Thursday, August 15, 2013

CO Trip - Day 2: Estes Park

I'm back in business.  You can read about Day 1 of our trip here and now the story continues...and it's a long one...
Saturday, 7/27, we woke up in Denver with no true plans except that we had to be in Estes Park to drop B&B off at rehearsal dinner by 4pm.  Given the fact that we crashed by 10pm the night before, we woke up and were ready to go by 9am, which mean we had time to seek out breakfast.
On 16th Street

We decided to walk the popular downtown 16th Street Pedastrian Mall and came across Cook's Fresh Market. It's more of a grocery store than a restaurant, although they do make food to order and order indoor and outdoor seating. I could have eaten everything at the counter. Their premade salads all looked amazing.

Instead, I settled for a breakfast burrito (the smallest I've seen in CO but the perfect portion for me) and Ben opted for the bacon croissant (looks amazing, right?)

B&B also opted for the burrito as well as the salmon bagel. Does this not look amazing?
From there we stopped at Argonaut Liquors on our way out of town.  We'd had such great luck in June that we hopped to find more Russian River beer but sadly there were out.

Instead, Ben put me to work calling possible vendors looking for a spot to purchase during the hour and a half drive to Estes Park. We ended up in Longmont, not for RR but because we'd remembered Oskar Blues was there. Chicago has just started carrying their beers (love Dale's Pale) in the past year or so, so to visit in person was something we all were excited for.

It turned out they have a new brew pub, Grill and Brew, which is ranked highly for it's food.  However, when I put it into my phone, we were actually led to their brewing facility instead of the pub. We were skeptical at first, but this turned out to be an amazing alternative. Tasty Weasel is the tap room at the brewery.  The bartender (are they still called that if they only serve beer and it's not a bar?) was very friendly and when we ordered flights, she ordered us some extra tasters.
They offer free tours, but sadly it was well before the 2pm tour time and we needed to keep moving on. Instead each couple split a flight and we entertained ourselves chatting with the beer girl (is that more appropriate) and playing their free Skeeball (told you this place is awesome).

From there, we decided we might as well stop in to Left Hand Brewing since it was a mile down the street.
Their special that day was a bottle of their famous milk stout nitro with a pint glass; but you had to pour it yourself.  If you recall, the guys did the Perfect Pour Challenge in Ireland at Guinness. But this pour was a little bit different because you want the bottle completely vertical when pouring.
I let everyone do their pour while I attempted to photograph and then I had my turn.  Please notice my facial express in the second picture.  This is my classic nervous face which I need to somehow learn how to stop making.
They have an awesome patio so we indulged in some cornhole/beanbags bags (true name) while we enjoyed our beers. 
Just as I thought we were going to pack up and go, the guys make the execute decision that we could not come to the brewery and not get fresh beer on draft, so they dutifully ordered a flight for all of us to split.
We then drove the remaining miles to Estes Park. Along the way we opted not to stop for lunch but instead snacked on some of my favorite mix I'd made for the trip.  Leaving Denver area and heading northwest to Estes Park, the surroundings changed from dry, arid fields, to green, hilly forests. We got to our hotel, Rocky Mountain Park Inn, with just enough time for B&B to freshen up before needing to be at the rehearsal.

A few notes on the hotel itself: we stayed here because the bride and groom had recommended it and there was a shuttle provided to the ceremony site and from the after bar.  The hotel was clean and surprisingly comfy, but it was a bit outdated. It's a convenient half mile walk to the main downtown strip. We decided to split a room with Blake and Breanne knowing that both nights we'd be out drinking and could really care less about personal space (I mean we did spent over 30 hours in the car together this trip). To book outright would have been around $430 for a double bed room and four occupants.  Can you guess how we booked? Yep, Priceline Express deals took that price down to just $265 total for the two nights. Winning! (PS- Growing up my mother always said it was very middle class to discuss money with number values. I'm certainly not upper/first class, so yep, I'll share the numbers with you).

After dropping B&B off, Ben convinced me that we should spend some time in Rocky Mountain National Park.  I wasn't entirely happy about this. I was exhausted and hungry, but nonetheless, I decided when in Rome and I'm so glad I did!  The park entrance fee is $20/vehicle, but is valid for seven days.  Upon entering the park I thought this was a jip, but now having been through, I'd pay $20 per person.

And now is where you finally get to see mountain views after all of the tasty brews pictures
We got to the park around 4:30pm and the clouds were just amazing; endless. We entered from Beaver Meadows Visitor Center (park map here) and drove west along Trail Ridge Road.
The mix of fresh air, clouds, mountains and snow was truly overwhelming. Sure, we live in Chicago, with one of the most picturesque skylines in the US, but nothing can really beat the beauty, and awe, of these completely natural mountain views.
We came across our first animal siting  near Rock Cut. We didn't know what it was, but we knew something was there by the number of cars and the number of camera.  Too our delight, it was two mountain goats on the hill.
My father in law is a slight camera buff, so he happily picked me out this 75-300mm lens when I had "new lens" on my Christmas 2013 list. I had yet to use the lens (whoops), but was extremely happy to  have remembered to bring it for this trip. It was perfect for animal close ups!
This goat was so cute to watch. He started trying to paw (hoof?) at some of the rocks to turn them over to find food. It was amazing to watch (it reminded me of Oscar at home).
We didn't move much farther until we came across more cars pulled to the side of the road. However, this time there were no parking spots, they were literally just on the side of the road...

...and that was when we saw the cause...
There were two; just hanging out on the hill minding their own business and ignoring the commotion around them. I *think* they're American Elk, but could stand to be corrected.
After some time spent admiring, we started the descent (thank goodness because a few of those high altitude mountain turns had me a bit queasy and leaning in towards the center of the car as Ben drove).
We came across an entire field full of cow elk grazing.  It turned out that being there around 5pm was the perfect time to catch animals eating.
We continued to follow Trail Ridge Road and stopped off to stretch our legs at The Continental Divide, which is where the division of water/rain flow is for the east and west of the country. 
After more driving, we decided to park at Colorado River Trailhead and go for a hike.  We weren't more than a few minutes in when we saw a side trail and Ben, always the adventurous one, convinced me we should follow it.

At first it was clear where we needed to go. The surroundings were serene and we even came across a few cow elk having their dinner. But after a while the path became confusing and then I started having a little bit of a panic attack. We were in the middle of woods with wild animals and no one knew we were there.

At one point I told Ben, "Stop, we needed to have a serious conversation here. What do we do if we see a bear?" Lol, yeah, I was a bit freaked out (and by the way, you stand your ground and try to look as big and fierce as you can. Do not run. It's a good thing I asked because that would be my first inclination).
After a while it started to rain. Being totally unprepared, instead of venturing on, we ran (literally) back to the car.  We continued driving and then I saw it. I spotted a dark animal afar and realized it was a moose!  No cars had pulled over yet. We were the first to see this creature! By the time we got back in our car, the road was lined.
We drove to the next pullover spot to find more cow elk (I think) grazing and enjoying the evening. There were tons of them!
We continued our drive (near Beaver Pond), when we came across a mother moose and her calf. We had just missed a second set's departure. The baby, as most baby animals are, was darling.

Driving a little farther, we came across the big guy, a male!
Lesson learned: if you want to see wildlife at RMNP, dusk seems to be a great time to drive through the park. And we did just that. We drove through the entire park and came out at Grand Lake.  This is when we finally got back cell service (none the entire time we were in the park) and realized that according to GPS, the quickest way for us to get back to Estes Park was to turn around and drive back through, which would take about an hour and half.
At this point it was 7:30pm, I'd eaten a burrito and chex mix that day. I thought I was going to cry.  Instead, we pulled over so I could search the car for food (Ben decided he'd rather drive back than look for a place to eat at Grand Lake) and happily found a container of salted almond and began our journey back.
As night was setting in on the park, there was a magical feel of mystery. It was really kind of spiritual for me, a reflection of the beauty and wonder that God created.
I tried to capture the clouds without success. It was mystifying how they were just "there" and float through air, through space.  At this point, sharing my reflections with Ben, he jokingly asked where I found the weed. Hardy-har-har; there was just something so astounding about being witness to this beautiful setting.
And finally, around 9pm, we reached downtown Estes Park. At this point I was too tired and hungry to think. We ended up going to Poppy's Pizza, mainly trying to track down Russian River beer; Poppy's typically has Pliney the Elder on tap. Of course, with our luck they did not, but at this point, with food in front of us, we truly didn't mind.
Boring ole' Ben got a small sausage pizza while I opted for a personal sized pesto pizza with ham, tomato and spinach. Yum!
By this time, B&B were done with rehearsal and met us at Poppy's.  Before calling it a night, we went to Estes Park Brewery, which was a HUGE let down.  It was Saturday night and besides a few parties that seemed to be regulars, the place was empty.  The beer was okay, but nothing special. From there we gladly went back to our hotel to catch up on our sleep.

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