The sidewalks are empty in the small town of Estes Park as we cruise through the popular tourist destination’s quaint downtown stretch in the early morning hours. We’re two dirtbags with cameras and we’re en route to Rocky Mountain National Park where we’ll lace up our expensive technical hiking boots, pull a breathable puffy jacket over our base layers, and load up our cameras in one of the handful of backpacks that we own. Slowly we make our way to the park’s entrance — past the town’s resident elk herd grazing on the local high school’s football field, past a pair of brave coyotes terrorizing a neighborhood dog out for a walk, past long stretches of rustic condos and sleepy townhomes where visiting tourists are slowly rising and breaking out the coffee grounds. When we arrive at the gate, we already have our $70 annual parks pass ready to go. We offer it up, but the park ranger declines it, telling us that there isn’t an entry fee today and to enjoy the park.
It’s a free day. It’s also a Saturday, and it’s absolutely gorgeous outside, which means the popular trailheads inside of Rocky Mountain National Park are overflowing with vehicles and park rangers doing their best to organize the chaos that begins to unfold just after the sun rises. We weave up and down the winding roads that lead to the Bear Lake Trailhead, which is nearly full at 9 o’clock. On the trail we pass a group of women clad in their best pair of snowboots. A family of ten dressed in a mish mash of outdoor gear slips and slides down the icy trail behind us. We pass Nymph Lake and a group of college-aged kids in sweatshirts sitting along the rocks of the serene lake enjoying some trail snacks. At Dream Lake, I spot a young girl wearing softball cleats which still prove to be no match for the snow-packed frozen trail. Patches of blue sky play peekaboo with an incoming storm, and as we reach the frigid waters of Emerald Lake, the snowflakes begin to fall. All around me people of all ages and races and levels of fitness take in the natural beauty around them — their reward for waking up early and opting outside. We breathe in and snap photos and breathe some more. On our way back down the mountain, we come across a large group of snowshoers decked out in rented gear and apparel from a local guide shop. They’re more interested in snapping selfies than upholding good trail etiquette, but their guide is doing his best to steer them in the right direction — because that is the beauty of the great outdoors — it’s for everyone. The hardcore athletes that crush iconic crags and trails in the park. The girl in her softball cleats that can’t afford hiking boots but doesn’t miss a free day in the park. All along the trail are first-timers and fair-weather outdoorsman and an array of shoes that haven’t touched a trail in sometime, but every single one of those shoes has a right and the freedom to be there. As we push on towards our final descent back to the car, I can’t help but think about what will happen if the price of entry to our country’s national parks doubles or even triples. Will I ever see the faces of that large family again? What will happen to the girls in snowboots? Nature has the ability to change a life, no matter which life it is, and I can only hope that the leaders of our nation realize that that is something you just can’t put a price on.
Postcards From the Weekend is our weekly photo series showcasing images and stories from our adventurous and outdoor-loving contributors at Elevation Outdoor Magazine. Follow along and see where our team of adventure-seekers like to spend their weekends.