This year I waited patiently to return to the tundra at the top of Rocky Mountain National Park. Yesterday my friend Mark and I drove up the winding, one way, dirt Old Fall River Road to the Alpine Visitor Center, where we left his Jeep.
But not far from the entrance to the park we spotted a herd of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. Mark used his professional grade full frame Canon 5D SLR and a 400mm telephoto lens to capture this remarkable shot:
Near the top end of the old road we came to this tranquil Alpine pond:
Near the pond we encountered this animal that Mark says always reminds him of a clown:
At the Alpine Visitor Center the Old Fall River Road joins Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous paved road in the country, topping out at 12,183 feet. The visitor center itself is 11,796 feet up in the thin air. But instead of stopping there, we hiked the short steep trail to a knoll at 12,005 feet.
From here we walked straight down, bypassing the visitor center and took the Old Ute Trail to Milner Pass on the Continental Divide. This is one of the best trails anywhere: Few rocks so we could make good time, narrow like a real trail should be, and mostly a gentle downhill grade.
Near the start of our hike down the Old Ute Trail we encountered this young bull elk alone on the tundra:
About half way down the trail, at about 11,500 feet we began to reach the tree line:
Near the end of the trail we passed by these rock spires and hanging gardens. You can judge how big they are compared to how small Mark appears at the lower left of the photo:
After walking mostly downhill for 5 miles and 1,250 feet, we reached the end of the trail at the Continental Divide:
Particularly at this altitude with its thin air, we had no intention of hiking back up. Instead we planned from the first to hitchhike back to the Alpine Visitor Center, where Mark had left his Jeep. I did the same thing two years ago, when I immediately caught a ride.
This year, however, we had to wait a few minutes. We didn’t meet anyone who was driving right back to the visitor center. But we did run into two couples we had met on the trail who were also hitchhiking back. One of the men had already found a ride in a vehicle that had room for him. When he returned, his car was big enough for both couples and Mark — but not for me. So I waited a few more minutes until Mark drove back and picked me up.
From there we drove back home over Trail Ridge Road. At about 12,000 feet, close to the high point, where the elk have migrated for the delicious summer tundra, we saw a herd of big bull elks:
This year patience was its own reward. At the end of May last year, on the first day the Park Service opened the road for the year, I was impatient to get back to the high country. Big mistake: I encountered a blizzard with no chance whatsoever for a hike. Today’s hike was another wonderful experience at the top of my world.