It’s a beautiful noise — all this running water. It tumbles down the stream bed fast and high, so loud it’s hard to carry on a conversation without shouting.
This is a sound that you rarely hear in Southern California, but here in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, there’s plenty of this aqua-music.
It’s been raining a bunch recently (unusual for May and June), and what happens in Colorado is good for California.
Upstream a bit from where we stand is Adams Falls, where thousands of gallons cascade over boulders and through a narrow canyon. This fast-moving stream eventually flows into Grand Lake just outside the park, then into Shadow Mountain Lake, the origin of the Colorado River.
From there, the water flows 1,400 miles to the Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez). On the way, the Colorado River supplies life-sustaining water to most of the country’s thirsty Southwest. The many dams and diversions along the way mean that, by the time the river reaches Mexico, it’s only a trickle.
We continue our drive north on Trail Ridge Road on the park’s west side. This is the highest major “highway” (it’s actually a two-lane road) in North America.
We began in the town of Grand Lake, population 472, which is surrounded on three sides by the park and national forest.
On the south is Grand Lake, created millions of years ago by two glaciers that scraped their way down either side of the valley and carved out a depression that eventually became a very deep lake.
At the other end of Trail Ridge Road is the town of Estes Park.
The 48 miles in between provides some of the most spectacular scenery the continent has to offer, like the pullout at Medicine Bow Curve. The view from here looks like the top of the world. Snow-covered peaks with jagged silhouettes gives me a breathtaking backdrop for the photos I text home.
Most of these mountains stand well over 13,000 feet and many are strung along the Continental Divide, the point where rivers and streams flow either east or west, depending on which side of the mountains they are.
About halfway to Estes Park, we stop at the Alpine Visitor Center at 11,796 feet above sea level. Hordes of visitors congregate here to check out the 10-foot-high snow banks — leftovers from this past winter — and to buy postcards and souvenirs.
They discover that at this altitude, you don’t move very quickly without feeling it.
Not far past the visitor center, the road reaches 12,183 feet, its highest point.
Humans arrived in this area about 10,000 years ago when the glaciers began retreating, and 6,000 years ago, the Ute, or Mountain People, lived off the land and followed the herds of moose and elk.
European American fur trappers arrived in the early 1800s and hunted beavers until the price of pelts fell in the 1840s. Colorado’s gold rush in 1858 brought in more people, but few found fortunes. Eventually settlers and visitors realized it is the scenery that is so valuable.
Now, thanks to forward-thinking Colorado citizens who realized that this beautiful area needed protecting for future generations, Rocky Mountain National Park is celebrating its centennial.
Last year, about 3.4 million people came to the park to (we hope) unplug and discover the vast solitude of the mountains and what they have to offer: crisp air; glacier-fed lakes; flower-carpeted meadows; alpine wildflowers that survive on the tundra; wilderness trails; campsites among the towering trees; and if you’re lucky, sightings of big-horned sheep, stately moose and a serene elk.
Next column: Living on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park: The town of Grand Lake.
E’Louise Ondash is a freelance writer living in North County. Tell her about your travels at firstname.lastname@example.org