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sweens66 Aug 19th, 2009 05:39 AM

Day trip through Rocky Mtn NP
We’re driving from Virginia to Las Vegas in mid-September. If time allows, we might be visiting some old friends in Ft. Collins for a night. We’d then try to catch a day driving from there toward Moab, UT (see my post there), to drive through Rocky Mtn. NP.

It has been many years since I was there as a child, so I don’t know much about the details. I guess I’m thinking of either spending the day driving through the park (via Rtes. 34 & 40), stopping for short hikes along the way, and then staying somewhere around Vail that night before heading to Moab the next day, OR maybe staying in the park that night. Either option would enable us to drive through these beautiful mountains during the day on the way to Utah.

(Now, I can already hear the justified caterwauls that we’re not spending enough time, yada, yada. I agree, but unfortunately my boss is just not so understanding of the importance of quality time together in the mountains, breathing fresh air, leaving our client hanging, etc. And I’ve got plans to spend additional time in Utah doing some canyoneering, so something has to go!)

At any rate, does this plan sound achievable, even if not long enough to truly do it justice? Any specific recommendations? Our kids are ages 16, 11 and 7 and are great, experienced travelers & National Park junkies like their parents. We may be camping, so looking for lodging recommendations, either campgrounds or hotels. This will be after Labor Day, so I’m assuming (correct me if I’m wrong) we could get some off-season rates. In general we try to do things as inexpensively as possible, but we’d be open to any suggestions, especially fun/unusual things to do.


eileencu Aug 19th, 2009 06:49 AM

Yes, it's achievable! A must see. If you come to RMNP on hwy 34, before you enter the town of Estes Park, you will pass thru the Big Thompson Canyon, which is absolutely awesome and watch for the Big Horn Sheep along the canyon walls normally along the north side of the highway, which would be on your right, then proceed on thru hwy 34 and enter the park thru the Fall River entrance. You can explore parts of the park in this area, I would suggest Morraine Park for sure, and visit the Bear Lake Trailhead where you can take a very short walk to one of the lakes that is beautiful and then there's a hike to Alberta Falls that is gorgeous. This would take about a couple of hours. Then I would suggest that you wind back thru the park to the Old Fall River Road entrance and proceed on it to the Alpine visitors center. This is a beautiful drive and is a one way road (but not open to motorhomes and trailers), but if you have a trailer or camper, you will want to cross the park on trail ridge road to the Alpine Visitors Center. You'll love it up there and then you will come down the west side of the park thru a beautiful area (where you sometimes see not only Elk, but Moose as well. As you leave the park you will come to Grand Lake and then to the town of Granby. This is where I would suggest that you spend the night rather than Vail. There are plenty of lovely motels or cabins there. Great eating places as well and good shopping. Kind of like an old west town to me. As for cheaper rates after Labor Day in Colorado. That's a toss up as the best time to see the area is in late September when the Aspen start to turn yellow so some motels dont change their rates till after October 1st, but some do on Setpember 15th and some after labor day. This will give you a lovely day in RMNP. ENJOY all the wildlife!!!! Go to the RMNP web site for which campgrounds would be open in the park if you prefer to camp.

sweens66 Aug 19th, 2009 08:35 AM

Thanks, eileencu. Great idea to stay in Granby, as I'd really like to see the windy (WINE-dy, not WINN-dy) part of Hwy 40 down to I-70 before we head to Moab. Google says about 6 hrs from Granby to Moab, so if we hit the road by 6, we would arrive by noon-ish and have the afternoon at Arches NP.

About how long would you anticipate it taking to hit the road from Ft. Collins, to see & do the things you've outlined, and be at Granby by nightfall? I'm getting very excited about this, especially your mention of the wildlife.

I will also check out the RMNP web site as you suggested.

sylvia3 Aug 19th, 2009 04:46 PM

I would certainly NOT recommend Fall River Road instead of Trail Ridge Road, one of the premier sight-seeing roads in the US. Fall River is one way up an unpaved gravel road, through mostly trees; the view is lost much of the way, and you would not want to miss the Trail Ridge Road drive for anything! Take Trail Ridge Road, enjoy the spectacular scenery (almost all of which you would miss if you drove Fall River Road). There are many short hikes to do in the park, I agree that Bear Lake is well worth some time, whether you just walk around the lake (a very short walk), or take a path up to one of the small lakes. A couple of hikes in the park, then over Trail Ridge to the little town of Grand Lake at the western edge of the park (scenic late lunch overlooking the lake?). (BTW, Granby is not at ALL scenic).If your plan is to get back on I70 to make your way to Salt Lake City, I would suggest getting a (cut-rate off season!) condo or hotel in the Winter Park area, right on the way (via 40). You could also make one of the many ski area lodgings (bargain) along I70 by nightfall.

sylvia3 Aug 19th, 2009 04:48 PM

And I have no idea at all why I brought up Salt Lake City! But it doesn't change anything.:)

eileencu Aug 19th, 2009 06:18 PM

Yes, Trail Ridge Road is beautiful to, either one thru the park is awesome! I like the quietness of Fall River Road and the Tundra at the base of the Alpine Visitors Center on the backside, but they are both beautiful in their own way. Though Fall River Road is gravel, we have always found it to be a very well maintained road and not at all difficult to travel. We always try this road because its beautiful and there is alot of scenery to see on both roads. The wildlife in this park are everywhere and that's what I love about RMNP. You should try to get going from Ft. Collins by no later than 7:30 or 8:00 in the morning if I were you. Granby is a quaint little town by the lake. But anywhere along this route from Granby on ought to work fine for you. We stayed a couple of times in a lodge overlooking the lake and I thought it was beautiful.

WhereAreWe Aug 19th, 2009 08:19 PM

Keep in mind you're working with about 12 hours of daylight by then. Personally, I think it's a bit ambitious to bust through RMNP in less than a day, then drive 6 hours to Moab and bust through Arches in half a day. For it to work, you're going to have to be hard-core and get everyone up and moving early. You also have to keep in mind the altitude in RMNP and the fact that someone(s) in your family will likely get tired out by it. Hard to push through a hike or enjoy the drive if everyone is up early and then gets tired out by being pushed too much at altitude. Given the extreme beetle kill on the west side of RMNP, you should probably plan on just driving through that part of the park without stopping much, so plan accordingly and give the bulk of your alloted RMNP time to the east side and TRR.

I would do as Sylvia3 suggests and get lodging closer to I70, or better yet on I70, rather than Granby. That will shorten the drive to Moab the next day and allow you to either get a bit more sleep or spend more time in Arches.

If you can exit the west side of RMNP by 5pm you'd hit I70 before sunset. I would then drive a bit further after dark and find lodging. Doesn't give you a ton of time in RMNP but would give you an easier drive the next day.

sweens66 Aug 20th, 2009 08:07 AM

Excellent advice! Thank you.

eileencu Aug 20th, 2009 12:03 PM

My apologies in telling you to stay in Granby. I meant Grand Lake anyway, sorry for the confusion. They're right Granby isn't scenic, I meant Grand Lake. We went thru in a day before and didn't feel totally rushed either, but you're right, have to get going early.

sylvia3 Aug 21st, 2009 08:19 AM

If you have never driven Trail Ridge Road, it is a must see. Save Fall River for another day.
BTW, the effects of the beetle kill are incredible; flew over the western slope a week or two ago, and the slopes are no longer green, but rust brown; can't help but think there's a big fire a'comin!

sweens66 Aug 22nd, 2009 05:39 PM

Wow, thanks all. Great advice! I am fairly settled on taking Trail Ridge Rd., and in fact that's the only route I'd feel real comfortable with in our minivan.

With having to get up so early the next day for our trip to Moab, camping is less likely, although we can probably break down in a hurry as we're only setting up one tent, and we'll just cram in. With that in mind, do you have any experience with campgrounds at the more southern end of the park? Are they first-come, first-served, or can you make reservations? Are they decent? (No need for first-class amenities; just decent bathrooms and maybe electric hook-up.)

For lodging, are there any cabins or lodges near Grand Lake, or I'm even thinking of regular hotels outside of the park closer to the interstate - Granby, Tabernash, Fraser or Winter Park? A quick check on Expedia showed several hotels, some pretty inexpensive, in Granby, Fraser and Winter Park. Sounds like that might be the ticket. Any we should particularly avoid?

While I'm not particularly excited about the beetle kill, we will be interested in learning about it. It reminds me of the effects that are still visible in Yellowstone from the great fire of 1988. Fascinating stuff, but like you, sylvia3, I'm hoping this won't result in a massive fire like that.

Thank you all for your help!

Connie Aug 22nd, 2009 07:00 PM

I very much agree with sticking to Trail Ridge Road. The old road is in the forest with no views of the mountains.

sylvia3 Aug 23rd, 2009 08:08 AM

Actually, the best thing for the area will be a big fire; but how that can be contained without structure losses (or human, major animal, etc.) will be a much more difficult issue than in the uninhabited wilds of Yellowstone. Just don't see how fire will be avoidable. But even without green trees, it's all beautiful in its own way!
I recommend Winter Park after RMNP; the drive is easy, and the town has many hotels and motels and ski condos that will be priced at off-season rates (then route 40 to I70 will be easy). You might even try VRBO, although for one night, it might be more trouble than it's worth.

sweens66 Aug 24th, 2009 06:29 PM

OK, here's what I've come up with for an itinerary. Please comment away!

Sun. 9/6 - Leave Newport News, VA to Natural Bridge, VA (3.5 hrs) to see evening Drama of Creation light show. Spend night nearby.

Mon. 9/7 (Labor Day, but not expecting much traffic in this stretch) - Natural Bridge, VA to Evansville, IN (8.5 hrs).

Tue. 9/8 - Evansville to Salinas, KS (9.5 hrs).

Wed. 9/9 - Salinas, KS to Fort Collins, CO to see friends (7 hrs).

Thu. 9/10 - Ft. Collins thru RMNP. Hike/sightsee at whatever places suit our fancy, but pretty much spend a fun day at the Park. Stay at hotel (TBD) in Winter Park, CO.

Fri. 9/11 – Get up early & leave Winter Park to shoot for Moab around 1 PM. Catch afternoon canyoneering adventure with Desert Highlights. Spend night camping in the area.

Utah portion of the itinerary is in a post there so as not to bore you with those details if you aren't interested. If you can help or are otherwise interested, however, I'd love it if you'd check it out! Thanks.

sylvia3 Aug 25th, 2009 08:33 AM

Are you allowing ~6 hours for the drive from Winter Park to Moab(and that's ambitious)? You might want to take the better part of a day to make the trip, with stops, photos, etc. along the way!

WhereAreWe Aug 25th, 2009 11:49 AM

My only suggestion for the drive from Winter Park to Moab is to get off the interstate and take the scenic route once in Utah (Hwy 128, rather than Hwy 191). That will add a little bit of time to your trip, more if you stop to take photos.

I wouldn't take the better part of a day to make that drive as sylvia3 suggested. It's mostly interstate and while there are some scenic sections, at some point you just have to decide to drive and get to where you're going. And that stretch would be a good place to just drive. Other than skipping Colorado National Monument, you're not missing a lot IMO.

I would still advise you to shoot for lodging along I-70 rather than Winter Park. That would give you a slightly shorter drive to Moab and you wouldn't be quite as crunched for time.

sweens66 Aug 25th, 2009 05:36 PM

Yes, that's kind of the plan, as far as getting from Winter Park (or wherever) to Moab. Google Maps gives it 6 hrs, but I anticipate stopping along the way once or twice in the Rockies for pictures or to ooh & ahh a little, so I'm really thinking 8. But the main place we expect to do that is indeed along Hwy 128. As I've mentioned in the Utah postings, that road was our introduction 7 years ago to beautiful southern Utah and caused us to fall in love with the area. It is spectacular, and now my kids are older and will appreciate it even more.

My original plan was to spend the night somewhere on I-70 in CO, but that seemed like I was short-changing the day at RMNP, and people were recommending everything from staying in the Park or Grand Lake, to Granby. However, reviewing the thread, WhereWeAre, I see you've consistently suggested getting farther. Do you have any particular ski lodges in mind? You mentioned there would be bargains due to being off-season. If it was you, how far along would you try to get? Would reservations be required?

If we got out of Ft. Collins by 7, that should put us at Estes Park around 8. That would give us about 10 hrs of daylight. I would very much like to get through Berthoud Falls during daylight, as it looks pretty spectacular. Is that reasonable, or is it not as worth it as it looks on a map? (I'm really only going by the switchbacks, but maybe it's not all that scenic.)

WhereAreWe Aug 25th, 2009 05:52 PM

No matter what you do, you're shortchanging RMNP by spending less than one day in the park. You could spend a week there easily. My point is that you should spend most of your time on the east side and driving over TRR, shortchange the west side due to the dead trees and general less spectacular scenery over there, and give yourself an easier drive to Moab the next day.

Fort Collins to EP is an hour and 15 minutes. Depending on where in Fort Collins you're staying, could be slightly longer or shorter. Add another 15 minutes to go through town, gas up and get to the park entrance and it's more likely you'd hit RMNP at 8:30. That's a bit nitpicky, but when you're looking at having 8 or 9 hours max in the park, every little bit counts. I would hope you're packing a cooler and food so you can eat in the park rather than backtrack to town for lunch. There are plenty of nice picnic spots inside the park.

The only place to stay in the park on the west side is Timber Creek Campground, and it is virtually stripped bare now. They've cut down all or almost all of the trees and it is ugly. Not an option in my mind at all. Grand Lake, Granby, Winter Park are all decent but if you've made it as far as Winter Park it's barely 45 minutes more to the interstate, and I would personally tack on that drive at the end of the day rather than make myself get up even earlier in the morning.

It's totally up to you of course, it just sounds like RMNP is sort of tacked on as a bonus, rather than the main thrust of this trip. Given that, shortchanging it by say 45 minutes to enable yourself to reach I-70 by nightfall and make the drive to Moab easier seems sensible to me. I don't have any specific lodging suggestions, I would just think on a Thursday night in early September you wouldn't need an advance reservation, so perhaps having a couple of options in mind for Winter Park and/or along I-70 is your best course of action. Then play it by ear and see how far you get in the day.

sweens66 Aug 25th, 2009 07:05 PM

Right on! I just talked to my friend in Ft. Collins with whom we're staying, and he also said we could pretty easily make it to a ski lodge along I-70 by nightfall, and that they'll have plenty of vacancies. Yes, you got me - RMNP is kind of tacked on as a drive-through bonus; what can I say, we just love the desert! However, we may fall in love with it like Yellowstone and come back another day for a "real trip."

Incidentally, we're also going to Yosemite, Kings Canyon & Sequoia out in CA during my week off there, and we also have Glacier NP on our NP list for some other year. So we really do enjoy the forests and high mountains, too.

Yes, we are packing all our own food for 90% of the trip (it's cheaper!), so we'll be all set there. Thanks for the reminder about the west side being stripped out - we'll be sure to focus on Trail Ridge Rd. part of the park.

sylvia3 Aug 26th, 2009 06:28 AM

But please, whereveryou tay, have those reservations; it's awful to be driving from place to place, or to have to face looking for lodging at the end of a long day (and mid-September there can be tons of eastern slope people out looking at aspens, whether they've peaked or not; been there, done that, you never know!) If you don't stay in Winter Park, the next best best will be over the pass, then through the Eisenhower tunnel, to Dillon. From there, the next major stop on I70 will be the Vail Valley (you might also look at the base of slope places in Copper Creek ski area). OR you could drive off I70 into Breckenridge or Keystone (ski areas, lots of lodging).
Don't miss RMNP; we've taken plenty of people on "drive throughs" and they've been in awe. It's always nice to have more time to devote to a place, but I wouldn't not go for that reason!

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