Rocky Mountain National Park – Part 1
It’s rare that we take off for a new destination without some idea of where we will stay for the night. Without a reservation or multiple options, it feels like a gymnast is inside my stomach flipping, flopping, twisting, and turning during the whole trip. Thursday, August 23, 2018, found us in such a predicament as we headed for the west entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park.
I could barely enjoy the view as we drove through Rabbit Ears Pass where patches of dead trees broke up the healthy forest covering the mountainsides. There were only 98 sites at the only first-come-first-served campground on the west side of the park.
The sign at the Grand Lake Entrance showed no vacancy for the first four campgrounds listed. Then the last campground, Timber Creek (first-come-first-served), showed vacancy. Yes! Now we only had to worry about finding a campsite for our 30’ fifth wheel. Would the sites be big enough?
All of that worrying turned out to be for naught, as it usually does. We managed to squeeze into a perfect spot, paid the fee, and settled in for three nights.
We had plenty of daylight left to commence with exploration. First stop, of course, was the Kawuneeche Visitor Center for maps and information about hikes. We didn’t plan on any strenuous hikes at elevations of 9,000 to 12,000 feet. Even though we had been in high elevations for almost a month, we still suffered from shortness of breath at the slightest exertion, the occasional headache, or dehydration. Sticking with the shorter and flatter trails would keep the more serious symptoms of altitude sickness at bay.
Accessible near Grand Lake a few miles outside of the park, Adams Falls turned out to be our speed at a distance of .6 miles roundtrip and an elevation gain of 79 feet. Lodgepole pines had fallen like pick up sticks along the trail, cluttering the forest floor. It looked like more than a good raking was needed to prevent a catastrophic forest fire.
Grand Lake Lodge
Grand Lake Lodge was our next stop. The lodge was either established, built, or began operation in 1920 or 1925. Three different signs listed three different dates. It’s a beautiful old lodge with wood beams and floors. A huge fireplace dominated the middle of the lobby with a bar on one side and a restaurant beyond. Seating on the porch was popular for its view of the lake.
Our destination for the morning was the Alpine Visitor Center. Yeah, right. To get a parking place requires an early rise, something we rarely manage, or a long wait in line until someone leaves. We kept on driving to the Tundra Communities Trailhead. Information signs along the 1.3-mile roundtrip trail with an elevation gain of 260 feet explained the topography, detailed the plants and animals that live in the tundra zone at 12,000 feet and how they adapt to the cold temperatures. We came prepared for the cold donning our base layers, sweaters, jackets, gloves, and knit hats. The difference in temperatures from 9,000 feet to 12,000 is significant, especially when the wind is blowing.
I had heard of marmots before, but never had the pleasure of meeting one in person. This guy must have been a lookout because we heard him screaming from the parking lot which was about a half mile away.
The tundra is similar to a desert in that it doesn’t look like much from a distance. Get down close to the ground, though, and it comes alive. All of the plants are miniaturized in the tundra. Some flowers are so tiny they’re hard to see. They stay low to stay warm and their little faces track with the sun.
Some alpine plants contain an antifreeze type chemical that converts sunlight into heat. Hairs also protect the plants from the ultraviolet radiation that in the tundra is twice what it is at sea level.
It looks like someone came in with a skip loader and deposited piles of big rocks and boulders on the hill. The rocks actually were churned up; forming rock streams, strips, garlands, or polygons; when moist soil repeatedly froze and thawed.
An icy wind howled across the tundra cooling my left side as I made my way up the hill even though my right side was comfortably warm. On my way down the hill, my right side took the brunt of the wind. It was hard going, but oh, what a view. We envisioned a stressful drive pulling the trailer across the ridge after seeing the road from the top of the mountain.
Strange mushroom-shaped rocks at the top of one hill looked out of place. The darker rock is schist which formed from sand, silt, and clay at the bottom of a long-ago sea. Magma pushed its way up from deep in the earth, cooled into granite forming the white mushroom stem. Erosion finished the masterpiece and continues to shape and mold the formation.
A little girl wanted to race across the field. Her father pulled her back. The girl cried and tried to wiggle out of her father’s arms. It could take 500 to a thousand years for trampled tundra to repair itself. Everyone must stay on the asphalt trail. Toddlers don’t understand.
On our way back to base camp, we drove by the Alpine Visitor Center. There were even more cars lined up to find a spot to park. From the road, I saw a hill where people walked up and down. It looked like we didn’t miss much. We already completed our walk, viewed the tundra up close, and marveled at the views.
Trail Ridge Road
Driving along Trail Ridge Road we stopped at a few pullouts to take in the views. A portion of the Never Summer Mountains is depicted below. They are the only volcanic mountain range within Rocky Mountain National Park. With a length of 10 miles north to south, they form a section of the continental divide near the headwaters of Colorado River.
More of our visit to Rocky Mountain National Park coming up next in Part 2.