Spotlight on Parks: Rocky Mountain National Park

Fall is upon us and so, before snow prevents easy access between its west and east sides, I decided to do a pilgrimage to Rocky Mountain National Park. Rocky Mountain is the grand daddy of all Colorado parks. Established in 1915 and celebrating its 100th birthday on September 4, Rocky Mountain National Park is a national treasure. The park encompasses 415 square miles of montane forests and lakes to tundra and grasslands.

Clark's Nutcracker at Rainbow Curve in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo by Jamie Simo.
Clark’s Nutcracker at Rainbow Curve in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo by Jamie Simo.

High atop Trail Ridge Road, I saw chipmunks, dark-eyed juncos, and Clark’s nutcrackers at the pull-off called Rainbow Curve. The animals were really close, but that’s unfortunately because people were feeding them.1  While I’ve had good success seeing pika at Rainbow Curve last year, late August isn’t as reliable a time of year to see them as July. A better place to see them is farther along Trail Ridge near Rock Cut Trail. I saw a couple scurrying along there among the rocks as well as a pair of yellow-bellied marmots. I also saw an American pipit picking around, bobbing its tail (pretty diagnostic behavior).

My ultimate goal during the tundra expedition was to finally see a ptarmigan. According to the ranger at the Alpine Visitor Center, a hen and some chicks had been seen near the pond at Medicine Bow Curve, but even with my scope and binoculars in hand, I came up empty. Ptarmigan prefer to blend in with the black and white rocks that they resemble at this time of year, so it’s possible they were there and just invisible to me. One day I’ll see you, ptarmigan!

Moose at Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo by Jamie Simo
Moose at Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo by Jamie Simo

Probably the most exciting thing on this trip was getting a good view of a group of 3 moose, two young bulls and a cow, close to the road on the western side of the park. The western side of Rocky Mountain is a great place for moose because it’s wetter and full of willow, which moose are drawn to. Sure enough, the moose were stripping the leaves off some willow and barely paid attention to the group of photographers eagerly clicking away. After we watched the moose eating their dinner, we went to get our own.

Driving back through the park afterward was eerily beautiful. The moon was huge in the sky and gave just enough light to glimpse herds of elk crossing Trail Ridge road in front of the car. The lights of Estes Park sparkled like stars far below. If you’re not the camping type or the campsites are full, a great place to stay to do a longer Rocky Mountain trip is Wildwood Inn in Estes. It sports some gorgeous views, is only 3 miles from the park, and it’s a fantastic place to birdwatch, especially hummingbirds. There’s a whole line of hummingbird feeders hung under the eaves of the office building where (mostly) broad-tailed hummingbirds flit around like tiny jewels, refueling before their long journey south. Though I’ve never seen one there, bears occasionally roam around the grounds after dark too.

Rocky Mountain National Park is one of my favorite places in Colorado and I’d urge you to go visit if you’ve never been or to visit again even if you have. There’s always something new and interesting to see there. Entry to the park is $20 per car or $10 per bicycle or pedestrian. You can also purchase an annual pass specifically for Rocky Mountain that gives you unlimited entry for $40 or an America the Beautiful annual pass for $80 that will admit you to all national parks and Federal recreation lands for the year of purchase.

  1.  Feeding wildlife encourages them to depend on handouts instead of foraging so they could starve in the winter. Please don’t feed the wildlife.
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