Destination Denver

Rocky mountain, a Drive Through the Wild Tundra

Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the best places in the country to experience close encounters with the mega-fauna of the mountains. One of the best things to do is follow Trail Ridge Road, a 48-mile trail designed for enjoying the landscape while minimizing impact on the fragile ecosystem.

Text and photos: Javier A. Pinzón

It wasn’t easy getting there. Our starting point was on the other side of the country, in the eastern United States. We took a long drive through the monotonous plains of the center of this vast country and watched mile upon mile of pastures pass by before we arrived in Denver and began our ascent into the mountains.

We entered Rocky Mountain National Park (established in 1915) as sunset was fading away. Among the occasional pine trees, in the middle heights of the mountains we could see the arid, rocky terrain of this mountainous block. Now we are here, in the semi-darkness, finally setting up our camping gear in the home of more than six hundred elk, 350 big horn sheep, moose, deer, fifty species of mammals, another 280 species of birds, six species of amphibians, and thousands of insects. Although we can’t see anything, the truth is that at 7,840 feet above sea level we are not alone; we are in a wild world just eighty miles from Denver.

This park, which covers 265,908 acres, is one of the best places in the country to experience up-close encounters with the mega-fauna of the mountains. The highlight will be the trip along Trail Ridge Road, opened in 1921. This road was designed so people could enjoy the unique landscapes of the upper Rocky Mountains while minimizing impact on the fragile ecosystems. We devote the entire day to traveling its forty-eight miles at a leisurely pace. At dawn we prepare our provisions: camera, binoculars, water, peanuts, apples, some good sandwiches, and off we go.

Our starting point, the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center, is in the middle of the subalpine meadows. The road gradually climbs as it winds around wetlands, aspen forests, and ponderosa pines. Every so often we see parking areas where visitors can leave their cars and check out the lookouts located on either side of the road. Most of them have short trails leading into the scenery so you can see it up close. We take the first of these trails and enter a forest of extremely tall, dense pine trees reaching up to 115 feet, making us feel like two tiny dots under their enormity.

We go back to the car and continue uphill. Soon we see the ponderosa pines, adapted to survive the harsh winters and dry conditions, get increasingly scarce. We enter the subalpine forest where ferns and spruce (genus Picea) grow at the highest altitude that trees can grow: between 8,860 and 9,840 feet. As we climb, these survivors grow smaller and increasingly strangely shaped, as if they were seeking protection from the cold wind by twisting behind the rocks.

We continue climbing and effortlessly pass the tree line. The horizon is revealed and finally I see the park’s complex of ecosystems. Below, at 7,545 feet, you can see the lime green valleys with lakes and wetlands. A carpet of green pines creates a sharp-pointed pattern in the middle heights of the mountains. Above are the rocky peaks, witnesses of glacial melting, one of the most hostile environments for life. Yet this tundra, at more than 11,100 feet, is full of flowers, unlike the snowy peaks a little higher, above 13,120 feet, which can’t melt during this short summer. These are some of the highest peaks in the continental United States.

Although it’s the middle of summer, a cold wind blows through my clothes. The shorts and t-shirt I’m wearing, which were just fine two hours ago, now are not enough. We have to take out more clothing from the trunk of the car to build layers like an onion: long pants, sweaters, and windbreakers. At this altitude the wind can be twenty to thirty degrees colder than where we began the journey. Now with adequate attire we take a new path and suddenly, a pair of horns emerges on the horizon: an elk passes fearlessly between us. We brave the cold excitedly to take photos and it takes a while before we notice that this alpha male is in good company: from the horizon an enormous herd emerges. About a hundred females, young elk, and newborns come our way and surround us without even glancing at us. The smallest of the herd stops to suckle milk from his mother. It’s late afternoon and these horned animals are leaving the forest in search of the rich pastures of the alpine tundra. The wild scene takes place just a few feet from the car. It’s the result of responsible tourism, where visitors remain on the path and keep their distance as wildlife continues its daily rhythm uninterrupted.

We have already climbed more than 3,935 feet and stopped in at least at five different microenvironments. These small lookouts along the road are testament to the Wilderness Act of 1964, which defines wilderness areas as those “where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” According to this document, these meadows, forests, alpine peaks, and tundra must be protected in perpetuity.

We crown the mountain, reaching the Alpine Visitor Center at 11,790 feet. In this cold but sunny tundra the colors of the wildflowers shine just forty days a year: they grow, bloom, and die. On a day like today, the best spot to see flowers is along the Tundra World Nature Trail. In just half an hour we see yellow, purple, orange, and white flowers. We are above the clouds when suddenly, a pair of enormous horns appears out of the fog, coming towards us. It’s an alpha male walking alone. When we begin the descent we find another herd of elk, young mothers and calves that look like moving dots on this vast landscape of green pastures.

In an environment of rocks and hiding places we see the marmots, still in their winter fur. They call each other with whistles as they pose on their hind legs and then run frightened in search of shelter; camouflaged in the rocks, a coyote is sniffing around the area.

At 9,840 feet we find Milner Pass, the division of the continental waters. When it rains, the drops falling to my right will continue onto the Missouri River and later the Mississippi to end up in the Gulf of Mexico, in the Atlantic Ocean. In contrast, the drops falling to my left will go to the Colorado River; they will pass through the Grand Canyon and reach the Gulf of California, in the Pacific Ocean.

When we reach the wetland area we see the dams built by beavers, animals that give dynamism to a habitat full of water, nutrients, and life. Although this ecosystem only covers 3% of the state of Colorado, it gives shelter to the majority of the state’s wildlife. This was the highlight of our day, but we still have new surprises ahead. Our second day will be devoted to lakes and hidden waterfalls in the mountain forests.

After a hot breakfast we take the road to Bear Lake Road. We notice a lot of movement among the tourists, indicating that something interesting is happening: a mother moose and her calf are grazing peacefully in the middle of a small wetland. We watch them in silence so they don’t run away, but they approach our path, ignoring our presence and the clicking of our cameras. There was a time when elk were scarce in the Rockies, but now they are often spotted thanks to good management of the wilderness. Moose are the largest members of the deer family and often remain in the same area for a long time, so they are easy to see.

Finally, we get out of the car and take the Bear Lake Trail toward Emerald Lake. We cross small streams of cold, crystalline water and after about a half-mile we are facing Nymph, a beautiful lake bordered by yellow flowers shining in the sun. About a half-mile from there, we arrive at Dream, the dream lake, where the sharp rocky peaks, still bearing traces of winter, are reflected in the turquoise water, creating a doubly beautiful effect.

We follow the path a little more than a half-mile further to get to Emerald Lake. The scene on our arrival is impressive: in front of us are the imposing Hallett Peak and Flattop Mountain. We pause for a too-short moment of contemplation until we hear the sound of a waterfall coming from the Tyndall glacier in the distance. In the afternoon we take the Alberta Falls Trail. Although it is just over a half-mile, everything around us is huge: stones, pines, mountains and of course, the waterfall. We feel insignificant in the face of such immensity.

On our third and last day we take Old Fall River Road, which opened in 1920. It was the first road to the park’s alpine tundra and it is where we see the largest animal horns we’ve seen in the park as well as an impressive view of Fall River Cirque, birthplace of the glaciers that forged these mountains.

And now to leave, we descend slowly, enjoying every inch of scenery. Below, among the yellow flowers, a group of deer with smaller horns looks up curiously from behind a bush. One of them stares at me intently, as if acknowledging that I am leaving, that I will remember him, and that I will always want to return.