Rocky Mountain National Park 1

Last September, Rocky Mountain National Park celebrated its 100th birthday. Congress created the park on January 15, 1915, a full year before the National Park System itself was created.

Soon, folks from around the world were heading to Colorado to experience one of our nation’s most fabulous playgrounds. For that reason, and with urging from concerned citizens, Congress decided it was time to protect our beautiful mountains from a little too much love.

The legislation that created Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) set the stage for the Organic Act of 1916 that created the National Park Service, which celebrates its centennial this year. Barbara Scott, the park ranger who was responsible for coordinating RMNP’s anniversary celebration says, “Right from the beginning, it was a crown jewel in what would become our national park system.”

Rocky Mountain National Park was among the first of the national parks to issue back-country permits to manage user impact on resources and to use shuttle busses to minimize carbon emissions. It has one of the country’s largest volunteer forces, with nearly 1,900 people signing on for duty each year.

More than a third of RMNP’s 415 square miles is located above timberline with elevations ranging from 8,000 to 14,250 feet. Many of the 360 miles of trails are original to the Ute and Arapahoe tribes, the region’s original residents. Around nearly every turn, the magnificent vistas of ponderosa pine and juniper contrast with tranquil images of bubbling mountain streams and wildflower-filled meadows. From powerful bighorn sheep to elk, moose, black bear and cougars, the park’s abundant natural resources remind us that the humans are simply visitors here.

Three and a half million people visit RMNP each year, and about three million of them enter gates on the south and east side at Estes Park. Many visitors never travel much farther than to the Alpine Visitor Center, at elevation 11,796, about halfway across the Trail Ridge Road. (Like Independence Pass, Trail Ridge is closed in the winter and opens around Memorial Day.)

But it’s a shame not to follow Trail Ridge Road all the way across Milner Pass to our western side of the Continental Divide because there’s so much more to RMNP. One place not to miss is Lily Lake, one of the best wildflower-viewing destinations, particularly during early summer. This is where Enos Mills, who was considered RMNP’s founder, lived and documented the mountains’ splendor in an effort to achieve national park status for the land he loved.

With changes in the tree cover caused by mountain pine beetle infestation, the forest floor now receives more sunlight. That, in return, is shaping the wildflower presence in the park, which according to rangers, is more spectacular than ever.

The best wildlife viewing, of course, takes place in the early morning hours or the evening hours just before sunset. It seems that the elk, nearly 1,000 of them, prefer to hang out on park’s east side. Their bugling during mating season in September has become one of the best reasons to visit the area after the summer crowds disappear.

There are close to 400 bighorn sheep in the park, and some of the best places to see them are around Milner Pass or by hiking a few miles up the Colorado River Trail.

It seems that the moose and the black bear prefer the west side of the park, accessed through the community of Grand Lake. Just before you pass the sign welcoming you to the park, on the right-hand side of the road, a number of low bushes conceal a little stream dearly loved by moose. Drive slowly and look closely. There are almost always a couple of moose hanging out there.

One of the rangers we talked to called Grand Lake the “natural” side of the park. Of the three and half million visitors a year to RMNP, only about a half million or so enter through the west gates at Grand Lake, home to Grand Lake Lodge. Billed as “Colorado’s Front Porch,” the scenic view of the mountains and the wildlife here rivals anything else in the park.

Built from timber cut when Trail Ridge Road was built through the park in 1919, the Grand Lake Lodge is a National Historic Landmark because of its early contributions to tourism in Colorado and preservation of Rocky Mountain rustic stick-style architecture. The lodge restaurant, known for its exquisite preparation of wild game and fresh Colorado trout, is a destination in itself.