To visit Rocky Mountain National Park we booked a tour with Aspire Tours, and started at 9am at Denver Union Station. After most of our party arrived (one additional party of two in Denver and a family of four that we would pick up in Boulder), we boarded our Transit-style van and headed east toward the Rocky Mountains. Our tour guide, Nick, narrated much of this time, giving a history of Rocky Mountain National Park, and describing what we could expect to encounter during our 9-hour tour.
To see the Rockies without the tour we would have rented a car and tried to piece together the best spots for the short duration of our visit. Although more costly, we enjoyed having the expertise provided, and it was especially helpful to be dropped off at each crowded location without having to wait for parking. For some travelers, sharing a vehicle with other families and not choosing how long to spend at each location would be a drawback to this type of National Park Experience, but with just one day to explore we enjoyed the option.
Denver to Estes Park
Our first stop was a short 20-minute visit to the adorable town of Lyons, where we purchased coffee and snacks.
As we were drove into the Park, we learned more of the history. The people of the Indigenous Ute tribe were the first recorded to utilize the resources provided by the valleys and lakes of what is now RMNP. We learned about Enos Mills, a naturalist whose advocacy was in part responsible for President Woodrow Wilson approving Rocky Mountain National Park in 1915 as the tenth in the National Parks system.
We stopped briefly at St. Catherine’s Chapel on the Rock, but it was closed on Mondays so we were just able to take photos of the exterior.
Buffalo, grizzly bears and wolves no longer live in the park, but we could expect to see mule deer and elk. We were told it was possible that we might spot bighorn sheep, but we would not cross paths with the mountain lions and black bears.
We were given time to walk around Lily Lake before heading to Estes Park for lunch. All members of our tour group opting for our tour guide’s suggestion: the Nepal Cafe.
Rocky Mountain National Park
From Estes Park, we re-boarded the van for our next destination, Sprague Lake, which would be the longest stop of our tour. We walked the ¾ mile around the lake taking time to walk on the ice (an act that was absolutely forbidden to me as a child in Ohio), and watched ice fisherman in the center of the lake.
The last outdoor stop was at the highest point accessible on Trail Ridge Road; the pass to the western side of the Rockies closes during the winter. Here we first saw snow and ice, and were glad to have a driver to drop us off at the highest point and pick us up in the lower parking lot. With the sun beginning to set, Nick made sure to allow time for us to stop at the Fall River Visitor Center, where we found a large privately-owned gift shop and restaurant, and a National Park gift shop nearby.
Finally, as we left and as if on cue, we spotted a large elk on a side road, and it obliged us with a photo opportunity (from the required 75-foot distance, of course).