Magazine article Sunset

Rocky Mountain, Colorado

Magazine article Sunset

Rocky Mountain, Colorado

Article excerpt

THERE'S NO BETTER PLACE to get a jolt of sheer alpine wonder than Rocky Mountain National Park. Scrambling to the top of one of its 77 adrenaline-pumping peaks over 12,000 feet and gazing out at a toothy tableau of snowcapped ridges and spring green alpine tundra, the park's signature feature, is a top-of-the-world moment. It's no wonder that scaling 14,259-foot Longs Peak, the park's only Fourteener, is a life-list goal for many. But it's not an easy check mark, requiring an exhausting 12-hour round-trip trek to summit.

Surrounding Longs is a stellar supporting cast of Thirteeners, which pepper the park's 415 square miles. About a third of the park is tundra--a vast, treeless expanse that's as harsh as it is beautiful. Five minutes here sends visitors scrambling for their jackets, even in July (some parts see just 30 frost-free days each year). Yet wildflowers brighten the wind-raked tundra, and reaching the wow spots requires little effort thanks to Trail Ridge Road, which climbs above the treeline and remains there for 11 panorama-blessed miles.

YEAR ESTABLISHED: 1915

2012 ATTENDANCE: 3,229,617

WEIGHT OF A BIGHORN RAM HORN: 30 POUNDS

YEARS AN ALPINE CUSHION PLANT CAN LIVE: 150

The beauty, easy access, and proximity to big cities (Denver is a 90-minute drive away) make Rocky Mountain one of the most visited parks in the system. If you drive Trail Ridge Road on a summer afternoon, you might think all 3 million annual visitors are on the two-lane highway at one time. "But if you just adjust your schedule a bit, you'll be surprised at how uncrowded it is," says Kyle Patterson, the park's public information officer. The three hours after sunrise or before sunset offer the thinnest crowds, she says--and provide the most frequent wildlife encounters.

Mornings, you're almost guaranteed to glimpse an elk herd sauntering across Moraine Park. And a natural mineral lick at Sheep Lakes attracts so many bighorn sheep that, from late May through late June, a volunteer crew nicknamed the Bighorn Brigade directs traffic on roads near Sheep Lakes so flocks can cross unharmed.

Last year's fires and floods damaged some trails and parkland. Although most will be repaired before summer's crush of visitors, some--such as Old Fall River Road, a one-way scenic drive--won't reopen this year. Park entry $201 vehicle; nps.gov/romo.--KELLY BASTONE

Sandra Corso ROCKY MOUNTAIN GUIDE FOR THE WILDLAND TREKKING COMPANY

CALL OF THE WILD

"One morning, we left base camp to climb Mt. …

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