Sunday, December 8, 2013

Get yer Rocky Mountain high on day hike

Alberta Falls. Photo courtesy Rocky Mountain NPS.
Map of Alberta Falls Trail, courtesy Rocky Mountain NPS.

Alberta Falls
Trail runs
in Colorado

Lush green woodland, a waterfall, and a Rocky Mountain high await day hikers on the Alberta Falls Trail near Estes Park, Colo.

The 1.4-mile out-and-back trail sits in the heart of Rocky Mountain National Park. Seventy-two of the mountain peaks in the national park rise 12,000 feet above sea level.

Because of the high altitude, summer marks the best time to hike the trail. However, given the trail’s ease and its big payoff – the waterfall – expect it be somewhat crowded.

To reach the trailhead, from Estes Park travel east on U.S. Hwy. 36, turning left/south onto Bear Lake Road. You’ll drive through some fantastic scenery for about eight miles to the Glacier Gorge Trailhead parking lot, which is near the road’s terminus. The trailhead sits at the lot’s southwest corner.

With a trailhead elevation of 9240 feet, be aware that there’s less oxygen, so pace yourself. In addition, you’ll go 200 feet uphill on the way to the waterfalls.

'The forest and the streams'
The dirt path through evergreens connects with the Glacier Gorge Trail in about 650 feet. Go left/south and in less than 50 feet turn onto the trail to your right/southeast.

To the northwest is Hallett Peak and the Continental Divide. The peak rises to 12,270 feet with pretty Bear Lake sitting below it.

The trail crosses Tyndall Creek then splits. Go left/southeast. You’ll know you’ve gone the wrong way if you cross Tyndall Creek again.

The forest here is mixed pines with aspen groves. You can almost hear John Denver singing in the distance. At the very least, if you’ve never visited the Rockies before, you’ll get a good understanding on the trail of what he meant by “Now he walks in quiet solitude, the forest and the streams/Seeking grace in every step he takes.”

About 800 feet from the last trail junction, you’ll cross Chaos Creek. The trail meanders a bit then veers south as paralleling Glacier Creek to your left. If hiking during early autumn, the change in aspen leaf colors makes for great scenery.

Picnic below the falls
Alberta Falls appears within 1200 feet. It thunders over a small gorge with a 30-foot drop. It is named for Alberta Sprague, the wife of one of Estes Park’s first white settlers. Her husband, Abner Sprague, became the first person to pay an entrance fee into Rocky Mountain National Park in 1939.

Alberta Falls is a great place for a picnic if you’d like to carry lunch in your backpack. There’s a good chance that you’ll share the area with painters capturing the falls on canvas.

While the trail does continue onward, the falls marks a good spot to turn around.

Learn more about the park’s day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at Rocky Mountain National Park guidebook.