When to Go
This amazing U.S. National Park is one that can be revisited multiple times and can be enjoyed throughout the seasons. We visited in early June on a beautiful, clear and sunny day with perfect hiking temperatures in the 60-70 degree range. If you are visiting in the busy season (May-September) you will be forced to park in a lot and then take a shuttle to the popular trailheads. It was very busy the day we were there and lots of people were on the trail with us. We even had to wait in line for a shuttle, so be patient and enjoy meeting others.
Most Popular Hike
We chose the Emerald Lake hike for its length (just under 4 miles roundtrip) and popularity for fantastic scenery. It was a perfectly gorgeous day and we wanted to see the beauty of the park. It’s not a difficult hike at all and you get so much reward for your work. It was a challenge for us, though, coming straight from sea level. The start of the Bear Lake trailhead is at about 9500 ft. elevation and you’ll end up over 10,000 ft. so it’s not a big gain, but our bodies just weren’t used to being up that high! We took our time and enjoyed stopping at the two other lakes on the trail. Both Nymph Lake and Dream Lake have beautiful vistas and the sunny blue skies cast a shimmer on the surfaces.
Despite the crowds, we did get some wildlife sightings. In fact, on the way back we came across a spot where a mama elk had bedded down her new calf about 50 yards from the trail. We were well aware of the situation and used caution as we approached. John and I have both been on dozens of trails both populated and backcountry with years of experience. The kids not so much at this point, so this day was a great learning experience. John was out ahead and I was at the end with the three kids in between us. John began to walk the trail into an open area where the mama elk was eating and keeping an eye out. John got about 1/2 through the open space when the mama CHARGED him. The kids and I, with stopped hearts, retreated in a panicked silence. John ran. He ran. What??? He knows better than to turn his back on a wild animal, but his instincts took over. She was just showing him who was boss and stopped short, but Lord I almost lost my lunch. The kids and I opted to climb up and embankment off trail and found the trail and John after circumventing the scene. It was so surprising that she charged John of all people with so many on the trail that day.
We all experienced firsthand our place in the wild, which is to say that WE are the visitors. That mama elk had every right to be there and to protect her baby. We were the ones interrupting and invading her space. The rest of the hike went off without a hitch and I would say the entirety of the hike took about 3.5 hours. You could certainly do this more quickly, but we took our time and enjoyed the views and being together and taking photos.
Trail Ridge Road
When we got back to the car we took the drive up to the Alpine Visitor Center via the Trail Ridge Road. Wow! The views were incredible, the wind was fierce and John drove like his family’s life was in his hands. It was a really neat way to see the park, but know that the road is narrow and has steep drop offs. If you aren’t a fan of heights, this may be too exciting for you! You will climb all the way to 11,760 ft above sea level and it is magnificent! Be certain to check road conditions and to see if the road is open all the way through or at least to the Alpine Visitor Center-the road is NOT open year-round.