Happy Birthday Rocky Mountain National Park 8

Celebrating a century of magnificence.

Rocky Mountain National Park is the reward for many Kansas Citians who dread that drive west across I-70 to Colorado, the snow-covered carrot at the end of a 600-mile long stick. We do it because the reward is so magnificent.

If you dread that drive in your cushy SUV with padded, climate-controlled seats and a multitude of electronic distractions for those in the backseat, think about how it was 100 years ago in 1915. Interstate-70 was not even a wagon trail and Henry Ford’s Model T was not yet a common site on the streets of Kansas City. A flight from KCI to Denver was absolute craziness. John Denver was not yet a song in his momma’s heart.

But still, folks were heading to Colorado 100 years ago. They were coming from around the world to experience one of our nation’s most fabulous playgrounds. For that reaso n, with urging from concerned citizens, Congress decided it was time to protect those beautiful mountains from a little too much love. On January 15, 1915, a full year before the National Park System was created, Congress signed legislation that created Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP).

It’s true; Rocky Mountain National Park is 100 years old, making 2015 a very special year to head west and dance on the snow-covered mountains. The celebration is a year-long event with special activities planned in many of the communities around the park.

“Right from the beginning, it was a crown jewel in what would become our national park system,” says Barbara Scott, the park ranger responsible for coordinating the anniversary celebration.

The legislation that created this park set the stage for the Organic Act of 1916 that created the National Park Service. Look for 2016 to be a very big year in all of our national parks.

Rocky Mountain National Park was among the first of the national parks to issue back country permits to manage user impact on resources and to use shuttle busses to minimize carbon emissions. It also has one of the country’s largest volunteer forces with nearly 1,900 people signing on for duty each year.

More than a third of RMNP’s 415 square miles is located above the tree linewith elevations ranging from 8,000 to 14,250 feet. Many of the 360 miles of trails are original to the Ute and Arapahoe tribes who were the original residents of this region. Around nearly every turn, the magnificent vistas of ponderosa pine and juniper contrast with tranquil images of bubbling mountain streams and wildflower-filled meadows. From powerful bighorn sheep to elk, moose, black bear and cougars, the park’s abundant natural resources remind us that the human population is simply a visitor, another player, in this playground.

Three and a half million people visit RMNP each year and about three million of those people enter the gates on the south and east side at Estes Park. Many visitors never travel much farther than about half-way across the Trail Ridge Road to the Alpine Visitor Center, elevation 11,796.

And that’s such a shame. There’s so much more to RMNP. One place not to miss is Lily Lake, one of the best destinations for wildflower viewing, particularly during an early summer visit. This is where Enos Mills, who was considered the founder of RMNP, lived and documented the splendor of the mountains in an effort to achieve national park status for the land he loved.

With changes in the tree cover thanks to an infestation of mountain pine beetles, the forest floor now receives more sunlight. That, in return, is shaping the wildflower presence in the park, which according to rangers is more spectacular than ever.

The best wildlife viewing, of course, takes place in the early morning hours or the evening hours just before sunset. It seems the elk, nearly 1,000 of them, prefer to hang out on the east side of the park. Their bugling during mating season in September has become one of the best reasons to visit the area after the summer crowds disappear.

There are close to 400 head of big horn sheep in the park and some of the best places to see them are around Milner Pass or by hiking a few miles up the Colorado River Trail.

It seems the moose and the black bear prefer the west side of the park, accessed through the community of Grand Lake. Just before you pass the sign welcoming you to the park, on the right hand side of the road, a number of low bushes conceal a little stream dearly loved by moose. Drive slowly and look closely. There are almost always a couple of moose hanging out there.

One of the rangers we talked to called Grand Lake the “natural” side of the park. Of the three and half million visitors a year to RMNP, only about a half million or so enter through the west gates at Grand Lake, home to Grand Lake Lodge. Billed as “Colorado’s Front Porch,” the scenic view of the mountains and the wildlife here rivals anything else in the park.

Built from timber cut when the Trail Ridge Road was built through the park in 1919, the Grand Lake Lodge is a National Historic Landmark because of its early contributions to tourism in Colorado and preservation of Rocky Mountain rustic stick style architecture. The lodge restaurant, known for its exquisite preparation of wild game and fresh Colorado trout, is a destination in itself.