Long before tourists arrived, a lone Englishwoman explored the vastness of what is now Rocky Mountain National Park.
Isabella Bird’s sojourn here came in the fall and early winter of 1873, not long after the mountain man and before the first pioneers built ranches here. She recorded her impressions in a book, A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, waxing poetic about the pristine landscape and describing the hardships she endured to explore it.
She observed: “The scenery up here is glorious, combining sublimity with beauty … This is an upland valley of grass and flowers, of glades and sloping lawns, and clumps of pines artistically placed, and mountain sides densely pine clad … and the mountains breaking into pinnacles of bold grey rock as they pierce the blue of the sky … Deep, vast canyons, all trending westwards, lie in purple gloom.”
Bird explored the hard way: on horseback and on foot. Often alone.
Today’s visitors have it a little easier. Rocky Mountain National Park is bisected by Trail Ridge Road, a paved highway that whisks you from lake to beaver pond to trailhead.
But you won’t be alone. Rocky Mountain National Park gets about 3 million visitors a year — impressive, when you figure it doesn’t open to vehicles until late May or early June and often closes by mid-October, because snow blocks the roads.
National Geographic Adventuremagazine named it one of America’s 10 best parks, calling it the “loftiest of all national parks,” and citing its accessibility for climbers. Climbing is indeed a world-class pursuit here, but most visitors do it from the seat of an SUV. The smart ones get out and explore.
Park ranger Kathy Brown has been doing just that since she was 11. In 1971, her parents brought her here, and she never forgot it. She became a park ranger with the intent of ending up here some day. That dream came true several years ago.
She has worked among the redwoods in California and the fossils at Florissant Fossil Beds, west of Colorado Springs, but nothing has captured her affection in the same way.
“Even when I was a kid, these mountains just got into my head and my heart, and I never can stay away from them,” she says. “I think it’s the combination of the mountains and the forests, and the wildlife that’s here.”
She loves that the park offers something for everyone, from wheelchair-bound visitors to serious hikers.
She calls Trail Ridge Road “a thread through the wilderness” that takes visitors from the park-like valleys that are home to the towns of Estes Park on the east and Grand Lake on the west to the alpine meadow at 12,000 feet (3,658 m).
Rocky Mountain National Park was established in 1915 as America’s tenth national park, thanks in part to efforts of naturalist Enos Mills. In 1909 Mills wrote about the valleys and stunning peaks beyond Estes Park and campaigned for the area’s preservation.
Visitors can learn about the park’s creation at the park headquarters, the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center, where they can see exhibits, pick up a map or two and catch a great introductory film. At altitudes of up to 14,000 feet (4,267 m), the park’s peaks impede and create weather. A third of the park is above tree line, which is at about 10,000 feet (3,048 m).
About 11,000 years ago, the first people visited the area, as far as archeologists can tell. In 1879, gold and silver were found near the headwaters of the Colorado River, but they didn’t pan out. So ranchers began to settle here, although the harsh weather made it difficult to eke out a living. Then tourism began to blossom, along with lodgings and restaurants to accommodate visitors.
Here, elk, deer and pronghorns graze; peregrine falcons dart after prey; and mountain lions roam the back country, along with bighorn sheep and black bears. Marmots sun themselves on rocks. Beaver build their lodges and create ponds. Gray jays and ground squirrels beg tourists for food (resist!). Foxes and coyotes hunt small mammals and birds, such as the pudgy little pika (a relative of the rabbit) or the shy ptarmigan.
Most visitors start in Estes Park. Driving into town, the first tourist pile-up happens at the sign bearing the town’s name. Why? Because the astonishing backdrop is the snowy Never Summer Range, with the town tucked at its base.
There are two entrances to the park on this side: the aforementioned Beaver Meadows Visitors Center and the Fall River Visitors Center, the latter at the entrance to the old Fall River Road.
While Trail Ridge Road is paved, Fall River Road, the original road through the park, is not. It is open for a shorter time during the year and is less traveled than Trail Ridge. But it offers its own attractions, views and perspective on the park. Savvy travelers go up Fall River Road and come back down Trail Ridge Road, to avoid repeating the entire experience.
It doesn’t take a 4-wheel-drive or high-clearance vehicle to navigate Fall River Road, but make sure your car is in good condition and take it slow. There are no service stations up here. (Trailers and RVs aren’t allowed on this road.)
The top of Fall River Road, at 11,000 feet (3,353 m), intersects with Trail Ridge Road. At this juncture there is another visitors’ center. There also is a hiking trail carved out of the meadow to a point that is usually cold and windy — gusts of up to 200 mph (322 kph) have been recorded here — but it offers spectacular panoramic views of the Gore mountain range.
It’s about 48 miles (77 km) across the park, from Estes Park to Grand Lake; allow at least three to four hours to drive it, allowing enough time for stops to take pictures and maybe for a short hike.
If you go up early or come down late, watch for herds of elk grazing not far from the roadways in the foothills. Don’t approach them. They look calm, but can be dangerous when frightened.
In a single day, you may doff your jacket for a sunny hike and watch a family have a snowball fight in shorts. You can drive up into a thunderstorm, which turns to sleet, then snow, and drive back down through rain and into sunshine again.
In short, it’s an ever-changing place.
“I’m so grateful someone had the foresight to set this apart,” ranger Brown says. “I think it’s vital that our nation has protected places like this.”
Her passion echoes the words of 19th century traveler Isabella Bird. She called it “the great lone land” and “one of the most extraordinary spots on earth.”
Millions of people think she had it right.