Our National Parks: Rocky Mountain National Park

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, June 1992

Our National Parks: Rocky Mountain National Park
By Alston Chase and Debra Shore

Estes Park, CO 80517
Established 1915
265,669 Acres

The Big Picture: It doesn't have a catchy name, it doesn't have a photogenic centerpiece, and it barely outranks the District of Columbia in size. But this little rectangle of mountain country north of Denver contains one of the grandest combinations of geology and scenery this side of Yosemite. And logistically, it's uniquely sensible: It sits only two highway hours from Denver's Stapleton International Airport. Which, unfortunately, means Rocky Mountain's ranger-managers have adopted a perhaps overly transportation-minded philosophy with regard to its 2.9 million annual guests. With a visitor center set smack in the heart of the park and a major attraction billed as "the highest continuously paved highway in the United States," it's easy to see why many Coloradans reflexively migrate toward the surrounding national forests rather than subjugate themselves to the well-worn thoroughfares of this park. Still, there's reason to believe that the locals might be wrong. "We can't tell you all the secret places," said one Rocky Mountain ranger in response to our queries. "After all, we have to leave some for ourselves."

Where Everyone Goes:
Traffic report: 2,903,812 total visitors, 39,172 backcountry visitors

Most traffic streams through the park's eastern entrance from Highway 34 and the town of Estes Park, then heads for the aforementioned paved wonder known as Trail Ridge Road, a 50-mile switchback that runs above 12,000 feet for four miles and passes through montane, subalpine, and alpine life zones. Bear Lake is popular enough to warrant a shuttle bus, and if the Park Service were to pave the trails to Dream Lake, Emerald Lake, 14,256-foot Longs Peak, and Loch Vale, the queue of hikers might move faster.

Where You Should Go: The western and southwestern reaches of the park, kitty-corner to the Estes Park entrance and away from the bisecting swath of Highway 34, tend to be the least trampled by virtue of poor access by road. If you're determined to do your touring in the car and don't mind 14 switchbacks in nine miles, try the Old Fall River Road, which is less traveled, older, and steeper than Trail Ridge Road.

The ominously named Never Summer Range, on the west side of the park, is a good place to spend a weekend. From the Green Mountain Trailhead (just off the south branch of Highway 34) you can make the 7.5-mile hike from lodgepole pine forest through moose country to the Haynach Lakes, tucked under the Continental Divide at 11,000 feet, or check out 12,216-foot Nakai Peak, a rough three-quarters of a mile away. And bring a fishing rod and a camera; the size of the trout is matched only by the scenery.

The more ambitious (and experienced) might want to head farther north to the Mummy Range (so named for its reclining profile), one of Rocky Mountain's 48 leave-no-trace backcountry areas and home of the Chapin Creek Trail, a narrow thread that cuts along the wildflower-strewn contour of the range. Downed timber at lower elevations can make travel tough, but the place is so wild "it's like before the Caucasians," says one old-timer. "That's where you're not going to see any people."

Don't Forget: Much of this park lies above 10,000 feet, otherwise known as snowstorm-in-June country. So pack all the supplies you need, then toss in two extra sweaters. And if you're planning on doing any climbing, go slow. Each year, about 40 percent of the 10,000 people who attempt to climb Longs Peak end up failing, many because they succumb to the joys of altitude sickness.

Where to Bunk: If you like to hobnob with climbers and don't mind spartan digs, try the Colorado Mountain School in Estes Park, which has 18 spare beds, as well as bathrooms with showers. It's open year-round, offers a range of hiking, climbing, and winter sports lessons, and usually has an empty bunk ($16 a night; 303-586-5758). For more atmosphere--maybe too much atmosphere--try the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, best known for its starring role in The Shining ($81-$120 for a double; 303-586-3371).

Food Is: Whatever you happen to have in your backpack or pockets, as there are, to Rocky Mountain's credit, no concessions, except a small snack bar at Fall River Pass on Trail Ridge Road. In Estes Park, you can always fuel up on the grilled rainbow trout at the Sundeck Restaurant or the bison-size cinnamon rolls at Johnson's Café.

Park Lore: In the quiet summer days just after World War II, the park's rangers enlisted a young woman to roam the backcountry naked in order to create publicity and boost sagging visitation. For a while, it worked--the mysterious figure was dubbed Eve by the national press, and curious onlookers flocked to the park in droves, hoping to catch a glimpse. The ruse ended when a young man from Chicago showed up at park headquarters, telling of voices in his head that told him to go west, discard his clothes, and track down his heavenly mate. In the interest of her own well-being, Eve was given a pink slip.

Your Park Service at Work: With 350 miles of trails to maintain, it would be hard to fault them for not keeping every mile in tip-top shape--but they could at least try. The approaches to many climbs have been seriously eroded, visitation is on a steady upswing, and trail crews are half the size they were in the sixties. As one disaffected ranger says, "This year we're short one trail crew because making the showpieces--roads and visitor centers--pretty is more important to the superintendent than maintaining the park's natural resources."

Where the money goes:
Budget: $7,197,400
Science: 4.2%
Visitor services: 23.5%
Maintenance: 52.1%
Other: 20.2 %

Flashlight Reading: A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains, by Isabella Bird (University of Oklahoma Press, $7.50); Rocky Mountain National Park Hiking Trails, by Kent and Donna Dannen (Globe Pequot, $12.95).

Fun Index: Can you fault a national park for being too accessible? Well, yes. 3

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