Rocky Mountain High | Volume 1, Part 2

Volume I, Part 2



Perhaps you were not a fan of John Denver’s 1970s, folk-country music, but one line of his signature song is still engrained in my mind after all these years: I know hed be a poorer man if he never saw an eagle fly, Rocky Mountain high.” If you enjoy the Great Outdoors and have never experienced Colorado’s wild places, here’s a narrative invitation to give it a whirl. Believe me, this special part of America has the potential of becoming your happy place! Regardless of one’s interest, whether hunting, trout fishing, birding, hiking, biking, camping, or nature photography, the Centennial State has an abundance of public lands to explore.


To me, Colorado is about color – from the spring and summer wildflowers that litter valley and mountain meadows, the cobalt-blue attire of a Stellar’s jay, to the breath-taking cottonwoods and aspens of autumn. Even the state’s name comes from a Spanish reference to the ruddy-colored, sandy silt flushed from surrounding montane by the rushing waters of the Colorado River.


For sure, you can visit the Colorado Rockies during the summer to delight in lavender-and-white columbine blossoms and hummingbirds, drifting elk-hair caddis dry flies in clear, cold streams, or hiking the switchbacks of grueling, high-line trails. If accessing 14,265-foot Mount Evans, by way ofthe highest paved roadway in North America, is an Rocky Mountain Columbine_MCR- objective, such must be done prior to Labor Day.



  Afterwards, the road is partially closed until inevitable snows force total closure. A visit to Colorado can be a rewarding outdoor experience but there is a drawback to summer vacations thenumber of people who have already discovered it and return year after year. In consideration of such, planning the trip well in advance is essential. The good news, there is a world of information at your fingertips via the internet.


Should you, however, prefer a bit of music with the color, think autumn. Come September, elk tune up for the annual rut. Throw in a day or two of trout fishing, a visit to Rocky MountainNational Park, with its gold aspen leaves and bugling bulls, and you have the ingredients for a perfect outdoor adventure. If elk Aspen Leaf hunting is your sole interest, that is a matter worthy of  MCR-002_IM another blog page, and one I would be happy to cover – if there  is enough interest from readers.     




Getting There!


Admittedly, Colorado is a long, long way from many people who dream of such places – especially those of us who live east of the mighty Mississippi. I suspect travel is the one element that prevents most folks from witnessing America’s amazingly diverse geography. There are several options. First, and my least favorite method, is a bus trip. If you cannot drive long distances, or shy away from air travel, this might be your best bet. While such trips somewhat limit the experience, if it is your preference, go for it.


If a big ole, comfortable bus is not the ticket, you can easily access Colorado via air travel. The primary benefit of flying is that it conserves precious time. Should you be limited to a week of personal vacation, this is your best means of transportation. If you live in the East, Rocky Mountain National Park is nearly 2,000 miles from home, which equates to  a few, short hours of riding that big, silver bird. Considering the single day required to return home, it still leaves four or five fantastic days to roam the Rockies. Easy as it seems, flying requires planning, too; such as a car rental and pre-scheduled lodging. Remember, it matters little what time of year you go (including winter), there will be lots of other people with similar aspirations.


As mentioned, and months before taking the trip, explore the internet; you can map every detail through this amazing piece of technology (advice coming from someone who was dragged into the electronic environment kicking and screaming). Word of warning: flying to Colorado means the Denver International Airport. Whenever making connecting flights to other parts of the West, that airpot is a piece of cake; renting an automobile and departing for Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park is a horse of another color. Vehicle congestion has become a routine part of life on the interstate highways around the Mile High City. Prepare yourself mentally for the nightmarish, bumper-to-bumper, hurry up and stop, rush hour traffic. Throw in a fender bender or two and you get the ultimate patience test.



If you are retired, or have built up weeks of personal vacation time, this opens the door to one of the most fantastic travel opportunities available – driving across America!  Witnessing all the “fly over” country sure makes one appreciate the hard working farmers and ranchers who feed America and the world. And if you enjoy watching wildlife there is never a dull moment. Still, road trips require planning, additional travel time, and adds a bit more expense, but it’s the real deal and darn well worth it! The good news, driving eliminates the frustrations of long lines at airport terminals and security checkpoints; not to mention potential flight delays. As you might suspect, this is my favorite travel mode. Regardless the type of travel selected, once the skyscrapers of Denver’s metropolis are visible in your rearview mirror, the clean air of the panoramic mountains are less than two hours northward!        





Rocky Mountain National Park


Now that your interest has been stirred, where should you go? And when? Remember, the Colorado Rockies stretch from Wyoming to New Mexico and there is something to see and do from one end of that mountain range to the other. There is Mount Evans’ extreme altitude drive (with mountain goats and bighorn sheep), the thrill of Pike’s Peak, the narrow-gauge train ride from Durango to Silverton, unlimited skiing (Aspen, Vail, Winter Park, Steamboat Springs, etc.), a thousand other places to visit, lots of trout streams, and more public elk hunting ground than in any other western state. Even so, Colorado’s real gem is Rocky Mountain National Park.


Coming from the East, and passing through Saint Louis, Interstate 70 is the primary route, which skirts downtown Denver and continues toward Idaho Springs and Mount Evans. From Denver it is a matter of heading north on US Highway 36, through Golden, to Estes Park – the gateway community of Rocky Mountain National Park. This bustling little town offers lodging that fits most budgets and satisfies or exceeds expectations. There are cabins and condos in the piney hills and cozy units along the river (hint, hint: Streamside on Fall River – trout in the stream, elk in the yards, peaceful, and clean). And yes, main street Estes Park is filled with souvenir stores and restaurants.


Leaving Estes Park, there are two separate national park entrances; one on Highway 34, another on Highway 36. Highway 36 provides access to Beaver Meadows and lots of autumn time elk watching opportunities; 34 circles around Horseshoe Park and more vistas for observing bighorn sheep, rutting elk, and colorful aspen groves. There are trails along streams and others that lead to high-altitude lakes and the back country. You cannot go wrong because both roads intersect and Highway 34 winds to the top of the world and eventually descending to the exit on the western side of the park.



Perched on the summit of the scenic drive is the Alpine Visitor Center – 11,796 feet above sea level. This unique alpine tundra is home to pikas, marmots,   ptarmigan and, during late spring, summer, and autumn, wapiti – the North American elk. The cute little pika, which resemble a hamster, is closely related to rabbits. These lightning-fast critters are the farmers of the high country – harvesting plants throughout the short summer, piling them in direct sunlight, and then storing the dried material in underground larders. Since pikas do not hibernate, they must preserve enough food to last throughout the extensive winter months. Some declare it requires a bathtub full of hay to survive! I didn’t even know pika’s had bathtubs! Lazy marmots absorb the sun’s therapeutic rays from atop rocky outcroppings, munch plants when they are hungry, and hibernate come autumn. Bull elk graze the lush plant-life and lounge around in the cooler temperatures, while chewing their cud and growing those magnificent, velvet crowns. During the springtime calving season, cow elk prefer subalpine habitat with more cover that serves to protect their spotted, newborn babies from hungry predators.



North American elk – bedded bull (late summer). Rocky Mountain National Park




Just as a reminder, there are purposeful restrictions in such areas. Because of heavy foot traffic, walking and hiking is limited to the established trails. This is a place of extremely cold temperatures, gale force winds, and brief growing seasons. The plants have special adaptive features protecting them from these unforgiving natural forces, but not the soles of cleated boots. While it may prevent you from getting that “perfect” photograph, please adhere to the signage. There are many off-road ridges and meadows where one can roam for wildflower photography. Even in those areas, photographers and outdoor enthusiasts must be considerate of the fragile alpine environment.


When it comes to wildlife watching, Rocky Mountain National Park is ranked as one of the  premier hotspots in  North America. Its 265,461 acres are home to 67 indigenous species of mammals and over 270 species of birds. Shiras moose, elk, mule deer, whitetails, and bighorn sheep inhabit environs suitable to their needs. Mountain goats live there, too, but were introduced. The 23 species of rodents include various rats, mice, voles, the pocket gopher, yellow-bellied marmot, porcupine, chipmunks and ground squirrels, pine squirrel, and the Insert photograph, uncommon, and unmistakable, Abert’s squirrel with its RMNO.JPG jet black coat and long, hairy ears. Mammalian predators include the black bear, coyote, red fox, bobcat, cougar, and exceptionally rare lynx; grizzly bears and gray wolves have long been extirpated. Others lumped into this order are the American badger, wolverine, river otter, American marten, long-tailed weasel, short-tailed weasel (ermine), mink, and raccoon. The family Leporidae is represented by the mountain cottontail, white-tailed jackrabbit, and snowshoe hare. Though closely related to rabbits, the American pika is the single North American species within its family. There are several species of shrews and insectivorous bats inhabiting the park, as well.






As for avians, the list seems endless. Even so, the ringing, raucous call of the Clark’s nutcracker is a true representation of this rugged mountain range. Here’s a bird that has the uncanny ability to remember the locations of all the pine seeds collected and cached throughout late summer and autumn. I’ve even seen them cover their bounty of food with pebbles and pieces of wood. And while there are far too many species of birds to comment upon, it would be unfair to omit the white-tailed ptarmigan of alpine fame; its camouflage, in both summer and winter, is the ultimate survival adaptation.      




Self Cognizance


Inviting you to visit one of my favorite places on this big planet also requires sharing personal safety concerns. Remember, Colorado’s wilderness backcountry is an unforgiving wild place that can threaten one’s life with little notice. The key to survival is awareness, knowledge, and preparation.


At high altitudes it is vital to stay hydrated; packing a sufficient amount of water (even with a hydration pack) is often difficult. Strenuous hiking, and water loss through perspiration, requires approximately 1 liter of replacement fluids per hour – and that is a lot of extra weight to transport. This means utilizing the fresh water resource flowing clear and cold down the mountainsides, but not until properly filtered! Giardiasis, or beaver fever as it is often called, is a potential threat – though not as much as once thought to be. Still, why take a chance? The protozoan Giardia lamblia is responsible for a bacterial infection that, if contracted, makes the victim green sick with abdominal issues.

Higher altitudes also increase the odds of sunburn and acute mountain sickness, the result of decreased oxygen levels that produce symptoms of dizziness, nausea, severe headaches, and shortness of breath – not to mention the likelihood of exacerbating existing medical conditions. Overexposure can be avoided by wearing proper clothing and headgear, or frequent applications of sunscreen lotion, but the only remedy for the dreaded AMS is descending to lower altitudes and hoping for the best.


Then there are those ever-changing weather conditions! I’m always amazed at how quickly a pleasant, sunny day can turn violent. Thunderstorms are a genuine threat, particularly as the afternoons heat up. The best advice is to depart the ridge crests whenever thunderheads begin to develop. If caught out, avoid isolated trees and large rocks; and never lay flat on the ground!  Lightning is a killer and can strike miles from an approaching storm. Temperature fluctuations are a regular occurrence at these altitudes, too. Packing a lightweight rain parka is a necessity because wet clothing, windy conditions, and falling temperatures (and even surprise snow squalls) present a dangerous situation. Experiencing hypothermia is flirting with death, so  I always pack an emergency space blanket!


Come winter, avoid steep, snow-covered slopes and learn to recognize areas susceptible to avalanches. Also, unless properly trained, leave the mountain climbing to those individuals who are physically and mentally prepared; a fall can precipitate life-threatening circumstances. Even the presence of wildlife must become a consideration. This is cougar and black bear country. Observing these large predators is one of the rewards of hiking the wilderness. The majority of time they avoid humans, but there is always the exception. Never run from a cat or bear; running kicks in their predatory instincts to attack! If charged, pull out the bear spray, wave your arms, and yell. If that new canister is still laying on the truck seat, and an attack occurs, cover your head and neck. If all else fails, kick and fight for your life! Worth mentioning, elk and moose cows are quick to defend newborn calves by flailing their front legs; those sharp, keratinous hooves can cut like a knife! During the rut, hyped-up, antlered bulls must be given space to perform their September mating rituals. In wild places, you can never drop your guard and Ranger Rick is not responsible for your actions!  


For those of you who have left a few footprints on Colorado soil, you understand my love for that stunning country. For those who have not, perhaps now is the time to make plans for checking it off your bucket list!


Have a great day outdoors!


Mike Roberts