Winter Snowshoeing in Rocky Mountain Park

Blue skies, fresh snow: what better Christmas present could you ask for?

On Christmas day, my husband, my dad, and I went snowshoeing in Rocky Mountain National Park. It was a gorgeous sunny day, mild in temperature, with no wind—unusual in winter in the high mountains.

We parked at the Sprague Lake parking lot, which was fairly busy for a winter day—but then again, it was a holiday with perfect weather and lots of snow.

We three tramped past the lake and through the forest for a distance. So many of the pines were brown from pine beetles, but still it was beautiful: sun shining on snow crystals, the kodachrome-blue sky, the chatter of squirrels.

The snow squealed and crunched under our snowshoes. “Guess we won’t be sneaking up on any wildlife,” I joked.

Our outing was magical, and we stopped to admire a lovely view of Hallet’s Peak. Then we returned to the lake, where you could walk over ice to cross to the other side. A lot of families were out—many of them from out of town. (Wearing tennis shoes in snow drifts is always a giveaway.) Some kids were sledding on a hill.

One young man without a coat—he looked like he was from India—was fascinated by my snowshoes and poles. “Are those skis?” he asked. I shook my head: “No, these are snowshoes.” I’m not sure if he understood, but he smiled as he watched us crunch away on them.

Rocky Mountain Park in winter

Our National Treasures

Meeting people from other parts of the country and world reminded me of what a treasure our national parks are. They’ve all been set aside as natural or historic preserves with little or no development allowed. They’re some of our country’s greatest natural wonders. They let people experience the magnificence of the outdoors in ways they otherwise might never have.

Although most visitors come during summer, Rocky Mountain Park is open year round—even for snow camping.

My father, who lives in Estes Park, Colo., hikes and snowshoes in Rocky Mountain Park year round.

There’s something special about visiting a national park in the off-season—like it’s a secret nobody else knows about. Normally there are few visitors, so you might get the place all to yourself.

Of course, quite a few people—many of them wearing Santa hats—were out on Christmas day. But it was a secret I’m glad to share.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Rocky Mountain National Park has 355 miles of hiking trails ranging from flat lakeside strolls to steep mountain peak climbs.

Protect the national parks you visit by following the Leave No Trace principles.

Originally published on December 27, 2010

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Fossils Come Alive at Dinosaur National Monument

In one section of the quarry wall at Dinosaur National Monument, you can touch the dinosaur bones. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Every year, National Fossil Day is observed by the National Park Service during mid-October. There’s no better place to celebrate it than in the massive quarry house in Dinosaur National Monument, located on the state line between northwest Colorado and Utah.

The famous, 150-foot-long quarry wall is embedded with more than 1,500 fossilized dinosaur bones. It’s literally a log jam from an ancient river where dinosaurs drank and hunted…and died.

The quarry is preserved to show the bones located exactly as they were found, and high-tech touch screens allow you to zoom in for a close-up view of a particular bit of skeleton.

Having recently been on a Dino Dig, I can’t imagine how many years it would take for paleontologists to excavate this many fossils. (And work still goes on nearby; a team recently discovered an ichthyosaur, a giant marine reptile.)

As my brother, David, and I entered the quarry hall, there was dino-magic in the air. A little girl let go of her father’s hand and skipped over to the fossil wall. “I’m so excited! I can’t believe these are real dinosaurs,” she said, petting a tibia bone in the okay-to-touch zone.

An observation deck overlooks the massive quarry wall, which is filled with fossilized dinosaur bones. ©Laurel Kallenbach

To help us make sense of the jumbled hodgepodge of bones, which belong to at least seven species of Jurassic-era dinosaurs, David and I used a guide booklet, “What Kind of a Bone Is That?” (It cost us just $1 at the Visitor’s Center.) The two of us reverted to full dino-nerd mode: we spent a couple of hours ID-ing interesting bones, like the sacrum and back plate of Stegosaurus. At the end, we just sit on a bench and speechlessly gaze at the magnificent, intact skull of Camarasaurus, a gigantic plant-eater.

Some of the fossilized bones preserved in Quarry Hall. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Park rangers are always stationed in the quarry hall to answer visitor questions. We talked to ranger Tiffany Small, who pointed out a few more details that we’d missed. She also impressed upon us how unique this view of the past we were witnessing really was. “People come into the hall and cry because they’re so moved that this quarry has been preserved—and that the remains of these prehistoric animals are still here for us to remember.”

When I asked Ranger Small who gets most excited when they come into this hallowed hall of ancient bones, she replied: “Dinosaurs bring out the kid in all of us.”

I guess she could tell David and I were reliving our dino-crazy childhood.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

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This diorama in Quarry Hall shows the skeleton of Allosaurus and a painting of what the animal might have looked like. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Explore a Ruined Pueblo in Canyons of the Ancients National Monument

Ken explores some of the passages at the ruin of Lowry Pueblo. © Laurel Kallenbach

Ken explores some of the passages at the ruin of Lowry Pueblo. © Laurel Kallenbach

Along Colorado Highway 491, pinto and Anasazi bean fields line the road—as do spectacular sunflowers. (Dried Anasazi beans, sold as local souvenirs, are an heirloom variety grown from seeds found in ancient pottery.)

At the hamlet of Pleasant View, Ken and I followed Road CC nine miles (on asphalt and gravel) to Lowry Pueblo, just one of Canyons of the Ancients’ multitude of archaeological sites, most of which are unexplored.

This settlement was home to about 40 people in the late 1100s, and the stabilized masonry walls mark small rooms.

Lowry has one of the region’s largest kivas—47 feet in diameter—with floor stones laid in a decorative pattern. The signs tell about the various interpretations of the patterns, which supposedly tell a story.

There’s no gas or food in Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, so pack food and lots of water. And be sure to have a hat, sunglasses, long-sleeved shirt and pants, and plenty of sunscreen to shield you from the intense sun. Sturdy footwear and good socks will protect you from rocks and cactus.

What’s There

Lowry Pueblo is a small site with reconstructed ruins to explore. There are interpretive signs, brochures, a picnic table and pit toilets—but no water.

For more information on the region, visit the Mesa Verde Country visitor information bureau.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

(Originally published on October 18, 2008)

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Discover Painted Hand Pueblo: Canyons of the Ancients

Underneath the rocky overhang of Painted Hand Pueblo is the faint, painted outline of a hand that gave this ruin its name. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Underneath the rocky overhang of Painted Hand Pueblo is the faint, painted outline of a hand that gave this ruin its name. ©Laurel Kallenbach

If you’re driving through Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in southwestern Colorado, don’t miss a sweet little ruin down a mile of dirt road off Road 10. (It’s not too far outside of Hovenweep National Monument, another enchanting site for prehistoric ruins in the Four Corners area.

My husband, Ken, and I bumped down the road (it can be a little rough) until we found the Painted Hand Pueblo trail leading to a lovely 13th-century Ancestral Pueblo (Anasazi) tower gracefully perched over the canyon.

We parked and then took the short ¼-mile hike. The beginning is easy, leading through piñon and juniper forest. Scrambling down the banded sandstone to reach the tower’s base was more challenging (I was glad to have sturdy hiking boots!). However, the view of the stacked-brick tower beckoned. As we explored and enjoyed the tower, it was Ken who found and pointed out the faint shape of three white hands painted on rock—the reason for the ruins’ name. The lonely call of a hawk overhead got me wondering about the long-ago artist who left handprints handprint on this peaceful valley.

What’s There

Painted Hand has interpretive signs and brochures at its trailhead. There’s no water or toilets—and the road is rough. (We made it in our Toyota Camry, but if the roads are muddy, you might need a four-wheel drive.)

For more information on the region, visit Mesa Verde Country visitor information bureau.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

(originally published October 2008)

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