The last time Big Papa and I stood at an elevation above 12,000 feet, we were in Tibet. I remember Big Papa doing his best attempt at jumping jacks by the entrance to Mount Qomolangma (Mt. Everest) National Park. We were at 17,000 feet. He was a bit breathless.
Flash forward six years and one child later. We’re visiting Colorado and standing at 12,110 feet, on the Tundra Communities Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park. Big Papa pushed the stroller like a champ.
As you might guess from the name, the trail traverses across tundra. Alpine tundra begins where trees cannot survive the extremes of cold, wind, and a short growing season. In Rocky Mountain National Park this zone roughly starts at elevations above 11,500 feet. The Tundra Communities Trail begins at a trail head near the top of Trail Ridge Road. The large parking area is nearly 13 miles west of Deer Ridge Junction (Highways 34 and 36), and 4 miles east of the Alpine Visitor Center. When you get out of your car to start your walk, your lungs will experience roughly 35% less oxygen than at sea level. The trail is only one mile round-trip, but you will give your lungs a good workout, especially if you’re not acclimated to higher elevations.
Well-placed signs along the asphalt-paved trail are very educational, and offer stopping points to catch one’s breath. We learned why the short stature of tundra plants is an adaptation that helps them survive in this harsh environment: “at ground level, plants are protected from the harsh elements—winds may be 30 miles an hour at eye level, but only three miles an hour near your feet.”
In the tundra, summer flickers briefly. Temperatures usually stay below freezing for more than five months out of the year. There are only 40 frost-free days per year, and temperatures reach 70 degrees only on occasion. Snow can fall on any day of the year. This area along the Continental Divide receives roughly 40 inches of precipitation each year, 65% of this is snow. During the summer brief afternoon thunderstorms, with lightning, hail and high winds, often occur. In fact, merely two days after we left, two visitors were killed by lightning strikes while hiking near Trail Ridge Road.
There was so much to marvel at. Majestic panoramas with a ring of mountains topping out at over 12,000 feet (Mount Chapin, Sundance Mountain, Terra Tomah Mountain, Mount Julian, and Specimen Mountain).
Enormous mushroom-shaped rock formations, called “tors” by geologists, formed when these mountains were under the sea (imagine that!). Layers of sand, silt, and clay slowly formed various types of granite that. The mushroom appearance was due to the type of granite in the “stem” eroding more quickly than type of granite (schist) in the cap.
And then in contrast, miniature flowers at your feet. I got down on my hands and knees to see and photograph them: Colorado Columbine, Alpine Forget-Me-Nots, and Pearly Everlasting. Some of these flowers had tiny blooms the size of my pinkie fingernail. Endless fields of tiny sunflowers turning their faces toward the sun for warmth.
One of the trail signs explained that “alpine plants contain anthocyanin, a chemical ‘antrifreeze’ that converts sunlight into heat. Plant hairs provide a furry coat that reduces the loss of heat and moisture. These hairs also protect plants from the intense ultraviolet radiation that is twice what it is at sea level.”
There is also wildlife in this area, although only a few animals, such as pikas, ptarmigans and marmots, live here all year long. Others, such as ravens, hawks, coyotes and elk, will migrate onto the tundra during the summer months. A bit farther down Trail Ridge Road, I saw a marmot in the distance, and we did encounter herds of elk farther up the road, but on this trail itself, most of the creatures I saw where tiny, like the ladybug I photographed, climbing in and around all the brightly-colored flowers.
It was all so breathtakingly beautiful that I felt like doing jumping jacks, and so I did. It felt great—12,000 feet, the Rocky Mountains as a backdrop. I really liked the air up there.
Take the road less traveled, Beth
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