Starstruck in Rocky Mountain National Park

“There’s a moose on the road!” the lady exclaimed.

There are no moose in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, I thought.

“Just up ahead on the road you’ll see him.”

Poor lady, I thought. She doesn’t know the difference between a moose and an elk.

However, in my ignorance, I was wrong. She was right.

I had just gotten out of my car at the Kawuneeche Visitor Center in Rocky Mountain National Park. I had been arriving from the West via Grand Lake. She had been arriving from the East. Apparently there was a moose to look forward on the road up ahead, but I missed it and stopped in the visitor center. I didn’t bother asking about hiking trails. I had done my research online, and I knew what I wanted to do, and I was very excited about it. This was the Rocky Mountain National Park! It’s one of those rare places you hear so much about and can’t believe you are actually there when you arrive.

For me Rocky Mountain National Park stands in a prestige collection of National Parks. Some National Parks just certainly have more fame than others. This was one of the big ones. I’d file it along with Yosemite, Yellowstone, Glacier, and the Great Smoky Mountains. I had made sure before arriving I had planned out this visit. I needed to be assured that my Rocky Mountain experience would be full and complete. I didn’t want to miss anything. I felt my plan was solid. And here, meeting Rocky Mountain National Park was like meeting a very famous celebrity. There was sure excitement, a bit of nervousness, and the whole fascination from being starstruck.

Leaving the visitor center I made my way on the park road to the alpine summit. Along the way I made a few stops. I had gotten out of my car at Coyote Valley to gaze across the Kawuneeche Valley, where meadows of green grass were adorned with clusters of pine.  Along the valley edges, the terrain gradually rises and stretches. It grows with thickening dark pine forest until it can reach no further and mountaintops peak with bald rocky tops capped with snow.

Next to me, just meandering right through the meadow grass, at level with the rest of the ground, was the Colorado River. It looked like nothing but a stream. It was quiet, humble, unannounced- except for a small sign labeling it. I stood there in astonishment. This little river is the same one that carves the immense depth and grandeur of the Grand Canyon. Incredible! It all begins with ice melt from the Rocky Mountains. This took me back to my parallels I had made while in Canyonlands about how in our lives there can be canyons, dark areas of sin that can be corrosive. I had previously concluded that canyons sometimes are formed by something so small and seemingly insignificant and sometimes in our lives small it’s those little things which over time can eat away and corrupt a person. Here this was super evident. This dainty little stream, meandering so carefree through the sunny meadow, would become extremely powerful and corrosive, tearing away the land, creating profound depths and forming one of the greatest natural wonders of the world. This realization was a lot to take in.

I continued on my drive up Highway 34, Trail Ridge Road, through the pine forest. The drive took me over the Continental Divide and into altitudes well into the 11,000s which turned the landscape into alpine tundra. Here no trees nor shrubbery grew. The ground was either blanketed with short grass or covered in snow. I was up amongst mountain peaks, looking down into massive pine forests and valleys.

As I reached higher altitude, the road became something of a challenge, because it narrowed and hugged nothing. From the edge of the road dropped dramatic distances down into valleys. On top of it, it was a busy road, with cars in sight in front of me, cars lined up behind me, and cars passing by very closely on my left. I needed complete focus. I was uneasy, clenching my steering wheel tightly. This road just didn’t seem, by any means, safe. However I had no regrets. This was part of the adventure.

The climax to the drive was arriving at the Alpine Visitor Center. It was a break, a place to breathe at ease. It was also very busy. I drove around the parking lot several times, before I found an open space. On one side of the parking lot was a snowbank reaching well over 20 feet tall. Snow also blinded half of the windows at the visitor center. Getting outside my car, I noticed everything was kind of wet and dripping. It was a bright sunny June day, and temperatures had to be in the 60s. It was surprising to see that such an enormous snow bank still remained. It was telling of what the snowfall must have been like here in the winter.

From the parking lot I walked up a short trail to a mountain summit where many tourist stood around in shorts, taking photos of themselves and the great distances around them. I could feel the altitude. Breathing up here was not as effortless as it typically is in the world below. I then went into the visitor center which was joined with a large gift shop and a cafeteria. I checked things out briefly and then walked across the road to the Ute Trail. I began my first planned hike and started it off running. It was a great feeling to be running on top of a mountain, but snow was becoming deeper, slowing me down. Also, the temperature was dropping, out on the frozen expanse. I then realized with the snow how long this would take me, and how I could easily lose the trail. I reevaluated the situation and decided it was a little too ambitious for the moment. I returned to the Alpine Visitor Center. I found a Rocky Mountain National Park t-shirt tye dyed in the design of the Colorado flag. I bought along with it a hat and a book about the first 100 years of the National Park Service. Then it was off to find my campsite.

On the drive up in the alpine tundra I saw lot of wildlife. I saw mountain goats, elk, and many marmots. I had gotten off at one overlook, and a half dozen marmots were crawling and flopping around. This was my first ever time seeing a marmot. Frankly, I didn’t know what a marmot was but had just learned to identify one in the visitor center. To me, they look like a cross between a beaver and a woodchuck. In the eastern United States  we don’t have marmots, and it’s not a very popular animal, thus its not built into our vocabulary. However, I love marmots. They are such goofy-looking animals with a cute charm about them and a high pitch short squeal that sounds like a smoke alarm when the battery needs to be changed. At this particular overlook, the marmots came very close to the tourists, perhaps looking for handouts. It led way to me being able to get some great Marmot pictures, not only capturing the image of the animals, but the beautiful landscape in the background as well. I took one of the marmot stately posing on a rock with the most majestic valley and mountain view behind him. It was quite a photo.

I had descended the heights to Moraine Park Campground. My particular site, which I had reserved online, was one of my favorite campsites to date. From the car, I had to walk a short distance to the edge of the forest where the trees led out into a prairie with a view of a mountain on the other side. The campsite was very private. I felt as if I had the whole prairie and mountain view to myself. I set up camp and, while doing so, made acquaintance with my  neighboring campers. It was an elderly couple camping out of a small fancy lookin retro camper connected to their vehicle by a hitch. They were from California and cleary had experience doing this. They were preparing dinner out of a kitchenette accessible from the outside on the back of their camper. I inquired if there were bear boxes or any food storage instructions I needed to be aware of. They assured me that bears wouldn’t be a problem and nothing was out of the ordinary.

After camp was set up, I drove a short distance to the small Bierstadt Lake. I took a peaceful walk around it on the trail loop. I observed a few men fly fishing, sporting their rubber waders and standing in water up to their waists. The late evening sky was clear and crisp and I admired the pristine reflection, in deep rich colors, of the mountains in the lake.

I felt a feeling of accomplished arrival. I knew I would be staying here for a few days, so I felt like I had fully checked in. I was successfully making my acquaintance and was at ease, knowing this would be a good stay in Rocky Mountain National Park.

I returned to my camp, to my secluded little hideout at the prairie’s edge. I heated a can of  soup and cooked oatmeal over the fire, while writing a few postcards. I watched the moon and stars come out and enjoyed the heat and crackle of my campfire next to me. I then retired to my tent where I had a relaxing readathon, reading over the park newspaper, another chapter in my book about the West, and the intro to my new history book about the National Park Service. All during this my campfire continued to subtly crack and send flickering warm glows across the side of my tent. This was a quintessential end of a day and included what I love most about camping- the beauty, the quiet, the simple comfort of nature, and the prospect of adventure in the day to come.

Read the previous entry “Arriving at Black Canyon,” here:



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