ROCKY MOUNTAIN HIGH
I'm always up for a good jaunt, but I'm not a fan of major heights, so when Brent, my Sherpa-fit husband, suggests we check out The Tundra Communities Trail, I get a little queasy. For the past four days, we've been in Colorado, exploring Rocky Mountain National Park, where 359 miles (768 km) of hiking trails scroll its 265,770 heavenly acres. A quarter of these routes snake above the tree line and sixty peaks are higher than 3700 m (12,000 ft)-this being one of them.
Step by step I plod through the alpine tundra, a region where only the hearty survive. A marmot tells me I'm too close by giving me his high-pitched bark. A pika scurries off to seek refuge in his nearby craggy homestead. Flanking my route are two-hundred species of scruffy ground-huggers that will bloom briefly in summer. As I slowly ascend, my head feels light, my breathing becomes short, and I wonder if I'll be able to acclimatize. It had worked on the other hikes.
On our first day, we had started off with an easy stroll through Moraine Park, once the melting basin of the Thompson Glacier, now a grassy plain, backed by a forested ridge and craggy peaks. The trail crosses a river and passes lodgings that share a piece of the past. In the 1920's this area was home to three hotels, a post office and eventually a nine-hole golf course. Over recent years, it's been restored back to its natural state. Now, instead of luring golfers, it's a hot spot where the elk like to roam.
The second day, we checked out the various options at Bear Lake. This hub is a bustling place, especially in summer and on weekends, when the Denver crowd arrives. A free shuttle service transported us from our trailer site to the trailhead where a wheelchair-accessible loop provides a taste of wilderness to those who aren't able to hike.
"We've broken in our boots now," Brent had said. "Let's head for higher ground." A paved pathway that led to lily-pad Nymph Lake still felt like Grand Central and was not much more than a walk in the park. But the crowd and air thinned out as we took the skyward stairway 200 vertical feet higher to the trout-filled treasure of Dream Lake. For the grand finale, we hoofed upward to Emerald, a crystal-clear jewel that shimmers in the shadow of Hallet Peak. And in the silence we sat, mesmerized by the beauty.
Although a tad stiff by our third day, we had our hiking legs and the craving to see more. The Rockies seem to have that effect on visitors, whether they come to check out the abundant wildlife or those omnipresent granite giants. And there are lots of options for every ability level, from slow saunters to the challenging 4346 m (14259 ft) high Longs Peak. Mills Lake and The Loch Fall are two hikes that fit somewhere in the middle, and after being dropped off by the shuttle at Glacier Gorge, we hiked them both. Thirteen kilometers in length, 1200 feet in elevation and an entire day of spectacular sights: cascading falls, forested moraines, Ice Age glaciers-and all backed by those impressive peaks.
An easier way to view these beauties is to drive the Trail Ridge Road, a main artery that bridges the east to the west side of the park and links up the five campgrounds and visitors centers. Within an hour this scenic route rises from the lush riparian grasslands to the alpine tundra where you're given sweeping panoramas. At this road's apex is the rooftop of the Rockies-and The Tundra Communities Trail.
"It's called the land of fierce extreme for good reason," Brent says, as the blustery wind cuts through our jackets and the temperature plummets to a frigid low. Although this paved trek is only a kilometer round-trip, with every step, I feel a little dizzier and weaker. But, in this case, the pain is worth the gain. Even before cresting this summit, we have a three hundred and sixty degree vista of the forever unfolding peaks. Many are topped with snow, some are pocketed with lakes and all rise majestically from lush meadows and valleys below. "This is absolutely breathtaking," I gasp, implying both literally and figuratively. "Without a doubt, it's another Rocky Mountain high."
IF YOU GO:
Rocky Mountain National Park http://rockymountainnationalpark.com/
Photos by Brent Cassie
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