Aspen color

Day trippin’

No hiking
At lower elevations, deep in the canyon, the forest is dense, almost impenetrable, with deadfall everywhere. Hiking through here would be difficult.

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.

Trees hug the road
The road is in good condition, but narrow, allowing two cars abreast in only a few places.

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.

Aspen color
The road switchbacks its way up this steep slope, thick with pine. Aspen here, sheltered from the worst of summer heat and drought, are starting to turn.

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.

Pity the men who first cut this road between 1913 and 1920.

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.

Looking back
Looking back down the canyon, one can see Horseshoe Park, where the road up begins.

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.

Alpine Visitor Center
Like a mountain fortress guarding the pass, the Alpine Visitor Center stands against the sky.

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.)

24 thoughts on “Day trippin’

  1. I see quakies!!! I love that drive! I’ve done it a few times, but it’s been a couple decades for me, too. I should make a point of going back up there sometime. It’s so beautiful, I’m jealous. I would love to live up there. Actually, I would love to live in Colorado Springs. Rather fell in love with it when I went to Garden of the Gods. The town was interesting… An older section, then an uptown-type area with malls, stores, restaurants, trending stuff. But my favorite was an eclectic artsy type area. It’s where we came out when we drove through the Garden. And the temperature and elevation would be more to my liking. And it’s only a short drive to Denver, Boulder, and Estes Park.

    Oh, sigh. Now I’m all sad because I want to live up there and can’t afford the move. And wouldn’t have a job then. 🙁

    1. I didn’t get to move here, finally, until I retired. Don’t give up hope; you’ve still got lots of time. And the great thing about the mountains is they aren’t going anywhere.

  2. Very nice, PT. Mollie and I have been to Colorado a few times, but only to the Colorado Springs area, not to this park. I would not have fared well on this trip because my lungs can’t operate at that height – mainly headache and light-headedness. It’s a reminder I think of how narrow is the zone of life on our blue marble.

    Twelve thousand feet is 2 1/4 miles or 0.028% of the Earth’s diameter. Translated to the scale of the NG 12″ globe in my office that is a layer only three thousandths of an inch thick! In engineering that is often expressed as “three thousandths” of an inch. I just measured a sheet of paper from my printer at four thousandths of an inch.

    How precious is our thin veneer, and how vulnerable!

  3. Correction (oops):

    ” . . . that is a layer only 0.00028″ thick!” Translated to the scale of the NG 12″ globe in my office that is a layer only 0.00035 inches thick! In engineering terms that could be expressed as “three and a half ten-thousandths” of an inch. I just measured a sheet of paper from my printer at four one-thousandths of an inch, so the layer of breathable air on my globe would be eleven times thinner than a sheet of paper on its surface.

    1. The math is a bit beyond me, but your point is quite clear. We can’t be careful enough when it comes to protecting the very thin, fragile atmosphere that keeps us and the earth alive.

      I’m sorry to hear the park’s elevation is prohibitive for you. Several members of my family have similar problems now. My younger sister, on the other hand, can fly up here from Oklahoma City for a weekend and do an 8-mile hike in the park without a second thought. Beats me how she does it.

  4. Hehe, I’ve been up Old Fall River Road once. It’s an exciting one, for sure. I love being on Trail Ridge Road. You feel like you’re close to being on top of the state. Nice write-up about your day!
    Were a lot of trees turning?

    1. Thx. No, not a lot of color yet. But enough to know the peak this year will earlier than usual (I read somewhere that the overall multiyear average peak day is Sept. 27). Unfortunately, the heat and drought have already taken a toll and a lot of the aspens looked pretty brown; not much left to turn yellow. I wouldn’t wait more than two weeks to get up there if you plan to go. Better yet, call Park Headquarters for updates.

  5. Finally cooled off enough to go outside – so a bit behind on reading! What a glorious trip – thanks for taking us along – and the pixs. The road, always rough, is probably end of the year bouncy. They did a big re-do of the Alpine center a few years ago….it’s always bad when you see a couple of tour buses parked by the restrooms!
    There are actually a few “real” souvenirs if you know where to look: usually in a back room on the side. There you can find authentic Native American jewelry(they know the tribe, often the artist, often even the mine where stones came from / weaving / crafts/pantings. Prices are reasonable – and money goes to the local artists. You won’t see multiple copies of the jewelry pieces – these are crafted not factory made. I used to work with serious Turquoise dealers/collector and am pretty picky – you have to be careful when purchasing.
    OK enough about invasion of foreign made crap.
    Enjoy the Colorado fall for me!!!!! I am not giving up hope…

    1. I buzzed through there pretty fast, and it’s just as well I didn’t see the “real” stuff. I have zero sales resistance when I see something I like. I’m always on the lookout for the perfect turquoise earrings and have wanted the perfect Two Gray Hills rug or tapestry for decades. Can’t afford the rug, and am too wary to buy most turquoise (I know I don’t know how to spot the good stuff, and I’m really, really picky about the color and matrix).

      I hope to hit the high country several more times this month. I’ll think of you while I’m there!

      1. I did manage a Two Grey Hills small rug years ago – and also have zero sales resistance with good quality turquoise – it’s all I ever wear – One of the large dealers once told me “only buy what you truly love – even if the other pieces are greater – better to have fewer ones and wear them all the time than many you don’t really love and never wear.”
        Someday we are going to have to have coffee and stare at the mountains

... and that's my two cents