GRAND LAKE, Colo. — An idle bull elk, knee-deep in a stream full of Rocky Mountain runoff, nibbles on reeds at a meadow's edge and fixes me with a lazy gaze. Beyond him a dozen snowy peaks rise. And on either side of him, like human parentheses, two tourists crouch, each with camera leveled.
Conspicuous wildlife, conspicuous mountains, conspicuous tourists. So goes each summer in the dramatic patch of north-central Colorado known as Rocky Mountain National Park.
The park, formed in 1915 after a decade of lobbying by local photographer and naturalist Enos Mills, is about two hours' drive from Denver. (It's also seven miles west of the 10,600 acres charred by the Bobcat wildfire June 12 to 19, but rangers said last week that apart from a few 24-hour trail closures, park resources and services were unaffected by the fire.)
At 415 square miles, Rocky, as its neighbors know it, is much smaller than its siblings Yellowstone (nearly 12,000 square miles) and Yosemite (3,400 square miles). Unlike those parks, Rocky has no grand hotels within its boundaries, or even modest ones--only campsites. But its charms are plenty large, especially for families with children.
Before the arrival of land-grabbing white miners and settlers in the late 19th century, the area was territory of the Ute and Arapaho. These days its human population is dominated by about 3.4 million visitors a year, most of whom begin and end their adventures on Trail Ridge Road, the park's main artery, usually open from Memorial Day through October, weather permitting.
Trail Ridge Road begins at the eastern entrance of the park, near the gateway town of Estes Park, then climbs over the Continental Divide at Milner Pass and emerges from the park's southwestern corner at the village of Grand Lake.
Not only is Trail Ridge Road the only way for a car to pass through the park, but it's also on every list of America's most gorgeous drives. Ascending beyond the tree line into tundra, it rises to 12,183 feet, which, the park service says, makes it the highest continuously paved road in the world.
The park contains more than 70 mountains taller than 12,000 feet, including Longs Peak, which towers above the others at 14,255 feet and from which four climbers have fallen to their deaths since January 1999.
I arrived by rental car from Denver in early June and spent three days exploring the park and environs with my friend Doug. Then, after he headed off to a job in Denver, I spent a day and a half hiking solo.
We chose more subtle challenges than Longs Peak, which is another way of saying we recoiled in horror at the idea of a 12-hour, 16-mile trudge through darkness and thin air, gaining 4,700 vertical feet. Rangers say about 9,000 hikers reach the summit each year. The park doesn't require permits from day hikers, but they're urged to start up Longs Peak trail at 3 a.m. so they can be back below the tree line before any afternoon thunderstorms erupt. Also, until the summer sun thins the snow on top--usually about now--the route requires ice ax, crampons and experience in such conditions.
So instead of a proud summit moment to remember, I have the parenthetical elk. And the thickly forested slopes, the moonscape above the tree line, the pair of coyotes trotting through the meadow, the bighorn sheep standing as still as billboards by the roadside, the altitude headache that lingered for about 48 hours, the mule deer on the ridge, the wet pounding of Adams Falls near Grand Lake, and the dry wit of Tony Boulch, an off-duty nurse I passed on a footpath one day at 9,000 feet.
We had been chatting elsewhere on the trail. Suddenly he realized he was about to lead some students from his Illinois church group in the wrong direction.
"The hypoxic leading the hypoxic," he said with a sigh.
No doubt about it, the air is thin. Until an afternoon thunderstorm rolls in, as they often do, the sun seems about 6 inches overhead, the sky too blue. (Forget to slather your ears with sun block, as I did one day, and that sun will seem even closer.)
In the rutting season of late September and early October in the Moraine and Horseshoe park areas, rangers say, it's not unusual to see half a dozen bull elk bellowing and playing meadow politics while 300 females watch and wait. Except for moose, I saw every animal mentioned in this article within 48 hours of entering the park.
For many families, Rocky is an annual ritual. They reserve a park-adjacent cabin or hotel room sometimes as much as two years ahead of their visit, they stay off the much-traveled road to Bear Lake, and whether their kids are 5 or 15, they know they'll never run out of hiking trails. The park has about 360 miles of them.
The downside? In July, August and September, the park's peak visitation months, weekend vehicular traffic is heavy on the 82 miles of paved road, and pedestrian traffic is almost as clogged on some of the shortest, flattest hikes, especially those that begin at Bear Lake, Chief Ranger Joe Evans said.