Rocky Mountain Nat’l Park: ‘A land of contrast and incredible intensity’

A couple enjoys a spectacular vista on Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park.



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A couple enjoys a spectacular vista on Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Rocky Mountain National Park, to borrow the phrase of two esteemed naturalists, is “a land of contrast and incredible intensity ... where there is nothing between you and the sky.”

Its bony mountains, towering over verdant meadows, crystalline lakes and abundant wildlife, make the park a hiker’s paradise.

At the same time, park managers tell you it’s a magnet for the so-called “windshield tourists” who hoist themselves only briefly from their motorized conveyances, to stand for a short time in the high mountain air, chill even in mid-summer, before hustling back to the shelter of their vehicles.

Contrasts, indeed.

The description above comes from the 1996 book on American alpine tundra titled “The Land Above the Trees” by Ann Zwinger and Beatrice Willard, the latter a former president of the Thorne Ecological Institute and researcher for the National Park Service.

Much of this exhaustive and entertaining book examines the high alpine of Rocky Mountain National Park and the impacts human visitors are having on the delicate environment above tree line.

But exactly who are the people visiting Rocky Mountain National Park?

The “average” visitor to the park, even if such a creature exists wrapped only in the fabric of journalistic license, leaves a Midwest home in the heat and humidity of mid-summer, points his or her RV west and doesn’t stop until under the snow-capped peaks of the Rocky Mountains.

“We get a lot of people from the Midwest who go on vacation and head west and end up at Rocky Mountain National Park,” said Larry Frederick, the park’s well-versed chief of interpretation.

Citing a week-long visitor survey taken last year inside the park, Frederick said only 60 percent of the park’s 3 million or so annual visitors say they previously have been to Rocky.

And only 24 percent of that 3 million (roughly 720,000) are from Colorado.

“That hasn’t changed since the last survey we did 15 years ago,” Frederick said.

What also hasn’t changed, or not much anyway, is the number of people who come each year to gaze at Rocky’s alpine splendor.

The park’s visitation peaked in the late 1990s at 3.4 million per year, then took a bit of a dive, Frederick said.

“After we peaked in the late ‘90s, our visitation averaged 2.9 to 3 million a year,” he said. “We since have rebounded to 3.1 million last year, which was our best year for visitors since 2007.”

What do those 3 million visitors do when they get to Rocky?

“What visitors told us is the No. 1 thing they do here is view scenery,” Frederick said. “When we broke that question out, 93 percent responded what they do is drive Trail Ridge Road.”

Three-quarters of the park visitors view wildlife and bird watch while just over half (57 percent) get out of the car to hike, even it’s just a day hike.

“If you combine viewing the scenery, driving for pleasure and day hiking, those numbers haven’t changed either in 15 years,” Frederick said.

The recession that began in 2007 certainly had an impact on visitors, as does high gas prices.

But there also is a difference in how different generations take their vacations, Frederick said.

“Part of it is a change in the way people travel and what they do when they vacation,” he said. “Baby boomers grew up traveling and visiting a lot of national parks and when they raised their kids, the parents brought the kids back to the national parks.”

But today those boomers are empty-nesters and don’t hit the road or hit the trail.

Instead, they are hitting the buffet line on cruise ships, Frederick surmised.

“When those kids left home, the national park vacation became cruise ships and Caribbean beaches,” he said. “Destination vacations have changed over time but that’s a pendulum we’ll see swing back.”

The park’s busiest days are divided evenly between early summer and fall.

“Of the 10 busiest days, five of them fall after Labor Day,” Frederick said. “It’s a combination of color weekend, National Public Lands Day and the height of the elk rut.

“Our busiest day is the Saturday of that weekend and then that Sunday also is in the top 10.”

And you can bet park managers are watching the dramatic rise in gasoline prices.

The 250,000-acre park has one paved through-road, the 50-mile long Trail Ridge Road between Estes Park on the east and Grand Lake on the west.

In comparison, Yellowstone National Park, with its 2.2-million acres, has 251 miles of roads.

Day hiking in Rocky received its first boost in 1864, when William Byers, publisher of the Rocky Mountain News, made his first visit to the area he would later promote quite heavily.

Byers’ only misjudgment might have been his claim that year that Long’s Peak, which the newspaperman attempted but failed to climb, would never be scaled.

“We are quite sure that no living creature, unless it had wings to fly, was ever upon its summit,” Byers wrote. “We believe we run no risk in predicting that no man ever will be, though it is barely possible that the ascent can be made.”

There’s no sure record of who first climbed Long’s Peak, although Major John Wesley Powell and his party, which is said to have included Byers, often are credited with the first successful ascent in 1868.

Then the age of the automobile changed the face of the park.

When the park was established in 1915, the nation traveled by train.

But unlike other national parks such as Yellowstone, Glacier and Grand Canyon, the nation’s railroad lines never reached Rocky’s front door, stopping many miles short of the park boundary.

Because of that, there wasn’t the industry-promoted development within Rocky that you find in other parks.

The nearest tourist amenities, other than the Alpine Visitor Center at the top of Trail Ridge Road, are instead found in the gateway towns of Grand Lake and Estes Park.

In the park’s early days, there were 20–30 private lodges scattered through the park, but most were poorly built, rigged for summer use and not for winter occupancy.

Frederick said most of the lodges were abandoned and removed during Mission 66, a 10-year push from 1956–66 by the National Park Service readying for its 50th anniversary.

“During Mission 66 we built our main business center in Estes Park, the contact station at Grand Lake and the visitor center on top of Trail Ridge Road,” Frederick said. “At the time, Grand Lake and Estes Park said they wanted to provide the extra services to our visitors and we decided there wasn’t any need to develop inside the park.”

Which left the park in a more-natural state but also makes it tough to find a meal in the park.

“If you want to eat lunch in the park, you have to bring your own or be at the (visitor center snack bar) around noon,” said Frederick with a laugh. “Picnicking also is a favorite activity in the park.”

RockyMountainNationalPark.com has an extensive dining guide to Estes Park, Grand Lake and other nearby communities with no listings for dining in the park.

But while it’s undeveloped, Rocky Mountain National Park isn’t a wilderness park in the sense that Yellowstone is a wilderness park.

When Trail Ridge Road is open, you can drive through Rocky in 90 minutes and the lights of Denver are easily seen from the top of Trail Ridge Road.

Still, the park remains a hiker-friendly spot. Thanks to a shuttle bus system, hikers can do loops, riding the bus from the entrance stations to popular destinations such as Bear Lake and other spots within the park’s 350 miles of trail.

Visitors will find a rather large library could be stocked solely with guide books to the park. Take your pick of hiking (with subsets for day hiking and extended visits), fly fishing, birding, wildlife viewing, flowers and general flora, the list is nearly as extensive as the people who visit the park.

One popular book is Lisa Foster’s “Rocky Mountain National Park: The Complete Hiking Guide” ($20, Westcliffe Publishers, Englewood, 2005). Foster, a former Park field technician, lists 686 route descriptions for 440 destination in and around the park, all of which she has hiked to personally.

“It’s a wild place and for good or bad, adventure will be met in this arena,” Foster writes in the book’s preface. “We must continue to preserve it for future generations so they, too, might come here and get immersed in adventure.”

But adventure carries some risk and the thrill of adventure is countered by the weight of personal responsibility.

“We always encourage our visitors to be prepared for weather and other conditions,” Frederick said.

The high altitude, rugged terrain and the chance it may snow any day of the year makes Rocky Mountain National Park much more than a simple walk in the park.

It’s a visit to a land of contrasts, a land, as Zwinger writes, “of sparseness and lucidity” and a rare reprieve from the busy world below.

# # #

BY THE NUMBERS

• Rocky Mountain National Park was established Jan. 26, 1915.

• Annual visitation is approximately 3 million.

• The park is 416 square miles in size, encompassing 265,769 acres of wilderness.

• There are 359 miles of trails, originating from 35 trailheads.

• There are 150 lakes and 476 miles of creeks and streams, including the headwaters of the Colorado River.

• The park features five drive-in campgrounds with 585 campsites. There are also 200 backcountry camping sites.

• There are 900 species of plants.

• Among the 281 types of birds are the broad-tailed hummingbird, mountain bluebird, osprey and peregrine falcon.

• Look for 60 species of mammals, including elk (3,000 elk during the summer) moose, bighorn sheep, mule deer, black bears and coyotes.

• The park has the highest, continuous paved road in the United States, Trail Ridge Road, which connects Grand Lake (8,437 feet elevation) to Estes Park (7,522) and reaches 12,183 feet.

• The park’s highest point is Long’s Peak at 14,259 feet. It also has 60 peaks 12,000 feet or higher.

• The Continental Divide — the line that divides the flow of water between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans — runs through Rocky Mountain National Park.

— Courtesy of Rocky Mountain National Park

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