The vistas may be too accessible to appreciate and too beautiful to comprehend. To experience the grandeur of Rocky Mountain National Park’s terrain, visitors only have to drive two hours from Denver, Colorado, a trip that deposits them on Trail Ridge Road. This paved feat of engineering balances for 10 miles on a ridge that exceeds 11,000 feet in elevation. Sights such as the 78 peaks that poke their way above 12,000 feet throughout the park should have to be earned, requiring a slog to Alaska, for example, or a Himalayan trek.
Yet tourists can easily stand at the Forest Canyon Overlook and stare at the Continental Divide to the southwest and the Mummy Range to the north. They can take in the spire of Longs Peak, the 14,259-foot sentinel that impresses even from 11 miles distant, then gaze down into the canyon dense with trees and the Gorge Lakes glimmering in the distance. And this is but a single viewpoint within the park’s 265,873 acres. Visitors, however, may be tempted only to scan the vistas the way they look at photos: A few second’s worth of perusal and contemplation. Rocky Mountain National Park, though, deserves to be lingered upon, explored and delved into.
The peaks that grant the park its name are at least the third iteration of mountains in the region, the first and second ranges having succumbed to erosion over millions of years. The current range, carved by glaciers, is capped by rock that is nearly 2 billion years old. As much as the mountains impress visitors, however, it is the park’s 6,625-foot range of elevation that creates four distinct habitats, which make the park truly special. This quartet of life zones delivers a stunning array of natural possibilities for visitors to explore.
Low-lying grassy flats, known as montane parks, lure mule deer to its fodder-filled expanses. Ponderosa pine, Douglas fir and aspen also thrive in the lowest of the park’s ecosystems, and beavers display their industriousness in these montane and riparian areas. Next on the ascent comes the subalpine region, where colorful wildflowers thrive and broad-tailed hummingbirds combine lichen and cobwebs to build their nests. Bands of stunted tree islands help define the krummholz region, where elk find relief from summer’s heat. Despite harsh conditions, flora such as the purple sky pilot and fauna such as the pika manage to exist above tree line in the cold, windy alpine tundra. Hikers, however, need not be highly adaptive to endure such climates; they simply need to be in good shape and to possess adequate equipment.
Visitors with less vigor but just as much love of the outdoors can explore the easier trails among the park’s 350 miles of them. The half-mile Bear Lake Nature Walk makes a fine ambulatory introduction, Green Mountain Trail delivers an easy 3.6-mile roundtrip and the easy 4.6-mile roundtrip along the Cub Lake Trail meanders through terrain inhabited by plenty of birds and abundant wildflowers.
Four of the park’s five campgrounds accommodate RVs, without hookups.
Rocky Mountain National Park, (970) 586-1206, www.nps.gov/romo