Back in July I wrote about the Alpine Visitor Center up on Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. And I included a video of a drive up to it via the Old Fall River Road. I couldn’t stop thinking about it and the fact that it had been at least 20 years since my last trip up that road. So Thursday, with a promise of clear weather and a warning from local meteorologists that the leaves were already turning, I tossed a jacket, camera, and water bottle in the car and took off.
I didn’t dawdle through Boulder and up the Peak-to-Peak Highway; I wanted to be up top by noon so I wouldn’t be looking into the sun. Those long, beautiful mountain vistas don’t “pop” if you’re looking into the sun.
Zipping north on I-25, I passed a hot air balloon maneuvering for a landing; it better have been landing, because at that hour the morning calm was almost gone and the wind would be picking up. (I learned that the hard way when I flew.) West through north Longmont, through Lyons, and up Highway 36 toward Estes Park. It would have been a relatively quick trip if I hadn’t gotten stuck behind a big tanker truck just after I passed the last of the two-lane slow-vehicles-to-the-right passing zones.
Driving through Estes, I made a quick stop at McDonald’s for an egg McMuffin and munched contentedly as I headed for the Fall River entrance to the park. Through Horseshoe Park and then right onto Fall River Road. Immediately the pavement narrowed and the aspen closed in. Ahhhh. There were still cars immediately in front of and behind me, but they disappeared when I swung off the blacktop and onto the dirt road that headed steeply uphill.
15 mph, the sign warned. And after slamming into the first bad chuckhole, I knew they meant it. Not that I was in any hurry. I wanted to savor every foot of the 11 miles to the top. There were a few bad holes early on, and a few short washboard stretches, but for the most part the road was in great condition. And dry.
What passes for dirt here is little more than worn-down rock and sand, cream-colored and powder fine when airborne. There were other cars on the one-way road, but the dust ensured we stayed well away from each other. We were all seeking the same thing — peace and quiet, fresh mountain air, nature up close, sunshine and solitude. Or as close to them as we could get from the comfort of our cars.
I’d opened all the windows and the sunroof back in Estes, but I didn’t catch the first real scent of pine until I got up where the trees started hugging the road. In places they were so close, the Park Service had cut off the lower branches so they wouldn’t rub passing cars. I realized I was inhaling deeply, not because of the altitude but just to take in more of that pine-sweet air.
Deep in the canyon the road passed close to the river — just a stream at that point — and the sound of rushing water could be heard over the crunch of tires on gravel. I stopped occasionally to listen. Only then could I hear an occasional chickadee somewhere deep in the woods. Those were the only sounds. No voices. No traffic. No wind. The forest was almost impenetrable at this point; the pines were only a few feet apart and what space there was between them was filled with deadfall. Pine beetles had taken their toll here.
I snapped a few pictures along the way (sorry about the date stamp; didn’t mean to have that on). A shot back down the canyon behind me, a couple of shots of the slope rising above me, the road ahead, the Visitor Center commanding the ridge above as I reached treeline. Climbing those last few miles above treeline, I looked up and saw the moon, white against the blue sky. It wasn’t a full moon, and it wasn’t glowing in a night sky, but I winked at it for Neil Armstrong anyway, just in case.
The road changed back to gravel-strewn blacktop in the last few hundred yards before I reached the top and I pulled into the Visitor Center’s parking lot just before noon, lucking into a parking space immediately. I grabbed my jacket and headed straight for the overlook (did you see me on the webcam?). Sure enough, the elk were gone, having already started down the canyon in anticipation of winter. They were out of sight, somewhere down in the woods I’d just come through.
You’re not a tourist worth your salt if you come to Rocky Mountain National Park without doing Trail Ridge Road and stopping at the Alpine Visitor Center. What a great place to people watch. And people listen. Wander around the displays and listen to people exclaim at how small the tundra flowers are, stunned to learn that some of them have to grow for 20 years before they can set their first blossom. I smiled to myself. There’s a first time for everyone to learn these things. And I was gratified that they were learning.
I hadn’t been up to the Visitor Center in several decades. It is, after all, little more than an information center, rest stop, and tourist trap, and once you’ve “done it” you’re good for a long time. But it’s fun to see that yes, they still sell the same old “genuine Indian” (Made in China) kitsch; the sweatshirts for the tourists who don’t know it can be cold at 11,796 feet, even in July; the overpriced drinks and prepackaged sandwiches at the snack bar; and Christmas decorations in the corner with the fake Christmas trees because, after all, it could be snowing up here any day of the year. Everything is dutifully emblazoned “Rocky Mountain National Park,” and in years past, when this spot was 800 miles from home, I bought my share of it. Tourists dollars, after all, support this center and this park. Today, though, I paid $3.50 for a cold bottle of Gatorade and smugly sauntered out to the parking lot. I was only two hours from home.
I pulled out of the parking lot and headed back toward Estes Park via Trail Ridge Road. The wind had picked up and clouds were rolling in from the west. The cold front was on its way.
Trail Ridge Road. An engineering marvel still, winding its way gently across the tundra at elevations topping 12,000 feet at one point. No railings up here, yet not as scary as I remember. Maybe because the road was dry and the sun was shining. Not at all like my last trip up there, with mixed thunder snow, graupel, rain, and slick pavement. Past the lava cliffs, the Toll Memorial, the Rock Cut. Past Forest Canyon Overlook, with all the parked, similarly painted RVs. A tour group, I guessed, but it looked more like a parade of gaudy ice cream trucks.
In the distance, but much closer and more massive than it appears in so many photographs, was Longs Peak. The sun was behind me now, but not yet enough. Longs still looked a little hazy. Too bad. But it’s not like it wouldn’t be there the next time I came up, or even just looked up this way from the open spaces near my home.
The road began dropping gently down toward Estes Park. Through the old forest fire scar with its weatherworn snags and wind-twisted, treeline pines. I opened all the windows and sunroof again and the sun warmed the back of my head. I began to feel like I was dancing with the mountain. Sway to the left, sway to the right. Tap the brakes. Sway to the right, sway to the left, tap.
I got to Rainbow Curve sooner than I expected, but I pulled over as I always do. I didn’t stay long. Today it was a waypoint, not a destination. I did take a few minutes to admire three “rat rods” that were parked there. I’d never seen or heard of such a thing. So rusted and decrepit looking, and yet they ran well enough to be up there. Interesting. I should have taken a few pictures.
I grabbed a late lunch in Estes and headed on down the road, like a horse running for the barn. It was still early afternoon, but I was getting tired. I only have so many behind-the-wheel hours in me these days. Today they’d been well and gloriously spent. But I’ll be back again. And soon. The aspens are indeed starting to turn and the elk are on the move. It’s fall, and it’s my favorite time to be in the park.
(Note: Click photos to enlarge.)