Travel The USA

Top Shots in Rocky Mountain National Park

Todd Rightsell takes us 14,100 feet high, drives in the clouds, gets his goat, and captures an elk bull; picture that is.  It’s Top Shots Rocky Mountain National Park style!  Don’t miss Todd’s Travel Tips.

Top Shots in Rocky Mountain National Park

TCM is very excited to introduce our new truck camping photo journalist, Todd Rightsell.  Todd’s jaw dropping photography and warm hearted adventure writing captured our attention in 2010 with his amazing two part “North American Photo Tour” series.  Reader response to Todd’s work was so positive that we invited Todd to help us launch an all new truck camping destination series, Top Shots.

The Top Shots series will take us to some of the best places to go truck camping from world famous national parks, to hidden gems on BLM lands.  Photographed and written by truck campers, for truck campers, Top Shots will be a treasure chest full of fresh ideas on where to go and what to do in these incredible destinations.  First up for the new Top Shots series is none other than Rocky Mountain National Park.  Take us to the top Todd!

Click here to see Todd’s Travel Tips for RMNP

Top Shots in Rocky Mountain National Park
by Todd Rightsell


Above: Scenery from inside Rocky Mountain National Park

As some of you already know, I try to take a trip out west every summer for six to eight weeks in my home away from home, my Northstar Arrow truck camper.  I have done this every summer since I got the camper in 2005.  I vowed when I bought it to spend a year just roaming and exploring the national parks; not all at once, but six trips of two months each.  I have made it happen for five summers in a row and then the economy got the best of me.  Real estate has been in the pits in case you haven’t heard!  In 2010 I wasn’t able to go, and I was literally heartbroken.

I was beginning to think my year was in jeopardy and I actually considered the unthinkable, selling my truck camper!  Thankfully things turned around and I was able to complete my dream in 2011.  Not only did I knock out the last two months of the year this past summer but I managed to get a few more weeks in to boot.  I was fortunate enough to spend just over 100 days out this summer; my longest and possibly best trip yet.  I say possibly because my trip to Alaska in 2007 is hard to beat!  Including my six major trips, local camping trips, bluegrass festivals, beach trips, etc; I estimate that I now have close to 450 nights under my belt in the tin can.  Nobody can tell me that I haven’t gotten my money’s worth!

Credit goes to Rex and Rory and the bunch at Northstar.  The thing still looks like it’s brand new!  And believe me, I have tried my best to shake, rattle, and roll it to death!  I have hauled my Northstar close to 90,000 miles over some of the roughest roads in North America and she still looks brand new.

Gordon and Angela were nice enough to ask me to share some of my pictures and memories from this summer, so it here goes.  I hope you all enjoy them.  I literally had the time of my life making them.

Rocky Mountain National Park

I left Greensboro, North Carolina on June 12th and made a beeline for Colorado.  The plan was to spend a week or so in Rocky Mountain National Park and see my cousin in Boulder.  I knew the park would be crowded and I wanted some solitude and a sense of camping in the wilderness, so I detoured and headed a bit north of the park and ended up in the Roosevelt National Forest for my first official night of camping of the summer.  I found a forest service road and off I went.

A few miles in I found a small dirt road off the main road and followed that into the woods a few hundred yards and set up camp in a small clearing.  I was treated to a spectacular sunset and more solitude than I could stand!  The next morning I woke up to a light dusting of snow and thirty-five degree temps, a bit different than summer in North Carolina!

Rocky Mountain National Park

After getting my fill of camping in the woods alone for a couple of nights, I headed into Rocky Mountain National Park.  RMNP is famous for (among other things) its Elk herds.  If you spend any appreciable amount of time in the park you are sure to see Elk close up.  I set up camp for a couple of nights in the Moraine Park campground and captured this cow on my evening walk around the campground.  She was pretty used to people and she was drawing a crowd.  I managed to get close enough to get at least one good shot.

Rocky Mountain National Park

I spent a couple of nights in Moraine Park Campground before relocating further up the Bear Lake Road to Glacier Basin Campground.  The place was half empty when I checked in and I was able to grab a prime spot.  This may be one of the best views in the park and it was right out the back door of my camper!

Needless to say, I was in no rush to leave so I spent a few nights here just enjoying the eye popping scenery and spectacular hiking from the trail heads along Bear Lake Road.  The park offers a free shuttle service that comes right by the campgrounds and takes you to the trail heads which makes getting around easy and keeps congestion down along the road.  Although several parks offer a similar service, more should follow their lead.

Rocky Mountain National Park

When I checked in to Glacier Bay I had no idea what awaited me that evening.  About 6:00 pm a small herd of young bull elk showed up.  When I say showed up I mean they literally wandered right through the middle of the campground like they owned the place.  This photo was taken from the picnic table in my campsite.

These things are huge and their racks are massive.  They made their way through the campground and into the field in the photo above.  What a sight!  Eight bull elk were together with one of the most scenic backdrops in America behind them, the snow capped Rocky Mountains.  It was truly an awesome sight.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Although I had been to Rocky Mountain National Park three times before, I had never been over to the west side of the park, which many say is the better side.  The shortest way to get there from the east is up and over the spine of the Rockies.

As luck would have it, there is a road.  Trail Ridge Road is the highlight of the park.  This is the highest through road in America.  It winds its way up and over the continental divide and peaks out at 12,183 feet.  This is one of the most amazing drives in America.  At the very top there is a large park visitor center that focuses on the climate/ecology of the alpine tundra.  One exhibit in particular describes the brutal winters up here on top of the world.  Fascinating.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Here’s another typical scene along Trail Ridge Road.  Although I have driven this road to the top four times now, it never gets old.  This is some of the most unusual and different scenery I have ever seen.

Note the plow sticks to the left of the camper.  They are about twelve feet high and used as guides when they start plowing and clearing the road in the spring.  They get lots of snow up there.  In fact, the day before this was taken it snowed so bad the park ended up closing the road for the rest of the day.  It just so happened that they were having a big bicycle race that day as well.  It’s a grueling race that travels all the way across Colorado and goes up and over Trail Ridge Road.  The weather got so bad that they called the stage off and had to evacuate some 200 cyclists off the mountain.  That’s summer in the Rockies!

Rocky Mountain National Park

While in Rocky Mountain National Park, somebody told me about the Mount Evans Byway just outside of Denver off I-70.  When they told me it was the absolute highest road in the USA, I knew right then I was going to the top.  While Trail Ridge Road in RMNP is the highest actual through road in the United States, this road is higher still.  It dead ends at the top of Mount Evans; one of Colorado’s iconic Fourteeners.

The end of the road is just over 14,100 feet.  This is the highest I have ever gone and it was painfully obvious by the lack of oxygen!  The short climb up a relatively benign hillside to get near these goats was a killer.  This is one of the best places in the United States to see mountain goats.  I was lucky to see a group of about fifteen or so and even luckier to get some really good pictures.  At times they were so close I was a bit nervous, especially when one licked the sole of my boot as I was lying over a rock trying to catch a good shot of the others further up the hillside.

If you ever get to Colorado this is a must see.  This may be the best drive I have ever done.  And yeah, I hauled the camper up there!

Rocky Mountain National Park

This is what you get for spending too much time on a mountaintop.  After attending a great ranger program, and being on the top of the world for four hours, I turned around only to see this sight facing me.  It suddenly dawned on me that I was going to have to drive right through that cloud to get back down.  It was pretty cool to see the clouds roll in below me!

The drive down was a pretty hairy one, as the road can be terrifying in spots even in good weather.  Not only that, but on the way back down I was in the outside lane most of the way, which is the lane hanging on the edge of the cliff.  Thank goodness nobody was coming up because I was driving right down the middle the whole way down!  Amazingly it never rained or snowed, there was just dense fog.  I have never been so glad to get off of a mountain!  But I’d do it again in a heartbeat.


Rocky Mountain National Park – Todd’s Travel Tips
Top Hikes

Don’t miss these great day hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park.  And don’t forget your camera!

1) Emerald Lake – Emerald Lake is a short 1.8 mile walk one way that winds past three lakes and ends on the shore of Emerald Lake, a gorgeous alpine lake ringed by towering peaks.  The trail head is at the end of Bear Lake Road.  Take the bus for a great no-hassle experience.  If you are looking for solitude, this may not be the one for you, but the scenery is truly world class.

2) Alberta Falls – Alberta Falls is a huge waterfall just a short half mile walk from Bear Lake Road.  In the early summer this waterfall is thundering!  You can make a loop and nice half day walk by combining this with Emerald Lake.

3) Tundra Walk – This is a short walk across the tundra near the top of Trail Ridge Road.  Tundra is very rare in the lower 48 and Rocky Mountain National Park has some of the best examples still left.  It’s very fragile, so they insist you stay on the path to avoid damaging the tiny plants.  This is a really unique experience that you will probably never get the chance to have anywhere else.  And the views from up there near the top of the world are stunning.

Top Drives

Rocky Mountain National Park and the surrounding area has some spectacular drives.  In fact, Colorado has some of the best scenic byways of any state that I have ever visited.  So gas up the truck and hit the road!

1) Trail Ridge Road – This is the crown jewel of Rocky Mountain National Park.  If you miss this, you may as well have not even come to the park.  Trail Ridge Road takes you literally to the top of the world.  Well, the top of the Rockies anyway.  The road steadily climbs to a dizzying 12,000 feet and passes through some of the most beautiful alpine scenery you will ever see before descending the west side of the continental divide.  Along the way you will see the headwaters of the mighty Colorado River and if you are lucky maybe even a moose or an elk.

2) Take the park’s bus.  RMNP gets pretty crowded in the summer months and parking can be hard to come by, especially for larger vehicles. In fact, RV’s are prohibited on the very upper stretches of Bear Lake Road.  But don’t worry, RMNP has a great shuttle system that stops at all of the major trailheads and facilities along Bear Lake Road.  Leave the driving to the the pros and enjoy the company on the trip up or down.  You can even hop one into Estes Park.  It is a great way to meet some of the locals and an opportunity to exchange ideas with others about what to do tomorrow!

3) There’s more to RMNP than just RMNP.  If time allows, take the opportunity to do some exploring around the park.  RMNP is bordered by several National Forests and wilderness areas. The recreational opportunities are endless.  Cache le Poudre Canyon just north of the park is a great drive, as is the Peak to Peak Byway, a 55 mile drive through some of the most fantastic country on the front range.  It starts in Estes Park and ends in Central City; a truly scenic way to get back to I-70 if you are headed West.  Take one of the many gravel side roads off the Peak to Peak and you are sure to find even more adventure and solitude.

Top Campgrounds/Boondocking Spots

Rocky Mountain National Park has several campgrounds.  Although I have not stayed in all of them yet, my favorites so far are:

1) Moraine Park Campground – Moraine Park is on the Bear Lake Road and is the first campground you will come to along the road.  This is the place to be in the Fall, when the Elk are in the rut.  The campground is tucked into some small hills on the edge of a large meadow where the Elk like to gather in the Fall.  If you are lucky, you may be able to get a site with a front row seat to all the action.  Make reservations though, as the locals from Denver and Boulder love this place too!

2) Glacier Bay Campground – Glacier Bay is the last campground along Bear Lake Road.  The name is deceiving, as there is no water or glaciers anywhere around.  What is there is one of the best views in RMNP.  It’s jaw dropping.  It’s one of the best views you will see in any campground anywhere.  And as an added bonus the local Elk herd just might show up in the early evening and pose for a few pictures before bed.  Plus the bus stops here too.  All in all a great place to spend a few days.

3) Get out of the park.  Although RMNP has some great campgrounds, it also has a lot of people.  If you are like me, you enjoy some solitude now and then.  There is plenty to be found just north of the park in the Roosevelt National Forest.  Just pick one of the many forest service roads that crisscross the area and start exploring.  You are sure to find a good spot in short order.

Other Recommendations

1) June is too early to really enjoy much of the Colorado Rockies.  Many of the best trails and natural attractions are at higher elevations and in early June they can still be under thirty feet of snow.  I found that out the hard way.  Next time I’ll go a bit later.  I think July would be much better.  Despite my less than perfect planning, I realized that Colorado has some of the best scenic drives in the lower 48.  They seem to be all over the state.  Investigate these in your trip planning and take them any chance you get.  All but the largest of truck campers will have no problem with most of them, and the views from some of the more famous passes are surreal.  Wolf Creek, Independence, Loveland, and Berthoud passes come to mind.

2) The nearest Wal-Mart to Rocky Mountain National Park is not very near at all.  It’s about thirty miles away and a good one hour drive back down the mountain to Loveland.  I suggest you do not accidentally leave your grill in the parking lot as you will be hard pressed to find another small one up in Estes Park.  Lesson learned.  Never put anything on the ground to get it out of your way while you are loading up the groceries!  Seriously though, if you are arriving from the East and plan to spend any length of time in the park you need to stock up in Loveland.  You’ll find much better selection and it will be a whole lot cheaper than doing it in Estes Park!

3) Don’t neglect to spend a few hours or a full day in Estes Park, Colorado, the gateway to RMNP.  It’s a neat little town with stunning views of the front range of the Rockies.  There are a variety of dining options and one sure to please every pallet.  And for those of you into window shopping, well, you’ll be happy campers!

4) Most of all, and this almost goes without saying, have fun!

Truck Camper Chooser
To Top