I set my alarm for 4am last night, with the plan that we'd be in Rocky Mountain National Park at 5am. As I mentioned in yesterday's blog, over-visitation to the national park has become such a problem in recent years that the national park service has implemented a system of timed entry permits to regulate visitor numbers. There are two types of permit which you can purchase: the one which we had yesterday, which enabled us to drive along Trail Ridge Road and access the majority of the rest of the park, and a second one which enables you to visit 100% of the park including an area known as Bear Lake Road.
Bear Lake Road is the most popular and most visited part of the park and the permits disappear almost as soon as they are released. I was waiting with my finger hovering over the mouse at the exact minute the permits for July were released, and managed to get a permit for us to enter Bear Lake Road between 5am and 7am today. Ten minutes after they were released, all the Bear Lake permits for today were gone.
5am sounds like an early start - and it is(!) - but it made sense for a number of reasons. Firstly, there's no point having a permit for the afternoon because that's when there's the greatest risk of thunderstorms. Most advice I've read about the Rocky Mountains suggests that it's advisable to have finished your hikes by 12pm. Secondly, we needed to park in the car park at the end of Bear Lake Road for the hike we wanted to do, and the parking spaces fill up fast. Some estimates online suggested the car park would be full by 6am - others not until 8am - but they all agreed that the best plan was to get there as early as possible. We were certainly doing that!
It was still quite dark when we entered the national park and had our permit checked by a ranger. We had about 10 miles to drive down Bear Lake Road and as we did so it began to get visibly brighter. The good news is that there weren't hundreds of other people mad enough to be up at 5am and so there were plenty of parking spaces to choose from
This area of the park is named after Bear Lake, a small lake that is probably the most visited feature in the most visited part of the Rocky Mountains.
It's only about half a mile to walk around it and it's more or less a flat path, so in the height of summer there is often a procession of people walking around it. But not at 5am
There were a handful of other people, including one girl very noisily posing for photos for Instagram, but otherwise it was a very peaceful experience
I hasten to add that there are no bears at Bear Lake! There are only 20 - 30 bears in the national park in total and they stick to areas on the western side of the park where there are fewer people.
Our plan for the morning was to hike to a series of three further lakes, so once we'd completed a loop around Bear Lake we began climbing upwards to lake number two.
Sunrise was in progress as we climbed and we could see the trees being lit up red in front of us.
It was quite a sunrise
This is one of the easiest walks which you can do in Rocky Mountain National Park, but it still felt like hard work this morning because of the altitude.
Bear Lake is situated at an elevation of 9 450 ft (2 880 m), so while we were nowhere near as high as yesterday we were still high enough to be getting out of breath.
Luckily it was only around half a mile to the second lake: Nymph Lake.
Nymph Lake was probably the least spectacular out of the series of lakes we were visiting. The surface of the lake is predominantly covered by waterlilies.
We didn't linger long and continued climbing upwards. We were rewarded with some more fantastic views of the sunrise.
At this point the route uphill became a bit steeper...
...but the sunrise views got even better.
Now that the sky was beginning to brighten up we had better views of the surrounding mountains too.
As we got closer to the third lake, we passed a small stream.
It turned out we needed to cross it, but luckily there was a good bridge.
Within a few minutes we had arrived at Dream Lake.
Our route led along the side of the lake.
I definitely preferred this one to Nymph Lake
The water was really clear and there were some beautiful reflections.
At the end of Dream Lake the path continued upwards.
We passed another fast-flowing stream.
Soon we had views of mountain peaks in the distance.
The final lake - Emerald Lake - is located at 10 110 ft (3 081m) so we did have a fair bit of uphill to cover.
The views kept getting better and better though
Eventually we made it to Emerald Lake! It barely looks like a lake in the photos; the water was so clear that the reflection of the mountain was amazing.
Unfortunately, we weren't able to linger long at this lake because the closer we'd got to it, the more incessantly we were being plagued by mosquitoes. Here's a picture of me smiling at the lake...
...here's the same picture, photobombed by a mosquito...
...and here's me giving up and putting on the midge-proof headnet that I bought for Scotland last year
It was an absolutely stunning location, but we were constantly batting flies away from our faces!
This wasn't a circular walk, so at this point we turned around and started retracing our steps back towards Dream Lake.
It was around 7am by this point and after a rather cloudy start, the sky had turned a beautiful shade of blue.
As we walked back we re-took some of the photos we'd already taken with the backdrop of a blue sky.
It was noticeably easier walking downhill and we were back at Dream Lake in no time.
Dream Lake looked fantastic with a blue sky too
The sun was incredibly bright, as you can probably tell from the photos. It was clearly going to be another hot day.
The other advantage of hiking so early was that it hadn't got unbearably hot yet and it still felt like a pretty nice temperature outside.
All the views looked so different at 7am compared to 5am.
Our photos are probably a bit repetitive, but it was just so beautiful
Even Nymph Lake looked substantially more attractive in the 8am sunshine.
I decided I quite liked it after all
Once we got back down to the starting point, we found a map which showed us where we had been. The distances really don't look far on the map, but they felt a lot longer at this altitude.
I was glad we'd done the walk early, because as we made our way down we were being passed by increasing crowds of people going up. We felt quite smug that we'd seen the views already
Before getting back in the car we returned to Bear Lake so that we could see it in the sunshine too.
Then it was back to the hotel, where I sat on the balcony with an iced coffee and enjoyed the views.
We'd definitely worked up an appetite, so after a bit of a rest in the hotel room we walked into the centre of Estes Park to get lunch. We found a Nepalese restaurant, which made a nice change from all the American food we've eaten recently.
After lunch we decided to do an easy walk around the edge of Lake Estes, a small lake which sits just outside the town.
A sign warned us about aggressive elk, but luckily we didn't encounter any!
The path initially led us alongside the Big Thompson River, which feeds into the lake.
Then we began walking around the edge of the lake itself.
The views back towards the mountains were lovely.
The trail was 4 miles in total and the first part of it was really scenic.
After the first couple of miles it became a bit less scenic; it turns out Lake Estes is actually a reservoir, created by this dam, and so there was a mile or so of the walk where we were just walking through fields as we circumvented the dam.
Eventually the path returned to the lakeside and led us back towards the town and our hotel.
It's been another great day with some amazing views A tiring one though, with a 4am start and at least 27 000 steps!