Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Rocky Mountain High-way

The next morning was hopefully sunny, with scattered clouds. Despite the rain chances, dh and the kids were determined to begin the drive up Trail Ridge Road. This is the highest continuous paved highway in the world. The top reaches over 12,000’ in elevation with stunning views. At points the highway nears the edge of cliffs. The nifty thing about these mountains, is that every gain of 1000’ of elevation results in a 3 degree drop in temperature! Rising in elevation also means change of ecosystems. A drive (or hike) up one of these alpine mountains is like a drive to the North Pole. How cool is that? Because of their height, these alpine peaks create their own weather systems. Snowstorms can occur in the middle of summer. Dangerous thunderstorms could brew at any moment. The weather forecast predicted a need to keep our eyes to the sky!

I had yet another self-guided tour book for the drive. Last year as we drove Trail Ridge Road, we stepped out at each road stop to drink in the breathtaking views. This year we decided to learn a little geology and conquer the desire to be able to name the mountains. We were amazed as we drove to the top, we never left the Fall River Valley. The mountains we saw from below, were the same mountains we would see from the other side once we reached the top. We got pretty good at identifying the 4 rock types up close, as well as identifying the composition of a mountain peak from afar!

First stop was Deer Ridge Junction, which overlooks Horseshoe Park, where we took our horse ride the other day. The Fall River Valley below is a Riparian Zone where beavers and other water animals live. Here at Deer Ridge, the Montane Zone takes over. Here is a close up view of Ypsilon Mountain. See the Greek letter Ypsilon in the snow?

From afar, Ypsilon Mountain is the second peak from the left. Mummy Mountain is the sort of flat peak to the right of that…imagine a mummy laying on its back. You can just make out the Alluvial Fan, the skinny whitish area below Ypsilon Mountain. The road will take us through extensive switch backs until eventually we are behind Ypsilon and Mummy Mountains, at the very top, over 12,000’.

Moving the camera to the right, you can see Fall River meandering through Horseshoe Park. The trees right below us have the horse trail we took the other day.

Here is McGregor Mountain, with exfoliating Silver Plume Granite.

We continued higher to Many Parks Curve Overlook. Driving up to here has breathless moments where you grab something to make sure you don’t fall over the edge! Here is a great view of the Alluvial Fan.

Climbing ever higher, we came close to the end of the Montane Zone (heavily wooded area) to near treeline (near the tundra). This is the Subalpine Zone. This is the overlook from Rainbow Curve. When you park here, you think you could fall over the edge. When you park very carefully by the rock wall, you thankfully realize you have this stony hillside to break any falls.  There's another view of the alluvial fan.

This is a Clark’s Nutcracker, named after William Clark, as in Lewis and Clark.

Leaving this parking lot to move further on makes us all extremely nervous! It appears as though you are driving up into the sky and there is nothing, not even guard rails, bordering the road! One of our favorite movies is "The Long, Long Trailer" with Lucille Ball and Ricky Ricardo. The movie is reminiscent of our drives on Trail Ridge Road and especially other drives up Pikes Peak in Colorado Springs. We would never drive a trailer up these roads, but some do take them up Trail Ridge Road, so it’s doable. Nevertheless we have to laugh when the signs in the movie indicate a 9000’ elevation, while at Trail Ridge Road we drive up to 12,183’ (and at Pikes Peak we drive up to 14,115’)!!

Driving up Pikes Peak or Trail Ridge Road gives one an opportunity to experience the North Pole. Once breaking treeline, trees no longer grow. We have reached the tundra, the Alpine Zone. Yes, this is just like being at the North Pole. Here nothing grows taller than a few inches, as the plants fight to stay warm. Truly an alpine environment, it is cold, windy, and stunningly beautiful!

After reaching the tundra, we park at Forest Canyon Overlook. Here we can see the tiny plants up close. Here is a view of Torah Toma Mountain. You can easily see where glaciers scraped away the sides and left the top flat part alone. That is part of the tundra. The tundra where we are standing was also untouched by glaciers. The canyon below was scooped out by glaciers.

The weather is getting bad. Dark clouds are forming. Rain is beginning to spritz. Lightening is certain to begin soon. One doesn’t want to be the tallest thing around. But before we go, a quick moment to check the alpine lakes at the foot of Torah Toma.  Here's one of them.

Here's a shot of the overlook into Forest Canyon...

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