the many meadows we saw filled with elk
Elk in Rocky Mountain National Park
This mama elk had two babies hidden behind her in the bushes

We also saw moose on several different occasions.

Moose in Rocky Mountain National Park
I think this one is smiling for the camera!
Moose in Rocky Mountain National Park
Munching moose

One day while out on a hike we spotted a group of mountain goats.

Mountain Goats in Rocky Mountain National Park
Can you see the goats?
Mountain Goats in Rocky Mountain National Park
Up close

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.

Mountain Goats in Rocky Mountain National Park
Goats doing what goats do

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.

Rocky Mountain National Park
Green & snow-free in the valley. This is where I would hang out if I was a wild animal.
Rocky Mountain National Park
As we drove up in elevation the snow started to pile up on the sides of the road.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Once we go up into the alpine environment, there was more snow than bare ground
Alpine Visitor Center at Rocky Mountain National Park
A little more melting needs to happen before the visitor center opens
Never Summer Mountains in the Rocky Mountain National Park
Looking west at the Never Summer Mountain Range
Rocky Mountain National Park
It was right about here near the highest point of the road where we saw the elk last time

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.

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13 Responses to “Return to the Western Side of Rocky Mountain National Park”

Comments

  1. Mom

    Glad you saw so much wildlife! That always makes it fun for me. Your pictures are making me excited about heading back west in the fall. Have fun!

    Reply
    • Amanda

      The number of elk roaming around was astonishing. One day we saw multiple fields with hundreds of them grazing and sleeping. So cool!

      Reply
  2. Gerri & Mike

    What a beautiful site!! If that’s what came in second I can only imagine first place.
    Love that side of the Rocky Mountain National Park. We drove Trail Ridge several years ago. Time for a return visit!!

    Reply
    • Amanda

      I think I could return to this park over and over again and never get tired of it. That drive over the Trail Ridge Rd. is spectacular!

      Reply
  3. David and Sharon (Two Lanes of Freedom)

    Love the smiling moose! We’re crossing the panhandle of Texas now but are rocky mountain bound. This will be our first time and will be following your suggestion on exploring the national park from the western side.

    Reply
    • Amanda

      Even at peak season, the west side is quieter. The campgrounds do fill up (especially on weekends) so I would reserve ahead of time for sure!

      Reply
  4. Metamorphosis Lisa

    Awwww, this post gives me fond memories of our time on the West side of RMNP. That is also where we first met you!

    Reply
    • Amanda

      I remember! I was looking back on our old posts from that time and there were your smiling faces!

      Reply
  5. Jodee Gravel

    What a great place for finding critters! I can’t wait to see our first moose. That’s a sweet campsite even though a bit snug. I’m still amazed that some (a very few) folks have no regard for those around them when camping. Glad they moved on.

    Reply
    • Amanda

      Colorado is the place to be if you want to see moose. I grew up in an area where moose are prevalent and have seen more of them while traveling around Colorado than I did during 30+ years in VT.

      Reply
  6. Deb

    Did you pull the Airstream over Trail Ridge?

    Reply
    • Amanda

      Not this time, but when we visited a few years ago we did.

      Reply
      • Deb

        I’ve done that road a time or two – I applaud your “guts”. :D

        Reply

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