And they make it easy to get to, in theory.
From the YMCA there is a shuttle bus that will take you directly to the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center. From there you can get the RMNP shuttle up to the Park and Ride, and from there you can get yet another RMNP shuttle – aptly named the Hiker’s Shuttle – up to Bear Lake, which is a lovely little spot just perfect for people who have just arrived at those altitudes, since it is a) a short hike of less than a mile if you go all the way around the lake, and b) flat and well groomed.
That’s the theory. The reality is somewhat more complicated.
Tabitha wasn’t feeling very well on our second day due to the altitude, so Kim, Lauren and I decided to go to Bear Lake for a look around. We walked down the hill to the shuttle bus stop at the YMCA and boarded the bus that arrived moments later. “Hey, this is great!” we thought. It took us directly to Beaver Meadows, where a RMNP bus arrived mere seconds after we got out.
Unfortunately, the driver of that bus was either a troll or not very well informed, since he told us that we needed to buy a park pass at the visitor center before we could board the bus, and then he took off. It turned out that you could not in fact buy a pass at the visitor center, and that we should have just gotten on the bus, and another one would be along in half an hour. So we hung out at the visitor center for a while, and eventually another bus showed up.
It turns out that if you take the shuttle buses there really isn’t a clear place for you to buy a visitor pass at all. Nobody checks, and even if they did I’m not sure what they’d check for. So there is incentive to use public transportation, is what I’m saying here.
Eventually we found our way to Bear Lake, which is at the very end of the Hiking Shuttle, and we set off.
It’s a lovely place.
We walked the entire circumference of the lake and had a grand time looking at all of the various Nature that was there. And then it was time to go back to the YMCA.
Getting the bus from Bear Lake was no problem. Getting the bus from the Park and Ride to Beaver Meadows was slightly more of a problem but not all that much. And then we sat there at Beaver Meadows waiting for the YMCA shuttle, which it turned out we had missed by less than three minutes. This meant we would have to wait another hour for the next one, which would then take us through the entire one-way loop before arriving back at the YMCA – another hour.
Or, as we eventually decided, we could walk the mile or so downhill to the main road and catch the bus we missed on its way back to the YMCA. We made it by less than a minute – the driver was, in fact, nice enough to wait for us – and after that we decided that we’d just drive in to the park from that point on.
Regardless, we enjoyed our time at Bear Lake enough that on Friday we went back with our friends. They were new to the altitude, and Tabitha was feeling better. It seemed logical. And we had yet another good time, which is all one can really ask of a vacation.
We had planned just to drive to the Bear Lake site, but since that lot was full we stopped at the Park and Ride and took the bus up.
Much of our time at Bear Lake this go-round was defined by the kids rampaging ahead of us, finding new and ever more exciting things to jump on, climb up, or explore in other potentially hazardous ways, while the adults dragged on behind and watched.
It was a very peaceful sort of place nonetheless, just the right place for introductory hiking for people who don’t hike much. As someone whose idea of exercise consists of building arguments, jumping to conclusions, and making tea, it was ideal for me.
And then we decided to get more adventurous. Not “pack up dried fruits and head off into the wilderness” adventurous, fortunately, but “hey, there’s a cool something just a mile or two down the path that we could walk to” adventurous.
That cool something was Alberta Falls, which was in fact a cool something. It’s a relatively easy hike from Bear Lake – most of it downhill, and given the cutoff to get to the Alberta Falls shuttle bus stop you don’t actually have to go all the way uphill to get back – and there’s a lot to see along the way.
The thing is that you end up following this roaring stream for long enough that you’re not really sure when you get to the actual Falls until it’s obvious. “Is this it?” “No, this must be it.” “No, perhaps this.” “Oh, yes, clearly this is it.”
And it is clear, once you get to it
We spent some time just hanging out on the rocks for a while, watching the water go by. It was peaceful in a loud kind of way.
Eventually we started to get hungry, and so we left. In separate groups. Which is always a recipe for interesting times.
Kim, Richard, Tabitha, Magnus, and Ginny left first, since Lauren had graciously volunteered to take a picture of a fellow tourist who had not returned yet. They set off toward the Alberta Falls bus stop and made good time. So good in fact, that the three kids ranging far ahead of the two adults completely missed the turn to the Alberta Falls bus stop and continued on toward the Bear Lake bus stop. This is why, after the tourist came back and Lauren and I set off after the rest of our party, she and I found Richard sitting by himself at the Alberta Falls bus stop. Kim had gone on to Bear Lake to collect the rest of the party, except that they had realized their error and doubled back to the Alberta Falls bus stop. So several rides and missed connections later – and for the record, natural wildernesses have lousy cell phone reception, which may well be the point but can be desperately annoying at times – we found ourselves together at the Park and Ride, ready to go back to our cabin and none the worse for the wear.
Next time we will bring snacks with us.
Our other foray into RMNP was on Wednesday, before our friends arrived, when we decided to drive out to the Alpine Visitor Center – the highest destination point in the park. We piled into the van and headed in, paying our entry fee in the process since a minivan is clearly not public transportation. The fee is good for a week, though, and national parks are something I don’t mind chipping in for.
The thing about driving to Alpine is that you work your way up gradually. This is good for two reasons. First, Alpine is at roughly 12,000 feet elevation – half a mile higher than the YMCA of the Rockies and a long, long way from Wisconsin – and it’s good to do that in small bits. Even so, we could feel it by the time we got there – Lauren felt it most, but even I could tell that another few hills would not go well with me. And second, every time you turn a corner or emerge from beneath some trees you see impossibly scenic things, each one grander than the one that came before, and if you started at the top and worked down it would all seem anticlimactic. This way it was an unfolding adventure.
Our first stop, just past the Bear Lake turnoff, was the climbing rock. I have no idea what it’s officially called, if it is officially called anything, but that’s what we used it for. Everywhere along the road through the park are pulloffs and turnabouts, so you can get out of your car and explore. We pulled over for this one and spent some time just walking about and enjoying.
And then we worked our way ever higher, one stop at a time. This one was just one of those scenic places that make you sit and look.
This one was a place where you could walk about a bit. It had a big rock to climb and a long walkway along the precipice for you to look out over the valleys and mountains, or refresh yourself with snacks.
There were also chipmunks. You’re not supposed to feed the wildlife in the park and for the most part we adhered to that, but not with the chipmunks. Chipmunks are chipmunks, and they like Cheeze-its. The former Eagle Scout who stood next to us was rather annoyed by it, but so be it. We’ll let the elk fend for themselves, but the chipmunks were friendly.
Higher up the trees fade away and you get to Alpine tundra territory. The wind gets brisker and the temperature falls down, down, down until you are mighty glad that you brought your jackets even though it is August and down in the valleys it is 79F and those valleys aren’t all that low either.
Eventually you find your way to the top. It looks a lot like the rest of it, which is to say lovely and impressive in its way.
We had lunch at Alpine and spent some time pillaging the gift shop for things to take home, some for ourselves and some for the various friends who had agreed to take care of our various animals.
And then we drove back down.
Oh, Hidden Valley?
If you ever get a chance to go to Rocky Mountain National Park, you should. It’s quite a place. Bring your friends and family.