Our National Parks: Sudden Surprises on Trail Ridge Road*
Sudden Surprises on Trail Ridge Road
I've been acquainted with Trail Ridge Road since 1959 both as a park ranger and as a visitor in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. My first frightening surprise was traveling across Trail Ridge Road in mid-October, 1959 from Grand Lake to Estes Park. Of course at lower elevations, it remained sunny and warm but as I drove higher, I was stopped at a road gate by a fellow ranger who told me that I was the last person they were allowing through since a very bad storm was brewing with fierce winds and sleet.
I proceeded gingerly through dark forests of Engleman spruce and silvery subalpine fir at sunset while snow pellets hit the windshield of my trusty 1939 chevrolet. By the time I reached Milner Pass two miles above sea level, I thought it was beginning to look rather nasty with black-gray clouds and slick spots on the road. Nonetheless, I drove higher and still higher with the Nee-Chi-Bee-Chi (Never Summer Mountains) darkening in swirling clouds.
My car fish-tailed a few times on the high tundra road above 12,000 feet. I turned on the radio to catch a weather forecast, but suddenly a violent screeching noise startled me. I turned off the radio immediately. The screech that I heard seconds earlier was so loud and unearthly I thought it must be an omen of some sort from an Irish banshee.
I tried to remain calm and super-alert up here in utter darkness except for my dim headlights. The hidden sun had not long ago set and yet it seemed like midnight. Winds pushed my Chevy sideways until my wheels hit the shoulder. My windshield wipers became so laden with ice the blades froze in their tracks. Was I going to make it?
I had to stick my head out the window to see where I was going. But my glases froze over very quickly and I had to stop the car and wipe off my lenses. Finally, and thankfully I had reached the high point above 12,200 feet and started to descend. But I had to take it easy with all that glaring ice that covered the road blasted with winds and snow. Slowly, ever so slowly, I crawled forward down the road until snow changed to rain and lo and behold the clouds began to break up with a rosy tinge to the northwest. I made it to the eastern gate where the ranger said, "We were beginning to worry about you, but you made it old boy!"
On another occasion in 1960, when I had tourist desk duty at Fall River Pass above 11,700 feet, I looked forward to taking a lunch break out on the tundra out of sight of the visitor center/gift shop. I threw a gas burner stove and a packet of dried soup and bread into my backpack and dashed across the tundra to a hidden hollow where I knelt down to light the single burner and put a snow-filled pot over the flame to melt and eventually boil before adding powdered soup.I let the cream of vegetable soup simmer as I got out half a French loaf of bread to dip in the soup. Gosh, what a delicious lunch I thought to myself when thunder rumbled in the distance. The rumbles grew louder and louder and lightning forked the sky. I threw the cooled down burner into my pack and crouched down low to scuttle back to the visitor center. A sudden lightning bolt thrashed the sky and hit the tundra fifty feet away. The hell with a metal burner and pot on my back and I unloaded them to leave them on the ground to pick up later. By the time I reached my desk I was drenched to the skin and quite cold on that July day and tried to answer calmly as possible tourist questions the rest of the day.
But wait, not all of Trail Ridge surprises were fearful and unpleasant! Years later my wife Maura and I decided to climb Sundance Peak above Forest Canyon Overlook. As we climbed into the sky toward the summit, we found ourselves in the midst of a grazing elk herd. They paid no mind to us at all as we walked among them toward Sundance Peak. Humans and elk now seemed to be in a very pleasant symbiotic relationship. They continued to graze below us as we climbed the lichen-covered rocks of the summit where our minds grazed on alpine landscapes clear across to Longs Peak rising high across the valley.
And just a few weeks ago my wife and I returned to Trail Ridge Road to stop at Rock Cut above 12,200 feet where we stared across Forest Canyon to the seven jet-black Inkwell Lakes snuggled beneath towering Mount Ida rising to nearly 13,000 feet. We were so absorbed with those icy cold lakes across the way that we did not notice two bighorn rams come loping up the slope to stand and stare at us just 100 feet away. We had become alpine partners if only for ten minutes or so.
* Trail Ridge Road is the longest continuous paved road above 12,000 feet in North America. I served as a seasonal park ranger natural there from 1959-1961.
See my other hub "The Clouds of Trail Ridge Road."