This was the big day for us… finally, we went to Rocky Mountain National Park! Man, I just love that place, it’s one of the big five for me: Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier and the Grand Canyon. These are all places where I “hear” and “see” like no other places I’ve ever visited. I see God’s hand, I hear His voice, and I find the kind of peace that I simply can’t find day-to-day anywhere else.
We’d gone into the park a little late, and were told by the ranger at the Kawuneeche Visitor Center that he’d buy us a steak dinner if we didn’t see elk at some point throughout the day. He pointed out some good places to find them, and with some good suggestions in hand, we headed into the park.
And right out of the chute, I watched the moon set between Mineral Point and Baker Mountain in the Never Summer Wilderness. My goodness was that wonderful to see. Of course, I photographed it, but there’s just not words to describe the majesty of watching the clockwork precision of the moonset as the almost-gibbous moon slid behind the young mountains. I stood on the trail for 45 minutes, watching this gentle ballet unfold, like it had countless times before. What a great way to start the day.
We worked our way up Trail Ridge Road, eventually coming upon Milner Pass at Poudre Lake. This is the point where the road crosses the Continental Divide — a geologic feature we’ve documented many times from lots of locations throughout the western US. When I last saw this particular pass in June though, it was covered in snow to the point where the sign noting the divide was one of the few things visible through the snow pack. In fact, were it not for the slight depression of the lake, you wouldn’t have known that it was there in June — there was still too much snow. However, in late September, the lake was well clear of snow, and Beck and I took a couple of short hikes at the pass, one on the “Atlantic” side of the divide, and another on the “Pacific” side of the divide.
I wanted to visit the Alpine Visitor Center, but work in the parking lot really made that pretty impossible — there was no parking left, and in general, it was a madhouse. This is a pretty popular place to visit, and despite the thin crowds in the park today, I think everyone who was in the park was trying to get into the center. We opted out and went on down the road to the Tundra Communities Trailhead. At about 11,700′ it’s not quite as high as the Alpine Center, but it had a nice trail with a terrific overlook. There’s not much higher than you at that point, and you can really tell it. The short hike really winded us, but the spectacular view of the tundra was well worth the effort. It’s pristine areas like this one that really leave a mark on me, and make me long to live in or near the mountains, rather than being at least two days away from them like I am now.
For our afternoon, we drove down to the Moraine Park area of RMNP. I’d never been to this valley before, and I was taken by the difference twenty minutes of driving could make. At Tundra Communities, we were near 12,000′ and surrounded by tundra; at Moraine, we were just above 8,000′ in a lush high valley with thriving flora and fauna. It was here that we saw our first big herd of active elk. And the first elk we saw was a couple of males “arguing” over a harem of females. Once the interloping male was run off, the master of the harem trumpeted, and I thought I was gonna fall over. I’d never heard that sound in the wild, and couldn’t believe I was hearing and seeing what was unfolding just a few hundred feet in front of me. Beck and I watched the herd for about an hour, watching them eat and enjoy a creek, listening to the male trumpet, and just living in the moment as these wonderfully large creatures went about their business as they had for more years than I can imagine.
One of the places I wanted to get to when I was at the park in June was Bear Lake. Due to snow, I couldn’t really get over there, but today, with the lack of snow, we dropped down to that part of the park. This was a very crowded spot, much like the Alpine Visitor Center, but with a parking lot that wasn’t under construction. We found a spot, and walked up to the trailhead. There are loads of trails here, but with us already tired, and hiking around at 9500′, we decided to just take a short walk to the side of the lake. We were told by the folks at the Moraine Park Visitor Center that this was one of the most photographed parts of the park, and I could see why. The water was so still and nestled among the mountains… it was a very serene place to visit. Definitely someplace to re-visit when I have more fuel in the tank, and an earlier start.
At the Kawuneeche Visitor Center, we were told about the Old Fall River Road. This is a single lane, one-way dirt road running east-to-west along the ridge for nine miles from Endovalley to the Alpine Center. It was one of the original roads through the park long ago. After hearing about it, I knew I had to take the Jeep on a classic drive. This road is one of the last to open after the winter snows, and I don’t believe it was open when I visited in June. With the dry conditions, I knew it’d be the perfect opportunity to run around and get the Jeep a little dirty. The road didn’t disappoint! While it was easy enough for passenger cars to make their way carefully, in the Jeep it was a breeze, and attacked it pretty aggressively, taking each hairpin turn in stride, and enjoying the beautiful views. This road has no guard rails, and at times waltzes along the edge of drops that were easily hundreds of feet almost straight down — that just made the drive that much more enjoyable! Along the way, we stopped at the Chapin Creek Trailhead, taking photos of a nice little alpine lake. What a wonderful drive!
With the sun quickly setting, we set about heading back down the west side of the park, heading back to Grand Lake. However, almost as a farewell sendoff, we saw one last herd of elk on Trail Ridge Road just a fraction of a mile from the exit for the park. It was a fitting way to conclude a very full day of enjoying the glory of this national treasure.