Denver Trip: Rocky Mountain National Park

Our recent trip to the Rockies was really about people. An old college friend and his wife had moved to Denver  and we’d been meaning to go visit them. Another friend’s wedding in Lincoln, Nebraska got us about two-thirds of the way there so we tacked a Rocky Mountain vacation onto those travel plans. It was a fantastic trip with great company all around. Yet for me, any trip to that part of the country without exploring nature is unthinkable.

From the moment we landed at DIA (no, not a spell dealing light holy damage… an airport) the Rockies beckoned. It’s a challenge to do justice in words or photos to the awe these mountains inspire in a Mid-Atlantic mind. They grab one’s concept of “mountain,” stuff it in a canvas bag, and swing it against a brick wall. No lens angle is wide enough to bring back the proof of this. Numbers like 12,005 and 14,115 (feet above sea level) or 35 (miles of visibility) don’t really do the job either. The photos below almost capture my earliest impressions.

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Our first direct exposure to the mountains was a couple of days spent hiking and camping in Rocky Mountain National Park. It is so majestic that it was tempting to compare its eastern cousin (and one of my favorite places), Shenandoah National Park, unfavorably. Really everything about the two parks, except for the well-maintained road and facilities, is just different. Indeed I learned early on that even the seemingly familiar was subtly otherwise. On our first hike alone, before we got to a really high altitude, I picked up on a lot of this. I spotted wild geraniums, but these would prove to be the Fremont geranium (Geranium caespitosum), as opposed to the G. maculatum I am used to. The least chipmunk (Tamias minimus) is much bolder than its eastern relatives. Of course the trees at these elevations are also quite different, dominated by species like quaking aspen and ponderosa pine. White-tailed deer are present but joined by the similar mule deer.

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A least chipmunk inquires if I might have something to offer it

This first hike to gem lake was a perfect introduction to hiking at altitude. It was a short, moderate-difficulty hike with a gorgeous destination. It taught us that in addition to the flora and fauna both the landscape and the very air are alien to dwellers of the coastal plain.

In the evenings, we made camp at the Lumpy Ridge Campground. Here our education on the eccentricities of our temporary new environment continued. The camp host regaled us with stories of the local black bear population. Apparently one small group learned to identify and target a specific make and model of car whose doors would pop open if a bear jumped on the roof in just the right way. For this and other reasons bear safety seems to be taken about thrice as seriously as in Shenandoah, despite Shenandoah’s higher population density of bears. We also learned that a bull moose had been spotted in the campground the previous day, and were cautioned to give him, too, a wide berth. Alas we did not get the opportunity to decide just how wide. It was also here that I started to spot the local bird species: Steller’s and gray jays, mountain chickadees, and red-breasted nuthatches.

We spent the second day driving the Trail Ridge Road and pausing for several short hikes. Eventually the alpine forests give way to tundra, and here the views are stunning. I will never forget my first time standing above the treeline looking down at it, or my first glimpse of one of the beautiful montane lakes. Nor will I forget our encounter with a pika (Ochotona princeps) – a sort of rabbit-gerbil only found at very high elevations. This part of the trip also included my first sightings of mule deer, elk, and yellow-headed blackbirds.

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Treeline from above
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A lake at the Continental Divide

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It’s unlike me to include so many landscapes and so few wildlife images, but it was the landscape that had me reaching for the camera in this park. I haven’t run out of things to say or images to share about Rocky Mountain National Park, so if you’d like to see more feel free to look me up on Instagram (where I am also wildlymistaken).

 

 

Featured Species #1: Black Bears

I promised charismatic megafauna, and it’s time I delivered! The American black bear (Ursus americanus) might be THE local example. They’re starting to be seen more often in nearby populous areas like Bethesda and Rockville, occasionally attaining local celebrity status. They’re large, adorable, a little scary but actually not all that dangerous, and have a tendency toward human-like actions. The smallest bear in North America and the least threatened bear in the world, they are also much less dangerous and aggressive than grizzlies and polar bears. Nearby Shenandoah National Park has the highest population density of black bears in the country, and I see at least one there almost every time I visit.

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A cub hanging out in a tree.

Often it’s easy to spot bears in Shenandoah because of the vehicles stopped in the middle of Skyline Drive, passengers either all pasted against the windows on one side or physically out of the car at the edge of the woods. You’re not supposed to do this, and the rangers will lightly scold you and break it up if they see it, but when confronted with an actual bear to observe this can be a hard rule to follow. The Drive is after all the most likely place to spot bears, since one covers a lot of ground quickly and the animals aren’t afforded enough time to sneak off. I’m comfortable with this rule being bent or broken as long as one isn’t openly harassing or feeding the animals. I can’t stress enough how bad it is to feed a wild bear, though. Just… don’t.

One such encounter came about because a driver in front of us had stopped to look at some deer in a field on the opposite side of the road. As we approached and slowed, the other car started moving again but I heard some rustling branches out my open window and asked Laurel to stop. I grabbed my camera and stepped out of the car, expecting perhaps an opportunity for a photo of a bird or other small animal. As I took a couple tentative steps toward the pine in front of me, a furry black face emerged from the needles. I was startled, but the bear only looked my way long enough to see what I was before it resumed browsing. It was only a couple arms’ lengths away but couldn’t have given less of a damn about me. I watched for a moment, snapped a couple of hurried photos, and got back in the car. In terms of pure excitement, this was about the best thing that could’ve happened. That said, I shouldn’t have been so close to a wild bear – for my benefit and its as well – and had I known it was there I’d have stayed in the car, content to observe briefly and quietly from there. I’m still glad of the experience, though. It’s always oddly gratifying when a wild animal is aware of you yet unconcerned.

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Yeah, that was this guy. At first he was hiding behind that tree to the left.

By far our worst bear encounter didn’t even involve seeing the actual bear. Instead it was Franklin seizing an opportunity to roll in one’s feces while Laurel and I were distracted by something else (a small snake, if memory serves). It was during a long weekend camping trip, and we had little choice but to share our tent with him. The best we could do was give him a sponge bath, hold our noses, and refuse to snuggle him. I’ve never seen the little bastard so pleased with himself. I’m certain he brags about this to Oscar every time we go camping now. All of our other bear encounters have pretty much been textbook observation.

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The price one pays for that “textbook observation” is out-of-focus photos with stuff in the way. Low price.

American black bear links

I bearly restrained myself from all the ursine puns I wanted to make. Really stuck to the bear bones. Saved myself the embearassment. Bear in mind that I did this for you; it was quite unbearable. I can be pretty ursinine.