Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park is a United States National Park in the Front Range region of the state of Colorado. The park’s borders lie within three counties, Larimer, Boulder, and Grand, and it is surrounded by Roosevelt, Arapaho, and Routt National Forests. The Continental Divide cuts almost directly through the center of the park, creating two areas with very different landscapes – a drier and heavily glaciated eastern side, and a wetter, more forested western side. Both areas offer excellent spots for high altitude alpine hiking, backpacking and rock climbing as well as ample opportunity for spotting wildlife. The park is dominated by Longs Peak one of Colorado’s 54 “Fourteeners” at 14,259 ft (4,346 m), and dubbed the “Monarch of the Front Range.”

Mt. Meeker & Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. Over a third of the park is above timberline.

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Evidence of Native American peoples visiting the park date back almost 10,000 years, mainly from the Ute and Arapaho communities. Several expeditions visited the area in the early to mid-19th century, including one by Joel Estes in 1859 after which he and his family established a homestead that would soon become Estes Park, the resort town on the east side of the park. After a small mining rush on the western side of the park in the early 1880s, a 14-year-old boy by the name of Enos Mills moved to the area and began to extensively document the region’s geography and ecology through essays and books. He began to lobby Congress to establish a national park in the area surrounding Longs Peak, a mountain he had climbed over 40 times by himself. On January 26, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson signed a bill that established the creation of Rocky Mountain National Park. The 1930s brought a building boom to the park during the Great Depression, during which time the Trail Ridge Road was constructed through the park, which remains today the highest continuous stretch of highway in the United States.

A Clark’s Nutcracker at Rainbow Curve.

Rocky Mountain National Park sits on the Continental Divide, separating the park into two distinct regions. The eastern and more developed side of the park is dominated by striking valleys and cirques that were formed through heavy glaciation and is a good starting point for first-time visitors. The western side of the park is wetter, is heavily forested and is less developed, but still contains excellent trekking and backcountry opportunities. Most areas of the park sit well above 9,000 ft (2,700 m) with mountains along the Continental Divide topping off at above 12,000 feet. The 13,000-foot Mummy Range rests on the northern side of Rocky Mountain National Park with two roads skirting long it’s southern edges; a one-way, dirt road that winds up the Fall River called the Old Fall River Road; and a section of Highway 34 known as the Trail Ridge Road. The Never Summer Mountains sit on the western side of the park and consist of 10 distinct peaks, all rising well over 12,000 feet, and contain the headwaters for the Colorado River. One of the most dominating features in the southeast area of the park is Longs Peak at 14,259 feet, which is surrounded on all sides by several peaks well about 13,000 feet, including Mt. Meeker, Mount Lady Washington, and Storm Peak.

For wildlife seekers, Rocky Mountain National Park offers some fantastic opportunities to view the variety of animals that live inside its borders. Elk, deer, chipmunks, ground squirrels, beavers, porcupines, foxes, and coyotes are all commonly seen in meadows and in and around lakes and streams. Marmots seem to be ubiquitous above the tree line, especially on well-hiked trails around Longs Peak. Hawks and eagles are often seen soaring above the glacier gorges in search of critters that hide among the rocks and colorful tree birds such as blue jays and cardinals fly in the lower altitudes. Hummingbirds have a tendency to fly close to where people – and their food – are sitting. Less common animal sightings include black bears and the rare mountain lions, although the former will manage to hang out if human food is accessible. Moose mainly stay on the western side of the park and Bighorn Sheep – a rare but exciting find – stay above the tree line and can sometimes be seen off the Trail Ridge Road.

Wildflowers seem to be everywhere throughout the park, including the popular Indian Paintbrush and Columbine, Colorado’s state flower. One of the most spectacular sights in the mid to late fall is to walk through a grove of Aspen trees as their leaves change from green to gold. Ponderosa and Lodgepole pines are the dominate conifer trees in the area, although they have been recently dying in large numbers due to an outbreak of pine beetle infestation.

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