Journey to the Tundra: Trail Ridge Road
Alpine Visitor Center
National Park: Rocky Mountain
Rocky Mountain National Park is World renowned for its protection of a rare and highly unique ecosystem: the alpine tundra. These biomes are constituted of tracts of high mountain terrain (alpine) that, based on climatic patterns, are unable to sustain tree life (tundra). The elevation at which the tree line ends depends on multiple factors, including wind exposure and a peak’s slope, but generally occurs around two miles above sea level. While the land above the trees may seem stark and inhospitable, it is full of hearty creatures and highly evolved plants that have learned how to survive its brief summers and pummeling winters.
Luckily for Park visitors, Trail Ridge Road has traversed Rocky Mountain’s high peaks and made this ecosystem accessible to all Americans since the early 20th Century. Through a series of switchbacks and winding passes between rugged peaks, the Road hurdles the Continental Divide and offers visitors a direct, albeit slow, route that connects the Park’s East and West entrances. The journey is a highlight of Rocky Mountain National Park and gives any visitor some of the best sweeping vistas the Park has to offer.
Many short trails leave from parking areas along Trail Ridge Road but visitors must be careful to walk slowly and drink plenty of water. Hiking this high has inherent challenges; thin air makes even small hills strenuous and obscured sunshine can cause surprise you with a quick sunburn and unexpected fatigue. Time in the alpine tundra is better spent soaking in its grand vistas and beautiful details with short jaunts, many of which leave from the National Park Service’s highest visitor center.
The Alpine Visitor Center, which sits at nearly 12,000 feet above sea level, features skilled Park naturalists that educate individuals on the strange new world they are discovering around them. The Center exists off the grid and is shut down for 9 months of the year when battering storms often bury it under dozens of feet of snow. During the popular summer season, however, it provides informational exhibits, a restaurant, gift shop and restroom facilities. It serves as a good destination for visitors exploring the land above the trees.
Trail Ridge Road is a centerpiece of the Rocky Mountain National Park experience and is not to be missed. It provides the rare opportunity to come in close contact with marmots, elk, pika and remarkable flowers that employ a host of evolutionary features to make the tundra their home. It is yet another example of one of the great gifts the National Park Service has given to citizens of the United States and the World alike.