A Rocky Mountain Interlude

@RMNP_2008jul21_LAH_763

We were gone this past weekend in celebration of our 39th anniversary, so I didn’t get a chance to write a new post about birds and birding, my normal Monday topic. Instead, I’ll share a bit about our morning in Rocky Mountain National Park.

We stayed in Kremmerling, a very small town nestled between Steamboat Springs to the west and the continental divide to the east. After packing up on Sunday morning, we decided to head home via one of our favorite national parks, Rocky Mountain.

Since we were coming from the west, we entered the park at the Grand Lake entrance station, on Hwy. 34 north of Granby. Expecting summer crowds, we were surprised to discover that the roads were nearly empty, unheard of on a mid-July weekend. We sailed through the entrance station (I love my senior parks pass!), but were quickly distracted by a large herd of elk. I hoped for a nice shot of a bull elk with impressive antlers, but they were all cows and calves. It’s too early in the year for harems and mating. Still, we enjoyed close-up (but not too close) views of these impressive animals, laughing at the antics of the spirited youngsters, and wincing at the squealing bellows of the mothers keeping tabs on their offspring.

Tearing myself away, we continued up the mountain to the alpine visitor center, at an elevation of almost 12,000 feet. While Pete prowled the gift shop, I photographed the tundra wildflowers.

It was still early morning, but clouds were already beginning to gather. Rain was predicted by noon, so we hastened on to our next stop. The tundra trail is a bit higher than the visitor center. It’s short, but the lack of oxygen turns it into a fairly strenuous walk. While most of the tourists headed up the trail, I crossed the road to the field of rocks and short grasses below a low retaining wall. That’s where the pikas live.

 

Usually, I see them sunning on the granite boulders, their gray fur making them a challenge to spot. This morning, they were busy collecting grasses and flowers for the winter. A pika would dart out from beneath a rock, scurry across a short patch of open ground, and disappear into another tunnel. It was a bit frustrating to one trying to get a decent photo. Why were they so wary? Oh, that’s a Golden Eagle soaring overhead! Smart pikas!

This day, the pikas were joined by a number of Yellow-bellied Marmots, relatives of the groundhog. Being larger, they didn’t appear at all worried about the eagle.

We had one final stop before descending into Estes Park for lunch. Rainbow Curve is one of the eastern-most pullouts, and it’s always busy with tourists enjoying the view and taking advantage of the bathrooms.

This stop turned out to be the highlight of the day. Rainbow Curve is usually packed with Golden-mantled Ground-squirrels and Colorado Chipmunks angling for a handout. In spite of all the signs saying “Do not feed the animals,” many people do. The result is a lot of very tame animals who happily climb into your lap.

On this morning, however, the chipmunks and squirrels weren’t the only ones in search of a meal. A very healthy, obviously well-fed coyote wandered into view, then slowly crossed from one end of the turnout to the other, stopping occasionally to gaze out across the valley. Surprisingly, it was mostly ignored by its potential prey. You’d have thought that the rodents would be at least a bit concerned, but they acted as if a predator was no big deal.

Eventually, the coyote continued on into the forest. The rain finally arrived, and I hustled back to the car.

Later that afternoon, as we drove down the mountain into the stifling heat we’d escaped for the weekend, I wished that we could have spent  more than a few hours enjoying the park, but that would have to wait for another time.