High altitude grandeur
Rocky Mountain National Park is a living showcase of the spectacular Rocky Mountains. A visitor has opportunities for breathtaking experiences and adventures, says PADMINI DEVARAJAN.
A living laboratory ... plan some time and come find your adventure here.
AS I stepped out of Denver airport, on a sunny morning in July, a surge of excitement stirred unbidden within me at the picturesque sight of the glacial topped Rocky mountain ranges. Even at a distance of 50 to 70 miles, the endless rows of the sprawling mountains sparkled in resplendent brightness, wearing a look of warmth and stately grandeur to beckon visitors. It would be an understatement to say that I found it difficult to ignore the thrill that raced within me at the thought that I would be right in the heart of the grand Rocky Mountains, that I had only seen in atlases and read about in geography and history books.
The drive to the Rocky Mountain National Park is through an area of scenic beauty, silhouetted with mountain ranges that border large stretches of land, and with the Big Thompson river rising and falling along the drive. It is said that the best time to visit the Rocky Mountain National Park is between the warmer months from May to October. Located in the north and central part of Colorado State in the United States, this Rocky Mountain National Park is a spacious natural reserve sprawling across 2,65,769 acres. It subsumes mountain ranges, valleys and flatlands at an elevation range of more than 6,000 feet.
The skyline is dotted with mountain ranges on whose slopes are dense forests of aspen, fir, spruce and ponderosas. The drops of 2,000 and 3,000 feet into rock bound gorges are nothing short of spectacular.
The terrain is distinctive in its vegetation that ranges from lush areas along streams, rivers, lakes and ponds, at both higher and lower elevations, to forest stretches on mountain slopes. At the highest elevations are tundra regions of glacial peaks and slopes.
The forests are interspersed with bare rocky edges of the mountains, sometimes plain, sometimes ribbed and wrinkled, and boulders of all sizes and shapes. The varied species of trees form the natural habitat for animals like the elk, the mule deer, the coyote, the skunk, the moose, the porcupine, different species of squirrels and birds of all kinds. The many lakes and rivers that are scattered in the park are home to ducks and river otters.
The millions of tons of rocks in the park perhaps justify the name Rocky Mountains for this area. The sizes and shapes of rocks are innumerable and unique. The mountain ranges run from north to south, with the slopes sharper on the east and gentler on the west. The valleys in the park are themselves about 8,000 feet above sea level and the peaks rise thousands of feet higher at an average elevation of 12,000 feet. There is a huge `U' shaped valley between two glacial topped mountain peaks Hallet Peak and Flattop Mountain. This can be viewed from a vantage point on the shores of Bear Lake, a beautiful lake trail, that is easy and wheel-chair accessible. Heavy glaciers that have moved or flowed from the mountains through the passage of time must have formed this valley. Since the glaciers have been subject to successive freezing and thawing, when they move, they tear up the ground and carry the land under them or on their sides that are called moraines. The valley in the Moraine Park area was formed in this manner.
The Trail Ridge Road
The Trail Ridge Road, U.S. Route 34, is the highest contiguous road in the world and helps visitors to motor through the park. As one drives on the Trail Ridge Road, there is the treat of the endless stretches of Nature's pristine beauty. There are spots on the drive where one gets to view both sides of the ranges from overlooks located at vantage points. While driving in the eastern valleys, the ranges rise in bold relief, rugged in outline and crowned with snow. Some of them seem to confront each other in a perennial dialogue.
While driving on the northern side of the trail, one gets to see the tundra regions that are primarily seen in Alaska, Canada, and Russia. In her book Land Above the Trees, Ann Zwinger says, "The Alpine tundra is a land of contrast and incredible intensity, where the sky is the size of forever and the flowers the size of a millisecond." Situated at an altitude of 13,500 feet and above, in an Arctic-like environment, with 10 months of winter, hurricane and winds, the tundra has glacial mountains and bare rocks, with low growing plants, tufts of marigold and tiny wild flowers, and marshes at lower levels.
The drive along Trail Ridge Road through the park may take four hours or more, depending on the halts visitors make to view the many grand vistas all through. The drive on the western side of the road leads through the Kawuneeche Valley in which lie lush meadows, many streams, natural lakes and even a part of the Colorado River.
While the bighorn sheep, the black bear, the mountain lion and the bobcat inhabit higher elevations and are elusive to visitors, one is more likely to sight the elk and the moose in the valley. The road is well paved and safe, but drivers are cautioned to maintain a speed limit and observe safety measures.
Along the Trail Ridge Road there are many points that lead to walks or easy hikes that are about a mile long and require a mere stroll on plain land or on rugged rocks. In addition there are hundreds of small and long hikes possible in other parts of the park. In his book Walks and Hikes, Patrick Soran has listed 60 trails that are less than seven miles long and need climbs of less than 1,000 feet. He also includes information and a detailed description about what each one of them can offer along with some beautiful photographs. Soran says that each of these trails is "rewarding" when it offers a "classic moment" and defines a "classic moment", as either an experiential reaction to the scenes of grand vistas, a quiet realisation, or a spontaneous response to the serenity of the spot.
I walked the Copeland Falls trail that leads to a view of a grand waterfall where the water gushes over boulders and rocks. To stand in the midst of forests and mountains and hear the sound of the falling water and feel the cool air is an aesthetic experience to be treasured.
Trails to lakes such as Bear Lake, Nymph Lake or Lily Lake evoke yet another different experience. As one walks along the shores of these lakes, the abundant scenic beauty and range of vistas vie with their reflections in the still waters of the lake. Hikers have always to be on guard against frequent thundershowers, especially in the afternoons.
There are four entrance points to this park. Three of them are on the eastern side, namely, the Wild Basin Entrance, the Fall River Entrance, and the Beaver Meadows Entrance. The Grand Lake Entrance station is on the south west side of the park. The National Park Service (NPS) of the U.S. has to be commended for its excellent efforts to preserve the natural park, while allowing visitors ample room to enjoy Nature's resources. The NPS runs shuttle buses to the most congested parts of this park (like Bear Lake and Moraine Park) and also operates informational visitor centres in all national parks, recreation areas and monuments. Four visitor centres, located close to the entrance stations provide information on trails, walks and ranger programmes in the Rocky Mountains National Park. A fifth, called the Alpine Visitor Centre is situated on Trail Ridge Road in the middle of the park a few hundred meters from the highest point on the road.
To explore and savour some of the richness and beauties in this place one needs a relaxed space of at least a week. This article barely touches the tip of the iceberg.
A one-day trip at best can provide an abridged version of the experience, a taste of the manifold joys that abound in this area.
A visit to the Rocky Mountains is certainly a lifetime's worth. While Colorado's mountainous terrain offers innumerable beautiful sights that leave one longing for more and never satiated, its magnitude of awe and grandeur also invoke a humbling effect on mankind.
For more information visit: www.nps.gov/romo
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