Up to the Tundra

It was going to be a terribly hot mid-June day in Denver all the way up to 96 degrees. Thankfully we had applied for a visitor permit (required during Covid times) to Rocky Mountain National Park. We knew that Trail Ridge Road had been opened since early June and looked forward with great joy to getting up above 12,000 feet, high above the steaming prairie. This would not be a mere 90 mile trip from Denver on up into the high country, but (in terms of vegetation) it would be more like taking a 3,000 mile trip from Denver to arctic Canada—from a dry semi-desert to the land of chilly tundra. 

After leaving home around 8 a.m. we soon raced along I-25 northward toward the Lyons exit some thirty miles away. On state route 66 we headed directly west toward those snow-streaked peaks of the Front Range; it seemed as though we really weren’t driving at all, but that the magnetic force of the Rocky Mountains pulled us their way.

Soon we entered the St. Vrain Canyon to gain altitude quickly from  5,800 feet at the town of Lyons to 7,500 feet at Estes Park, nestled beneath the jagged and snowy Continental Divide. Since Maura and I had our lunches packed, there was no need to stop in town, and so we continued our drive up to the north entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park where I had served as a park ranger naturalist for three seasons sixty years ago.

We checked in just a bit earlier than our permit’s time and proceeded westward and ever upwards to Horseshoe Park at 8,000 feet to see the Mummy Range with its highest mountain, Hagues Peak at 13,573 feet, a peak I climbed with other rangers back in the 1960’s to look through binoculars northward to the distant streets of Laramie, Wyoming and what appeared to be tiny campus buildings of the University of Wyoming.

It was great to look up at all that snow in contrast to the shimmering heat of Denver 3,000 feet lower. Onward we drove up to Deer Mountain junction to see many hikers on their way up Deer Mountain’s 11,000 feet summit that looms far above Estes Park. We pushed on until we eventually loomed above Deer Mountain! Ever climbing higher, we drove past Hidden Valley with its lush forests of quaking aspen so golden later in the fall. The aspen tree, curiously, is the first tree to fill in a burnt area made by a forest fire, making way for a future lodgepole pine forest between 9,000 and 10,000 feet.

We entered the Hudsonian zone of Engleman spruce and sub-alpine fir where we looked across at the summit of Deer Mountain. This vegetational zone is named after forests that surround Hudson Bay, Canada. Here is where we encountered our first patches of snow beginning around two miles above sea level (10, 560 feet). After passing Rainbow Curve we entered the krummholz or treeline zone with its wind-twisted limber pine and dwarf spruce trees along the roadside.

Trail Ridge Road follows an old Ute Indian trail called “Taienbaa,” or child’s trail because children had to dismount over the steeper parts of the tundra and walk their horses.  Today it is the longest continuous piece of the paved road above 12,000 feet in North America. Its highest point is 12,183 feet.  A good bit before the highest point, we parked our car and quickly put on sweaters and jackets to stand beneath twelve feet of plowed snow. Maura was all smiles to see so much snow above the hot prairie below. She pointed to Sundance Peak (just shy of 13,000 feet) where we use to hike on up to the summit, sometimes passing through elk herds of late summer.

Onward we drove to very windy Rock Cut—too windy to hike the tundra trails, and so we proceeded on to Iceberg Lake nestled below dark volcanic cliffs. But I could not even open the car door as the winds would have ripped it off once fully opened. I have spent well over three months as a ranger up in this turf and as a visitor, hundreds of times since 1960 but have never experienced such fierce summer winds as these. The temperature at Iceberg Lake stood at 50 degrees with wind gusts between 50 and 60 mph. We finally got to a more protected place to get out, but wished we had seal-skin coats here on the alpine tundra-like those of the Inuit people in Inuvik, Canada to face arctic storms. Nonetheless, what a relief it was to be out of 93-degree city heat so far below. The tundra is truly a place of re-invigoration.

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