Photography: Courtesy

It’s one of the West’s most beloved and accessible natural destinations. But there’s always something new and different to discover in Rocky Mountain National Park and its gateway town of Estes Park.

Who wants to take Dwight?”

A small group of visitors is gathered at the trailhead near an old retired ranch on a quiet edge of Rocky Mountain National Park— when Kirk Bien, our fly-fishing guide, walks over from his truck, casually lobs this question at us, and waits for a volunteer. To take Dwight.

It takes a few moments for any response. It’s early. We just got here. Everyone is still busy yawning, acclimating to 8,400-plus feet and staring off with glazed eyes at a spectacular horizon of Colorado peaks glowing in the freshly risen sun. Plus, none of us knows who Dwight is.

“I’ll take Dwight,” pipes a fuzzy voice, which turns out to be mine.

Dwight is even fuzzier than me at this hour — a fluffy white llama with tolerant eyes, a perma-smirk, and the thankless task of hauling loads of Orvis waders, river boots, fishing tackle, and turkey-pesto wraps to a remote creek hiding in the park’s northeast corner where the trout, Bien assures us, will be biting today. Because they’re biting out there every day.

“Everyone’s catching a fish,” Bien says, casually tossing me Dwight’s lead like a labradoodle’s before turning back to the llama trailer to fetch a couple more woolly sherpas for the journey.

“Who wants to take Hector and Bruce?”

Photography: Courtesy

In a world-famous national park just 80 miles from Denver that now draws more than 4 million annual visitors, it may not be such a secret anymore that llama-supported fly-fishing treks are just one of the many bucket-listable activities available to more than 2 million summer guests. But this and various other eye-opening experiences in Rocky Mountain National Park and its gateway resort town of Estes Park had somehow escaped my boot prints until now.

If you can name a single John Denver song, you know about the grandeur of this park, which celebrated its centennial in 2015. But all “Rocky Mountain High” (now an official state song) lyrics aside, what did I really know about one of the West’s first and still-foremost alpine tourism hubs prior to my own first and long-overdue visit?

Mainly all those generously bolded guidebook bullets that say just enough about a place from afar to make you think you know much more about it than you really do. A few highlights:

Rocky Mountain National Park (I’d read, several times) has been called “the Switzerland of America” since at least the 1860s — half a century before officially becoming a national park in 1915.

Trail Ridge Road, which spans the park between its east and west gates, is the highest continuous paved road in America — tracing a path used by Ute Indians and other Native American groups for millennia.

Longs Peak (14,259 feet), the park’s highest mountain, has been tapped by SummitPost as the most popular 14er climb in Colorado — a state furnished with more 14,000-plus-foot mountains (by far) than any other in the country.

Estes Park’s wealth of outdoorsy tourism amenities includes the iconic YMCA of the Rockies (America’s highest and world’s largest YMCA — a full-fledged rustic resort in the mountains), the historic Stanley Hotel (the inspiration for Stephen King’s The Shining), and enough adventure outfitters, spa facilities, golf fairways, zip-line runs, craft beer patios, fine-dining options, premium ice cream ’n’ saltwater taffy shops, and summer festivals to keep one of the most hallowed mountain vacation towns in the West buzzing through July, August, and beyond.

But enough armchair factoids.

Entering this picture for real invites a scale of unbounded beauty that can leave Lonely Planet editions in the dust. Including the view I’m now taking in along the park’s pine-studded North Boundary Trail on a 75-degree August day under a cloudless Colorado sky with a trout-filled creek somewhere ahead. And a warm, curiously moist breeze tickling my neck from behind.

Or is that llama exhaust?

“We’re actually a smaller park, at least compared to places like Yellowstone and Yosemite — and we get about as many visitors as they do,” Bien says, guiding the way up a winding mountain path that gets steep enough to induce heavy breathing, even from my sure-footed trail buddy Dwight, who could use a mint. “But if you hit the right places at the right times, you can have it all to yourself.”

Clambering up an unpeopled trail flanked by aspens, ponderosas, and tall granite cliffs on a weekday morning, any day-tripper or camelid would agree this is one of those places at one of those times.

“It’s pretty crowdproof over here because we’re away from the main gates, the trailhead lot is small, and once it’s filled up, that’s it — no one else is coming,” adds Bien, who grew up in nearby Loveland, logging years of local hiking and fishing intel before realizing his lifelong dream of opening a fly shop in downtown Estes Park.

“I always just knew that’s what I wanted to do, even when I was a little kid,” says the natural-born Colorado outdoorsman, sporting a casual goatee, an old ball cap, and an aptitude for holding conversations while scaling big hills. Years ago, his parents agreed to help support the fly-shop project — if he went to college first.

“I’m sure their thinking was I’d finish college and forget that whole crazy idea,” he says.

Fortunately, they were mistaken, and now Kirk’s Fly Shop & Mountain Adventures is a 15-year-old fixture in downtown Estes. Its specialty: helping experienced and novice fly-fishing groups discover some of the best trout hide-outs in and around the park.

“So most of you have never fly-fished, then?” Bien asks us.

“Technically, no — but I’ve watched A River Runs Through It at least three times,” quips a guest. “Does that count?”

“They were casting way too long in that movie,” Bien volleys back, like he’s heard this one before and was waiting for it. “It looks great on camera, but you’d never actually wanna do that. You’d wrap your line around every tree.”

Soon thereafter, we arrive at our public but private-looking fishing grounds, West Creek Falls, a short but picturesque cataract feeding a string of riverbeds divvied like loose pearls among giant boulders and fallen logs. No one is here except for us, a trio of dozing llamas, and untold numbers of elusive rainbow trout, brown trout, brook trout, and a distinguished subspecies called the greenback cutthroat — the Colorado state fish.

Hooking all four of these trout up here in a single fishing day is called a grand slam, Bien tells us — which, of course, invites a round of painful baseball metaphors after we gear up in our waders and boots and start our first inning of trout fishing in a visibly inhabited pool of them just below the falls.

“Swing and a miss.” “Hey, choke up on that rod.” “Watch for the steal.”

Needless to say, no one will be grand-slamming today. But whoa, here comes a short-hop single.

It’s a brookie — a small fry, but a pretty one — suddenly leaping from the end of my line within the first few minutes of my quick intro lesson with Bien. How easy was that?

“Nice!” Bien says, generous enough to give me way more credit than I deserve. Still, this is auspicious, right? If you’re not a brook trout.

“It’s a game of patience, but not too much patience — you don’t want to stay in any one place for too long,” Bien coaches, setting us up at various points along the river. “The fish are always facing the current. You want to lay low and sneak up from behind. They’re pretty smart.”

For the next hour or four — one naturally loses all track of time out here — I lay low and sneak up from behind. I wade furtively upstream through cool thigh-deep trails of murmuring mountain water. Past whispering pines and heckling mountain jays. Assuring my trout brethren that we’re all just having a friendly pickup game of catch-and-release here. C’mon, fellas. Let’s play ball.

Again and again, I’m smoked by smarter fish looking the other way.

Soon enough I begin forgetting about the mission altogether. Just being here, basking in this hypnotic setting, is the only bite that really matters. At least that’s what I’m going to tell myself, the rest of the group (all catching fish), and my future grandkids.

“Find any more?” Bien asks as I retire, troutless, to a riverside rock for turkey and pesto.

“These fish know how to field,” I hedge.

“Wouldn’t be any fun otherwise,” he says.

True enough. You can get the waders beaten off you by the cutthroats here and still feel victorious enough just playing in the same park.

If it’s all about the journey — the long, winding road itself and not the destination — then certain sections of the American highway grid are better reminders of that than others.

Take the 48-mile stretch of U.S. Route 34 between Estes Park and Grand Lake — aka Trail Ridge Road — which rises and sweeps up and across the spiny breadth of Rocky Mountain National Park with the sort of eye- and ear-popping topographical drama you would never confuse with some other 48-mile portion of U.S. Route 34 in, say, central Nebraska.

“It is hard to describe what a sensation this new road is going to make,” National Park Service director Horace Albright would promise during construction of what remains the country’s highest continuous paved auto route. Once part of an ancient Native American trail identified by Arapahoe elders as Taieonbaa — or “Where the Children Walked” (because it was too steep here for their folks to carry them) — Trail Ridge Road would be dubbed a “scenic wonder road of the world” by the Rocky Mountain News when it opened to engine-equipped travelers in 1932.

Eighty-five summers later, the awed seasonal motorcade along this bucket-list mountain drive (closed between October and May) has evolved a tad. Priuses from Pennsylvania. Audis from Arkansas. Subarus from Saskatchewan. They whiz through an Alaska-scale canvas of glacial valleys and alpine panoramas on a smooth two-laner as straight as cooked linguine. Convoys of fluorescent-green park tour jeeps are here. So are the requisite Harley riders and spandexed masochists on bicycles. All winding their way up and up — past shimmering aspen groves, thick pine forests, billows of loose clouds and away into the treeless tundra where about a third of the park resides.

“This is the highest sandwich I’ve ever eaten,” observes a freckled boy lunching with his family at the busy Alpine Visitor Center. Perched at 11,796 feet — above an oversize geology lesson of massive cirques, moraines, alluvial fans, and other loose glacier change — it’s indeed the loftiest place you may ever find yourself jockeying for a parking space, browsing for fridge magnets, ordering soup, or watching a herd of elk graze for their own midday meal nearby.

Head a few more miles west from here and the road crosses the Continental Divide at Milner Pass before eventually passing a trailhead that leads hikers to the headwaters of the Colorado River. Circle back east toward Estes Park, and Trail Ridge Road hits its highest point at 12,183 feet before weaving down through several vista-point pull-offs that will challenge the most FOMO-resistant driver.

At the Forest Canyon pullout, a short paved trail leads to a massive glacialscape framed by the park’s signature Front Range peaks and autographed by the Big Thompson River snaking below. Here, clusters of park visitors gather at a circular stone wall, quietly marveling in at least five different languages upon a panorama too big for words.

A plump, furry head darts in and out of some nearby boulders in the foreground.

“Vut in the vurld is that?” says someone.

“That’s a marmot,” says someone else.

For the next several minutes, a United Nations of marmot spectators watches transfixed as a chunky rodent pokes aimlessly around in old glacial debris. Not because it’s all that fascinating. But along this spectacular stretch of U.S. Route 34, it’s one of the few scenes that a random gathering of humans can collectively grasp.

Later, a scenic hike through the park’s central valleys will re-confirm that the best spots to get immersed in all this is away from the car crowds on miles of open trails — home to wilder, more elusive company.

“We’re probably being watched right now by mountain lions,” says Tom Dewitz, a guide with Footpaths of the World, an Estes Park outfitter (headquartered at local outdoor retailer hub The Warming House) that specializes in European-style inn-to-inn tours in and around the park and beyond. “But the biggest predators you’re likely to see today are up there,” he adds, pointing at a golden eagle hovering above.

More park residents turn up along pine cone-flecked paths between Horseshoe and Moraine Parks. Red-tailed hawks. Cottontail rabbits and pine squirrels. And many a munching elk. Once hunted nearly to extinction here before being reintroduced, elk populations have jumped in a park that has instituted fencing areas both to prevent and study the effects of overgrazing.

Photography: Courtesy

Summer guests are a bit early for the park’s favorite annual elk show during early fall mating season, when droves of competing bulls turn Moraine and Horseshoe parks into a feisty symphony of bugle calls and antlered machismo. Estes Park will be hosting its 19th annual Elk Fest (September 30 – October 1), attracting thousands of visitors, a team of “Bugle Corps” volunteers, and (every year) a few folks who get a little too close to all the action.

“The general rule of thumb about being too close to an elk is this,” says Dewitz, a wellspring of all facets of park intel past and present. He lifts his thumb near a lone elk sitting regally on a hill about 100 yards from us. “If your thumb is bigger than the elk, you’re OK. If not, move back.”

We move on. Through a wonderland of geological mass movements: “Those boulders over there are called glacial erratics,” Dewitz says. And human history: “Down there was the site of an old Civilian Conservation Corps camp.” And wilderness health and hygiene tips: “Common yarrow is one of the world’s most multipurpose medicinal plants — a natural painkiller, disinfectant, and astringent,” our informed guide notes. “And this fuzzy leaf over here is mullein, which has also been called ‘cowboy’s toilet paper.’ ”

Stopping for lunch in a tilted meadow sprinkled with wildflowers and stocky old pines, we soak in a southward view dominated by the park’s premier 14er, Longs Peak. Its stark summit and famous beaver-shaped southern ridge dominate a sea of lowly 13ers.

“According to Arapahoe legend, when that beaver climbs its way to the summit, the world is going to end,” Dewitz says, casually eating an apple.

Thankfully, the beaver appears to be in no great hurry today. And neither are we as we slowly wind down toward Beaver Meadows, where people and cars reappear like the fulfillment of some other legend.

You’d think it might get tough at times being that visitor-magnet existing right beside (and largely for) one of the most popular national parks in the country. Then you talk to people in Estes Park, and you think again.

“Once I went off to college, my dad did not expect me to move back here and take over the place,” says Ty Nagl, burly owner of the Wheel Bar, a three-generation local watering hole in the center of town with walls covered in family heirlooms and dog-eared photos of Estes Park regulars over the decades. “But I was like, Where else am I gonna go to have all this right at my doorstep? And [laughs] what else am I gonna do to make a decent living and be able to live in Estes?”

Nagl isn’t alone. Estes Park, one of the most industrious park-crowd-serving towns on either side of the Rockies, has been going strong in its various phases since the mid-19th century. A federal buyout of nearby interior park lodgings in the 1930s would in turn seal the little mountain town’s future as a bona fide outdoor vacation resort. Today, Estes still feels welcomingly small enough while packing in its own wealth of big offerings to be experienced outside the park gates.

“I think Estes has gotten classier over the past several years,” a regular visitor from Denver confides along the town’s busy Elkhorn Avenue thoroughfare. “It’s not the saltwater-taffy-and-T-shirt stop you might have remembered from last time.”

Given that this is my first time and I’ve got nothing against barrelfuls of colorful chewy candy in a pleasant mountain town on a sunny day in late August, it’s all gravy. But, yes, stay awhile, poke around, and those tee ’n’ taffy stops barely scratch the surface here.

Some of my favorite experiences collected over several early mornings, late afternoons, and later evenings in Estes Park will include my favorite batch of blueberry lemon pancakes at Claire’s on the Park, a filet mignon to be remembered at Twin Owls Steakhouse, and a ghost tour followed by a premium whiskey-tasting at the vaunted (and reputedly very haunted) Colonial Revival classic, the Stanley Hotel — home of the largest whiskey collection in Colorado and the inspiration for Stephen King’s notorious Overlook Hotel.

Capping it off with a chuck wagon dinner and live music show at the historic Lazy B Ranch — an Estes institution since the 1960s, dedicated to preserving Western heritage with (what else?) fine cowboy grub and music — is the perfect way to end a perfect first visit. Especially with National Swing Fiddle Champion Katie Glassman and her band Snapshot up on stage.

“We don’t mean to force-feed you all this cowboy music,” Snapshot guitarist Greg Schochet quips to an audience. “So here’s a heavy metal song you all might enjoy,” he says with a twinkle, before the band launches into the cowboy classic “Big Iron.”

The final number of the evening is the inevitable “Happy Trails,” the send-off hopeful enough.

“If we don’t see you in the future,” Glassman says, smiling and lifting her fiddle to her chin, “we’ll see you in the pasture.”

From the July 2017 issue.