Not long after I turned eighteen, I drove from Kentucky to California for the first of what would eventually become five consecutive summers of cross-country road trippin. I did this for (I was sure at the time) a number of good and varied reasons, but looking back, I mostly just took off for the hell of it. I was full of restless energy, and I had read too much Jack Kerouac. Since time constraints were usually the least of my concern, I was lucky enough to see a great deal of the mountain west along the way.
Eventually, I began to leave the west coast alone and devote my wanderlust to the Rockies. Over time that lust evolved into love, and the Colorado Front Range, its surrounding towns and cities, Rocky Mountain National Park, and the town of Estes Park in particular have always existed as a kind of youthful touchstone for me. Memories from my first trip are vague and hazy. They revolve around meteor showers, some kid garbed in feathers and giving away his LSD while the band transformed Warren Zevon’s classic into “Werewolves of Estes”, and an especially memorable “backpacking” trip where my load consisted of a sleeping bag, fried chicken, and a heavy cooler full of ice and Natural Light. But beware the memories of an eighteen year old beatnik wannabe and know this. Estes Park is not the ideal place for young folks to party. It is the gateway to RMNP, a world class destination for rock climbing and other outdoor adventure sports, but it is also the destination of several million motorized tourists of all ages every summer. Its downtown assortment of congested ice cream, t-shirt, and knick-knack shops attests to this. It’s not as bad as your typical Colorado ski town in the winter, but summer’s are pretty busy in Estes and much of the business is family oriented.
Nevertheless, along the way rock climbing became a passion of mind, so I came back during the summer of 05 to work in Estes and climb almost every day. I met my wife there. We had a ton of fun, but our days mostly revolved around hiking, climbing, and camping in RMNP and the surrounding areas. If you are an experienced climber, the Front Range is a mecca of opportunity. From the Diamond, to Lumpy Ridge, to the Monastery, to Eldorado Canyon near the city of Boulder, you will never be at a loss for hard rock, but RMNP is also a great summer destination for alpine novices, even beginners, who are interested in strapping on a pack and searching out their own idea of adventure. There are endless cirques, ridges, and even alpine summits that can be explored on foot just a few miles from the trail head. Long’s Peak, at 14,200ft.(approximately) is the highest point in the park and can be summited (during the summer) in a long day with little to no technical gear or preparation. You’ll need to start well before daylight; however, or you run the risk of encountering the afternoon thunderstorms that commonly roll through the range in the summertime. (Disclaimer: Never attempt to scale a peak without consulting park rangers for the latest weather and trail conditions. Despite the technical “ease” of the Long’s Peak ascent hikers are killed by lightening and/or severe weather conditions every year.)
So, this is the primary reason I love the place and returned with my wife this summer, to hike, camp, and climb in an area that combines Colorado’s cool, clean mountain air and pristine wilderness with the added bonus of being just a few miles from all the conveniences of town. That’s really what sets the Front Range apart and makes this area a great destination for everyone. Even if your idea of experiencing nature need coincide with a car, the Trail Ridge road that winds through RMNP offers some of the most awe inspiring vistas in the lower 48. The town of Estes is sleepy, but there is great food to be had at Ed’s Cantina, and Lonigan’s Pub picks up on the weekends. You’ll struggle to find anything approximating fancy, but if good burgers and beer are your idea of a night out, Estes won’t disappoint. The college towns of Ft. Collins and Boulder are both approximately 45 minutes away, and both towns offer a variety of outdoor activities, great eats, and tons of cultural and entertainment possibilities. If you’re ever in Boulder during the summer be sure to pack a cooler and an inner tube and check out Boulder Creek for some easy access, incredibly fun, and best of all, free summer floating. It’s always crowded but full of fun loving, friendly locals and a great way to kick back on a hot day. Denver and its international airport are only an hour and a half from RMNP and you pass through Boulder on the way. So, all in all, its relatively inexpensive and easy to get there and explore all the Front Range has to offer. Hardened explorers and adventure seekers will probably want to stick to the more remote areas of Colorado. For those who want to have their nature experience and drink up too, the Front Range is well worth checking out.
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