June 9, 1995
As the battle for national park funds escalated recently in Congress, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt visited Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado to take a hike and take the GOP to task. “This is a sneak attack on the national park system,” Babbitt told the Denver Post (May 25), speaking of the House budget proposal. “The Congress has embarked upon a project to dismantle the national parks as we know them.”
What will actually prevent visitors from exploring RMNP early this summer is none other than Mother Nature. As much as 30 feet of snow still buried the park’s Alpine Visitor Center parking lot the first week in June. Rocky Mountain’s marquee Trail Ridge Road, the highest contiguous paved road in North America, still wasn’t open for traffic as of June 10, well after its traditional Memorial Day opening.
Political rhetoric aside, Babbitt’s choice of RMNP as a backdrop was more than a clever photo opportunity. Perhaps more than any other national park, Rocky Mountain reflects the growing pressure on our national treasures. Park spokesman Doug Caldwell told Cyberwest that 3.1 million people visited RMNP last year, “the highest number we’ve ever had.” As the park enters its peak visitation months, the lingering deep snow may be just what the doctor ordered for Rocky Mountain.
While nature may enjoy a slight reprieve from hordes of touristas this June, Caldwell has noticed increased year-round use of the park. On the second weekend of September last year, more people were in the park for elk-rutting season than during the Fourth of July weekend, said Caldwell. With the coming of autumn, elk descend from higher elevations to montane meadows to breed. The bull elk’s “bugle,” a crescendo of deep resonant tones that rise to a high squeal, then drop to a series of grunts, has become a tourist attraction in itself. Caldwell said the tailgate parties in the park’s meadows last fall reminded him of the parking lot at Denver’s Mile Hi Stadium before a Broncos game. Not an attractive image for a national park.
As symbolized by Trail Ridge Road, the park has always catered to automobile tourists, for good or ill. Carl Abbott, in his book “Colorado: A History of the Centennial State” (Colorado Associated University Press, Boulder), writes: “As early as 1920, the year in which Colorado completed construction of the winding Fall River Road to the top of the Continental Divide, 116,000 auto passengers entered the park, 28,000 of them from out of state.” Trail Ridge Road runs through 11 miles of alpine tundra above timberline, reaching an elevation of 12,183 feet at its highest point.
The park’s other major landmark is 14,255-foot Longs Peak, and it attracts its share of crowds as well. Caldwell pointed out that about 15,000 people attempted to reach the summit of Longs Peak last year. The 7.5-mile Keyhole Route is the only non-technical climb to the top and gains 4,850 feet in elevation. “We’ve had complaints that it’s no longer the adventure it used to be,” said Caldwell. “There are days when people step aside (on the trail) to let other people go by.” Caldwell advised hikers to begin their trek to the summit very early in the morning, at 3 a.m., to ensure they are back down the mountain before afternoon thunderstorms move into the area.
For those seeking solitude at RMNP, strapping on a backpack or saddling up a horse is the best bet. The park has 355 miles of trails, 80% of which are open to horseback riding. (None are open to mountain biking.) A small percentage of the park’s visitors actually trek into the backcountry, making areas of the park, particularly to the north, west and southwest, uncrowded.
RMNP is basically divided into east and west halves. The east side of the park is entered through the town of Estes Park and is characterized by jagged rocky formations, bare peaks and steep cliff faces. The west side, with Grand Lake as the gateway community, is lusher, more heavily forested and without the dramatic rock formations of the east. The west side is generally less crowded than the east, and is home to the headwaters of the Colorado River. Moose, which like to feed on aquatic plants in shallow creeks and streams, are among wildlife found here.
Despite the crowds, Rocky Mountain is still worth a visit, if only for its dramatic scenery, which one can experience from a comfortable seat in the family minivan. Still, by burying the park in deep snow this spring, Mother Nature may be sending a message that the park does have a threshold.