“My weekend R+R in the Rocky Mountains”
This is my first of two entries chronicalizing my weekend trip to RMNP & Denver over the past weekend.
After the stressful ordeal that was last week it was the absolute perfect timing for this getaway to Denver & RMNP over the weekend. I took the trip with Carmen & a small group of friends and acquaintances that brought the head-count up to 6 total. Admittedly, it was hard to turn things off into “Full Vacation Mode” but as the weekend went on I could not help being truly captured by the serenity of the mountains.
We flew frontier airlines from San Antonio to Denver International, if you know anything about Frontier you know they’re no frills to the max. Given the strike late last year I was a little bit skeptical but other than the ant-size table top I really had zero complaints about the flight, it was on time & relatively clean which is more than I can ask for on a $100 round trip ticket.
Shortly after arrival we picked up our rental car from Hertz, a Nissan Rogue 4×4. Definitley a bit roomier than the Corolla I was expecting & a nice touch for the trek up the mountains for later in the day. I gotta say I was completely impressed with the rental process from that Hertz. Upon landing I received an email with a stall number where the rental was located & the keys were in the ignition ready to go. Literally no hassle & no time wasted! Having fell victim to hour long rental waits before this was truly valued to make the most of vacation.
The first trip we made after getting settled into Denver was first picking up a 2nd rental from another Hertz location and then a local cafe called “Waffle Brothers” for breakfast. The fare was good & really set the tone for the overload of carbs I was about to consume for the rest of the weekend. I had the “Full Monty” & was not disappointed with taste but the serving side was a little underwhelming. From here we went directly to Mount Evans. About a hour and half from the city center of Denver & home to the highest paved road in the USA, we hoped to make it to the summit but the snow was just too heavy the road was blocked off for the season (probably till late May/ Early June). Still though, we made a lackluster effort of heading to the top on foot but got about a quarter mile till we turned around. The snow just wasn’t packed & the depth mixed with the altitude just made for a real challenge. ON TOP OF THIS, my snow boots that were ordered from Amazon earlier in the week did not come in on time so I was roughing the hike with some “Old Reliable” Nike Basketball shoes that got wrecked by the water & absence of ankle support. Still though, the drive was scenic and we saw a couple of foxes on the way so no complaints there.
From Mount Evans we made our initial commute towards Estes Park where our hotel would be over the next couple of nights. We stopped in Central City on the way & ate at this literal ghost town restaurant called Millies. When I say we were the only ones in there, we were literally the only ones in there. The decor was a mix of Moulin Rouge & your grandmas house & ironically the wait for the food was LONG. For the six of us we probably spent a total of two hours at the restaurant. I had the bison burger (a must) with sweet potato fries, so I was satisfied but definitely ready to get out of there by the time the checks was given. Immediately after this we stopped at Century Casino right across the street. The advertisements promised “Many” Table games so I was surprised to find one room containing a table each of Blackjack, Craps & Roulette. I thought about enticing my roulette addiction but ultimately held off- The Europe trip is in 3 weeks so cooler heads prevail, at least for now. Back on the road!
The drive to Estes was beautiful. We passed an abundance of small-towns and ski resorts and the peaks & valleys coupled with the wildlife made for a rather entertaining trip. It took about 2 hours but we finally made it to Estes Park. Our hotel was “Murphy’s Resort” a modest mid-tier motel. The staff was all super generous upon check-in and the room was definitely cramped for 6 (with just 2 queen beds & a sofa sleeper) but given budget and the time we were actually going to spend inside the room it was doable.
By the time we got settled in and dinner started calling it was about 8pm. Our flight arrived at 8am so it had been a long-day & so gathering the energy to leave the room was quite the task. Eventually we did & we took our first tour around Estes it was a perfect time to visit as crowds and traffic were virtually nonexistent and the charm of this small town really shined at its brightest. Having only been to Estes once before in the Summer it seemed vastly different from the traffic-jam tourist trap it appeared to be then. Still though we searched for somewhere to eat and were surprised to find out that about 90% of all business were closed and had been since 6pm. Maybe this is due to the off-season but the only options available in the evening seemed to be Bars & Pubs so we made our way for Lonigans- an Irish Pub & Grill that would be a nice place to end the night. Here I had the Elk burger. The taste was pretty gamey & the food overall was sub-par but the rest of the party enjoyed it after ordering a couple rounds of “Car-Bombs” to drink. There was a bit of a fiasco as a credit card was lost after the waiter picked up our tabs but the staff was very helpful and eventually checked the cameras to find it has slipped out and fell on the floor after being processed at the stand. We went home for the night and prepared for day 2.
Saturday was all about hiking, the snow and weather really limited our options but research told me too of the more accessible trails in this time of year would be Gem Lake & Emerald Lake. We started our morning with a 3 mile venture up to Gem Lake at about 8am. Ironically enough this was probably the hardest hike of the entire weekend. Getting acclimated to the elevation was a challenge and though the hike itself was calm with modest elevation gain and no snow it ended up being quite the work out. This trail-head for this hike was actually located in Estes & not RMNP so the views were tremendous & the trail was mostly vacant. On the way up there were a couple of Chipmunks & plenty of opportunities to go off trail & rock climb but the trail was clearly marked to get on and off at your leisure. We finally reached Gem Lake close to the summit and found it to not be having one of its better days. The season brought a lot of debris and murkiness to the water but the trail was still a great way to start the weekend & the views really helped set the context for what would be coming next at Emerald.
Immediately after Gem Lake & right before Emerald we stopped to regroup & have lunch at Smokin Daves BBQ. Residing from Texas I can sometimes be quite the BBQ snob but I was pleasantly surprised in the quality from Daves. Carmen & I shared a 3 meat platter featuring Brisket, Ribs & Pulled Pork with sides of Green Beans & you guessed it! Sweet potato fries. I just gotta start off by saying the Brisket was PHENOMENAL and probably ranked around the top tier of any brisket I had back home. The taste and the texture were perfect! Everything else was good but not great but overall the ambience and pricing for the food would definitely leave me highly recommending Daves to anyone who finds themselves in Estes with an empty stomach.
Back to the Hiking! After about 30 minutes getting through the gates of RMNP & the trek up to the trailhead at bear-lake we met up with the rest of our group who were just leaving the trailhead for Emerald. They told us the trip was just not possible without snowshoes or spikes & they were done for the day as their hiking experience proved to be too much for them… Naturally, I talked Carmen into a little adventure and back down we went to rent our Snowshoes ($5 a day from Estes Park Mountain Shop). By this time it was 2 so we knew that daylight was waning so we made our way back up quickly in hopes of finishing the hike before night time and things got even colder. Reluctantly we started.
Immediately we found out this hike would be a lot more difficult. Winding in and out of the woods & up and down in elevations was definitely not easy. But things got most rickety when we lost sight of the trail. With so much snow and different tracks it was difficult to navigate. This was vastly different from Gem lake earlier where everything was so clear. Eventually, I pulled out my phone (typical) and found that the trail was actually labeled on Google Maps! This helped out so so much. There were very few people on the trails and even fewer headed to Emerald so I am not sure we would’ve been able to find our way without the phone. Though the deeper we got into the trail the more challenging the hike became.
Inclines got steeper, paths got narrower. Physically & Mentally this was intimidating. I was certain that at any moment Carmen was going to say “Lets Turn Around”. To my surprise she never did & every time I would ask how she was holding up she said fine. I know that prior to the start of the hike she was skeptical we would be able to complete it so seeing her persevere and power through those 3 miles was another major reminder of why I love this girl.
We crossed Dream Lake and then eventually made it to Emerald lake which was without a doubt the highlight of the trip. As Carmen put it pictures just cannot do justice for the moments we spent there. Physically, I was drained but still I felt a strange sense of serenity. It’s hard to put into words the freedom & euphoria you get exploring places of isolation like this in nature. It’s just so damn easy to get caught up in the hustle & grind of everyday life that getting some REAL time away with the people you love helps put things into a different perspective. You gain a deeper level of appreciation for life as a journey, you reflect on the things you’ve experienced, the places you’ve been and the people you love and in those moments I feel you find yourself at your absolute best.
Humbled by the oppurtunity, awed by the experience.