Monday, July 13, 2009

Trail Ridge Road - Mammals

As I teased on Saturday, I started off Friday in one of the best ways I can imagine. In an exceptionally beautiful place, with a spectacular sunrise, and to top it all some pretty incredible wildlife encounters.
If you haven't been there before, or more specifically don't know that the summit of Long's Peak in Colorado is fairly large and flat, for a fourteener that is, then you probably wouldn't have guessed that my destination was Trail Ridge Road, one of, if not the best known attraction of Rocky Mountain National Park.

Elk enjoying the sunrise from "above" Long's Peak

I am thrilled that I live so close to RMNP, and can make a yearly National Parks Pass pay for itself right there. Even so, I find that I don't make it up nearly as often as I would like. It is difficult to find a window that allows for several hours of driving each way, in addition to all the time I would like to spend while I am there. To top it all off I find that I only make the trip over Trail Ridge every few years. I always plan to return more often, but then other things come up. This time I found a way to make it more manageable and so much more special. I rolled out of bed at 2:30 am. If you know me, you know that it takes a special something to get me going that early. Actually, I find that if I am getting up for something that I truly look forward to it is not as much of a problem. It also helps that before 3:00 the shower is for waking up, and the thought of shaving would just get a laugh - if that action was possible that early.
The sacrifice was so worth it, the result was a destination changer for me. I have always loved being above treeline - except for high wind days on the Timberline lift at Mary Jane Mountain. The vistas, the cool winds, the snow flakes in August, they all make me want to plan the next visit. Trail Ridge, however, can have its drawbacks. Foremost on the list is the traffic. Anyone who has made the drive knows, creeping along in stop and go traffic, even in a beautiful setting can be a drag. Beyond that, there is the reality that despite the high elevation and remote location you are moving through a tourist trap. Even so, it is worth it, but now I know it can be so much better.

Elk in velvet, contemplating breakfast

I arrived at the park around 4:00, and was up above treeline around 5:00. The sunrise was still a bit off, but there was enough light to see by. I parked and headed off along the Toll Memorial Trail. I had not hiked it in the past, but it headed up to the top of the ridge with a view to the east, it is also, I believe, near the upper limits of elevation accessed by the road. I had the place to myself! I made it out to the rocks at the end of the trail before the sun had risen, and thanks to the memorial plaque confirmed that there was a former Park Superintendent named Toll, rather than a memorial to any past tolls collected. There is a peak index at the top of the rock formation that is worth the climb to see. It identifies the peaks in the panorama around you - very cool.
I sat and watched the sun rise, as the colors painted the fleecy clouds and snow capped peaks around me. Fantastic!
Fittingly humbled by the beautiful spectacle nature had provided I descended the rock, and immediately saw a White-Tailed Ptarmigan briefly fly before landing amongst some rocks, (more on that in the bird post to come).
I clicked away, and was surprised to see a group of three teenagers approaching along the trail. I passed them to let them enjoy the views and peaks to themselves as I had done, and was immediately greeted by three male Elk crossing the trail under 100 yards ahead of me, lit by the rising sun. They slowly worked their way across the trail, and stopped at a different rock formation about midway along the trail. There they were content to stay as the trail brought me to within 35 yards of them. It was such a cool experience, solitude and in your face wildlife!

young Elk, making faces for the camera

After enjoying the views with Elk in the foreground I left them in peace and headed on to the car, and after a few stops to the area around the visitor center.

Yellow-Bellied Marmot

I have stopped at the visitor center exactly once before, typically circling a parking lot waiting for a space to open is not something I am willing to do in a natural setting. For that reason I took the very first non-handicapped space when I arrived, (take that crowds!). At this point it was nearing 7:00, and there were other cars in the lot, over near the restrooms. I checked out the overlook behind the visitor center, hoping for Rosy Finches, but finding Marmots instead. They are fun critters that just seem made to live a life of luxury in a tough habitat.

lord of the rocks - catching some rays

These guys are an easy spot, even when the crowds are present. Being there in the early hours with only a couple of park employees down below really seemed to keep this one at ease. I climbed the trail, "improved stairway", from the visitor center up to a peak overlooking Medicine Bow Curve. The marmot cruised along ahead of me, and posed for the pic in the previous post as I approached. By the time I had taken in the view and was returning he had climbed around the outcrop and was stopped to enjoy the sunshine.
Later I continued my driving tour down the west side of the road and chuckled as the weekenders were lined up at the west entrance as I left. I didn't see any Moose or Pikas on this trip, the Moose had apparently been seen along the Colorado river, but an older couple reported that some people had tried to get close to a cow and calf and they had departed. Seriously? Hopefully anyone reading this already knows how bad an idea this is, but if not let me emphasize that being anywhere near a momma moose with young is just plain stupid.
With such a great trip under my belt I am already looking forward to my next visit, hopefully this time it wont take years for me to make it back up.

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