My three days in Estes Park were full of blue skies; although it was hot and dry, we were still able to hike, as long as we brought plenty of water. The horses kicked up dust on the trail, but it wasn't unbearable. Temperatures dropped 20 degrees when the sun went down.
Perhaps the scariest fire encounter came when I stayed with a friend who lives in Pinewood Springs, a small mountain community between Estes Park and Lyons. We were sitting out on his balcony, enjoying a few cold ones, when suddenly smoke poured into the valley. He got up to check the web for info, but no alarms went off and the local fire station remained silent.
We learned the next day that the smoke came from a pyrocumulus cloud that had entered the valley. According to a Denver Post article, these clouds form because "intense heating of air from the surface induces convection, which causes an air mass to rise above the fire and, in the presence of moisture (from water being dumped on the fire), can induce formation." I don't completely understand the science, but I do recognize how on edge the fires are making Colorado homeowners.
High temperatures and dry conditions are likely to continue this week. As my trip has proved, you can have a great time in Colorado right now, despite what's going on. Here are a few things to keep in mind as the state hopes for rain:
Check roads. There have been detours put in place, and the route that you mapped out might need to be changed. Your cell phone might not work in the mountains. Via Twitter, the Colorado Emergency Management office told me that 850 KOA AM provides regular news. The Colorado Department of Transportation also updates road closures regularly.
Smoke is unpredictable. Even with the High Park fire plume visible outside Fort Collins, the town's air quality has remained OK on most days. During my three days in town, I noticed the smoke later in the evening, when the winds changed. The TV stations out of Denver were inaccurate in their predictions, I found - while forecasters had projected thick smoke in Fort Collins on Sunday, we didn't smell it all when we were at the Colorado Brewers Festival. Unless you have serious respiratory issues, you aren't likely to have any issues.
Follow the rules. Rocky Mountain National Park, as well as campgrounds around the state, has a total fire ban in place right now. That means no campfires, including those made with charcoal briquettes (petroleum-fueled stoves and grills are still permitted in designated backcountry campsites, as well as developed campgrounds and picnic areas). Firework bans are also in effect, and many cities won't be holding July 4th displays.
Don't panic. Colorado geography is made up of mountains and canyons, and distances can be deceiving. While a fire in Estes Park closed the Beaver Meadow entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park on Saturday, the park is so large that other areas weren't affected. In a town that's full of tourists, many people reported seeing smoke, but only a handful of properties actually needed to evacuate their visitors.
Look at a map. On TripAdvisor, I saw people asking about their planned trips to Vail and Breckenridge, places that are relatively far from the fires. Again, mountainous areas have a very different geography from the terrain that you might be used to back home.