An Invaluable Partner: The Rocky Mountain Nature Association

Rocky Mountain Nature Association
1895 Fall River Rd.
Estes Park, CO 80517
National Park: Rocky Mountain
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Decades of planning, investment and hard work have gone into the experience a visitor receives at any national park.  Parks must maintain trails and roads, build visitor centers, develop education programs and much more.  All the while, the Park Service has the sacred duty of preserving its extraordinary natural resources, protecting all forms of life and ensuring the Earth’s health for generations to come.  Funding from the federal government is frequently insufficient to meet these lofty goals and many national parks are fortunate to have non-profit partners that provide assistance.  Their role and involvement varies by park, but without these support organizations, the National Park Service would not be able to provide the outstanding services and programming that visitors now enjoy.

One such organization is the Rocky Mountain Nature Association (RMNA), which aids Rocky Mountain National Park in spearheading development projects, providing environmental education and monitoring the Park’s resources.  I recently had the pleasure of joining RMNA on one of their Field Seminar offerings.  From fly fishing lessons to interactive workshops for children to bus tours of the area’s wildlife, RMNA provides a wide variety of high quality, engaging environmental education to all ages.

My group embarked on a half-day journey with ethnobotany expert Lynn Albers to discover how the area’s plants were utilized by native cultures.  Tribes, such as the Ute and Arapaho, found practical use for nearly every flower, shrub and tree that surrounded them in what is now Rocky Mountain National Park.  Ailments from indigestion to fevers could be remedied by employing a nuanced understanding of the healing capacities of the natural world.

Our day began with the group listening intently as Ms. Albers supplied us with a general history of native plant usage in the cozy seminar rooms at RMNA’s headquarters just minutes from the Park.  Once equipped with a basic knowledge of plant biology, native culture and the area’s plant diversity, we hopped on to the RMNA bus and head into the Park.  Ms. Albers led us on a series of short hikes where she would stop and talk about the historical, medicinal and cultural significance of the plants that surrounded us.  Our group could ask questions, see and feel the plants we learned about, and gain a holistic understanding of the natural world’s importance to human life.  After a short discussion back at RMNA headquarters, our group reflected on the day we had spent re-discovering our deep connections to nature.  We were lucky to be afforded the invaluable opportunity to spend a beautiful day exploring Rocky Mountain National Park with a local expert who cared deeply for its resources.

Taking a fun and educational class, like those offered through RMNA, is a great way to enrich your vacation in the national parks.  After exploring these wonderful places on your own, it can be fascinating to hear the science and history behind how they were created.  Why can’t trees grow across a third of Rocky Mountain National Park?  How does Old Faithful erupt with such amazing regularity at Yellowstone?  What is responsible for carving the eerie hoodoos and spires at Bryce Canyon National Park?  These are questions that, if answered, can turn a fun family vacation into a lifetime of inspiration and love for the outdoors.

If you find yourself planning a vacation to Rocky Mountain National Park, consider taking a class with the Rocky Mountain Nature Association’s Field Seminars program.  And while you enjoy the Park, be on the lookout for all the ways RMNA provides valuable assistance at Rocky Mountain.  With RMNA running the visitor center bookstores, providing the Park with volunteers and leading tours up Trail Ridge Road, it will be hard to travel very far without benefiting from their contributions.  To learn more about the organization, please visit their website here. They, and their counterparts in other parks, are truly an invaluable partner to our Nation’s goals in conservation.

Posted in Activity, Local Businesses, Park, Review, Rocky Mountain, Summer Park Tour

Journey to the Tundra: Trail Ridge Road

Trail Ridge Road
Alpine Visitor Center
National Park: Rocky Mountain
Map

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.

Posted in Activities, Activity, Park, Review, Rocky Mountain, Summer Park Tour

An Easy Rocky Mountain Summit: Deer Mountain

Deer Mountain Hike
Deer Mountain Trailhead
National Park: Rocky Mountain
Map

Rocky Mountain National Park protects some of our country’s most magnificent alpine scenery. With a visitor center that tops out at over 2 miles above sea level, much of the Park’s hiking brings visitors to elevations that far surpass those at home. Thus, when traveling to Rocky Mountain, altitude sickness should be taken seriously so that you aren’t left weak and nauseous for the majority of a valuable week-long vacation. Altitude sickness can be easily avoided by drinking extra water, getting full nights of sleep and gradually rising in elevation (when possible). Most importantly, take things slow and set aside the first couple of days to do less strenuous activities while you acclimate to your new surroundings.

The Deer Mountain Summit is an excellent way to ease yourself into Rocky Mountain’s hiking because the trail climbs gradually at a low altitude, yet still offers excellent views of the area’s lush valleys. The journey to the peak winds through groves of pine forest full of birds and other Rocky Mountain fauna. The summit, only three miles from the trailhead, treats even casual hikers to panoramic views of the Park’s peaks and glacier-carved valleys. You can also look down on Estes Park, the quaint adjacent tourist town, while eating your lunch on a boulder. Though, beware of thieving rodents that will go to any length necessary to snag a bite of your beef jerky or a granola bar. Always remember it is illegal to feed wildlife or litter (even biodegradable apple cores) in the national parks. These rules are crucial to maintaining the Park’s environmental integrity and ensure you don’t have an unpleasant run-in with a deceivingly cute animal.

Leisurely hikes such as Deer Mountain, where you can relax and take in your surroundings, allow visitors to discover the ultimate joys of being outdoors. There is wonder in the details of the natural world. It can be fascinating to watch a robin systematically peck at the ground for worms or feel how a piece of sandstone crumbles effortlessly in your hands. These experiences are hugely valuable and should not be overshadowed by the thrill of beating sundown on a full-day hiking challenge. In this way, taking time to adjust to the high altitudes also allows visitors to appreciate the full breadth of Rocky Mountain’s wonders.

Posted in Activities, Activity, Park, Review, Rocky Mountain, Summer Park Tour

Poppy’s and Mama Rose’s

Poppy's and Mama Rose's
342 East Elkhorn Ave.
Estes Park, CO 80517
National Park: Rocky Mountain
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On an active family vacation in the national parks, one of the last things you’ll want to do is cook. While making dinner together can be an excellent way to sit back and enjoy the evening campfire, it takes time and energy that, after a long day on the trails, you simply won’t have. But have no fear- Estes Park, a small and beautiful resort town, sits directly outside Rocky Mountain and offers a wide array of places to be served a great meal.

Two noteworthy options lie in the heart of the quaint downtown area: Poppy’s and Mama Rose’s. Situated across from each other, both restaurants are owned by locals Rob and Julie Pieper. To the north, the town’s bustling main street is teeming with tourists from around the world, perusing local artistry, homemade candies and the latest outdoor gear. Facing south, the Big Thompson River runs between a peaceful riverwalk and a hillside left entirely undeveloped by the town. With plenty of outdoor seating, you can experience either of these dueling realities while enjoying top notch food served by an extraordinarily friendly staff.

Poppy’s serves a variety of savory sandwiches and selections from the grill but you can’t leave the restaurant without trying one of their artisan pizzas. You can either pick one of their internationally inspired pizza offerings or tailor one to your specific preferences, choosing from 5 distinct sauces and a laundry of toppings. Luckily for large families, if everyone can’t agree on a single idea, each person can get their own personal pizza. Paired with a trip to Poppy’s salad bar, you’re sure to find all the food you may be missing from home. With a relaxing atmosphere that is always welcoming, Poppy’s has been a staple destination for my family for nearly a decade.

Mama Rose’s, just a stone’s throw away, offers a healthy balance of classic Italian dishes and unique creations. From chicken parmesan to polenta puttanesca, Mama Rose’s can both introduce you to a new culinary delight or deliver some finely prepared comfort food. The Restaurant fits well for a variety of occasions but I recommend choosing Mama Rose’s as final dinner location, when you can order a bottle of wine, enjoy their many fine desserts and reflect on your trip as you watch the sunset gleam off the Big Thompson River.

Both restaurants make you feel right at home, which will be much appreciated after time on the road. Furthermore, the Piepers are members of the Estes Park community, dedicated to preserving the area’s natural beauty and unique charm. It is an ethic that parallels that of the Park Service and ensures future generations will enjoy these places just as we do today. Check out Poppy’s menu here and Mama Rose’s dishes here. Be sure to drop by while you’re in Estes Park for a night of great food!

In general, it’s a good idea to make your own breakfast and lunch while out hiking in the Park but plan to come back to town for an evening meal. Often, time dedicated to cooking dinner is better spent reminiscing about the day’s highlights over a meal downtown. There are many excellent restaurants in Estes Park and it shows you that there is no need to sacrifice fine dining when traveling in the great outdoors.

Posted in Activity, Local Businesses, Park, Review, Rocky Mountain, Summer Park Tour

Lake Helene Hike

Lake Helene Hike
Bear Lake Trailhead
National Park: Rocky Mountain
Map

For hidden alpine lakes, towering mountain vistas and excellent opportunities to spot Rocky Mountain’s creatures, take the Lake Helene Hike. Beginning from the popular Bear Lake trailhead, the journey begins by traveling around the shores of Bear Lake and if you get out early enough, you can beat the crowds that flock to the area each afternoon. Getting on the trails early in the day also reduces your sun exposure, provides better lighting for photography and increases your chance of seeing wildlife.

You soon fork to the right and begin a gradual and steady ascent past bubbling springs and small meadows nestled in the pine forests. Keep your eyes peeled for moose and elk in addition to the Park’s diverse bird populations.

The first landmark is Lake Helene but you must keep your eyes out for a spot to venture off the main trail and reach its waters. Scenically placed in an amphitheater of peaks, Lake Helene is secluded from the gaze of most visitors. Its stillness and silence hypnotize you in to state of blissful contemplation; stare into the Lake’s peaceful reflection until you’re content to continue on.

Shortly after, you reach the trail’s highest point and begin a pleasant descent into the Moraine Park valley. Listen for the “eep” of a pika as the trail winds alongside boulder fields and craggy peaks. Odessa Lake, which you first see sitting below you like a gem, is reached by following the quaint trickle of a creek that brings the Lake’s waters farther downstream. Hiking around the Odessa’s rim affords a variety of spectacular views and spots to stop for a secluded lunch.

A short walk later, Fern Lake or an optional side trip to Spruce Lake make for further relaxation where you can easily escape the presence of the few other visitors in the area. Listening to the faint lapping of wind blown waves slipping through cracks in the rocky shore, it’s difficult to imagine you are in the heart of one of our Nation’s most highly visited parks. This feeling of being immersed in an enchanted landscape is only heightened when, a bit later, you discover Fern Falls cascading through a patchwork of mosses and logs.

Upon reaching a junction at The Pool, a point where water briefly collects before continuing its journey down the Big Thompson River, you have the choice of ending the hike at either the Fern Lake or Cub Lake Trailhead. I highly recommend the latter, which passes a final point of interest before cutting through a landscape dotted with wooded ponds and meadow-lined rivers. Cub Lake, nestled in deep forest, is framed by an impenetrable sea of lily pads; in the center, its deep blue waters provide prime habitat for Rocky Mountain’s riparian creatures, such as moose, ducks and beavers.

The Lake Helene Trail is remarkable in many ways. Beyond its fascinating wildlife and pristine mountain scenery, it also provides visitors the chance to venture deep into the heart of Rocky Mountain National Park with relative ease. Starting at Bear Lake and ending in the valleys of the Moraine Park area, the trail actually has a net loss of elevation, which makes a daunting 10+ mile hike go by fairly quickly. It is best to leave your car at the exit trailhead and take the Park’s free shuttle to your Bear Lake start point. After a few days of acclimating to the high altitude environment, this hike is a perfect way to escape and explore this mountain haven on your own.

Posted in Activities, Activity, Park, Review, Rocky Mountain, Summer Park Tour