Rocky Mountain National Park is my favorite place in America. That may change as I explore new corners of the country (Alaska, Hawaii, Mount Rainier, Death Valley, Joshua Tree, Zion, Bryce), and retread some ground that at least competes with it (Glacier, North Cascades, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Yosemite, Kings Canyon) -- but right now, this place is my Fortress of Solitude. I have a permanent smile on my face when I go here, and the closest thing to true happiness for me has been visiting this place.
The reason RMNP does it for me is that it forces me to be outdoors. Sure, the drive on Trail Ridge Road is superb, and the views are thoroughly outstanding -- but the best views require hiking. This is a hiking park, and if you don't hike here, you don't get the true story behind the magic of this place.
When I was hiking here in June 2009, I ran across a woman who had literally hiked her shoes off. Her shoes had become so worn by walking through the forests and mountains that one of her shoes basically fell apart. The sole had disconnected from the rest of the shoe, rendering her barefoot. Given the rocky terrain and endless ground obstacles, this would seem to be an enormous inconvenience. As I walked up to her, quickly noticing her predicament, she looked up and smiled: "Can you spare a shoe?"
"Just kidding. Not the first time this has happened."
"How did it happen?"
"I've been out here for days. These shoes are five years old. Had to go sometime."
"Do you have a way to get back?"
"Yeah. I just follow this trail back to the trailhead."
"Uh, I mean, do you know somebody with an extra pair of shoes?"
"Nah. I don't think those are required to finish the trip, though."
"Don't worry. I'm not new at this."
And she began to walk off. She turned around and said, "Have you ever seen a place like this?" She asked the question rhetorically, as she turned around and never looked back.
This is the story of RMNP. Substantial inconveniences are challenges, not obstacles. People smell the mountain air, squint when they see the snow-capped peaks, and bend their ear toward the rushing mountain stream. To experience RMNP means to surrender yourself to it -- become the park. Hiking here means briefly living here. The beauty of this place is in more than the visual -- it's becoming a part of the environment.
The day before, I hiked to Mills and Black Lakes. This day was a stormy one, with a strong thunderstorm drenching me between Mills and Black Lakes (a future entry will describe this adventure). The clouds were beginning to build by the time I reached beautiful Mills Lake. As far as alpine lakes are concerned, RMNP can do no wrong. My personal preference is for smaller lakes, typically in cirques. Mills Lake is relatively big and is not in a cirque. But this lake has a lot going for it, including a stupendous backdrop of Longs Peak and adjoining mountains. It also is relatively narrow, enabling views from multiple spots along the shore that are wildly different. Finally, it is within a gorge, making the area seem surrounded by natural giants. Mills Lake is an ideal setting -- typical for this park.
The magic of this place, for me, was the color contrast. The darkening clouds beginning to cover up a deep blue sky, blanketing a brown-to-metallic mountain ridge, atop a reflective lake, forest, and remnant snow from the previous winter. Every color is bold, clashing in spectacularly natural ways. And it is so silent here. The wind doesn't even make noise. The scene is a real-life painting.
In such a setting, the senses begin to overwhelm. The flap of a bird's wings can echo in your head for minutes. The small waves of the lake seem to crash into the shore. A contrail looks completely out of place. The smell of the trees is powerful. Dripping water from a snowmelt waterfall reflects loudly across the water. Everything is exaggerated here.
This is what I mean by experiencing RMNP. Staying in your car or walking to a lookout is not what this place is about. The sights are glorious everywhere. But the magic of RMNP is the environment. Walking in this place allows you to become primal, absurdly aware of your senses -- one with nature. It allows you to observe things you would otherwise skip over.
With traveling, the best times usually involve simple, good things. The rush of a stream, the trickle of water dropping off a cliff, the reflection of the sky in the water, the pattern of snow on a mountainside, the waves of wind in the grass, the leaves gleaming in the sun, the cheerful warble of a hidden bird. Simple, good things make up this place -- and there's no other place like it in America.