The Continental Divide runs through the middle of the Rocky Mountain National Park, creating two distinct climates, and is home to seven large mammals, countless birds (including eagles) and an abundance of wildflowers. That’s all we needed to read before deciding to become one of the 2.9 million visitors this year.
We got up before the roosters -- why, I’m not sure, other than my family has done this for three generations -- to start our road trip. By the time the sun awoke, we were crossing from Northern New Mexico into Colorado. We discovered that this is where the deer and the antelope play. Hundreds of antelopes took over the hills, grazing casually, sometimes intermixed with cattle, a close cousin.
At a rest area just over the border, we got out with our two dogs to stretch our legs. We surveyed the land, now transforming from high desert into mountains. I counted six types of wildflowers along the sidewalk alone.
That night we settled into our cabin near Allenspark. It was rustic to say the least, but what can you expect from a last minute, dog-friendly reservation on Labor Day weekend? We were relieved to find no cell coverage or television, just books and WiFi. We satisfied our hunger with hot dogs, watermelon and a crisp, lively Pinot Gris.
The next morning we were also up early. In the communal area the hosts -- a young, friendly couple -- provided breakfast, which more than made up for the simple accommodations. We stuffed ourselves with strawberry, banana and peanut butter burritos. Hearty and sweet. (Sunshine Mountain Lodge, 18078 Colorado 7, Lyons)
Trail Ridge Road: BYOBPB... Bring Your Own Brown Paper Bag.
It seems that when a road is labeled "scenic," it also means death-defying. This is the case with Trail Ridge Road, 54 miles of winding asphalt which begins at Estes Park and ends at Grand Lake, providing you make it that far.
The beginning is easy with meadows and small lakes. Then the climb to the twin passes starts. Don’t ever think that you’ll reach the speed limit of 35 m.p.h. At times we crawled along at 15 m.p.h., and not because of the traffic -- there were no guard rails. On one side the road simply drops away. Because this is a National Park I doubted that there were little white crosses below. We continued our praying.
Up we climbed across the Continental Divide (10,758 feet) and Fall River Pass (11,796 feet) and onwards to Iceberg Pass (11,827 feet) where there was a high wind advisory. Yes, it was white knuckles on the wheel, as the road on both sides plunged straight down and the wind whipped around the tiny car. We felt so temporary and miniscule compared to this mountain that could kick our butt six different ways.
There were several pull-offs for us to regain our nerves, and we ended the drive at a stunningly beautiful lake. This also gave us the time to find a different route than US 34. No way should this be tried twice in one day.
Once safely down the mountain we discussed the seasonal changes of the Rockies. Nearly half of the trees were brown or some shade of gold and orange. We thought that this was peculiar as we didn’t believe that pine trees were anything but green. Indeed not. We saw a sign describing "pine beetles".
We had noted that nearly half of the trees on one side of a mountain were brown, and there were large patches of brown scattered amongst the other mountains. Pine beetles have infected the largest area in history throughout the Rockies. In 2006 they killed a million acres of trees but spread in 2008 to double that size, and this year they are predicted to double the size again.
These pests dig into the bark of pines where they spend the winter, then grow up to 7 mm long by spring. In early summer they leave their tunneled out nests to fly to new trees. Some experts have predicted that Colorado’s mature trees will be eliminated within five years. The priniciple means of controlling the pests is removal of dead trees and prescribed burns. The result is piles and piles of brown, decaying pine trees. Worrisome to say the least.
For 10,000 years Native Americans visited "Spirit" Lake (attributed to a mythical buffalo) seasonally. In a particularly gruesome episode in of history, a war party made up of Arapaho and Cheyenne Indians ambushed a hunting and fishing party of Ute Indians. As the warriors defended their village, Ute woman and children boarded rafts to row to the center of the lake. Instead of finding safety, a gust of wind tipped over the rafts and they all drowned. For years, Ute warriors saw their ghostly figures dance across the blue waters.
Then, as was common in the American west, French trappers discovered the abundance of animals in the area. This led to a large number of midwesterners settling onto the land, and huge parties (100+ members) of European hunters slaughtering the herds of deer and wildlife which grazed the area. By the 1870s both gold and silver set off a mining boom. A permanent settlement of Grand Lake (city) sprung up, though the mines went bust by the 1880s. Now, its home to 60 shops, restaurants and galleries.
I recommend finding Bears Den & Paw Pub, located on the main strip at 612 Grand Ave. Grab some sandwiches (their French Dip is one of the best that I’ve encountered) and continue along the shoreline towards a chain of lakes. Between Shadow Mountain Lake and Lake Gramby there are numerous pull offs and each has a spectacular view. Perfect for lunch. If you can find it, try Boylan’s Birch Beer. Since 1891, this tiny, local soda company has been producing this reddish root beer.
The next day we opted for something easier, a picnic by Union Reservoir. There weren’t as many photo opportunities, but we didn’t need a brown paper bag to breathe into either.
The last ice age dug out Calkins Lake, one of the few natural lakes within Colorado. In 1903 a tunnel was drilled, releasing some of its water into St. Vrain river, forming Union Reservoir. The reservoir is located seven miles west of I-25, in Longmont.
This crystal clear reservoir is managed beautifully. Everyone has their own little spot -- from a beach, to marina and off-leash dog area -- complete with bathrooms, snack bar, picnic benches, parking lot and a small fee of $8 per car. Oh, and for the fishermen, wipers, walleyes, gizzard shad and catfish are regularly caught here. (Note: no campfires or grills allowed).
As we packed up the car the next morning to head back to reality, we realized that our time was far too short. We promised to come back again, and as I looked up to pitch the last piece of luggage into the trunk, a moose stood chewing his cud just beyond our cabin. He watched me as I watched him. He seemed reluctant to move on, as were we.