Scenic sites make the Rocky Mountains a perfect trip.
By LAURIE M. FISHER
A brisk wind blew off the glacier on Hallet Peak and whistled through the pine trees around Bear Lake. Although the surrounding peaks were capped with snow, at 10,000 feet above sea level, the sun's strong rays promptly melted a recent snowfall around the subalpine waters. Only a few icicles dripped from shaded rock cliffs.
Rocky Mountain National Park is a picture-postcard scene even in late fall. Unfortunately, the bright golden Aspen leaves were past peak, but the reputed throngs of tourists had also disappeared.
Located about 60 miles north west of Denver, Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the most accessible western national parks. One third of the 416 square mile park is above the tree line, where tundra ecosystem predominates. Since most of the park is located at more than 9,000 feet above sea level, visitors should acclimatize before engaging in even moderate exercise. Layers of clothing are essential because winds and precipitation can cause temperature variation very quickly.
Historical preservation: The park's beginnings date back to 1859 when Joel Estes and his son Milton rode into a large valley 20 miles north of Lyons Colorado. According to the Park Service, a year later Estes and his family returned and settled in the valley that bears his name. In about 1909 Enos Mills, naturalist, writer and conservationist, and others began efforts to preserve what is now Rocky Mountain National Park. In 1915, it became the nation's 10th national park.
It's worth the detour to stop by one of the park office information centers. Since weather and conditions change daily, speak with park personnel about recommended areas to explore as well as to obtain a schedule of ranger-led programs. At the Park Headquarters Beaver Meadows Visitor Center a 22-minute video provides an introduction to the park and its inhabitants.
Wild elk: Wildlife is a premier attraction. Herds of elk gather in meadows. It's easy to spot the huge beasts, even though they may blend with the foliage. Typically cars line up along the roads. We wondered if the humans spying with binoculars and long-lens cameras intimidated the elk. A ranger was posted in the area to answer questions as well as assure the human species maintained a respectful distance.
Late October is just past mating season, when males with large antlers bugle into the night to attract mates. The ranger recalled one lady from New Jersey who actually tried to pet an elk only to be run up a rock by the bull of the herd.
Along a ridge above the meadows filled with elk, several deer foraged for food. Some had colored collars indicating park scientists monitored them for movement and disease.
A lone coyote was roaming the foothills near Bear Lake. While there are no grizzly bears in the park, there are black bears whose color ranges from black to cinnamon. Mountain lions also inhabit the wilderness along with moose, big horn sheep and hundreds of smaller animals.
Sightseeing: The Bear Lake Nature Trail is a one-half mile, mostly level trail that surrounds the lake. Another one-half mile trail to Nymph Lake is more strenuous because it ascends the ridge. Check with park rangers about the 360 miles of trail variety, length and elevation.
In addition to hiking, visitors can explore the area from Memorial Day weekend to mid-October by driving the windy Trail Ridge Road, which takes you 12,183 feet and past many scenic overlooks. The drive crosses the Continental Divide and looks out over dozens of peaks that tower more than 13,000 feet high. Longs Peak, the highest peak in the park, is 14,255 feet in elevation. Other recreation options include horseback riding, camping, fishing, climbing, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
Accommodations in nearby Estes Park vary from bed and breakfasts, luxury and budget hotels, as well as cabin resorts. During dusk and dawn, it's not unusual to see a herd of elk munching on gardens that surround a variety of accommodations. The town of Estes Park is filled with restaurants and shops catering to seasonal visitors.