Day 201 – Rocky Mountain Ramble – Part 2

Day 201 – Rocky Mountain Ramble, July 1, 2011

Elk, elk, and more elk…that is the best way to describe my
day!  They were everywhere, though the
first elk I spotted this morning couldn’t have posed any better for the
camera.  I stayed on the east side of the
park last night, and took Trail Ridge Road 45 miles to Grand Lake.  We passed through meadows, began climbing,
and sputtered by a sign marking two miles above sea level.  Soon thereafter, we flanked the mountain side
as water from melting snow streamed off the slope between the ground and the
snowpack.  The road finally reached
Forest Canyon Overlook, where stunted pines are contorted into odd shapes from
relentless winds.  Many of the trees
limbs only grow on the leeward side of the tree trunks.

A red road sign with white block letters cautioned that
driving conditions could change quickly just before we ascended above the
timberline into an immense expanse of tundra; grasses and wildflowers only a
few inches high.  I considered taking a
walk along the tundra nature trail, but the wind was something fierce, and I
wasn’t dressed appropriately.  The beauty
was so amazing just sitting in VANilla, that I didn’t really feel the need to
wander along the trail in hopes to spot a marmot given I had already gotten a
close up view of one in Telluride a few weeks ago, and shortly after my
decision to stay warm one scampered across the road.

As I came up on the ridge an elk of substantial size stood
stately in front of the towering peaks as clouds sifted across the deep blue sky.  I stopped behind four other passenger cars
that were admiring the view in the middle of the roadway.  Just as I began to press on, another elk
arose atop the ridge.  The two briefly
stared at one another and returned to grazing.
Just up the way, a parking lot on the left-hand side of the road catered
to tourists.  I stopped to find a small herd
of elk on the horizon…more pictures.  We
carried on around the bend and were greeted with hundreds of them spread across
the tundra.

We continued on to Lava Cliffs, but seemed to stop every few
hundred yards to capture views of the cloud covered peaks and barren slopes
swathed in snow and to admire both the eeriness and splendor
simultaneously.  Thankfully the biting
summer wind was much slower and warmer than the winter wind that tops 200 miles
per hour and brings temperatures down to sixty degrees below zero.  My next opportunity for a view was blocked
by low clouds, and I found myself thankful that I could skip one pull out and
not feel like I was missing a good photo!

The lava in Lava Cliffs is volcanic ash deposited 26 million
years ago and compacted into the rock called tuff.  Glaciers stripped away the overlying material
exposing the volcanic past.  One mile
after reaching the Lava Cliffs, the road crested to its highest point at 12,183
feet.  More white-patched peaks, also
known as the Never Summer Mountains, stood to the west.

As we began our descent, we stopped at the Alpine Visitor
Center, whose latticework logs keep the roof in place during hurricane-force
winter storms.  Perhaps Florida should
adopt this architectural feature!  Further
along the way we crossed the Continental Divide at Milner Pass.  Poudre Lake drains into the Mississippi River
ultimately reaching the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.  On the opposite side of the divide, Beaver
Creek drains into the Colorado River which flows through the Grand Canyon
National Park and into the Gulf of California, part of the Pacific Ocean.

The next 16 miles of relatively straight road descended
through pine forests, past campgrounds, and through beaver dammed meadows.  This area was supposedly good for spotting
moose.  I tried in vain.  I actually drove down the road, turned around
and drove up it, and then drove down it again.
I was bound and determined to spot one.
Each time another car was pulled off the side, I slowed as quickly as
possible, causing Petey to hang on for his life!  No luck…but I found more elk.

Eventually I reached Grand Lake and found some remote
camping where ATVing seemed to be the attraction.  We hadn’t taken a walk all day as we had
spent the morning at overlooks, so we walked from the meadow, our makeshift
campground, up the dirt road and into the national forest where we found an ATV
trail to follow.  The trail ran through
the pines, mostly dead from the Rocky Mountain Pine Beetle, so I focused my
attention toward the myriad of wildflowers…wild rose, blue columbine, wild
geraniums and more.

We crossed a small creek where I followed a woodpecker to
the top of the ridge.  He continuously
tried to allude my camera.  Standing as
still as possible, I’d adjust the camera to full zoom, slowly raise the
viewfinder to my eye and focus when it would flit to the next dead tree.  After about six times of repeating these
motions, I finally snapped a decent photo.
Birds hear everything…I need a bigger zoom!

Finally we returned to our campground where we enjoyed a
lovely sunset as the snow-capped mountains took on a pink hue and turned in for
the evening.  ETB