With the highest average elevation of any national park, including those in Alaska, Rocky Mountain National Park sits atop the Continental Divide, the great ridge of mountains that cuts the continental United States in two. Water on the east side of the divide flows to the Atlantic Ocean, and water on the west side ultimately makes its way to the Pacific.
Much of the parkland is above the timberline, which is about 11,500 feet high in this section of the Rockies. The park's centerpiece, Trail Ridge Road, is the nation's highest paved highway and leads into the heart of a spectacular alpine world. One stunning stretch of the road follows a ridge as it rises to 12,183 feet.
In many ways, the timberline, which is so evident from this dramatic drive, is a biological battle line. Just below the timberline, such hearty trees as subalpine firs, limber pines, and Engelmann spruce struggle upwards root by root to find room in which to grow and survive.
Above the last trees, an even harsher world challenges the survival of the most robust plants, which cling tenuously to life during a brief growing season and in the face of constant winds. Here are lovely meadows bathed in green grasses and awash with dozens of species of wildflowers that grow low to the ground for protection in this harsh environment.
The park is not just a land of tundra, high rocky places, and ceaseless wind. Below the timberline, you will find lovely hidden places, such as the sublimely beautiful Dream Lake, a rock-rimmed mountain pond nestled in a meadow at the foot of rugged 12,713-foot Hallett Peak.
Countless numbers of wild creatures wander through the woods and meadows. Mule deer and black bears are common sights, and beavers build their dams in many of the streams that drain the lake.
Higher up are elk, while higher still, on seemingly impossible vertical cliffs where they are safe from predators are the elusive Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, the enduring symbol of this magnificent alpine park.
Whether you're into evening campfire chats, challenging hikes, or scenic drives, Rocky Mountain National Park provides something for every type of traveler. That's why three million people trek to this spot each year.
©Publications International, Ltd.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
Related Mobil Travel Guide Articles