Along the Trail of an Ancient Volcano

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along the trail

Across the Way from Specimen Mountain

When I was a rookie Ranger Naturalist back in 1959, I remember leading my first group of people on a wilderness hike up 12,482 foot Specimen Mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park. This extinct volcano, whose crater has been gashed in half by ancient glaciers, is studded with a spruce-fir forest at its base. Because of its opened crater full of salts, bighorn sheep gather here to be treated to a giant salt lick. Its high bald summit is challenge enough for a leisurely day’s hike. Specimen Mountain has been extinct for over 10,000 years, though an early Estes Park naturalist, Enos Mills, claimed that nineteenth-century Ute Indians of the area still had legends of the mountain’s puffing smoke.

I met my group at 10:00 am at Poudre Lake on the Continental Divide at 10,000 feet elevation. The 15 people varied in age from ten to seventy and in profession from businessmen to college professors. One man had recently returned from Korea and remarked how similar this national park is to the mountainous terrain of north-central Korea. We started up the trail through a lush sub-alpine meadow coated with rosy and red Indian paintbrushes, pearly everlasting and bright yellow marsh marigolds. There was a slight chill in the air but our hiking steadily upward kept us warm. Just as my group was getting broken in and walking at a steady pace, a 150-pound black bear suddenly appeared within forty yards of us. A Chicago businessman excused himself and returned to his car even though the bear lumbered up into the woods away from us. 14 remaining people seemed all the more determined to move on and experience all they could. A small child in the group picked up a beautiful arrow-point, chocolate brown in color with perfect symmetry Since Ute Indians hunted this area a century ago, my best guess was that the point was from this tribe.

When we reached an altitude of around 11,500 feet, I pointed to dwarf spruce trees, no larger than a thumb, growing close to the ground. If one were to do a tree ring count, he would be surprised to learn that this dwarf could be a hundred or more years old.  Arriving on the high tundra, the Korean War veteran had to excuse himself and return to his car. The landscape just reminded him too much of Korea. Unfortunately he missed seeing a large snowfield fringed with bright yellow snow buttercups growing right up through the shallower snow. As we looked at the flowers, we were treated to the singing of a white-crowned sparrow. The remaining 13 people had developed an esprit de corps as each and every one of them started to get a feel for the high tundra of the Rockies. After we reached the saddle of Specimen Mountain at 11,700 feet, we all listened to the whistling of a hoary marmot in the rocks nearby. Spreading beyond us was the vast white Never Summer Range or Ni-Chebe-Chii in Arapaho, meaning Never-No-Summer. They rose high above the valley of the Colorado River that has its beginning in Rocky Mountain National Park at Thunder Pass. Directly below us lay the ashes and vents of the gashed out crater where bighorn sheep fed on grasses and salts.

As time fleeted by and summer thunderheads began to build up, I suggested pushing on to the summit of Specimen Mountain. The trail sharpened steeply, but all members of the party kept chugging along. Some of us began to breathe quite deeply in the thin air above 12,000 feet. However, one spry lady in her early seventies set the pace for the whole group. Because I became winded trying to point out this feature and that, I finally remained silent for the last 300 vertical feet. The gashed-out volcano’s features became more and more distinct the higher we climbed until we stood, at last, on the summit. Up here we could see for a 100 miles to the distant Gore and Mosquito Ranges to the south. To the north we could make out the distant Snowy Range of Wyoming.

We ate our sandwiches and drank hot coffee as the sky darkened. We had no other choice but to descend. I had grown to really like these people even though they were complete strangers only hours ago. It was hard to say goodbye back at Poudre Lake where it had already started to rain.

* Today Specimen Mountain is closed to the public to protect a bighorn sheep habitat.

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