I thought I would try something new on the blog and share the details of our first trip from Oklahoma to Colorado. I promise that I will get back to the usual topics, but I thought it would be fun to talk about the four-night trip that we took last year during the long fourth of July weekend – especially since we are going back to beautiful CO over Labor Day weekend. Plus, planning trips can be stressful and vacations are supposed to be fun and relaxing!
Since it was our first time visiting Colorado, we weren’t sure where to go. To get a variety, we spent time in Colorado Springs, Estes Park, and Boulder. I believe that it gave us a great experience in a short amount of time – my husband and I went with another couple and had a great time. We drove from Oklahoma City, so it was a slightly long road trip, but we were able to see the plains grow into the mountains with the added benefit of it being cheaper than flying into Denver then renting a car to drive for a couple of hours in different directions.
OKC-Colorado Trip Summary
Day 1: OKC to Colorado Springs (Staying in hotel – acclimate to higher altitude)
Day 2: Colorado Springs to Estes Park (Camping at Moraine Park – easy hiking-trails to acclimate to altitude)
Day 3: Estes Park (Camping at Moraine Campgrounds inside Rocky Mountain National Park)
Day 4: Estes Park to Boulder (Staying in hotel)
OKC to Colorado Springs – Day 1
We left OKC metro (Norman) at approximately 5 AM to avoid weekday traffic. We planned to stop a few times for food and gas so that placed our estimated time of arrival at around 2-3 PM (adjusted for the one hour time difference). Check in at our hotel was at 3 PM. We stayed at the Embassy Suites, which is nothing fancy but I thought it was a good hotel for the price (~200 for 2 queens and a separate living area). Plus, they had a free happy hour at 5 PM and a free breakfast buffet the next morning. Two of our friends live in Colorado Springs so we were able to hang out with them for dinner and drinks after. It’s always nice to know a local! I didn’t realize how large and spread out Colorado Springs was until then.
Colorado Springs to Estes Park – Day 2
Colorado Springs – Garden of the Gods
We spent the rainy morning at Garden of the Gods, which was unsurprisingly busy. The gloomy day resulted in my poor photos below. It was worth going to see, but I wish we would have had a little more time to also drive up Pike’s Peak and to try out the Manitou Incline.
We spent a few hours here and I wish I wouldn’t have winged this part of the trip. We just parked and started walking around and ended up in the Central Garden Trails area so I’m not sure if we saw the best sections, but we did drive a good way around the park, too.
We parked in the South parking lot and jumped across the road to take Ridge Trail. Ridge Trail is a little steep and gives you a great view from higher grounds so that you can see for miles. It was a quick journey up and back down. We crossed the road again and followed Juniper Way Loop north on part of the Ute Trail. The walk through Ute Trail took about 15 minutes at a quick pace. When we came to the crossroads of Juniper Way loop and Gateway Road, we went west toward the Central Garden Trails and spent most of our time there, which is mainly on a smooth paved path. There is nothing like the rock formations at Garden of the Gods.
Estes Park and Moraine Campgrounds inside Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP)
We left Colorado Springs around 1 PM and headed to Estes Park to make it into our campsite to set up before nightfall and potential bad weather. Fortunately the rain was light and mostly drizzle in the mountains and passed quickly. I recommend getting groceries outside of Estes Park if you can – we didn’t because we were camping and I was super nervous about bears so I didn’t want extra food sitting around! If you want to camp at Moraine, you need to book the campsite months in advance. I booked our site in February and was lucky to get a decent campsite for July.
Side note: Colorado usually has cooler temperatures than Oklahoma. In July, Oklahoma averages in the 80s-90s. In the mountains, the temperatures were in the 60s-70s during the day and got into the 40s at night. They are serious when they say pack layers and prepare for short afternoon showers when hiking in RMNP in July.
We set up camp as soon as we got into the RMNP. A major perk of staying inside RMNP is that you don’t have to wait in line at the park entrance to get to the hiking trails. Our campsite, A26, was a nice spot on top of a hill. It wasn’t too close to other sites and the restrooms were down the steep side of the hill – not too close and not too far. This was a site you had to park and walk to. Throughout Moraine, expect to see chipmunks, mule deer, elk, and possibly bears (we saw all but the latter). The park rangers do a walkthrough before nightfall so expect visitors! They are really nice and just want to inform you of the rules and remind you to put away anything that smells so that you don’t attract bears.
Estes Park/Moraine Campground/RMNP – Day 3
Trail to Mills Lake/Jewel Lake
We parked at the large Park & Ride shuttle lot on Bear Lake Road at 8 AM and it was 3/4 full. If you wake up and can hit the road by 7 AM, you can try to park in the Bear Lake (medium lot) or Glacier Gorge (very small) lots. We rode to the Glacier Gorge Trailhead and got off. Use the restrooms here – it will be a few hours before you will have the chance to go again. A good thing about RMNP is that the park service labels the trails clearly.
This hike is approximately 6 miles round trip with a 750 ft elevation gain. The trail rating is moderate-level difficulty and we were able to make the trip being in moderate shape (with a few breaks). Take water and snacks! I picked this hike because you get to see waterfalls, streams, lakes, and some of the best mountain views. Even going on the July 4th weekend, I didn’t think the trail was overly crowded, especially the further up you go (past the waterfall, traffic gets sparse). It wasn’t as bad as Yosemite on Easter weekend.
The hike to Mills Lake/Jewel Lake was by far my favorite hike yet. To be honest, I am not 100% sure whether the photo above was Mills Lake or Jewel Lake – I think it was Mills but my husband says the opposite. Either way they are only .5 miles apart! The views were gorgeous despite the weather (we got rained on during the trip back down the trail). There were about 20 other people relaxing or hiking through the area, but the lake is big enough that it wasn’t a major issue.
After a half-day of hiking, we drove to Estes Park to grab some food and look around. If you are camping and not staying in Estes, take some time to sightsee and shop in town. On our way back, we drove around Moraine Park a little and saw a herd of elk and a few mule deer.
Estes Park/Moraine Campground/RMNP to Boulder – Day 4
Trail to Emerald Lake
This time, we woke up earlier and were able to park at the small Bear Lake parking lot by 7:30 AM. Use the restrooms here – it will be a couple of hours before you get back. We made the quick, easy walk to Bear Lake to the north before turning back and hitting the trail toward Nymph Lake. Fortunately, the weather was amazing and sunny.
This hike is approximately 4 miles round trip with a 605 ft elevation gain. This trail was actually more difficult for me because it was much steeper in a shorter time span than the Mills Lake Trail. The trail’s rating is easy-level difficulty. Take water and snacks! I picked this hike because you get to see streams, several lakes, and mountain views in a shorter amount of time. This trail was more crowded than Mills Lake Trail.
The photo above was one of my favorite views on this trip; however, there wasn’t a good place to stop and enjoy the scenery without being in the way of other people. Can you believe that I took all of these pictures with my iPhone?
Before getting to Dream Lake, there were patches of snow on the ground – so let me reiterate that it was a little cold outside. You must cross a log bridge to get to the lake. Dream Lake was beautiful like everything else in RMNP. By this lake, there are plenty of places to sit, relax and take it all in. From Dream Lake to Emerald Lake, there is a large creek and small waterfalls where you might see people fishing. It is a little slippery on the path if it gets wet. After the waterfall, we crossed over 20 feet of slick, hard packed snow to get to Emerald Lake. Once at Emerald Lake, there isn’t a lot of room unless you climb up on the rocks, which can be dangerous. It is a good view though. It is very similar to what you saw at Dream Lake, just a much closer view of Hallett Peak (left) and Flattop Mountain (right).
Estes Park to Boulder
Since there are no showers in Moraine Campgrounds, we headed to Boulder to stay in a hotel and get cleaned up. In Boulder, we went to Pearl Street to get some food and sightsee. We wanted to go to the Flatirons or a brewery tour but we were tired after our morning hike and one hour drive. Pearl Street is definitely something to see if you’re in Boulder. It gave a very laid-back vibe – nothing wrong with that after hiking! I wouldn’t say laid-back as in relaxing, but just something for everyone in a chill atmosphere. Lots of entertainment options, food, and shopping. We headed home the next day.
This trip was great! If I had to do it again, I might skip Boulder and spend more time in Colorado Springs area or RMNP. Not because I didn’t like Boulder, it was just more of a hiking trip and we were tired by the time we got to downtown Boulder and didn’t feel like staying out too long.
We probably spent less than $500 including lodging, campsite, food, gas (we split with the other couple).
I researched the trails at the Rocky Mountain Trails website, which I found very detailed and it had photos. I recommend looking through the site before deciding what trails you want to do. The website also includes some historical tidbits that are interesting. There are so many things to see in RMNP, I can’t wait to go back!
That ends our trip recap!
Questions about this trip? Feel free to comment below – I am happy to help! I’d also love to hear alternative Colorado trip ideas and suggestions to make this trip better.
Please share! 🙂