Photographs by Sharoon
Published by Jetwings Magazine in 2008.
The landscape that meets the eye when one leaves the Denver International Airport is very deceptive. Long, dry, and flat for miles, a traveler might assume the rest of the journey to the Rocky Mountain National Park to be quite the same. One is in for a real surprise! The first thing that hits the senses even before entering the hamlet of Estes Park is the crisp clean air, and the smell of spruce and pine. Once we entered the county of Estes Park, we were amazed by the vistas surrounding us. After driving for two hours and forty minutes, past cycling enthusiasts, along winding roads that tease a vacationer with distant glimpses of the snow-covered peaks, we finally arrived at the Castle Mountain Lodge in Estes Park. The entire town of Estes is cupped within the hold of the Rockies. The town stands arrested in the middle of this spectacular snow-covered glacial valley.
Although summer had just passed, snow still covered the peaks. It was chilly—the kind where one wants to cuddle up by a fireplace and sip on some soothing hot chocolate. We reached Castle Mountain Lodge, our home for the rest of our stay in Colorado, to a warm, friendly, and gracious host. She checked us in, gave us our keys, and we were on our way to explore this wonderful little place. It is not very often in life that one gets to sleep in a cabin fashioned entirely with logs and tall peaks for a backdrop with a gurgling stream tumbling below. Bordering the national park, the lodge is a cluster of cozy log cabins with wood-burning fire places that overlook a gorgeous, clear stream. Equipped with a small kitchen, barbeque grills outside the cabin, and a facility to set up a bonfire by the stream, the lodge is a perfect place for a romantic getaway.
After getting a quick bite at a nearby restaurant, we drove towards the national park through crowded streets of downtown Estes Park. The park loomed in the distance with ‘Long’s Peak’ always visible over thick clouds. After paying the entry fee, we were finally inside Rocky Mountain National Park. The wilderness and the natural state of the park was something that we recognized immediately. The national parks service has maintained it in as near a natural state as possible. You don’t have to be an intrepid explorer to appreciate why this landscape inspires superlatives. Picture perfect scenery, magical sunsets, and incredible solitude are all within easy reach, if you know where to look.
The national park is vast, and there are several trails and hikes that top the list. Most people choose to drive or ride through the 417 miles of the park. The narrow winding roads seem to offer a different kind of thrill for people who ride. Wind blowing against your face with the soft purring of a Harley engine is indeed a unique experience. Sunshine reflecting off the water and the surrounding grassy meadows dancing with the wind makes for some good poetry. I definitely wanted to pick up my paint brush and render a likeness of what met my eyes.
For people who choose to walk or hike the several trails, the offers a shuttle service and a fantastic map. We hiked a few of these wonderful trails and were lucky enough to spot elks, moose, and some wild squirrels. As we approached a curve along a road, there were people enthusiastically pointing towards something in the meadow. Looking closer, we realized it was a herd of elk, grazing. If you visit the park in fall, stop and listen for squeals, barks, and high-pitched whistle sounds. This is the mating ritual or what is called “rut” of the bulls. They fight fiercely over territory and mating rights and use their antlers to defend themselves against other male elks.
Fall brings with it spectacular shades of changing colors in the aspen trees; leaves change from pea-green to pale yellow, deep pumpkin orange to bright scarlet. As fall turns to winter, snow blankets the mountains, creating new possibilities for climbing and skiing. The landscape changes with the onset of winter. The mountains are kissed by a powdery whiteness, which slowly engulfs the entire region. After a night of silent, blanketing snow, the little cottages in Estes Park are like fairy tale images. Thick layers of snow that resemble soft white clouds, topped with puffs of whipped cream cover every inch of space.
The parks winter sports are glorious. But the national park itself offers no amenities for a ski enthusiast. This doesn’t stop vacationers from enjoying this snow-drenched piece of land. Equipment and gear have to be rented from Estes Park and hauled to the park. There are several outfitters who help amateurs and professionals with classes and lessons. So, if you haven’t tried your hand skiing, this is probably the best place to shake those novice jitters off.
After a long day of hiking and walking, we were ready for some R&R. A stroll along Elkhorn Avenue, Estes Park’s main street, took us into eclectic collections of more than 300 boutique shops, galleries and eateries. We discovered stylish fashions, native American art, country collectibles, designer blown glass, antique jewellery and much more. The River Walk footpath, which winds through the heart of town all the way to the Riverside Plaza, offers a very serene walk with a stream tumbling by benches and grassy knolls. Elkhorn Avenue is dotted with restaurants, a chocolate factory, trinket, and coffee shops. As we walked down Elkhorn Avenue, we chanced upon the restaurant “Nepal.” A hole- in- the- wall place, it is small and unassuming, serving up authentic vegetarian food. Textile Tara’s dot the walls alongside picturesque poster-sized mountain photos. The smell of curry and spices will tantalize any passerby. The food was not the best, but the service and hospitality was top-notch.
Lodgings are an essential part of any vacation and Estes Park has several options. The Stanley Hotel is set against the stunning backdrop of the Rockies. If luxury, adventure, and classic elegance are what set the ball rolling for you, then the Stanley Hotel is a good bet. The hotel is rumored to be haunted, and there are tours that take visitors around to these haunted sites within the hotel. Estes Park also offers b&s, cottages, hotels, cabins, and resorts. Some places offer yurt accommodations as well.
The journey is the destination on a vacation of this kind, so take your time, and savour the many flavours to be found in this fantastic area. After listening to John Denver sing “Rocky Mountain High” during my college years I was finally able to witness the real thing. It indeed was a high. This is one place where nature leaves you with a sense of awe and wonder; a place where one realizes that man is a small speck in the grand scheme of things. Our journey ended with Denver’s song. At all an altitude of 12,000 ft. it definitely was “raining fire in the sky.”