The Rocky Mountains of North America are the second longest mountain range in the world, running in a ragged line for 3,000 miles from British Columbia in Canada all the way southeast to the north of Mexico.
So if you’re going to have the nerve to give just a small section of this long range the grand name of “Rocky Mountain National Park,” well, that better be one special section.
And it is. The 412 square miles of Rocky Mountain National Park have preserved some of America’s most pristine natural beauty. America’s fifth most popular national park has 147 lakes, 50 miles of streams, 360 miles of trails and more than 100 peaks that soar 11,000 feet or higher into the Colorado blue sky – many of them with snow year-round.
There are a thousand elk, as well as moose, bears, beavers and big\horn sheep. There are waterfalls and wildflowers, and more than a third of the park is tundra – that strange and harsh land above the trees where it is almost always winter.
But as beautiful and tranquil as Rocky Mountain National Park can be, it can also be one of the most congested spots in Colorado. With limited roads and parking, the popular park has to accommodate more than a million people in just six summer weeks. That’s more than the population of nearby Denver. Over the course of a year, 3.2 million people visit the park, sometimes “loving” it a little too much. On a recent Saturday in August, a mile-long traffic jam was caused by one sleeping bear, who chose to take his afternoon nap within sight of the road.
Some 35 invasive plants have moved into the park. Global warming is causing the glaciers to melt, and although the lakes and streams are crystal clear, the water is not safe to drink because of Giardia.
And yet, arrive early in the day or in off-season, or get out of the car and hike for a bit, and you can have the place to yourself. Even if you stay in the car, a drive through the park can take you over the highest continuous highway in the world, cruising over the tops of mountains with hundred-mile views in every direction. Just don’t concentrate on the views too much – there are sheer cliffs with no guardrails on every turn.
In 2015, the park is celebrating its 100th anniversary of being protected forever. As you picnic by an idyllic stream or hike through a firework display of wildflowers and you want to know who to thank for preserving all this, start with an eccentric Englishwoman named Isabella Bird.
Preserving the Park
There weren’t many globetrotting women explorers in the 1870s, but that didn’t stop Isabella Bird, who became the first woman accepted into the Royal Geographic Society of Great Britain. From early childhood, she suffered from insomnia and nervous headaches. Her doctor recommended an “outdoor life,” so she set off on a series of adventures that ultimately took her to China, Japan, Vietnam, and India. Colorado’s dry weather was said to be healthy, so she moved there in 1873.
Isabella roamed 803 miles across Colorado, climbing mountains and riding a horse like a man (though she threatened to sue a newspaper that said she dressed like one). Her descriptive letters home about her explorations in Colorado were eventually published into a book that became one of the classics of travel literature: “A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains.”
One of her favorite areas was northwest of Denver near a valley that had come to be called Estes Park, after local cattle rancher Joel Estes. “Park” came from the French “parc,” meaning “open space.”
Isabella explored the area around Estes Park with the aid of a colorful local guide, Jim Nugent, also known as “Mountain Man Jim.” He was a one-eyed desperado who would be shot dead a year later, but he was a good-looking character, and there were rumors that he was more than a guide to Isabella. She wrote that Jim was the type of man “any woman might love but no sane woman would marry."
Isabella’s descriptions of climbing Longs Peak, the highest mountain looming above Estes Park, and the beauty of the area captivated the world. Even in Colorado, which had a mountainous area five times the size of Switzerland, the splendor of Estes Park became world famous.
Another visitor who settled here was Enos Mills, who became a local guide, climbing Longs Peak more than 250 times. Enos lobbied that the mountains, lakes and streams here should be preserved for future generations. He got his wish in 1915, when Rocky Mountain became America’s 10th national park.
Touring the Park Today
With so many experiences (and so many people loving the park) here are some tips on how to enjoy its beauty.
If you go: Estes Park has an assortment of riverside cabins and motels, a delightful downtown with riverside cafes, and is located just a few miles from the entrance to the national park. Of course, the top place to stay is the Stanley, but even if you don’t sleep here, stop by the gift shop to pick up a brass key ring for room 217. www.visitestespark.com
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