Despite Problems at Rocky Mountain National Park, Nature Rules

View from Ridge Trail Highway at Rocky Mountain National Park
It’s all true.  Everything you’ve heard about Rocky Mountain National Park’s beauty and vastness is accurate – 415 square miles filled with sixty mountain peeks over 12,000 feet, an accessible Alpine Tundra, waterfalls, trout fishing, 350 miles of hiking trails and the Continental Divide that weaves its way through the park.   While famous for glaciers, clear water and open valleys, there were stories behind the beautiful scene. 
Mills Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park
The first morning, we headed to Mills Lake for a family hike.  After entering a park gate and paying $20, we moved slowly over a winding road until directed to an overflow parking lot.   An overflow parking lot? A shuttle bus to our trail?  What happened to “getting away from it all”?  What happened was 3 million visitors a year to Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP).  It is the 5th most visited park in the country.   That’s a lot of cars on the road and the attendant air pollution.
The solution at this park and others is mass transportation.   A Hiker Shuttle is available  to whisk riders to various trail heads.  Bear Lake and Morraine Park Visitor Center also provide shuttle buses to the more popular trails.  Unlike the parks at Grand Canyon and Yosemite where bus rides are mandatory, RMNP allows free choice.  The reasons for mass transit are obvious.  Maintenance of roads, frustration with traffic, air quality in the pristine setting and protection of animals are all concerns  One hundred elk a year are killed by cars in RMNP.  According to the National Park Conservatory Association, replacing 5,000 private vehicles per day with 30 propane-powered buses, can eliminate more than 13,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions in a year.  
The shuttle bus filled quickly and dropped us off at our trail head.  Upon return,  many had finished their hikes and were watching for the bus.  A volunteer ranger radioed back about the awaiting crowd and the next bus was lightly loaded and able to hold most us.  Despite my grumbling and frustration with the delay, I had to admit the shuttle bus system worked well and was better than the huge parking lot that would be required near the fragile trail heads.  
Dead trees from bark beetle
Cut Lodge Pole Pine Trees to be burned
Although most of the park was incredibly green from record rainfalls, we noticed whole mountainsides were brown from dead or dying trees – the work of bark beetles, a native insect that has flourished thanks to warmer than average temperatures.  To suppress the beetle’s activities, temperatures must stay below freezing for 30 straight days in the winter.  Absent this, the beetles reproduce mightily and devour lodgepole pine trees.    High value trees can be treated but thousands are being removed each year.    Campgrounds lay in the open without shade trees –  made bare from fear of dead trees toppling on sleeping campers. The silver lining is the appearance of more wild flowers and aspen trees who are not affected by the beetles.  As one ranger said “It’s like pressing the reset button on nature”.    We can only hope.
RMNP is far enough north to have deer, elk, and bears and all want the experience of sighting these fine animals.  We got messages along a trail that a mother elk and two babies were ahead on the lake and in nearby  Estes Park,  cars had pulled over to see an elk in the stream.  But what we didn’t realize is the park has twice as many elk as can be sustained on the property without damage to the number of aspen trees and other elk favorites.  Rangers estimate only 30 bears live in the park but as many as 3100 elk do.  An ideal number would be 1500.  The solution has been to allow hunting of 30 female elk each year by park employees.  Since implementing the policy, there has been a gradual decrease in the elk number and increase in their food supply.
I’m not sure we met any “real” park rangers.  Those taking our money, riding the bus with us, and giving information were volunteers, as noted by their name tag and uniforms.  Because of dwindling federal money, most national parks operate on two-thirds of their needed budget.  So began the “Volunteers in the Parks” program.  RMNP has one of the largest with over 1700 volunteers at a savings of $2 million a year.  They are used to clean trails, remove and modify fences, handle the crowds, educate on wildlife, answer questions, collect seeds, and be ambassadors for the park.  The good news is many want to volunteer the selection process competitive.  The National Parks Service website even suggests you have a better chance of being chosen if you can provide your own housing.   The need for volunteers will just grow greater and may be the perfect place for baby boomers to give back.

Above tree line on Ridge Trail Highway
Glaciers at Rocky Mountain National Park
With one last drive along the famous Ridge Trail Highway, the highest in the country, we looked again at the park’s vast beauty.  Yes, there are too many cars and elks.  Thousands of trees are being leveled because of the pesky bark beetle.  And volunteers are filling the funding gap for the park.  But what we saw from on high was a landscape that’s had years of practice at rejuvenating itself.  We’re confident it will again.

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