The Best of the Colorado Rockies

By Clifford, Hal | Sunset, July 2000 | Go to article overview

The Best of the Colorado Rockies


Clifford, Hal, Sunset


From great day-hikes to fine dining-here are the picks of the peaks

* When Americans think of snowcapped mountains, they conjure up the Centennial State. Colorado, after all, contains more than 50 distinct mountain ranges and more than three-fourths of the nation's terrain above 10,000 feet. These mountain ranges encompass diverse geology and biology, and a human history shaped by the riches, beauty, and challenges of alpine life.

Mountains here retain a sense of the primeval. A hike through a cool, old-growth forest of Douglas fir or Engelmann spruce is a timeless experience. Afternoon thunder-stroms thrash the high country almost daily during summer; the scars of fire and avalanche are clearly evident. The haunting, squealing bugle of bull elks, echoing along high valleys in autumn, seems the voice of an unchanging wilderness.

At their edges, Colorado's mountains take on the character of adjacent states. The Medicine Bow and Park ranges feel like Wyoming; the southern San Juans wear the vegetation of northern New Mexico. But the Front Range-the nearly unbroken mountain wall running south from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs-and the high central peaks of the Sawatch, Elk, and West, Elk mountains: These are Colorado as you imagine it. This is geographically the highest of the high country, the crown of the continent. Such mountains draw us into them in search of rejuvenation and connection.

Amid such riches, how do you begin to explore? Even among these great peaks, there are experiences-astonishing hikes, scenic drives, and vivid history-that stand out. In the following pages, then Sunset gives you the best of the West's most magnificent mountains.

ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK

The idea of national parks was a relatively new one when Enos Mills--a former miner sometimes called the John Muir of Colorado--decided to help protect the land that became Rocky Mountain National Park. Today the park, designated in 1915, is often classed with Yosemite and Glacier as one of the pinnacles of scenic Western grandeur.

The park encompasses 415 square miles of the northern Front Range. A single paved route, Trail Ridge Road, crosses the park. It is generally open by Memorial Day, depending on weather; its 48 miles can be driven in a leisurely fashion in a few hours. The road crosses the Continental Divide at 10,758 feet, where the terrain is all tundra (the timberline is around 10,800 feet) and big views.

With its eastern boundary near Colorado's main population centers, Rocky Mountain National Park gets a lot of traffic. Summer weekends can be busy; nevertheless, the park remains stunning. The most dramatic views are from the eastern side, where escarpments rear up and face the plains. Hikes out of the Bear Lake area (one jewel is a 2-mile walk to Bierstadt Lake, named for Albert Bierstadt, the 19th-century landscape painter who worked here) are excellent introductions to the park's glacier-carved drama.

DAY-HIKES

The Colorado Rockies are a dayhiker's heaven: Nowhere else can you experience such stupendous scenery in relatively short distances. That said, hiking here takes preparation, especially for flatlanders. The 12,000-foot elevations punish sea level-loving lungs, so go slow Morning hiking is the best: Afternoons regularly bring thunderstorms and lightning strikes.

Maroon Lake to Crater Lake. When the late Morris Udall, the Arizona congressman who helped write the 1964 Wilderness Act, visited Aspen in the 1970s, he reportedly said he would have made the Maroon Bells a national park if he had known how beautiful the peaks were. Hiking in the west Maroon Creek Valley, beneath these peaks, is one of Colorado s choicest summer pleasures. The valley is a riot of wildflowers, aspen groves, and tumbling rivers. The road to the trailhead is open only to public bus service from Aspen during summer months. Debark at the end of the road (Maroon Lake) and follow the wide dirt trail 1 3/4 miles to Crater Lake at the base of the Maroon Bells. …

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