ESTES PARK, Colo. — In a lot of Western parks, mountains serve as symbols or icons the spiky peaks of the Tetons, the handsome, sheer cliffs of Yosemite, the unmistakable Mts. Rainier and McKinley.
But here we have the very definition of mountain. Rocky Mountain National Park has so many scores of peaks that a good many of them lack names. They form endless vistas of snow caps, slopes and glaciers. This is a mountain factory, epitomizing nothing less than the entire range known as the Rockies.
There is no individual Rocky Mountain, unless you care to count one diminutive peak in northern Georgia, a mere 4,586 feet high. That southern pretender would be a midget in the real Rockies, where 4,500 feet is just getting started.
Rocky Mountain National Park offers several ways to experience the rugged terrain. Trails traverse the flat meadows where mountains appear at a distance. Or venture through the treeline and above it to find pristine glacial lakes. Intrepid souls likely will want to reach a summit or two, just for the exhilaration and to rise above it all.
Or drive! Drive almost to the top. In summer (a matter of loose definition, but generally from May to October) Trail Ridge Road allows motorists a chance to attain climbers height with one foot on the accelerator and a cappuccino in the cup holder. Its a drive into grandeur unlike any other.
The road here travels higher in elevation than the highest peaks in the great majority of national parks above 12,000 feet, park interpreter Peter Allen pointed out. I was about to travel that road, but he wanted me first to understand the scope of what I would see. Thats more than 500 feet higher than any mountain in Yellowstone. Its higher than all but a few points in Glacier. And thats the road. Thats not the mountain peaks, thats the road.
Ah, the road.
Soon after passing Upper Beaver Meadow, my ears began to pop. In the pretty, tranquil valley, elk were feeding just off the highway, creating a gapers block. With the traffic temporarily tied up, a coyote felt comfortable crossing from one shoulder to another and on into the field. I could slow down and enjoy the scenery for a moment, a ring of snowy peaks mountainsides with the occasional dimples of glaciers resting in their self-made hanging valleys.
Just before the first major turn, I stopped at a nature trail called World of the Beaver. No beavers were in evidence, but they certainly had done a job on Hidden Valley Creek. Dams built from aspen, alder and willow branches had attracted impressive collections of silt and dead leaves, which were filling the pond that the beaver dams had created. It was a dry year out West, so rain could not do its part in replenishing the water. In time, the decaying dams and debris would fill the pond and become a culture for sedges and grasses. After that, the marsh would solidify into meadow, whereupon the elk would move in, joined by coyotes and coyote prey. Far in the future, trees would grow and a forest would claim the land.
A good park is a lesson in biological and geological evolution. A beaver pond might be a forest writ small.
These mountains grew over the course of a billion years, perhaps getting their start when water covered most of the West and sediments built up thousands of feet. Shifting tectonic plates caused the land to rise and form a mountain range with a boost from red-hot fissures contributing molten rock from deep in the earth. Geologists believe this happened more than once. The early mountains eroded down into a flat plain, the sea covered it again, the mountain-building process resumed with finishing touches carved by glaciers of the Ice Age.
Thus began the Front Range of the Rockies, which extends from the Wyoming border to Colorado Springs. The park encompasses 415 square miles of it, including a stretch of the Continental Divide.
Rocky Mountain National Park represents an upswing in the mountain-building process. It might get taller before it shrinks. Right now, its highest summit is Longs Peak, 14,255 feet above sea level. I would not reach that altitude in the car; Trail Ridge tops out at 12,183 feet. But the road does pass by the parks most distinguishing characteristic: tundra.
I had marveled at what could be seen from the various overlooks on the way up. At eye level, the Rockies look like an ocean of gray waves with white froth at the tips. They go on and on to places no highway could ever attain. Trail Ridge Road at its highest overlook deposits visitors at the edge of an alpine landscape of ground-hugging plants maintaining a tenuous grip on thin soil more gravel than dirt.
These arent optimum conditions for any living thing. I made an effort to breathe in the oxygen-poor air. Wind whipped at our ears as a group of us walked up the trail and deeper into tundra territory. Signs warned us to stay on the path. Mosses and flowers such as these would not only die underfoot but take years to regenerate. Trees cannot grow up here. Trees were but a black/green rumor far below us, where their roots could find some soil and they would rarely have to suffer the 200 mph winds and dry conditions that often are part of the routine in alpine-tundra country.
A signboard at the Forest Canyon Overlook (11,500 feet) explained: The alpine plants growing here are found in the vast, treeless expanses of Alaska, Canada and Siberia. These gentle, rolling mountaintops are remnants of an ancient plain, lifted into the sky by tremendous mountain-building processes. Rivers of ice, 1,000 feet deep, once filled Forest Canyon. Glaciers ripped away the rock, widened the valley and quarried the basins now filled with alpine lakes.
The Alpine Visitor Center is a bustling agora of national park concessionaires. People lined up to buy everything from deerskin wallets to camping supplies to hot dogs. Outside the immense plate-glass window, the tundra sloped down until it gave way to more hospitable territory, where bighorn sheep were barely visible, mere dots on the crags.
An hour in a chaotic place like that has its rewards, the biggest one an overwhelming urge to find solitude as soon as possible. Still, it does present a chance to sit still for awhile and let the lungs get used to the stingy air supply.
Trail Ridge Road, begun in 1929 and finished in 1933, might be the headline attraction for hurried weekend visitors from Denver and adjoining states. It provides a thrilling overview but not much peace and quiet. Trailheads lead into more secluded areas, where visitors find alpine lakes, fragrant woods and occasional glimpses of wildlife.
One such trail allows an encounter with the Colorado River, barely a creek at that point. A path about 1 miles south of the Colorado River trailhead leads west into the Kawuneeche Valley and emerges at Never Summer Ranch, a vestige of the Old West.
The Department of the Interior owns it now. I could deduce that immediately, because the man who stood near the barnyard, waiting for visitors, wore not only a vintage gray beard but the uniform of a National Park volunteer. Dick Poole introduced himself to a small gaggle of the curious and told them the collection of rough cabins behind him was a relic of the Homestead Act.
John Holzwarth, a German immigrant, brought his family to the region in 1917, after Prohibition shut down his Denver saloon. They were giving away Homestead Act land here in the valley, Poole said.You could get 160 acres of ground if you would live on it and show signs of progress for five years.
In 1920, a hay wagon severely damaged Holzwarths hip and one of his legs. So the family went into the dude-ranching business, building a cabin for guests near their own two-room cottage.
For $2 a day, or $11 a week, guests got three meals a day and the cabin and the use of one horse, Poole told us. It was a typical 1920s dude ranch. We toured the buildings, including the shed where Holzwarth operated a successful taxidermy shop and the small, neat family living quarters. A dinner plate displayed on a sideboard bore this inscription: Everything in its place saves you a lot of time and many words.
It didnt take many words for our guide to explain that Never Summer Ranch gets its name from the nearby Never Summer mountain range, which wears a blanket of snow all year-round.
The only pavement that penetrates the park interior is called Bear Lake Road, because thats where it goes. I arrived there early enough one morning to snag a spot in the parking lot. I walked the easy trail that circles Bear Lake, a deep and almost perfectly round body of water painted with reflections of the pines that surround it. The trail was no challenge at all, a little less than a mile. Muscular types climbed the rocks and posed for pictures taken by less adventurous friends who remained on the path. Their boulder games added a lot of echoing noise to the atmosphere, but the place is so beautiful, I didnt mind. Its the kind of mountain scenery that can drown out the shouts of teenagers with the power of its good looks.
Other trails snake out from the Bear Lake area to Glacier Gorge Junction, Flattop Mountain, Longs Peak and a lot of other places with lakes, waterfalls, mountains and trees to see and still more rocks for those compelled to seek footholds. In most of those places the hikers find peace and quiet, as soon as the panting stops.
I walked part way toward Glacier Gorge until the wind began sawing at my bones and the sky turned almost black. Lightning and thunder crash across the parks mountaintops nearly every afternoon. I retreated to the car and retraced woodsy Bear Lake Road back to the meadowlands, where thunderstorms become more of a spectator sport. You can see and hear them, but they stay upstairs. Anglers continued to wade in the creek that runs through Moraine Park, casting their flies at cutthroat trout. Picnickers spread blankets. Strollers walked around the little nature garden in back of the informative Moraine Park Museum.
It was easy to see why people have been drawn to the area for the past 10,000 years, and why the Utes skillful hunters all set up permanent residence about 1,500 years ago to track the deer and sheep. Gold fever and the onrush of white miners in the 1840s forced the hunters to retreat. The Front Range failed to yield precious minerals, but a few pioneers found a lot of value just in the fabulous setting.
In 1909, Freelan Stanley opened his hotel in Estes Park, the town named for a 19th-century settler, Joel Estes. That same year, a protege of the great naturalist John Muir began pushing to preserve the mountains, meadows and valleys as a national park. His name was Enos Mills, a self-educated naturalist.
Mills traveled the country promoting his national park idea. Stanley, inventor of the Stanley Steamer, stayed in Estes Park nursing his health, boosting park status for the Front Range and building the towns first electric plant. The men with support from Theodore Roosevelt wanted to extend the park all the way south to Colorado Springs. Of course, that didnt happen, but when Rocky Mountain did become a national park in 1915, it covered an area roughly northwest of Ft. Collins down almost to Boulder.
Estes Park is one of the classic national-park border towns that tend to spring up in high-traffic areas. Earlier, I had watched visitors with binoculars standing alongside West Horseshoe Park, peering at feeding elk a few hundred yards distant.
By the time I made it into town, I didnt need binoculars. A few elk brazenly walked over driveways and sidewalks, poking their noses into gardens and pointedly ignoring the folks who strolled toward Geppettos Toy Shoppe, Sheryls Styles for Ladies & Men or Big Horn Restaurant.
That would be my only up-close wildlife sighting, on a street packed with people licking frozen-yogurt cones, with thunder clapping in the distance and, everywhere, those snowy peaks. The Front Range. Continental Divide. The Rockie