By Charlene Mixa
Thrill in a Colorado Rocky Mountain High
I’m on top of the world! Seated in a “convertible hummer” above me is a clear blue sky with magnificent vistas of the Great Rock Mountains. With panoramic views, this is a fantastic way to “see” these majestic mountains. Rocky Mountain Rush Tours lives up to its name. Riding in this unique vehicle on winding mountain roads is definitely a “rush.”
Leave the driving to a professional and hop on a “Hummer”. As we climb aboard, we learn it’s not a Hummer but a 100% custom Toyota, FJ Mega Cruiser with 400 Horsepower and design cues from Safari Land Cruisers of South Africa. Sitting high above a normal car and with the open top we have wonderful expansive views. Dave our driver/guide is awesome! He entertains us with stories and trivia while also educating us on the trees, geological facts and history of this amazing area. Numerous stops provide an opportunity to see wildlife, a waterfall and gain more insight into the mountains, animals and heritage.
It is awe inspiring as the “Hummer” smoothly climbs up Old Fall River Road. A one lane, one way dirt road it is one of the highest mountain roads in the U.S. Narrow and steep with tight hairpin turns, I am so glad Dave is driving. From my seat, on the left side, I look straight down and see curve upon curve of the spiraling road. With our wide open views we easily take in all the beauty of the mountains as the “Hummer” climbs to the sky. Horace Albright, director of the National Park Service, in 1931 during the road’s construction stated, “You will have the whole sweep of the Rockies before you in all directions.” From the Alpine Visitors Center at an elevation of 12,183 ft, we admire the miles of spectacular “sweep” of the Rockies.
It takes 100 years for tundra to grow 1 inch! Carefully staying on the paths to not disturb tundra or the small trees and shrubs that fight to grow in these extreme conditions, we stroll around the Alpine Visitors Center. The Center has excellent story boards and information on the history of the Park and the challenges of building a structure that can survive the turbulent weather and wind conditions at this altitude. In fact a Scandinavian design was used with huge alpine building logs on top of the roof that create turbulence to keep wind from lifting shingles off the roof. It works like an air foil of an airplane.
Blankets are welcome as the temperature drops significantly at this altitude and strong chilly winds are blowing. Dave gives us snacks and water as we descend on Trail Ridge Road, a nationally designated All American Road. With the quick altitude drop chewing keeps us from experiencing earaches. Fondly referred to as the “highway to the sky” this two lane paved road presents similar challenges and sensations as the Old Fall River Road with steep grades and deep turns as it winds across and down the tundra’s vastness. Eleven miles of this high highway is above the treeline, the elevation near 11,500 feet where the park’s evergreen forests come to a halt. Trail Ridge Road (U.S. 34) offers us thrilling views, wildlife sightings and spectacular alpine wildflower exhibitions, all from the comfort of our “Hummer”. Riding the “Hummer” provides a fantastic experience of the Rocky Mountain National Park’s lofty wilderness interior. No stress, no maps, no sweat, and no roof – just majestic Rocky Mountain scenery.
To see a different part of the park we take Bear Lake Road into Rocky Mountain National Park. At the end of Bear Lake Road we enjoy a leisurely walk around Bear Lake on an interpretive nature trail that circles this popular lake area. Views of the Lake and the forested, yet rugged mountain peaks surrounding it create a serene setting. Next we hike up to Nymph Lake to take in more unique views of the Rockies. The Bear Lake area seems worlds apart from the scenery and vistas we experience along Old Fall River Road and Trail Ridge Road.
Strolling the downtown Riverwalk at Estes Park, Colorado we breathe in the fragrance of pine, wildflowers and crisp clean air. At 7,522 feet above sea level Estes Park is an intimate village surrounded by nationally protected lands and by mountain peaks ranging in elevation from 8,500 to over 14,000 feet. We are pleasantly surprised by its variety of attractions, shopping, dining, events and culture. With plenty of accommodations, this welcoming town is perfect base for a visit to Rocky Mountain National Park.
For a unique dinner we head to the historic Baldpate Inn. The Inn takes its name from the mystery novel, Seven Keys to Baldpate by Earl Derr, which was popular when the Mace family began building their property in the early 1900’s. Officially opening in 1917, this prestigious Colorado landmark, had such luxuries as hot running water, electric lights and indoor plumbing. Today the Baldpate Inn remains historically significant and is one of the few surviving examples of early tourist attractions. Its rustic western stick architecture ads a special charm. Entering Baldpate Inn we admire the spectacular scenery building, its structure and hominess. Dinner is served in the enclosed dining porch offering views of the Rockies. It’s an all you can eat salad bar with homemade soups, muffins and breads. The numerous salad options are excellent. The Apple Salad, Pistachio Salad and the pumpkin soup are some of our favorites. Of course there are a variety of scrumptious homemade pies for dessert, too. We get a copy of The Baldpate Collection with many of Baldpate’s favorite recipes and also a copy of the book Seven Keys to Baldpate.
Thousands of keys (12,107 as of November, 1988) hang from the ceiling, on walls and in displays in Baldpate’s Key Room. A tradition of donating the keys started early in the Inn’s heritage and continues today. We roam the “key room” to see where the keys are from and who donated them.
Another evening we enjoy a delicious meal at Twin Owls Steakhouse. Located outside of Estes Park, the building was built in 1929 as a home for the Stacey family. In the 1960’s it changed hands and was developed into a guest ranch, with the house being converted to a restaurant. With its great views of Black Canyon the ranch was renamed the Black Canyon Inn and the restaurant became Twin Owls Steakhouse after the Twin Owls rock formation nearby. The rough-cut, hand-assembled logs, floor to ceiling rock fireplace, high beamed ceiling, balcony and original oak flooring offer an unparalleled mountain ambiance.
Dinner is superb! Richard’s Panko Crusted Tilapia is a large portion served over a bed of rice with a mandarin orange and shrimp cream sauce. My Filet and Shrimp Kabob is plentiful with skewers each of marinated shrimp and beef tenderloin over a spicy rice and tasty Cajun glaze. Mountain views are seen from our window table and a large, lush lawn area where many of the staff have been married. It’s a wonderful and warm dining experience in this magnificent rustic lodge.
Rocky Mountain National Park and Estes Park offer a variety of activities for visitors. Using Estes Park as a base works well for exploring the eastern portion of the National Park. This Rocky Mountain wonderland offers so much to see and do. Take a hike, walk around a lake, enjoy the spray from a waterfall and sit atop a “Hummer” on a fantastic ride up to the Alpine Visitor’s Center along thrilling mountain roads and terrain.
If you go:
The Baldpate Inn, PO Box 700, 4900 South Hwy. 7, Estes Park, CO 80517 970.586.6151www.BaldpateInn.com
Estes Park Colorado Convention & Visitors Bureau, 500 Big Thompson Ave., Estes Park, CO 80517, 800-44-ESTES, www.estesparkcvb.com
Rocky Mountain National Park, 1000 U.S. 36 Estes Park, CO 80517, 970.586.1206 www.nps.gov/romo/
Rocky Mountain Rush Tours 212 E. Elkhorn Ave Estes Park, CO 80517 970.817.8687. www.rockymountainrush.com
Twin Owls Steakhouse, 800 MacGregor Avenue, Estes Park, CO 80517, 970.586.9344, Twinowls.net