Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado Natural History Handbook Series #3
UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR
Stewart L. Udall, Secretary
NATIONAL PARK SERVICE
Conrad L. Wirth, Director
NATURAL HISTORY HANDBOOK NUMBER THREE
This publication is one of a series of handbooks explainingthe natural history of scenic and scientific areas in theNational Park System administered by the National ParkService, U.S. Department of the Interior. It is printed bythe Government Printing Office and may be purchased fromthe Superintendent of Documents, Washington, D.C., 20401
Price 35 cents
NATIONAL PARK · COLORADO
By Edwin C. Alberts
NATURAL HISTORY HANDBOOK SERIES NO. 3
Washington, D.C., 1954 (Revised 1963)
NATIONAL PARK SERVICE
Natural History Handbook Series
- No. 1. Olympic National Park
- No. 2. Badlands National Monument
- No. 3. Rocky Mountain National Park
- No. 4. Saguaro National Monument
- No. 5. Great Smokey Mountains National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park, established on January 26, 1915, and containingabout 410 square miles, is administered by the National Park Service,U.S. Department of the Interior.
The National Park System, of which this park is a unit, is dedicated to conservingthe scenic, scientific, and historic heritage of the United States for thebenefit and enjoyment of its people.
A superintendent is in immediate charge of Rocky Mountain National Park,with headquarters in Estes Park village on the east side of the park. Addresscommunications to the Superintendent, Rocky Mountain National Park, Box1086, Estes Park, Colo.
America’s Natural Resources
Created in 1849, the Department of the Interior—America’s Department ofNatural Resources—is concerned with the management, conservation, and developmentof the Nation’s water, wildlife, mineral, forest, and park and recreationalresources. It also has major responsibilities for Indian and territorialaffairs.
As the Nation’s principal conservation agency, the Department works to assurethat nonrenewable resources are developed and used wisely, that park andrecreational resources are conserved, and that renewable resources make theirfull contribution to the progress, prosperity, and security of the United States—nowand in the future.
- THE MOUNTAINS ARE MADE 3
- THE WORK OF GLACIERS 5
- THE MOUNTAINS ARE MANTLED WITH PLANTS 10
- PLANT COMMUNITIES 12
- Below 9,000 Feet 12
- The Middle Belt 18
- Above Treeline 21
- ANIMAL LIFE 23
- Hoofed Mammals 23
- Predatory Mammals 27
- Gnawing Mammals 31
- Coldblooded Vertebrates 37
- Birds 42
- MAN IN THE ROCKIES 46
- CLIMATE 48
- PARK SEASON 49
- WHAT TO DO 49
- Automobile Trips 50
- Trail Trips 54
- SUGGESTED READINGS 60
- APPENDIX A—GUIDE TO MAMMAL OBSERVATION 62
- APPENDIX B—GUIDE TO BIRD OBSERVATION 64
- APPENDIX C—COMMON AND SCIENTIFIC NAMES OF PLANTS 66
Notchtop and Little Matterhorn from Fern Lake.
In 1859, Colorado’s historic gold rush beckoned a legion ofpioneers, and led indirectly to the settlement of the verdant meadowsat the foot of the Front Range in the vicinity of modern Estes Park,and eventually to a “rush” of vacationists. As the scenic splendor ofthis region became better known, many public-spirited citizens recognizedthe need for preserving portions of the area as a NationalPark. In 1915, Rocky Mountain National Park was dedicated insimple ceremonies, at what is now called Horseshoe Park. Sincethat time millions of visitors have enjoyed the natural wonders ofthe park, including placid mountain lakes, rushing streams, andverdant high-country meadows. Here are trout to catch, native mammalsand birds to be seen and photographed, and trails to hike.
Park rangers are often asked, “What are the main attractions ofRocky Mountain National Park?” It is hard to answer this question,for the appeal of the park, somewhat like that of a symphony,lies in the varied yet repeated experiences or melodies which may befound within its framework. The raw beauty of the rugged mountainscontrasts with the calm loveliness of wildflower gardens growingnearby. Some visitors enjoy the solitude, while others appreciate theopportunity to meet people with like interests and to hike with organizedgroups on some of the 200 miles of trails. Many derivepleasure from quietly studying the fascinating world of nature preservedin the park. Some vigorously battle the steep slopes of themountains; others relax in camp, soothed by the sound of the windin the trees. Each person enjoys the park in his own way. Thereare regulations, but no regimentation, no compulsory activities, no“musts.” The park was established for all to use, but not to abuse.
Rocky Mountain National Park comprises about 400 square milesof the Front Range. The altitude of the park is high, with cool summersthe inevitable result. There are more than 65 named peaksexceeding 10,000 feet. The Continental Divide, separating slopesdraining to the Pacific Ocean from those draining to the Gulf ofMexico, runs through the park.
Moraines extending into the meadows, seen from Many Parks Curve onTrail Ridge Road.
To those who study it, the park reveals stories of great naturaldramas of earth forces that made its deep gorges and lofty peaks, andof once-mighty glaciers that carved its remote lakes. Its forests andwildflowers tell a story of struggle and adjustment to environmentsthat differ with altitude and exposure. Its native populations—deer,elk, bear, beaver, birds and the myriad lesser creatures of the wild—canbe seen in their natural habitats. Its streams attract the hopefulfisherman; its unmodified natural compositions enthrall the artist;its cool, green setting appeals to all summer travelers.
Enos Mills, “father” of Rocky Mountain National Park, wrote about40 years ago:
A National Park is a fountain of life.... Without parks and outdoorlife all that is best in civilization will be smothered. To save ourselves—toenable us to live at our best and happiest, parks are necessary.Within National Parks is room—glorious room—room in which to findourselves, in which to think and hope, to dream and plan, to rest, andresolve.
His words are even more significant to our generation than theywere to his. This booklet is an attempt to provide a concise summaryof some of the park’s important natural values and to arouse yourappetite for further pursuit of the enjoyment they offer. The basicexperience in this National Park, as in most, is to capture some of theinspiration and spiritual qualities of the landscape which Enos Millsfelt so keenly.
THE MOUNTAINS ARE MADE
The geological story of Rocky Mountain National Park is a longone. Most of its details are lost in the passage of hundreds of millionsof years. Some of the story has been put together by scientists frombits of evidence scattered here and there. The evidence strongly indicatesa certain chain of events, but no eyewitnesses are available toconfirm the deductions. Few of these events can be proved to everyone’ssatisfaction; we can but pass on to you some determinations thatgeologists have made.
Most of the rocks which you see in the park are crystalline and veryancient. The gneiss and schist were, in part, once sediments formedin seas, perhaps a billion years ago, under conditions about which thereis little knowledge or general agreement. These sediments wereburied beneath thousands of feet of other sediments, cemented andhardened into layers of sedimentary rock and later squeezed, crushed,and elevated by slow, ceaselessly working earth forces that producedmountains even in that ancient time. During this period the sedimentaryrocks were changed to harder metamorphic rocks, probably4because of deep burial under tremendous pressure and considerableheat. Masses of molten rock welled up into these earlier depositsand hardened under the earth’s surface. This later (though still veryancient) intrusive material is now exposed granite in many parts ofRocky Mountain National Park.
Rocks once buried miles deep are now exposed on Longs Peak, at an altitudeof more than 14,000 feet.
These ancient mountains were gradually worn away by wind, rain,and other agents of erosion, which must have attacked the surface ofthe earth as vigorously then as now. With the passage of millionsof years, these mountains were reduced to a lowland. Another seagradually lapped over the land where mountains had been, and onceagain sediments were dropped in its bottom. This new invasion ofthe ocean affected the park region during many millions of years inwhich the dinosaurs dominated the earth.
In response to little-understood rhythms of the earth’s crust, whichhave lifted mountains ever so slowly at great intervals all over theworld, the seas drained away as the crust rose again, and the risingland once more became subject to the ceaseless attack of erosion. Thisuplift—which began about 60 million years ago—originated the system5of mountain ranges and basins that today give Colorado itsspectacular scenery and much of its climate. This great period ofmountain-making is called the Laramide Revolution, from its earlyrecognition in the Laramie Basin region of Wyoming.
The Front Range, of which this park preserves a choice sample, wasbuckled in the fashion of a great long wrinkle in a carpet. This “roll”of rock was about 200 miles long and some 40 miles across. In itsearlier stages it was covered by the arched-up sediments, but, as timepassed and erosion continued, the inner core of earlier crystalline rockswas exposed once again. Today, all traces of the former thick mantleof sedimentary beds are gone from the park. They are still presentbeneath the plains to the east and the basins to the west, and the cut-offends of some of them now lie exposed in a tilted position against botheast and west flanks of the mountains. The sandstones of some ofthe hogback ridges crossed by the approach roads from Lyons andLoveland are a part of this once continuous overburden.
Uplift continued intermittently during many millions of years. Inthe western section of the park, volcanic eruptions took place. SpecimenMountain is the remnant of a volcano; some of its flows are seentoday as the cliffs behind Iceberg Lake, on Trail Ridge Road. Greatsheets of lava and other volcanic rocks piled in layers now make upmuch of the Never Summer Range. Eventually, these rocks, too, willbe stripped away by the relentless work of erosion; this will requiremillions of years.
An unusual feature of the landscape here is the rolling, sometimesflattened character of many mountain summits. Trail Ridge Roadcrosses several miles of one of these summits—a gently rolling uplandabove 11,000 feet. These mountaintops appear to be all that is leftof an old land surface that once may have been continuous far eastwardover the area occupied today by the Great Plains. Such surfaces,of which the mountains in the park show many good remnants, arecalled peneplains. Their presence atop the mountains is a part of theevidence suggesting that the range had been worn down by erosionto a fairly flat upland a few million years ago. Then renewed upliftingoccurred, and streams draining the highland gradually cut canyonstwo or three thousand feet into the elevated surface.
THE WORK OF GLACIERS
These canyons were filled by glaciers at intervals during the millionyears of the ice age. This period saw the formation of vast ice fieldsover much of northern North America. The causes of the ice age arecomplex, but its effects on our landscape are marked and convincing.
Sandstone hogbacks flank the mountains on the east. Scene near mouth ofBig Thompson Canyon, west of Loveland.
Remnants of an erosion surface on peaks south of Trail Ridge Road.
High mountain lakes are set among the scars of glacier excavation. ArrowheadLake, in Gorge Lakes Canyon.
Great forests, high peaks, and cool summers add to the appeal of RockyMountain National Park.
Every large high-altitude canyon in what is now Rocky MountainNational Park became filled with snow, much of which, under pressure,turned to ice. The glaciers thus formed, moving under their owngreat weight—slowly, but with tremendous power—broadened, deepened,and straightened the twists and turns of the original river-cutvalleys, and, bit by bit, scooped out bowls, or cirques, at the glaciersources. These glaciers quarried and removed untold millions oftons of rocks from the upper reaches. Many of the cliffs and lakesof the park are the results of