Growing up, it was tradition to take an annual trip camping, with my dad, brother, and some family friends.. In the first few years, we tested out two campgrounds in Rocky Mountain National Park. Glacier Basin and Moraine Park. Finally settling at Moraine Park as the years went on. I had not been back after moving out on my own until returning years later with my wife. I talked about a place that is very dear to me in my previous adventure blog, https://fliesontheline.com/2019/02/21/the-experience-of-solo-backpacking-foggy-fishing/ but this is my all-time most memorable location. Not because of the area, although spectacular, but the memories made.
The main appeal to Moraine Park is it’s close proximity to the headwaters of the Big Thompson River. The valley that this mountain river roams throughout contains immense beauty. Elk frequent the area along with a variety of wildlife to enjoy the vast grass-covered fields. This is the place to camp and fish year after year.
Moraine Park is a valley formed in the mountains that were carved out by an enormous glacier a long long time ago. Leaving behind a vast meadow with the brilliant Big Thompson river meandering through. The Moraine Park Campground sits at the edge of the basin where the pine forest begins.
Part of what makes this area so great are the amenities. Paved roads leading to the extremely well-maintained hiking trails, backcountry campsites, and a few drive-up campgrounds. Moraine Park campground features well-maintained restrooms, bear-proof dumpsters, solar showers, the usual fire and ice offering and even an amphitheater where they hold some excellent campfire educational programs.
Moraine Park Campground is about a two-hour drive from our house in the Denver Metro area. The drive is easy and becomes really nice once you hit highway 66 towards Estes Park. At this point begins the long, single-lane highway with vast farms and fields for viewing. As soon as you hit the town of Lyons, “The Double Gateway to the Rockies”, the landscape changes quickly. Before you know it you are driving alongside incredible red sandstone cliffs. From there the climb to Estes Park begins on highway 36, winding and weaving through the canyon and following along the N. St. Vrain River. After driving over Lake Estes and creeping through Main street, comes the final stretch into Rocky Mountain National Park.
Entering the park at Beaver Meadows, straight away you feel as though you are miles away from civilization. With pine, spruce, fir and aspen trees covering towering peaks in the close distance, the area shows it’s beauty quickly. Once you are in the park, it takes about five minutes to get to the campgrounds.
The campground is great overall with plenty to offer. In recent years, however, they have added a lot more campsites without increasing the area of the grounds. This means the privacy isn’t what it used to be, changing the experience I remember as a kid slightly. On the flip side, I suppose it gives more people the opportunity to experience the area. If you are interested in staying in the Moraine Park campground, be sure to reserve your site well ahead of time. They get snatched up quickly!
My wife and I tend to go all out when we go car camping. Filling the trunk of our Subaru, (This coming year will be the year of my Titan with way more space!!) like it is Tetras and the goal is to fill the area rather than clear it out. The dogs even sometimes have to share the backseat with the last minute firewood or perhaps the coolers/camping tubs.
After all, car camping means luxury camping right? A six-person tent for the two of us with the two dogs. A full kitchen setup, multiple chairs our cozy cots, sleeping pads and any other creature comfort we are not willing to go without. I would say this is pretty much on par with how we would camp when we were kids. We would fill my dad’s full size work van with immense gear. Although my brother’s friend and I did not have cots, we slept on the giant air mattresses that are mostly meant to be a guest bed in your home.
Picturesque mountain stream dry fly fishing. Anything else? Not for me. The Big Thompson River is a quick five-thirty minute walk from the campground. Depending on where your campsite is and what area of the river you want to explore. There are also plenty of access points along the river with small parking areas that are clearly marked. Although the area has changed a bit since my youth, the main nostalgia remains. I will never forget parking with my dad in the same spot, every time, clearly headed for one specific riverbank. They say “Don’t fish memories” but aside from exploring, that’s why I fish. Typically I head to the river or lake to either revisit memories or create new ones. He would typically hook at least one in his hole by the way.
The water is small and skinny in most areas but holds some decent Brown and Brook Trout. Most of the river grazes back and forth through the grassland creating excellent cut bank shelter for the fish. This also means stealth can greatly help increase the amount of fish you catch throughout the day. If you are sneaky and able to make long delicate presentations the rewards are exciting. Consider that a bend in the river can create a three or four foot pool that cuts under the land another foot or more. This creates a unique fishing scenario. Cast a fly parallel to shore landing a dry fly inches from the bank. The wild 12″ brown trout seeking cover will slam your fly and excite an exhilarating fight.
Easy dry dropper rigs are perfect for optimizing your chances of snagging a dry fly eater while still presenting to the fish snacking below. This trip I caught most of my fish on either a Charlie Boy Hopper on top, or a classic Pheasant Tail on the bottom.
Exploring Trail Ridge Road
Whenever my wife and I go camping together, we love to drive around and explore the area. Although close to home, Trail Ridge Road is possibly the most picturesque area we have every journeyed. We decided to cook and eat dinner early one night so we could drive up to the top to take in the sunset. If you camp in the area during the summertime I highly recommended this! This road is closed throughout the winter months.
The views were spectacular. Not only were the colors amazing as we progressed but we saw a few large elk. A couple of which were trophy bulls. Climbing towards the top, one large bull stood in the road with elegance and power that was only amplified by the time of day. We were barely able to snap a couple of poor pictures as the strong animal dipped back into the dense forest.
The long way home
Heading home on a weekend day we realized we were in for a journey and decided to enjoy it as much as possible. After the magical sunset drive up trail ridge road, we wanted to see it during the day. After all, not only had it been years since I had gone the route but my wife had not done it in quite some time either.
The drive did not disappoint providing spectacular views of places that vary rarely get influenced by human hands. Down in the basins between the mountains you could see lakes, streams, trees, and elk. Driving back down hitting 1-70 and 1-25 were an unwelcome end to an excellent camping getaway to a place that I will cherish in my memories forever.