Rocky Mountain National Park is one of America’s true natural treasures. Its majestic mountain views, grand meadows, and myriad of lakes, streams and babbling brooks is an outdoor lover’s paradise. It is at once a subalpine and alpine world of forests and mountain tundra–along with over 300 miles of hiking trails, wildflowers, wildlife, and starry nights. The park also embraces the Continental Divide and the headwaters of the Colorado River and is one of the greatest natural wonders to see from the back of a horse.
Nestled at the western entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park, northwest of Boulder, the Village of Grand Lake is one of Colorado’s unspoiled hideaways. Surrounded by breathtaking beauty and Colorado’s largest natural lake, Grand Lake has preserved its western heritage and remains a quaint and charming resort town filled with restaurants, convenient shopping, galleries and unique shops, with a few ice cream parlors and coffee shops along the way.
As its name indicates, the village sits at the water’s edge of Grand Lake and makes a nice respite for dinner after a long day on the trail. We opted for our own campsite and two pens for our horses. Like any good campground, Winding River Resort has all the amenities including laundry, showers, gift and sundry shop and transportation into Grand Lake.
We were assigned an excellent site within the horse-friendly portion of the campground. We had water and 50 amp hook-ups for our 40 footer and were able to detach our bumper pull trailer right next to the coach. Across from our site was a lush meadow complete with shade trees and a running stream just perfect for the resident grazers of horses and the occasional moose and elk.
At check-in we were provided with detailed trail maps of the park as well as the surrounding area. Several times a day the resort takes guests on their string of horses on one and two-hour excursions into the park. On our first day we decided to follow the pack on their two-hour ride to get acquainted with the surroundings and when they turned to head back, we kept right on going ending up at the Kawuneeche Visitor Center where we had a cold drink, and picked up a more detailed map than was given by the resort.
The following day brought a more adventurous ride and a much more challenging expedition. Big Meadows at an elevation of 9400 feet was our destination and our route was the Tonahutu Creek Trail by way of the Green Mountain Trailhead approximately two miles from Winding River Resort. The route, part of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, was filled with spectacular scenery through dense forest, steep inclines and heart thumping drop offs. Chato and Galan, our two Spanish Barb Mustangs, took the trails like the rock horses for which they are known, barely losing breath and eager to move along.
Reaching the peak we then dropped in elevation into the enormous lush meadow. Knee high grasses along the running Tonahutu Creek were hard to resist for the horses so we gave them their reward of a cold drink and a light lunch while we had ours, gazing across the green expanse surrounded by the spectacular Rocky Mountains. After lunch we continued along the trail south in a loop back to the Kawuneeche Visitors Center then back to camp. The ride took all of six hours and treated us with moderate to challenging terrain and even a brief hail storm that bounced peanut sized ice balls off Chato’s noggin.
Be sure to pack a lunch and bring plenty of drinking water because once you enter the park, you are pretty much on your own. Although the trails are very well marked, be prepared for detours caused by fallen trees and slides. At several points we had to make tight detours and had to step over fallen debris. It is important to remember that park elevations range from 7,500 to over 12,000 feet. Even very fit individuals coming from lower elevations may experience altitude problems.
Horses have been part of Rocky Mountain Park’s tradition since its designation as a national park in 1915. With your own horse, you have access to approximately 260 miles of trails, which makes up about 80% of the park’s total trail network. Horse use is managed so as to maintain the natural resources and unique ecosystems in the national park. Sidetracks to horse-friendly destinations help to make for a well-rounded and healthy traveling horse.
Not only did we enjoy the beautiful mountain environment and the exciting day excursions from camp, Chato and Galan also had a good time and were rewarded with the great outdoors and a welcome respite from the arena and their jobs as mounted shooting horses.
(Originally published in the June/July 2013 issue of Cowgirl Magazine).