Day 51-53: Denver and Rocky Mountain National Park, CO

Day 51: Tuesday 2nd May

When we got to the Colorado state line we spotted a state welcome centre. We hadn’t seen one of those since Florida, where they had given us free orange juice, so we went to check out what the Colorado equivalent had to offer. They had some information boards outside the centre detailing parts of Colorado’s Native American history which I spent some time perusing. (Gwynnie: there was supposedly free coffee, but it had run out. I went in there to use their bathrooms and there seemed to be a lot of very chatty old people hanging out and having fun in the tourist information room). State welcome centres are a pretty great idea, I have to say, even if it’s just for the free toilets.

We drove the rest of the way to Denver, arriving around 6.30pm. We were staying with some old couchsurf friends of Gwynnie’s who she had hosted in Romania, and who were now able to return the favour by letting us stay with them in Denver. They kindly gave us some food for dinner that they got free at work (what an amazing perk!). Unfortunately, they had to go to bed early to be up for work in the morning, so we planned what we were going to do over the next couple of days and then had an early night ourselves.

Day 52: Wednesday 3rd May

We’d finally got to the section of the trip where we were about to start a series of nights camping in the National Parks, so we needed to prepare. This was the day we’d set aside to buy all the camping equipment and other essentials we needed. We went to REI, which had been recommended to us as a great outdoors shop with excellent customer service and a generous returns policy. We could have bought a cheap tent in Wal-Mart, but we figured that since we were going to be camping in all kinds of terrain and weather conditions, it might be worth it to invest in a slightly more high-quality one (I’ve slept in enough leaky tents to know it ain’t no fun). We found a tent quickly and easily – but didn’t manage to leave the car park quite so quickly and easily because we discovered that the ticket which you needed to insert so that the barrier would open had somehow got wet and no longer worked. We had a lot of fun reversing out of the tight spot with a bunch of other cars backed behind us, running inside trying to sort it out, finding they couldn’t help us, trying to call a number on the machine, until we finally realised there was actually a woman sitting in the booth the whole time who could have helped us. She lifted the barrier for us and away we finally went.

We went to Wal-Mart for the rest of our camping needs and bought a torch, shovel (just in case we needed to poo in the woods, as our first night of camping a few days from now would be wild camping, so no luxuries or conveniences like toilets), ground mat, some Tupperware (so we didn’t keep having to take those nasty polystyrene boxes from restaurants every time we wanted to take our leftovers with us, which was virtually every meal because the portions are so huge), and some groceries.

Denver streetart_4.jpg
Denver street art

After some lunch at Chipotle (another favourite), we drove downtown, but had the usual problem of struggling to find free street parking – everywhere we looked had meters. With a bit of persistence, we eventually managed to find free street parking on Larimer Street (we should really write a post purely on where to find free street parking in each city we went to), and then headed to a cafe called Port Side for some coffee and to update the blog.

Colorado is famous for being the first state to legalise marijuana – both medicinally, industrially, and finally in 2014, recreationally. They have a huge weed tourism industry now, a bit like Amsterdam. So of course, we couldn’t be in Colorado and not check out a dispensary. Neither Gwynnie nor I are massive pot smokers, but we were curious to see how it all works there now it’s legal.

We went to what we thought was a dispensary, but turned out to just be a head shop selling weed paraphernalia, tobacco, vapes and so on, called Meadowlark64. They directed us to an actual dispensary down the road called Botanico.

Denver marijuana shop_1.jpg
Meadowlark64

When we got there we had to show ID to a policeman behind an entrance booth to even be allowed in (you have to be 21 to buy weed), and he allowed us through. To be honest we just wanted to browse and see what they had on offer without actually having to spend any money, but as soon as we got in we were accosted by a sales assistant who shepherded us into a private room where I wondered if we were going to be given a medical examination or something. In there was another guy who asked to see our IDs AGAIN – but this time he wasn’t happy that I only had my driving licence and not my

Denver streetart_3
More Denver street art

passport (I don’t like to carry my passport around because I worry about it getting lost or stolen). He was very polite but he said he couldn’t accept a non-US driving licence as a form of ID, so he asked us to come back again when I had my passport with me. Since we had no intention of buying anything we were relieved to be able to leave without having to make excuses. It didn’t really seem the kind of place where browsing was encouraged. To be honest, we had seen about as much as we wanted to see anyway, so we weren’t too disappointed.

But, advice if you do want to go to a dispensary in Colorado and actually buy something – be over 21, and if you’re not from the US, make sure you have your passport with you 🙂 Also, if every dispensary is run with the same military precision as the one we went into, don’t expect to go in there and just browse – you’d better be planning to buy something.

We had a quiet evening hanging out with our Couchsurf hosts and had another early night, ready for our big day tomorrow.

Day 53: Thursday 4th May

We got up early the next morning ready for – I know it’s the moment you’ve all been waiting for – our first trip to a National Park! Yes, dear readers, we’re finally here 🙂 The Rocky Mountain National Park is only about a 1.5 hour drive from Denver, so an easy day trip. We hit the road around 9am and headed for Estes Park Visitor Centre, which is a good entry point to the park if you’re coming from Denver.

We stopped along the way at a gas station, and as we were leaving we realised we had a bit of paper flapping behind our windscreen wiper, which turned out to be a parking ticket. After getting a warning for speeding a couple of days before, we clearly weren’t doing too well with our traffic offences (or, looking at it another way, we were living up to our Thelma and Louise reputation – well, short of killing a man). When we investigated the parking ticket more closely, our infraction wasn’t that we had parked somewhere we weren’t supposed to, but that we had parked against the flow of traffic – which we didn’t even realise was an offence. It was a $25 fine. Sadly when we tried to protest the ticket a few days later, they had a list of specific reasons you could dispute it, and being an ignorant foreigner wasn’t one of them. So we thought rather than risk an ever-mounting fine (it went up to $100 if you missed the payment deadline), and since they could trace our car licence plate back to our rental company who could deduct the sum from my credit card without warning anyway, we thought it best to just pay up. So we swallowed our pride and did so.

Throughout this trip, it never ceased to amaze me how much of American’s National Parks you can see just from the seat of your car. I can’t imagine it being this way in any other country. Even the drive to Estes Park was fantastic. But if there’s one thing we’ve learnt, it’s that taking pictures from the window of a moving vehicle is really hard, so sadly these pictures fail to capture the amazing panoramic views we experienced as we crawled up into the Rockies:

At Estes Park Visitor Centre we picked up some maps and got some advice on which trails we could hike – even though it was early May there was still a lot of snow around so some roads were closed. Our Couchsurf hosts had also given us a nice booklet guide to the Rocky Mountain National Park, conveniently listing the trails according to distance, elevation gain and difficulty (you can pick up similar booklets at most park visitor centres).

We drove on to the park entrance and used our America The Beautiful park pass for the first time – we will be writing more about this in a future post on tips for visiting US National Parks, but for the time being, it’s safe to say that if there are two or more of you and you are visiting more than a couple of National Parks, then it is definitely worth investing in this pass. The entrance fee for the Rocky Mountain National Park is $20 per vehicle (most park entrance fees are $20 – $30 per vehicle) and the pass only cost us $20 each because we got it second hand, so by the time we had visited three parks we were already saving money – and we visited a lot more than three 😉

Rocky Mountain National Park_sign_Anna

We drove on to Bear Lake, parked Daisy in the car park, and had a spot of lunch.

Rocky Mountain National Park_Gwynnie eating lunch

We walked out to Bear Lake, only a few hundred metres away, and couldn’t believe how much snow there still was everywhere! We had come prepared for all weather conditions as we had been warned that spring in the Rockies is extremely unpredictable, but still, it was amazing to see it.

Rocky Mountain National Park_Bear Lake_1.jpg

Fortunately for us, we lucked out with the weather – instead of threatening snowstorms and avalanches, we had a bright clear blue sky and sunshine which made the snow sparkle and glisten – so much so that Gwynnie got a nice sunburn on her face 😉 (Gwynnie: It was ridiculous; I actually looked like a tomato).

Since the walk to Bear Lake was so short that it couldn’t really be called a hike, we decided to do a slightly longer one to Emerald Lake, which was a bit more taxing as it went uphill and there was a lot of snow so it was quite slippery. Fortunately, some kind fellow hikers who were coming back gifted their hiking sticks to us.

We made it to Emerald Lake and it was beautiful.

Rocky Mountain National Park_Emerald Lake_3.jpgWe also found this little guy:

Rocky Mountain National Park_Emerald Lake_Gwynnie_snowman

And I climbed on some rocks:

Rocky Mountain National Park_Emerald Lake_Anna on rocks_2.jpg

We hiked back to the car park and ate the rest of our lunch, and wondered what to do with our afternoon. We were pretty pleased with ourselves for already having fitted in a hike by lunchtime, so we thought, “Why not do another?” and drove to the start of the Bierstadt Lake trail.

The Bierstadt Lake trail was really a trail of two halves – the first half was almost desert-like, on the rocky face of a mountain with the sun glaring down. There were flowers and butterflies and it was HOT:

Then we crested the peak of the mountain and it was suddenly like being plunged into a winter wonderland – there were forested trees casting a shadow over everything, there was deep snow, and the temperature dropped significantly. It was weird how just a few feet of elevation gain and some trees could so dramatically change the landscape.

We hiked on to Bierstadt Lake, where we were greeted with a sight that made my heart soar – a baby elk! I cannot express how exciting this was. To an American it maybe seems odd to get so excited about a large furry creature, but you have to understand that in Europe, we just don’t have wildlife on that scale (at least not unless you go up into northern Scandinavia or deep into the forests of Romania, which not many people do). The most exciting creature that most Europeans ever see is a squirrel. We decimated most of our wildlife long ago and only very small things survived – rabbits, squirrels, birds. Bears, wolves, deer – they are mostly all gone. I got chased by a wild boar once on the shore of a lake outside Berlin and that was about as close as I ever got to something that could be called wildlife at home (and even that was a big surprise). So for me, this was a truly magical moment. I was so moved I almost cried, and simultaneously so excited I couldn’t stop hopping around. It was transfixing. I took something like 37 pictures. It was impossible to stop.

Rockies_Bierstadt_lake_1 Anna
Me excitedly photographing elk

I won’t bore you with all of them, but here is a selection:

Apparently the mummy elk was somewhere nearby, but we never saw her. We didn’t want to get in between the mother and the baby as that would be very bad, and possibly life-endangering, so we were careful to wait until they had both left before continuing on our way.

(Gwynnie: The view of the lake wasn’t bad either):

Rockies_Bierstadt_lake_2 panorama

Rockies_Bierstadt_lake_3 panorama Anna
I don’t know what that face is, but I’m guessing it’s something to do with the elk

Rocky Mountain National Park_Bierstadt Lake_8

Rocky Mountain National Park_Bierstadt Lake_3

Rocky Mountain National Park_Bierstadt Lake_6

Rocky Mountain National Park_Bierstadt Lake_9

I was amazed at the proliferation of wildlife. I figured that sightings would be a rare occurrence, but on our very first trip to a National Park we saw a baby elk, and as we were leaving the park, wild turkeys and a bunch of deer:

We felt like our first day visiting a National Park had been pretty damn successful, what with fitting in two hikes and seeing three different kinds of wildlife, so we gave ourselves a congratulatory pat on the back as we left the park. More stunning scenery followed and it felt pretty epic to be cruising down the side of a mountain with music blaring and some of the most mind-blowing scenery I’ve ever seen in my life unfolding before me. (Gwynnie fell asleep.) Again, it’s quite hard to take photos from a moving vehicle but here is a pale imitation of what we saw as we left the park:

Rocky Mountain National Park_driving out of the park_2.jpg

We stopped at a Wal-Mart on the way home to pick up some supplies and arrived back at our Couchsurf hosts’ house around 7pm. We had dinner at Wahoo’s Fish Taco and enjoyed eating it out on the restaurant terrace. We chatted to our couchsurf hosts a little that evening and were once again in bed before midnight – weirdly our sleeping and eating schedule on the road trip was much more regular and healthy than our normal lives back in Prague! Particularly after a day out hiking in the fresh mountain air, we were pretty happy to tumble into bed and get a good night’s sleep.

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