Off The Hill: Z Griff and the natural splendor of Rocky Mountain National Park
Summit Daily correspondent
On Sept. 4, Rocky Mountain National Park celebrated its 100th birthday.
Located in the north central region of the state, it’s southwest corner lies adjacent to the Arapahoe National Forest. It is home to incredible expanses and views of the Continental Divide and Never Summer range. It also hosts a large variety of wildlife and plant life suited to the high-alpine environment.
The park’s Trail Ridge Road reaches 12,183 feet at its highest point to hold the title of highest major highway in North America. This road gives access to and allows for views of one of the most expansive displays of alpine terrain in the United States. Today, it sees over 3.4 million visitors annually and is a true gem in our state.
Nearly one-third of the park is above tree line. The Rocky Mountains chain was pushed skyward some 70 million years ago and runs 2,700 miles, from Mexico to Alaska, making it on of the longest mountain ranges in the world. After the geological rise, three major glacial episodes subsequently shaped and sculpted the scenery in the park.
The forces of nature are at work every day here, as I witnessed first-hand on my trip earlier this summer.
An ancient park
The first humans began living among these mountains intermittently at least 11,000 years ago, following the path of retreating glaciers. Paleo-Indians, some of the earliest inhabitants, left traces in the form of stone tools. It was around 6,000 years ago when the Ute, or Mountain People, lived in scattered bands throughout Colorado and Utah. They traveled through the area to follow game over set seasonal routes, mostly visiting the west side of the park, particularly around Grand Lake. The Cheyenne and Arapaho lived to the east on the plains in what is now the Estes Park region, where big game was more prevalent.
Most of the modern-day park was Ute territory until the late 1700s, when they were driven over the Continental Divide by the Arapaho, who were eventually pushed out by colonists of European descent.
While visiting the alpine visitors center, I learned that the Ute people honored the trails and considered them living, spiritual beings. They were integral to traversing the rugged, high-alpine terrain and densely forested areas of the park — the best places for one to hunt, fish and gather.
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The slides at Timber Creek
On our trip, we stayed at the Timber Creek Campsite and, from there, went a short distance up the road to the Timber Creek Trail. We cruised through the tall trees for a mile or so, then over a rushing river on a wooden footbridge. A few miles up the trail, we encountered a sign I’ve never seen before on a trail: “Due to landslide, trails may be damaged or impassable.”
A small distance ahead, we reached the site of the slide, which is easily one of the craziest natural occurrences I’ve ever witnessed. A huge section of the fairly steep hillside had pulled away, bringing everything with it. Trees, shrubs and big rocks were tossed in all directions, uprooted and relocated. They were then deposited every which way down the hill, only to come to a stop in a huge, seemingly immovable pile of timber and earth debris. Trees were stacked on their sides, head high in some places, while some were still upright (if not a bit keeled over) on dirt islands that took a ride 100 feet down the hill. It was an incredible sight, like seeing giant-sized pick-up sticks toppled through a forest.
Up Fall River
We returned to Timber Creek Campsite around dusk to find two female elk grazing by our fire pit and tent site. We made a fire and food, then watched the sun go down over the Never Summer range.
The next morning, we headed out early to drive over Trail Ridge Road to the town of Estes Park. On the first overlook, we spoke to a ranger who showed us sections of burnt trees from a large fire that occurred on June 24, 2010, which burned 1,500 acres.
I mention the Timber Creek landslide, and he tells me about the significant, 500-year rain event that occurred in September of 2013, when both the park and town of Estes were heavily damaged. The most heavily-impacted area of the park saw floodwaters, rocks and other debris, which washed away parking areas and much of Fall River Road. It only recently reopened in July of this year.
This road was the first road into the park’s high country, opening in 1921. On Fall River Pass, construction started in 1929 and finished by July 1932, following a route known to the local Arapaho population as the Dog Trail.
Fall River and Trail Ridge roads are spectacular, with incredible views around every corner. Pull-offs give amazing vantage points and glimpses of a high-alpine environment that would normally take hours to access on foot. Staggering beauty, the effects of time and the forces of nature are on display at Rocky Mountain National Park, and we only have those who were responsible in its creation to thank.
One hundred years ago, the world was a very different place. But, thanks to those who fought to preserve and protect the park, its natural wonder has been relatively unchanged.
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