Last week, my wife and I flew to Denver to visit relatives, and while there, we set foot for the first time on the tundra.
You read that right. Tundra. In Colorado.
Here’s how that works. On sufficiently high mountains around the world, forest yields to an alien landscape of moss, lichen, tiny grasses, and little flowering plants. This is the alpine tundra, and it’s fundamentally one with its arctic twin. Close to the equator, it lives at high altitudes. The farther north or south you go, the lower the tree line falls. Close to the poles, it descends to sea level. Beyond, alpine tundra morphs into arctic . The two really are one.
In Colorado, the tree line hovers around 11,500 feet, its exact altitude depending upon local conditions. There, cold, wind, heavy snows, and thin soils make life too difficult for large plants. Miniature versions hang on in some places, but abruptly there is only rock and diminutive plants capable of eking out a living in the harsh environment. It’s a fragile place, too. Hikers are asked to stay on the trails, for a single careless step can destroy a century of growth.
We first experienced the alpine tundra along Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. Also designated U.S. Route 34, Trail Ridge Road opened in 1932. It runs 48 miles from Estes Park on the east to Grand Lake on the west with eleven miles of its course above the tree line. It’s a stunning drive but a nerve-wracking experience if you’re not comfortable with heights. While cruising the forest, you might not be aware of the steep drops just beyond the edge lines. Break through the tree line, though, and suddenly you’re exposed. The road feels too narrow, the oncoming traffic too close, the empty sky too big. You grip the wheel a bit tighter and don’t dare look to the side.
But you’ll survive it, and when you pull off on one of the many overlooks, the grandeur of the mountaintops engulfs you. The road reaches a maximum elevation of 12,183 feet with a visitor’s center stationed at 11,796 feet. There, you’re almost on top of the world.
Almost. Comparatively, Trail Ridge Road is a bit on the low side, since the highest point in Rocky Mountain National Park, Long’s Peak, stands at 14,259 feet. Indeed, the state of Colorado boasts fifty-three “fourteeners,” peaks higher than 14,000 feet. The most famous is Pike’s Peak which is only thirtieth on the list at 14,115 feet. 14,440-foot Mt. Elbert claims first prize. Yet in many ways, the imposing Mt. Evans, which dominates the Front Range skyline as seen from Denver, is possibly the most significant. Its summit rises to 14,271 feet, making it the thirteenth highest in the state.
So what makes number thirteen so important? Well…
- The Mount Evans Scenic Byway is the highest paved road in North America and the fifth highest in the world. It gains over 7,000 feet in elevation over its 28-mile course, culminating at 14,130 feet, slightly higher than the summit of Pike’s Peak, which is clearly visible from there.
- The stone ruins of Crest House, a restaurant and gift shop that burned down on September 1, 1979, provide one of the most impressive scenic overlooks in Colorado.
- On the way to the top, you’ll pass Summit Lake, often considered to be the southernmost area of arctic tundra in the world due to an underlying layer of permafrost.
- In 1931, the well-known physicist Arthur H. Compton conducted pioneering cosmic ray research on Mt. Evans. In 1939, Bruno Rossi used sites at Mt. Evans, Echo Lake, Denver, and Chicago to measure the half-life of high-velocity muons to verify time dilation, one of the principal predictions of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity.
- The University of Denver built an observatory above the Mt. Evans parking lot at 14,148 feet. Housing a 0.6 meter (24 inch) Ritchey–Chrétien telescope, this was the highest observatory in the world from 1972 to 1999, and currently remains the third highest.
- High-altitude physiology research has been conducted on Mt. Evans.
- And in the “you wouldn’t have thought of this” category, auto manufacturers use the Mt. Evans road for high-altitude testing of new automobiles. Because it’s such a public place, they often conceal their designs with creative camouflage, such as outlandish paint jobs and various body coverings. If you happen to see a weird car up there, that’s probably what it is. (We didn’t, more’s the pity.)
Don’t let this put you off, but it must be said, the drive up Mt. Evans is more nerve-wracking than Trail Ridge Road. The lower portion of the road is clearly lined and well-maintained, but the higher you get, the more nature takes its toll on the asphalt. Although not in bad condition as such, at a certain point lane markings vanish, the shoulder disappears, and the asphalt is pitted and scarred along the edges. Blind hairpin curves test your mettle, and on the ascent you often see nothing but sky beyond the road.
Yet, if Trail Ridge Road was worth the jitters, the Mt. Evans road is even more so. Pull off for a break at the Upper Mount Goliath Trailhead, for example, and you can walk a narrow path into the heart of the tundra. Everywhere you look, you’ll see something astonishing, be it the tiny plants at your feet or the snow-capped peaks in the distance.
From the smallest things the eye can see to the deep blue dome of the sky, it’s all there. Well, so long as you have good weather. At these altitudes, storms can blow up quickly. The photos testify that we were blessed with good weather, but never take Mother Nature for granted up here. Respect her or you could get into serious trouble.
As you climb, you may encounter cyclists working their way up the mountain. Yes, cycling up a road that climbs 7,000 feet appeals to some people. In fact, the annual Bob Cook Memorial Mt. Evans Hill Climb attracts cyclists from around the world. I’m guessing auto traffic is restricted when they’re running that race. But even when it’s not, you’ll likely pass cyclists, so be cautious and courteous.
By the time you reach Summit Lake, which shivers beneath the peak of Mt. Evans, you’ll be ready for another break from driving. The most twisted part of the road still lies before you, but here the mountain’s bulk enfolds a high altitude plain, its snowy slopes criss-crossed by lines made by. . .
Yep, skis. You might even see, as I did, a skier negotiating the slope on their way down from the summit parking lot! I wouldn’t have thought that, but then I wouldn’t have thought of cycling up the mountain, either. Shows you how much I know.
When you reach the parking lot, the stunning views might overshadow a more remarkable fact: the tundra has vanished. The small plants that grew among the rocks farther down are largely absent here, leaving yet another alien landscape of bare stone fractured and crumbled by a long geologic history of freezing and thawing. If it weren’t for the blue sky and white snow, you might think you were on the moon.
At this lofty elevation, visitors should be on the lookout for signs of altitude sickness. The atmospheric pressure here is only a bit over half that at sea level. Even people in good physical condition can feel the effects. Because my wife has some medical issues, we intentionally limited our activity at the summit. We didn’t experience problems, but she said she could tell the air wasn’t quite right. The sufficiently ambitious can climb to the true summit, which rises above the parking lot. A trail ascends through the broken boulders to the pinnacle, 14,271 feet.
Sadly, you can’t stay forever. You might think the prospect of once more negotiating that long and winding road daunting, but curiously I found the descent far easier than the ascent. That might be because I’d gained experience with sheer cliffs and blind hairpin curves, but I think it has more to do with the view. Going up, you mostly see empty space beyond the pavement. Going down, the world is spread out before you in all her glory. It somehow feels easier and safer when you know where everything is, even if a long drop is part of the scenery.
In any case, just because you’re returning to more normal altitudes doesn’t mean you should stop looking. Fascinating things wait around every curve, sometimes even . . .
We’ve long wanted to see some. We’d been to Glacier National Park once and Rocky Mountain Park twice without encountering a single goat. We voyaged to the summit of Mt. Evans with only small mammals scampering alongside over the tundra. But on the way down, there they were!
And that seems as good a place as any to end.