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Byline: Eric Noland Travel Editor

ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK, Colo. - The mantra is recited at nearly every national park in the country, and certainly at those in the wilds of the West: If you want to experience the essence of these magnificent natural reserves, you must get out of your car, strike out on some trail and plunge deep into the back country.

Well, that's great for many travelers, but what if you're traveling with very young children, are getting up there in years and are a bit creaky in the joints, or ... uh, don't possess a particularly high degree of physical fitness?

Rocky Mountain National Park, a 416-square-mile expanse that straddles the Continental Divide in northwest Colorado, has the answer. The premier attraction of the park is a little ribbon of asphalt called Trail Ridge Road.

Never was a driving route truer to its name.

This two-lane highway picks its way among some of the most dizzying summits in the Rockies' venerable range. At its highest point, the road climbs to 12,183 feet - that's taller than any mountain peak in Yellowstone, Glacier or Zion national parks.

Imagine wheeling your car over the very top of Yosemite's Half Dome or Oregon's Mount Hood; this road soars high above both. In fact, most of it does - it features a 14.6-mile stretch that is at least two miles above sea level, making it the highest paved through road in the contiguous 48 states.

When embarking on this drive from either end of the park, travelers quickly leave the more customary mountain environments of lush evergreen forests behind and soon venture into a barren world that is akin to the Arctic: fields of spongy tundra, gray peaks scoured clean by glaciers, snowfields that never melt - and an utter absence of trees.

Jerry Beckett and his wife, Gill, who'd traveled here from East Anglia, England, were a few steps from their car on a walking path near Rock Cut when Jerry remarked to a fellow tourist: ``I was reading a guidebook that said you can't see anything of this park without leaving the road. He was wrong.''

``It feels,'' added Gill, ``like you're at the top of the world.''

Indeed, this excursion at times feels more like an airplane ride than a drive. You can pull off at any of a number of turnouts, take a short stroll and feel like one of those intrepid explorers on one of the nature channels.

One of the most popular stops is the Alpine Visitor Center, where a short but steep path ascends staircase-like to an unnamed, 12,005-foot viewpoint. Think about that for a moment. Backpackers will hike for days and endure untold privations to bag a 12,000-foot peak. And here you are in your tennis shoes, lugging nothing more cumbersome than a camera. Your car is right down the hill there, next to the snack bar and gift shop.

The road was built between 1929 and 1933, and the length of the project had more to do with working conditions than any funding shortages resulting from the Depression. Because of a forbidding winter that spanned nearly eight months at these altitudes, the workers could only get into the area during the middle of summer. (Even today, Trail Ridge Road is only open from around Memorial Day weekend to mid-October.)

Also, bedrock here is only a couple of inches from the surface, so the road wasn't plowed so much as it was carved. It took three summers, for example, to punch two lanes of highway through a point now called Rock Cut (all that exertion conferred proper-name status).

The drive holds a few surprises for visitors who heretofore haven't navigated such heights on foot. It's wise, for example, to bring along a winter jacket, preferably one equipped with a hood. Even in the middle of summer, it can get chilly at these altitudes, especially when the winds come whipping across this arctic environment - a common condition in the afternoon.

Altitude sickness afflicts some visitors, too. Fortunately, this condition is quickly remedied by simply turning around and heading for lower altitudes. But the effects can be minimized by drinking a lot of water during the course of the drive. Another issue is high-altitude sun and wind burn. Ultraviolet protection (sunblock lotion, a hat and sunglasses) is a must at these heights.

And then there is acrophobia. It might not surface on a westbound navigation of Trail Ridge Road from the park's tourist gateway of Estes Park. But it might get you in its grip on the return drive, when you're picking your way along an eastbound lane that is bordered only by a long, steep slope of tundra barrenness - tumbling away to your right, seemingly off the edge of the world.

``People don't go over the side;, we haven't had that,'' said park ranger Chase Davies, ``but we have had people stop dead in the middle of the road. They just freeze, and either somebody else in their car has to drive, or a member of the public, stuck in a car behind them, has to take over and drive them down.'' Another issue is jittery eastbound travelers driving with their left-side wheels on - or over - the double-yellow center line.

There are no guardrails for a couple of reasons: one, the difficulty of boring into the shallow bedrock to sink the posts; two, the belief that guard rails would give people a false sense of security and result in risky driving. ``If people relied on them, we would have deaths,'' Davies said. ``Guard rails will not keep you on a road.''

At the west end of Trail Ridge Road, a sign marks Milner Pass, where visitors can pull into a parking area, get out and examine America's backbone. The road crosses the Continental Divide at this point, and it's fascinating to ponder exactly what that means.

On one side of the parking area is a big puddle that represents the headwaters of Cache La Poudre Creek. This creek flows into the Platte River, which joins the Missouri, which drains into the Mississippi, which empties into the Gulf of Mexico, which joins the Atlantic Ocean. A little more than 500 feet away, on the other side of the parking area, is a little trickle called Beaver Creek. It flows to the Colorado River, thence to the Sea of Cortez and on to the Pacific Ocean.

Thus, when a rainstorm occurs here, drops that fall a few feet apart are destined for two different oceans on opposite ends of the nation.

There's little dispute that this park is custom-tailored to those who don't want to get out of their vehicles, but travelers who venture beyond the bed of Trail Ridge Road will also find many rewards. They should first heed this kernel of advice, however: Go west.

The eastern end of the park abuts touristy Estes Park, which is convenient to four interstate highways and the population centers of Denver (65 miles), Fort Collins (42 miles) and Boulder (40 miles). As a direct result, the wilderness areas in the east experience a great deal of human traffic.

Before noon on a Saturday in June, the 250-space parking lot at the Bear Lake trail head was full, with more visitors arriving by shuttle bus. The 1.8-mile trail to Emerald Lake was beautiful, winding through rich forests and along tumbling brooks, but it was also a hiking thoroughfare. (A good stretch of the trail, in fact, is paved with asphalt to minimize erosion.)

A day later, many miles away in the park's more remote western end, several trails and tourist sites were all but deserted.

One was the Never Summer Ranch - which got its name from the chronic tardiness of the spring thaw in the Kawuneeche Valley. A former homestead and dude ranch that dates to the 1920s, the ranch's commerce was enhanced by the fact that Rocky Mountain was established as the country's 10th national park a few years before, in 1915. After a half-mile walk from the road, visitors can poke around the deserted settlement, which includes a sod-covered ice house, a former taxidermy shop, a wood shed and a number of cabins.

At another stop, a trail skirts the Colorado River for some distance. This is fairly close to the headwaters of the noble river that drains the Grand Canyon and provides drinking water and hydroelectric juice for a good portion of Southern California. Here, though, it is barely more than a stream - barely 10 feet wide, perhaps four inches deep - and can be crossed on a hiker's footbridge. In June, a father stood on a bank ablaze with yellow wildflowers as his two sons rolled up their pant legs and waded to a gravel bar in this feeble ``river.''

Also on the west side of the park is the Green Mountain Trail, which climbs gently for 1.8 miles to Big Meadows, popular grazing ground for moose and elk. During my visit, the trail was quiet, with only two or three other hikers, and the sprawling meadow was pretty serene, too - which seemed to suit a single elk cow who reclined tranquilly a short distance off.

I sat on a boulder and watched a breeze ruffle the meadow's grassy surface. In the distance, jagged Nakai Peak rose steeply from thickly forested slopes. Nakai rises to 12,216 feet, which puts it among 76 summits in the national park that soar above 12,000 feet.

From this perspective, it was inconceivable that somewhere up there, a road was wending its way through, around and over those peaks.


GETTING THERE: Estes Park, the eastern gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, is 77 miles from Denver International Airport via Pena Boulevard, I-70, I-270 and Highway 36. This is the more scenic route - notably the last 35 or so miles - although the traffic jams in the busy college town of Boulder might try your patience. Another option is to head north out of Denver on I-25 and cut west on Highway 34 to Estes Park; this route is about 80 miles. There is no easy way to approach the park from the mountainous west.

COSTS: The fee for entering the national park is $15 per vehicle, good for seven days.

FIRE UPDATE: Last month's Big Elk Fire burned more than 4,400 acres west of Highway 36 between Lyons and Estes Park. It did not cross the national park boundary. Drought conditions have left the landscape in and around the park perilously dry, however, and a ban on open fires is in effect within park boundaries.

INFORMATION: Rocky Mountain National Park information is available at (970) 586-1206;


8 photos, box, map,


(1 -- color) The panorama is spectacular at Bear Lake, in the eastern portion of Rocky Mountain National Park. It can be reached by an easy drive.

(2 -- color) With snow still on the ground in early summer, a trout fisherman casts from a boulder in the Bear Lake region, a cluster of lakes and streams in the eastern part of the national park.

(3 -- 4 -- color) The national park's Trail Ridge Road, left, soars to 12,183 feet, crossing the artic terrain of the Rockies. A 14.6-mile stretch of the road is at least two miles above sea level.

(5 -- 6) Whether hiking, above, or wading the shallow streams, left, the best way to see the top of the world is a precarious drive - then a trek on foot.

(7) Old farm equipment rusts in a valley at Never Summer Ranch in the western part of Rocky Mountain National Park.

(8) Elk, which are plentiful in the park, graze in a meadow.

Eric Noland/Travel Editor


IF YOU GO (see text)



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Title Annotation:Travel
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Aug 25, 2002

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