Rocky Mountain National Park

Jun 1, 2003
Outside Magazine
Elk on the Rise

Before 1900, commercial hunters pursued Colorado's elk almost to extinction. In 1914, 28 elk were imported from the Yellowstone herd, and they thrived. Today, about 3,000 elk—called wapiti by the Shawnee—feed here in the summer. The best place to see them is in the meadows near Moraine Park Campground. September is bugling season, when rutting males bellow eerily for company, usually at dawn or dusk.

The magnificent elk, best seen during the September rutting season

High-altitude Rocky Mountain National Park, bursting with 74 peaks over 12,000 feet, serves as an adventure training ground for my family. Our ultimate ambition is to summit 14,255-foot Longs Peak—our team, including my 12-year-old daughter, Cleo, and her middle school pals Emma and Celeste, should be ready for this expedition in a summer or two. In preparation, we're working our way steadily higher on the park's 355-mile trail system.
We live in nearby Boulder, with plenty of good climbing and hiking a few blocks from home. The national park, with 266,240 acres of spectacular views and Lake Granby nearby, makes a favorite weekend destination. We start with the 4.7-mile hike through Glacier Gorge—perfect for kids because you can take it in easy stages and use Mills Lake, Jewel Lake, or Black Lake as your turnaround point, depending on the strength of your team. If they're really in shape, you can push onward, up a mile of steep switchbacks, all the way to Green Lake, at 11,550 feet. That's the next stage in our training course.
The first half-mile, from the 9,240-foot Glacier Gorge Junction trailhead to silvery Alberta Falls, is an easy 140-foot climb doable even by four-year-olds. Then the trail levels out to wind around Glacier Knobs, a pair of immense granite outcrops. It was here, during our most recent excursion, that the kids learned a lesson in noise control: They suppressed giggles so as not to frighten a chipmunk stealing a two-inch cube of Emmentaler cheese right off my lap. (But it's a mistake to shush kids up on these trails—you don't want to surprise a puma.)
As we continued hiking, the girls chattered back at colonies of pikas in the granite scree fields and conquered a gentle climb onto bedrock scoured by a glacier 10,000 years ago. We spotted plenty of birds—everything from mountain chickadees to golden eagles.
The first puddle is Mills Lake, where marmots gazed gravely back at us from rocks above. We skirted the rocky east shore, then climbed to marshy Jewel Lake. From there, the trail's last mile is a switchback climb alongside Ribbon Falls to Black Lake, at 10,620 feet, where we nearly popped our necks staring at the overhanging rock walls. They form an immense amphitheater, with six peaks soaring over 13,000 feet. We ate lunch with our sweaty feet dangling in the cold lake, and watched for jumping fish.
When it comes to camping, the kids like the spartan Moraine Park or Glacier Basin campgrounds, because from there (a short drive from the Beaver Meadows entrance) it's a quick walk to see elk gathered at dusk and dawn, especially during rutting season in early fall (that's when traffic is light on the trails, too). Around the campfire, I get to be a backwoods gourmet; Meredith, Emma and Celeste's mom, tells South African ghost stories from her childhood.
The day after our training hike we often drive over Trail Ridge Road to Lake Granby, in the Arapaho National Recreation Area, just past the park's southwest boundary. There we rent a sloop and sail with the mountain wind, a unique experience for our landlocked, high-altitude kids. From the boat we can plan our assault on Longs Peak, visible as it towers into the clouds, 13 miles away.
GETTING THERE – Rocky Mountain National Park (970-586-1206, is reached by driving U.S. 36 northwest from Denver and Boulder.
LODGING – A tent site at Moraine Park or Glacier Basin, or any of the three other roadside campgrounds in the park, costs $18 a night. Call 800-365-2267 to make a reservation (recommended between Memorial Day and Labor Day). The park also offers 267 backcountry campsites; for full information on campsites, see The romantic Stanley Hotel (800-976-1377, was built in 1909 by F. O. Stanley, inventor of the Stanley Steamer automobile, and was Stephen King's inspiration for The Shining. The front rooms command a magnificent view of the peaks. Doubles start at $149 per night.
OUTFITTERS – Rent sailboats from Captain Spongefoot Sailing Company (970-887-1043) on Lake Granby, in the Arap-aho National Recreation Area. A 24-foot sloop costs $145 for four hours. For powerboat rental (about $150 per day), call Highland Marina on Lake Granby (970-887-3541).
FOOD – Kids like the burgers and sandwiches at Penelope's World Famous Burgers in Estes Park (229 W. Elkhorn Ave., 970-586-2277) and the hearty chicken and deli specialties at Mountain Home Cafe, also in Estes Park (533 Big Thompson Ave., 970-586-6624).