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Lost in the mountains

Rocky Mountain National Park offers a welcome respite from the daily grind and distractions

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Rocky Mountain National Park, 76 miles northwest of Denver, offers 415 square miles of wilderness and 300-plus miles of walking trails on which to commune with nature.
Photo by Jason Maholy

 

By Jason Maholy
Sports Editor

The natural world radiates a power and energy that gets swallowed by urbanization and the necessarily artificial habitats of which our cities are constructed.

Mountains, in particular, have a majestic quality and seem to hold within them an energy unlike any other. Perhaps it is because of the forces – among the strongest originating on this world – that shaped them: Molten rock flowing from the depths of the planet, and the collisions of giant land masses which were themselves forged from fire.

That slow violence combines with the sheer abundance of life and (ideally) clean, oxygen-rich air to make the natural environment buzz with the essence of the Earth. A trip to the mountains can soothe the soul and replenish the spirit. Liberating one’s self from polluting distractions and inhibiting anchors creates a void that can be filled with feelings of peace, well-being and gratitude.

It may come as no surprise then, that Rocky Mountain National Park is among the most visited of the national parks, with 4.4 million passing through in 2017. The rocky wonderland’s location within the Front Range 76 miles northwest of Denver and within easy reach of the booming Front Range Urban Corridor (est. 4.83 million people and rising) are contributing factors to the park’s popularity, but in a week there one can see the majority of our country’s states represented on license plates.

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A bull moose browses during dusk on the park’s west side. Moose are among the park’s most seen wildlife.
Photo by Jason Maholy

One can also see elk, moose, bighorn sheep, numerous small and medium-sized rodents, and — if you’re in the right place at the right time — perhaps a lynx, bobcat, black bear or mountain lion within the park’s 415 square miles. And there are, of course, the mountains. Beautiful from a distance, and something else entirely when explored and experienced up close. Grassy mountain meadows are abruptly interrupted by walls composed of moraine and rock formations; montane lakes are nestled within natural reservoirs carved by glaciers that during cooler periods in the Earth’s history crawled over the land; numbingly cold streams wind over the landscape, broken every so often by waterfalls – both gentle and raging – on their way to the next hole or flooded valley.

There is a kind of magic about feeling the mountain under your feet, about working with it to overcome the forces — gravity, loose and rocky soil, a lack of oxygen — that work against you as you climb your way up its slopes, through forests largely aspen and lodgepole pine at lower elevations and transitioning to spruce and fir as the altitude increases. There are certainly some trails that are more extraordinary than others – those that offer more challenging, even exhilarating hikes or provide more stunning sights – but head off down any path and you can lose yourself in the landscape – not literally, of course. Your eyes widen, your breathing becomes more deliberate and your senses take in the magnificence that surrounds you.

Speaking of breathing, it can take a hike or two to get acclimated to the higher altitude – or, more specifically, having less oxygen to breathe than one does at lower elevations. With the park between 7,860 and 14,209 feet above sea level, breathing can be noticeably different, especially for visitors who don’t spend much time in the mountains. The gift shop at the Alpine Visitor Center, located 11,796 feet above sea level along Trail Ridge Road and one mile west of the road’s highest point (12,183 feet), sells canned oxygen for those who might need a literal breather, or who just think it is funny to have a can of air.

The east side of the park – with its gateway at the bustling tourist hive of Estes Park – is busier than the west – anchored by the vibrant but relaxed village of Grand Lake. Most of the park’s shorter trails, including the half-mile paved walkway around Bear Lake and the trek of the same length to picturesque Alberta Falls, are on the east side, as are four of its five campgrounds. The aforementioned volume of visitors the park sees each year are thus concentrated on the east side, which can lead to congestion and even road closings during busy summer days. People who want to spend the late morning to early afternoon hours south of Moraine Park want to get to the area no later than 9 a.m., and even earlier on weekends. This portion of the park tends to be at the very least accessible in the late afternoon and early evening, but is always in demand from summer through fall.

And as far as camping, Aspenglen, Glacier Basin and Moraine Park campgrounds fill up well ahead of time, as they take reservations. Longs Peak, a 26-site tent only campground on the southeast side if the park, and the larger Timber Creek, the only one on the west side, are first-come first-served but do tend to fill up by early evening from midweek through the weekend.

But despite the crowds, one can still get away and find solitude, silence and solace on a large number of hikes that go longer than a mile or two into the wilderness. One of these gems is the Glacier Gorge Trail, which meanders through the forest past Loch Vale, beyond the tree line to Timber Line Falls, and further than most hikers go to the Lake of Glass before terminating at Sky Pond.

Timberline Falls – a four-mile trek from and 1,500 feet above the Glacier Gorge Trailhead – is actually part of the trail, and a somewhat technical climb is necessary to scale the cliff face. This can only be accomplished during periods of dry weather when the falls are not flowing heavy, and even into July hikers may have to cross a sloped snowfield just to access the falls. The view from the top of the falls – where curious marmots greet those ambitious enough to climb – provides a magnificent view of the vista below, with the narrow Loch now far below being the most prominent feature.

Observing wildlife is another sought-after activity at Rocky Mountain, and there is no shortage of large ungulates including elk and moose. Elk gather by the hundreds in the meadow at Moraine Park, and can also be seen frequently and in large numbers along Trail Ridge Road on the west side of the park between Timber Creek campground and the Grand Lake. Driving this portion of the road, particularly during the early evening and into the night, should be undertaken with caution as elk herds prance across the pavement and bull moose in no particular hurry mosey on past stopped vehicles. Moose can also be seen in and around Cub Lake, a 2.3-mile hike that although moderately difficult for a little more than a third of that length is still manageable by a small child (and the parents who have to carry them for stretches).

America features far wilder places than Rocky Mountain National Park – the place does get “touristy” at times – but there is still more than enough wildness within these hills to satiate an adventurous spirit.

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