We noticed that you're using an unsupported browser. The TripAdvisor website may not display properly.We support the following browsers:
Windows: Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome. Mac: Safari.

Vail to Rocky Mountain NP then Custer NP

Sydney, Australia
Level Contributor
494 posts
25 reviews
Save Topic
Vail to Rocky Mountain NP then Custer NP

Hi

We are staying in Vail for 5 nights(timeshare exchange4-9th) then heading to Custer National Park via RMNP on the 10th June 2011.

I have ascertained it takes approximately 3 hours to drive to Grand Lake from Vail. Is there any must do's at Grand lake?

We would then drive over Trail Ridge road. I believe straight driving takes 1 hour plus photo ops. How long would you recommend on Trail Ridge road? Is there anything else to do, short hikes?

I anticipate we would arrive the other end of Trail ridge Road around 3pm.

What would you recommend once we get to the Estes park side? This will probably be our first opportunity to see wildlife on our trip. Where would you recommend to see any wildlife? Happy to do some short hikes. I did Angels Landing(Zion National Park) last year, hubby went and had a massage. Planning on hiking Delicate Arch at Arches National Park earlier in this trip. Probably want to find somewhere in the middle as far as difficulty or hubby will say no.

We will only have a couple of hours in the morning on the 10th. Need to leave by middayish i guess. Need recommendations for something short or one medium hike to do.

It will take at least 5 hours to drive to Custer National Park on the 10th, depending on if we stop at Fort Laramie(2 hours) on the way through.

Thanks in advance Julie

Mentioned in this post
Vail
Vail
Colorado
Custer
Custer
South Dakota
Grand Lake
Grand Lake
Grand County, CO
Trail Ridge Road
Trail Ridge Road
2,936 Reviews
Rocky Mountain National Park, CO
Estes Park
Estes Park
Colorado
Laramie
Laramie
Wyoming
California
Level Contributor
1,449 posts
6 reviews
Save Reply
1. Re: Vail to Rocky Mountain NP then Custer NP

Hi there. Just a couple of things. I think you should check your estimated drive times again. Mapquest has the trip from Vail to Grand lake at 2 1/4 hours and straight driving from Grand lake over Trailridge Drive to Estes Park at 1 hour 43 minutes. You will want to stop many times on the Trailridge Drive for views and pictures and short hikes. Plus there is construction on Trailridge drive that can cause delays of about 20 minutes, but you can be delayed several times, so anticipate between 1/2 hour to an hour construction delays. So I would give about 4 hours to drive Trailridge from Grand Lake to Estes Park and enjoy it. There are two wonderful very short walks on the road, one at the Alpine visitor Center, and one at a stop called Rock Cut. Great views and good way to stretch your legs. Trailridge Drive is fantastic, don't miss it.

Moose are often seen on the west side of Trailridge drive near Grand lake. We saw them the first time we went but not this year. The hike to Bear, Nymph, Dream and Emerald Lakes is a classic beautiful hike on the East side, a couple of miles each way, maybe 6 miles round trip if you go to Emerald Lake, very scenic, but very crowded, best in the late afternoon or first thing in the morning. If you have several hours and start early you could do this in the morning before you leave. Moraine Meadow is lovely to walk around, also on the east end of the park. Sprague Lake is another scenic short hike. Anyway, just my thoughts, I'm sure others will have more suggestions.

Edited: 11 August 2010, 06:06
Mentioned in this post
Vail
Vail
Colorado
Grand Lake
Grand Lake
Grand County, CO
Estes Park
Estes Park
Colorado
Alpine Visitor Center
Alpine Visitor Center
436 Reviews
Rocky Mountain National Park, CO
Sprague Lake
Sprague Lake
281 Reviews
Rocky Mountain National Park, CO
Sydney, Australia
Level Contributor
494 posts
25 reviews
Save Reply
2. Re: Vail to Rocky Mountain NP then Custer NP

I have read several comments about afternoon thunderstorms. Do these occur all year round? Are we advised to be off Trail Ridge road by a certain time to minimise the risk? If so approximately what time? One post I read suggested by 1pm. I don't mind getting wet, just not keen on the wet and cold, not keen on being a lightning rod either. Approximately how long does it take to get from Grand Lake to the Alpine visitor centre? I am keen to do the hike climb up the 100's of stairs, is this the hike you were refering too Lorenky?

Mentioned in this post
Trail Ridge Road
Trail Ridge Road
2,936 Reviews
Rocky Mountain National Park, CO
Grand Lake
Grand Lake
Grand County, CO
California
Level Contributor
1,449 posts
6 reviews
Save Reply
3. Re: Vail to Rocky Mountain NP then Custer NP

Yes, the hike with the stairs at the Alpine Visitor Center is the one I was referring too. I'm not sure if thunderstorms happen all year, definitely all summer, though I think they are worse in July and August, I think they also occur in June. Perhaps one of the experts knows this for sure. I think 1 PM is a good rule of thumb if you want to really avoid storms. We did that the first time we drove it. This last time we did something very similar to you, we drove in from Frisco (a half hour from Vail), to Grand Lake and over Trailridge Drive so we did it in the afternoon. We encountered everything on that drive from sunshine to thunder to hail and back to sunshine. No lightning though. Again, check with the experts but I think you are okay in your car with lighting or you can hang out in the visitor center, it doesn't usually last very long, but certainly you wouldn't want to be walking around on the top of Trailridge Drive with lighting, so if the storm hit just as you were on top you probably couldn't do those short hikes. Trailridge Drive is much more crowded in the afternoons so I don't think people avoid driving it, but the storm risk is greater in the PM and you have to take precautions. If no one else answers this question, I would call or e-mail the ranger station for Rocky Mountain NP, I've called ranger stations for questions about safety and such and they've all been very helpful. Here is the e-mail to ask questions to the park, I've had success getting answers at other parks this way.

http://www.nps.gov/IMR/sendmail.htm?o=868K6M*%2B%3AH%3BJ%3BJ1ZN[1ZDHV%3A35IP2L8.%29%0A&r=/romo/contacts.htm

Mentioned in this post
Alpine Visitor Center
Alpine Visitor Center
436 Reviews
Rocky Mountain National Park, CO
Frisco
Frisco
Colorado
Vail
Vail
Colorado
Grand Lake
Grand Lake
Grand County, CO
Colorado
Level Contributor
12,161 posts
15 reviews
Save Reply
4. Re: Vail to Rocky Mountain NP then Custer NP

Afternoon thunderstorms are common from late May- early September but they do not occur every day. Keep a close eye on weather forecasts. You do not need to be "off" Trail Ridge Road, you are safe in your car. But you must be very careful hiking or being out in an exposed area.

The drive time from Grand Lake to Estes Park over Trail Ridge Road takes approximately 2 hours without any stops or delays. I agree with Lorenky, allow 3-4 hours to fully enjoy it. I believe the road paving project will continue into 2011 so you should check this site for info: nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit/road_status.htm

You may also want to check this site for info on wildlife viewing: rockymountainnationalpark.com/pages/wildwatc…

Mentioned in this post
Trail Ridge Road
Trail Ridge Road
2,936 Reviews
Rocky Mountain National Park, CO
Grand Lake
Grand Lake
Grand County, CO
Estes Park
Estes Park
Colorado
Sydney, Australia
Level Contributor
494 posts
25 reviews
Save Reply
5. Re: Vail to Rocky Mountain NP then Custer NP

Thank you for the information, especially the links for the ranger stations and the wildlife watch, they are extremely helpful.

Any suggestions on what to do in the late pm on the 9th and the am of the 10th before we continue north?

I am so excited and the trip is months away. Thank goodness I have so much fun planning the trips and reading up on all the places we are going to visit.

California
Level Contributor
1,449 posts
6 reviews
Save Reply
6. Re: Vail to Rocky Mountain NP then Custer NP

How much time do you have the morning of the 10th? I guarantee you won't want to leave. The Nymph/Dream/Emerald lake hike is wonderful, not that hard, you go 2 miles at a steady but do-able grade uphill and then 2 miles downhill to return. The most popular trail in the park with good reason. takes about 2 hours round trip, give it three hours for stops and pictures. Get there early(by 8 AM) as the parking lot fills up and then you have to take a shuttle. It's much nicer before all the crowds start. If you hit the trailhead at 8 AM you could be on the road by 11. I love the meadow in Moraine Park, beautiful, nice for a late afternoon stroll. Sprague Lake is a fairly short flat loop trail, lovely, could be done in the late afternoon or in the morning instead of Emerald Lake, but I personally think the scenery at Dream. and Emerald Lake more spectacular. Anyway, have fun deciding.

Mentioned in this post
Sprague Lake
Sprague Lake
281 Reviews
Rocky Mountain National Park, CO
Sydney, Australia
Level Contributor
494 posts
25 reviews
Save Reply
7. Re: Vail to Rocky Mountain NP then Custer NP

Hey Lorenky

Sounds great. How much extra time would you need to do the Sprague Lake Trail? Would it be feasible to do it either before or after Nymph/Dream/Emerald Lake Hike? What are the advantages/disadvantages either way, wildlife etc? I would prefer not to be fighting the traffic and be hiking through the car park to the trailhead.

How long would we need at Moraine Park? I was looking at the trails near Fall River Rd, Alluvial fan on the afternoon/early evening of the 9th. I am hoping to see some wildlife, elk, bighorn sheep and the like. I want to make the most of our limited time.

I didn't think I would actually see the rest of Mesa Verde or hike Delicate Arch but because our time share is not available until the 4th I decided to make the most of the opportunity provided, so it is possible we will come back one day but not for many years. We have vague plans for our next 2 holidays after the states (2012 Western Australia & 2013 Africa for my 50th).

Mentioned in this post
Sprague Lake
Sprague Lake
281 Reviews
Rocky Mountain National Park, CO
Alluvial Fan
Alluvial Fan
249 Reviews
Rocky Mountain National Park, CO
Mesa
Mesa
Central Arizona, AZ
California
Level Contributor
1,449 posts
6 reviews
Save Reply
8. Re: Vail to Rocky Mountain NP then Custer NP

Sprague Lake is about a one mile loop. Could be done in an hour or less, so depending on how much time you have that morning you could add it after Dream/Emerald lake. It's on Bear lake Road on the way to the park exit so you'll pass the trailhead anyway on the way back from Dream/Emerald Lake. I didn't mention this cause it's a little bit longer but Mills Lake is another really beautiful hike to consider on that same road, but it's 6 miles round trip. You will also pass Moraine Park on the way to and from Bear Lake Road, and the meadow is just there on the road, there are little paths weaving in and out of the meadow with a stream meandering through. You could spend 10 minutes or a few hours if you wanted to fish or picnic, but certainly an hour could be a good guess. You have an excellent chance of seeing elk just driving over Trailridge Drive, moose are best seen on the west side near Grand Lake though that's never guaranteed, we saw moose on our first trip but not this year. The hikes you are taking are on the east side, less chance of moose though we heard there were moose at Sprague lake the when we were at the park. Also heard that was extremely rare so don't plan on it. We drove over there but didn't see anything. Hey you are a future planner like me, I've got a three year plan too, Alaska next year for my 50th bday, then Canadian Rockies, then Kauai. :) Here's a link for some photos of our trip to RMNP a few years ago, it has all the sites we've have mentioned.

s194.photobucket.com/albums/z96/Lorenky/

Edited: 13 August 2010, 04:12
Mentioned in this post
Sprague Lake
Sprague Lake
281 Reviews
Rocky Mountain National Park, CO
Bear Lake
Bear Lake
1,418 Reviews
Rocky Mountain National Park, CO
Mills Lake
Mills Lake
34 Reviews
Rocky Mountain National Park, CO
Grand Lake
Grand Lake
Grand County, CO
Sydney, Australia
Level Contributor
494 posts
25 reviews
Save Reply
9. Re: Vail to Rocky Mountain NP then Custer NP

Hey Lorenky

Loved the photos. We are doing a 12 night Alaskan cruise from San Diego at the start of our holiday. We are also going to Custer NP and Yellowstone, so lots of opportunities to see wildlife.

Do you think we will have any trouble with parking the car if we do Sprague Lake on the way back from Dream/Emerald Lake? It certainly sounds doable before heading north. Mills Lake sounds like it would be too long. However, I was looking at a topographical map and correct me if I am wrong but the hike to Alberta Falls is .6 mile along the same trail as Mills Lake, and the trail head is from the same car park as Dream/Emerald Lake? Something tells me it will be a very early start if we want to accomplish everything?

I was reading historical posts about Grand Lake Hikes and came across 2, Coyote Valley Hike and East Inlet Trailhead, which I believe leads to Adams falls.

Have you done either of these, and if so how long would you allow? If you have limited time like we do would you only do one hike?

Haven't really received any input regarding suggestions/recommendations what to do in the late afternoon/early evening once we have traversed Trail Ridge Road.

Thanks for all your replies

Mentioned in this post
San Diego
San Diego
California
Custer
Custer
South Dakota
Sprague Lake
Sprague Lake
281 Reviews
Rocky Mountain National Park, CO
Mills Lake
Mills Lake
34 Reviews
Rocky Mountain National Park, CO
Alberta Falls
Alberta Falls
308 Reviews
Rocky Mountain National Park, CO
Grand Lake
Grand Lake
Grand County, CO
Trail Ridge Road
Trail Ridge Road
2,936 Reviews
Rocky Mountain National Park, CO
California
Level Contributor
1,449 posts
6 reviews
Save Reply
10. Re: Vail to Rocky Mountain NP then Custer NP

Actually I think Sprague Lake and/or Moraine Park would be really nice in the late afternoon after Trailridge Drive. Neither requires a long hike, and you can spend short amounts of time there and still get something out of it, and both are below treeline and easy to get back to the car if the weather turns. I don't think the parking is that bad at Sprague, we went on on first trip in the early morning and last month in the late afternoon after driving Trailridge Drive from Frisco, similar to what you are doing. Both times parking was easy, not sure what it's like at midday but it doesn't sound like you'd be there at midday anyway. I would suggest Sprague Lake the late afternoon after Trailridge, You can stop at Moraine Meadow the same afternoon if you like, and do Dream Lake early the next morning so you have time to relax and enjoy it. If you didn't get to do Moraine Meadow the previous day it could be added in the morning. It's not so much a hike as a nice meander through the meadow with lovely views. We saw Alberta Falls on the way to Mills Lake, I do think some of those trails connect so you may be able to get there another way but I'm not sure how. There is another website that was very very helpful in getting detailed advice about hikes, it is http://www.rmnpforums.com/forums/ and was invaluable when we were trying to plan our first trip to the park. We hiked to Adams Falls three years ago. It was okay, we didn't like it as much as the east side hikes, but we went in the middle of the day and it felt crowded. There are supposed to be good chances for moose sightings if you hike past the falls to the meadow, but we didn't see any moose on our trip. We stopped and walked a short way on Coyote Trail in July. Very pretty tranquil lush meadows and such. Didn't see any moose though. It was pretty crowded when we got there midday. You have quite a great trip planned, you are doing in one visit what it will have taken us several years to do. :) You will love Yellowstone, the wildlife there is amazing. we saw three bears, tons of elk, bison holding up traffic walking down the road, it was great. Stop at the Grand Tetons too if you have time, wonderful mountain scenery and good chances for moose(though we didn't see any). I've wanted to go to Alaska for years so next year is it for us(I swore I'd do it by age 50). That should be a wonderful leg of your trip as well. Sounds like a terrific trip.

Mentioned in this post
Sprague Lake
Sprague Lake
281 Reviews
Rocky Mountain National Park, CO
Frisco
Frisco
Colorado
Alberta Falls
Alberta Falls
308 Reviews
Rocky Mountain National Park, CO
Mills Lake
Mills Lake
34 Reviews
Rocky Mountain National Park, CO