• A translucent blanket of clouds hangs over the snowy continental divide above Bear Lake Road. NPS Photo by VIP Olsen

    Rocky Mountain

    National Park Colorado

High Country Hazards

Mountain Weather
A bright, sunny day can turn windy and wet within a matter of minutes with high winds and driving rain or snow. Be prepared for changing conditions and carry these essentials; raingear, map and compass, flashlight or headlamp, sunglasses and sunscreen, matches or other fire starter, candles, extra food and water, extra layers of clothing, pocketknife, and a first aid kit.

High Elevation
This increases the chance of dehydration, severe sunburn, mountain sickness (headaches, nausea, dizziness), and the aggravation of pre-existing medical conditions. Drink several quarts of water per day to ward off dehydration. Wear and reapply sunscreen often. If you begin to feel sick or experience any physical problems descend to lower elevations.

Lightning
Start your hike early in the day, planning to get below treeline or to a shelter before a storm strikes. If caught above treeline, get away from summits and isolated trees and rocks. Find shelter if possible but avoid small cave entrances and overhangs. Crouch down on your heels. When horseback riding, dismount and tie horses securely.

Wildlife
Approaching, feeding, or disturbing wildlife is dangerous - keep a safe distance. All park animals are wild and can injure or kill you. Be aware of what is going on around you. Know how to live with wildlife and what to do if you encounter a mountain lion or bear.

Streams, Lakes and Waterfalls
They can be deceptively dangerous. Keep your distance. In winter, ice is thinner near inlets and outlets and over fast moving water. Purify drinking water to prevent giardiasis and other water borne diseases.

Snow and Ice Fields
Stay back from steep snow slopes and cornices. Snow avalanche danger is often high. Ask a ranger about current avalanche potential. Know how to recognize dangerous snow conditions.

Hypothermia
This is the lowering of the body's core temperature which can be life threatening. It can occur any time of year. Dress warm and stay dry.

Mountain Climbing
This activity requires extensive training, skill, and proper equipment. Do not attempt to rock climb or scramble up steep slopes unprepared.

Lions, Tigers, and Bears Oh My!
Though there are no tigers in Rocky Mountain National Park, mountain lion and black bear sightings have increased throughout the park over the past several years. There are no grizzly bear in the park. The lions are an important part of the park ecosystem, helping to keep deer and other prey populations in check, while bear are infamous omnivores which rarely kill animals of any great size for food. Although lion attacks are rare and bear attacks are even more rare, they are possible, as is injury from any wild animal. We offer the following recommendations to increase your safety:

  • In campgrounds and picnic areas, if there is a food storage locker provided, use it.
  • Avoid storing food and coolers in your vehicle.
  • If you must, store food in airtight containers in the trunk or out of sight.
  • Close vehicle windows completely.
  • Do not store food in tents or pop-up campers in campgrounds, or in vehicles at trailheads.
  • Food, coolers, and dirty cookware left unattended, even for a short time, are subject to confiscation by park rangers; citations may be issued.
  • Dispose of garbage in bear-resistant dumpsters and trash cans.
  • Human-fed bears usually end up as chronic problems and need to be removed - "A fed bear is a dead bear."
  • In the backcountry, store food, scented items, and garbage in commercially available bear-resistant portable canisters.
  • Bear canisters are required at all backcountry campsites below treeline. Bear canisters are available for rent or for purchase at many sporting good stores and on the internet.
  • Pack out all garbage.
  • Never try to retrieve anything from a bear.
  • Report all bear incidents to a park ranger.
  • Do not leave pets or pet food outside and unattended, especially at dawn and dusk. Pets can attract animals into developed areas.
  • Avoid walking alone.
  • Watch children closely and never let them run ahead or lag behind on the trail.
  • Talk to children about lions and bears and teach them what to do if they meet one.

What should you do if you meet a mountain lion?

  • Never approach a mountain lion especially one that is feeding or with kittens.
  • Most mountain lions will try to avoid confrontation.
  • Always give them a way to escape.
  • Don't run.
  • Stay calm.
  • Hold your ground or back away slowly.
  • Face the lion and stand upright.
  • Do all you can to appear larger.
  • Grab a stick.
  • Raise your arms.
  • If you have small children with you, pick them up.
  • If the lion behaves aggressively, wave your arms, shout and throw objects at it.

The goal is to convince it that you are not prey and may be dangerous yourself. If attacked, fight back! Generally, mountain lions are calm, quiet, and elusive. The chance of being attacked by a mountain lion is quite low compared to many other natural hazards. There is, for example, a far greater risk of being struck by lightning than being attacked by a mountain lion. Report all incidents to a park ranger.

What should you do if you meet a black bear?

  • Never approach a bear.
  • Keep children beside you.
  • There is more safety in numbers; it is best to travel in a close group.
  • If a bear approaches you, stand up tall, and make loud noises– shout, clap hands, clang pots and pans. When done immediately, these actions have been successful in scaring bears away.
  • If attacked, fight back!
  • Never try and retrieve anything once a bear has it.
  • Report all incidents to a park ranger.

Avalanche!
A serene, snow-covered slope can be beautiful, silent one moment and deadly the next. Avalanches are common and occur regularly during the winter and early spring in Rocky Mountain National Park.

  • Avoid skiing or snowshoeing in gullies, on unforested slopes and under snow cornices where avalanches could occur.
  • Open slopes of 30 to 45 degrees can be loaded with dangerous masses of snow, easily triggered by the presence of one or more backcountry travelers.
  • Consider attending a formal avalanche training session before beginning your trip.
  • Be aware of changing weather that may influence avalanche conditions.
  • Avalanche danger increases during and after snow storms as well as after heavy wind storms.
  • Always wear an electronic transceiver inside your jacket when traversing avalanche terrain and know how to use it.
  • If you are caught in an avalanche, make swimming motions and try to stay on top of the snow.
  • Discard all equipment and try to remain calm.
  • Carrying the following essential items will increase your group's chances of surviving an avalanche:
    • transceivers
    • portable shovels
    • probes
    • ski poles
    • avalanche cord.

Tragic incidents involving avalanches may be avoided using these precautions. Visit the Colorado Avalanche Information Center for additional information on avalanche safety and training opportunities.

Giardia
Giardia is a microscopic organism found in lakes, streams, and possibly snow. It also lives in the digestive systems of wildlife and humans. Giardia enters surface water when animals or humans defecate in or near water. Giardia can cause diarrhea, cramps, bloating, and weight loss.

To prevent giardiasis:

  • Never drink water directly from a stream or lake.
  • Bring water to a full rolling boil for at least five minutes or use a water filtration system that eliminates this organism.

Plague
Plague is endemic to the park and there have been outbreaks here in the past. This disease is transmitted by fleas from infected rodents especially ground squirrels. Do not feed or approach ground squirrels or other small mammals. Symptoms of bubonic plague include swollen lymph nodes and fever, usually developing one to six days after exposure. Pneumonic plague may develop as the lungs become infected and it is especially dangerous because it may easily be spread by coughing. Untreated bubonic plague is fatal in about 50 percent of the cases.

Colorado Tick Fever
This disease is also endemic to the park and may be carried by one-third of the tick population here. Symptoms include malaise and high fever. This disease may go into brief remission, followed by a second bout of fever lasting for several days. Fever will usually be evident four to six days after exposure. The longer a tick stays attached to a person, the greater likelihood for the transmission of any diseases which it may carry. Ticks should be removed carefully, making sure that all of the mouth parts are removed from the bite. Do not squeeze the tick with bare hands so hard as to rupture the tick or drive more toxins into your body.

Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever
This is another disease which is endemic to the park and usually spread through the bite of an infected tick. It is less frequent than Colorado Tick Fever; however, untreated it is fatal in 15-20 percent of cases. High fever, malaise, headache, chills and muscle pain may persist for two to three weeks. The incubation period is usually three to 14 days. About 50 percent of the cases develop a rash of red spots starting on the palms of the hands or the soles of the feet.

Hantavirus
This is another reason for not feeding small mammals. No known cases of hantavirus have been reported in this area. However, this disease has killed several people in the southwest corner of Colorado. This disease is spread from the feces and urine of infected rodents, especially the deer mouse. Deer mice are prevalent in the park and our populations do carry the disease. Approximately 20 percent of the deer mice tested positive for hantavirus in 1994.

Did You Know?