Snow-covered peaks stand watch over lush valleys and alpine lakes, creating the perfect image of America's most dramatic and beautiful landscape: the majestic Rocky Mountains. Here the pine- and fir-scented forests are deep, the air is crisp and pure, and the mountain peaks reach up to grasp the deep-blue sky.
What makes Rocky Mountain National Park unique is not only its breathtaking scenery, but also its variety. In relatively low areas, up to 9,000 feet, ponderosa pine and juniper cloak the sunny southern slopes, with Douglas fir on the cooler northern slopes. The thirstier blue spruce cling to the banks of streams, along with occasional groves of aspen. Elk and mule deer thrive. Lodgepole pine are often here, too, a population that's been devastated by Rocky Mountain pine beetles in recent years. On higher slopes, forests of Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir dominate, interspersed with wide meadows vibrant with wildflowers in spring and summer. This is also home to bighorn sheep, which have become a symbol of the park. Above 11,500 feet, the trees become increasingly gnarled and stunted, until they disappear altogether and alpine tundra takes over. Fully one-third of the park is in this bleak, rocky world, where many of the plants are identical to those found in the Arctic.
Within the park's 415 square miles are 17 mountains above 13,000 feet. Longs Peak, at 14,259 feet, is the highest.
Trail Ridge Road, which cuts west through the middle of the park from Estes Park, then south down its western boundary to Grand Lake, is one of America's most scenic highways. Climbing to 12,183 feet, it's the highest continuously paved highway in the United States. The road is usually open from Memorial Day into October, depending on snowfall. The 48-mile drive from Estes Park to Grand Lake takes about 3 hours, allowing for stops at numerous view points. Exhibits at the Alpine Visitor Center at Fall River Pass, 11,796 feet above sea level, explain life on the alpine tundra.
Fall River Road, the original park road, leads from Estes Park to Fall River Pass via Horseshoe Park. As you negotiate its graveled switchbacks, you get a clear idea of what early auto travel was like in the West. This road, too, is closed in winter. Among the few paved roads in the Rockies that lead into a high mountain basin is Bear Lake Road, which stays open year-round, with occasional half-day closings to clear snow.
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