Special Characteristic: Readable Records of Glacial Period
THE Rocky Mountain National Park is in Colorado, about 70 miles by road or rail northwest of Denver. Find Longs Peak on a good map and you will have the center of the 400 square miles of snow-topped mountains which constitute the park.
These mountains are part of the Continental Divide, which is the name given to the irregular line of highest land running north and south through North America which divides the waters flowing eastward into the Atlantic Ocean from those flowing westward into the Pacific. For this reason the people of Colorado call their mountains the top of the world. They are scarcely that, for the Himalaya Mountains in Asia and the Andes in South America are, among others, much higher; but for the United States this picturesque figure of speech is sufficiently near the truth.
This national park is certainly very high up in the air. The summer visitors who live at the base of the great mountains, principally at the beautiful eastern gateway, a little valley town of many hotels, which is called Estes Park, are 8,000 feet, or more than a mile and a half, above the level of the sea; while the mountains rise precipitously nearly a mile, and sometimes more than a mile, higher still. Longs Peak, the biggest of them all, rises 14,255 feet above sea level, and most of the other mountains in the snowy range, as it is sometimes called, are more than 12,000 feet high; several are nearly as high as Longs Peak.
The valleys on both sides of this range and those which penetrate into its recesses are dotted with lovely parklike glades clothed in a profusion of glowing wild flowers and watered with cold streams from the mountain snows and glaciers. Forests of pine and silver-stemmed aspen separate them. Timberline is more than 11,000 feet above sea level, and up to that point the slopes are covered thick and close with spruce and fir, growing very straight and very tall.
Just at timberline, where the winter temperature and the fierce icy winds make it impossible for trees to grow tall, the spruces lie flat on the ground like vines, and presently give place to low birches which in their turn give place to small piney growths and finally to tough straggling grass, hardy mosses, and tiny Alpine flowers. Grass grows in sheltered spots even on the highest peaks, which is fortunate for the large curve-horned mountain sheep which seek these high open places to escape their special enemies, the mountain lions.
Even at the highest altitudes gorgeously colored wild flowers grow in glory and profusion in sheltered gorges. Even in late September large and beautiful columbines are found in the lee of protecting masses of snow banks and glaciers.
Above timberline the bare mountain masses rise from 1,000 to 3,000 feet, often in sheer precipices. Covered with snow in fall, winter, and spring, and plentifully spattered with snow all summer long, the vast, bare granite masses, from which, in fact, the Rocky Mountains got their name, are beautiful beyond description. They are rosy at sunrise and sunset. During fair and sunny days they show all shades of translucent grays and mauves and blues. In some lights they are almost fairylike in their exquisite delicacy. But on stormy days they are cold and dark and forbidding, burying their heads in gloomy clouds, from which sometimes they emerge covered with snow.
Often one can see a thunderstorm born on the square granite head of Longs Peak. First, out of the blue sky a slight mist seems to gather. In a few moments, while you watch, it becomes a tiny cloud. This grows with great rapidity. In five minutes, perhaps, the mountain top is hidden. Then, out of nothing apparently, the cloud swells and sweeps over the sky. Sometimes in fifteen minutes after the first tiny fleck of mist appears it is raining in the valley and possibly snowing on the mountain. In half an hour more it has cleared.
Standing on the summits of these mountains the climber is often enveloped in these brief-lived clouds. It is an impressive experience to look down upon the top of an ocean of cloud from which the greater peaks emerge at intervals. Sometimes the sun is shining on the observer upon the heights while it is raining in the valleys below. It is startling to see lightning below you.
One of the striking features of the Rocky Mountain National Park is the easy accessibility of these mountain tops. One may mount a horse after early breakfast in the valley, ride up Flattop to enjoy one of the great views of the world, and be back for late luncheon. The hardy foot traveler may make better time than the horse on these mountain trails. One may cross the Continental Divide from the hotels of one side to the hotels of the other between early breakfast and late dinner.
In fact, for all-around accessibility there surely is no high mountain resort of the first order that will quite compare with the Rocky Mountain National Park. Three railroads to Denver skirt its sides, and Denver is less than thirty hours from St. Louis and Chicago.
ROCKY MOUNTAIN SHEEP
This range was once a famous hunting ground for large game. Lord Dunraven, the English sportsman, visited it yearly to shoot its deer, bear, and bighorn sheep, and acquired large holdings by purchase of homesteading and squatters' claims, much of which was reduced in the contests that followed. Now that the Government has made it a national park, the protection offered its wild animals will make it in a few years one of the most successful wild-animal refuges in the world.
These lofty rocks are the natural home of the celebrated Rocky Mountain sheep, or bighorn. This animal is much larger than any domestic sheep. It is powerful and wonderfully agile. When pursued these sheep, even the lambs, unhesitatingly drop head downward off precipitous cliffs apparently many hundreds of feet high. Of course, they strike friendly ledges every few feet to break the fall, but these ledges often are not wide enough to stand upon; they are mere rocky excrescences a foot or less in width, from which the sheep plunge to the next and the next, and so on till they reach good footing in the valley below. So swift is the descent that, seen from below at a distance, these pauses are often scarcely apparent.
The fact that the sheep always plunge head first has given rise to the fable that they land on their curved horns. This is absolutely untrue; they always strike ledges with all four feet held close together. They also ascend slopes surprisingly steep.
They are more agile even than the celebrated chamois of the Swiss Alps, and are larger, more powerful, and much handsomer. It is something not to be forgotten to see a dozen or twenty mountain sheep making way along the slopes of Specimen Mountain in the Rocky Mountain National Park.
LONGS PEAK AND THE GLACIER RECORDS
The prominent central feature of the Rocky Mountain National Park is Longs Peak. It rears a square-cornered boxlike head well above the tumbled sea of surrounding mountain tops. It has, unlike most great mountains, a distinct architectural form. Standing well to the east of the range at about its center, it suggests the captain of a white-helmeted company; the giant leader of a giant band. It is supported on four sides by mountain buttresses, suggesting the stone buttresses of a central cathedral spire. From every side it looks the same, yet remarkably different. One does not know Longs Peak until he has seen it from every side, and then it becomes to him not a mountain mass but an architectural creation.
For many years Longs Peak was considered unclimbable. But at last a way was found through an opening in perpendicular rocks called, from its shape, the Keyhole, out upon a steep slope leading from near its summit far down to a precipice upon its west side. The east side of Longs Peak is a nearly sheer precipice almost 2,000 feet from the extreme top down to Chasm Lake, which was the starting point of a gigantic glacier in times long before man. Chasm Lake, which is not difficult to reach from the valley, is one of the wildest lakes in nature. It is frozen 11 months of the year.
There is no other region in America where glacial records of such prominence are more numerous and more easily reached and studied than in the Rocky Mountain National Park. The whole country has been fantastically cut and carved by gigantic glaciers of the prehistoric past. Their ancient beds, now grown with forests, their huge moraines, their cirques, or starting places, are, next to the vast mountains themselves, the most prominent features of the region.
A few miles directly west of Denver and 60 miles south of Longs Peak another outcropping of the Front Range offers a spectacle of similar wildness and beauty.
Mount Evans, its central feature, is several feet higher than Longs Peak, but so accessible that it will be possible to reach its summit by automobile upon completion of a proposed road. It suggests a mighty sprawling castle supported on four sides by gigantic buttresses of granite mountains. The region, which is one of wild grandeur and supreme beauty, is approached through Denver's remarkable series of mountain parks.
Last Updated: 30-Oct-2009