The most scenic highway in Rocky Mountain National Park: to Estes Park

On our way back the weather was sunny and it gave us different views of the mountains, lakes, forest and tundra. The pallet and colors changed and became brighter and more vibrant.
There are a few overlooks on the shore of Lake Granby, which is another jewel of the area. There are views of picturesque islands, bays, lagoons and a marina with boats and white sailed yachts. We liked it most early in the morning, when mist covered the lake, the islands, which were overgrown by fir trees. The surrounding mountains had at that time a milky blue opaque vail.

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It was very peaceful and quiet. We enjoyed the lake’s undisturbed dreamy beauty. However, there is a little mystery at the bottom of the lake. In 1904 there was a town called Monarch. The Rocky Mountain Lumber Company was the main industry of Monarch and a railroad provided for the transportation of timber. There were other businesses in Monarch, such as a sawmill and a box factory. After a fire in 1908 destroyed the box factory, the businesses collapsed. In 1950 the Colorado River was dammed to provide water to the east of the Rockies and the town of Monarch went under water, which is now Lake Granby. Highway 34 was built on part of the railroad tracks.

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We also saw a herd of mule deer in Kawuneeche valley on our way back. They were with their young ones and one deer had a tracking collar.

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Farview curve overlook is located at an elevation of 10,120 feet. There is a great view of Never Summer Mountains and Kawuneeche Valley, which in the Arapahoe language means “valley of the coyote.” The valley was carved and formed by a glacier, which receded about 14,000 years ago. The Colorado River starts at Kawuneeche Valley, which is rich in wildlife.

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On our way back we stopped again at Lake Irene. The water sparkled under the sun and a meadow on the shore of the lake blossomed with white and blue flowers.

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The next stop was Medicine Bow Curve overlook, which presented a view of mountains and a glimpse of the Cache La Poudre River winding below in the valley. There is also a trail to the right of the parking lot.

The highest point of Trail Ridge Road is 12,183 feet high above sea level. The road wound around the top of the Rockies. Here we saw a beautiful, mossy, and treeless alpine tundra, as well as barren mountain tops with a blue sky as a backdrop. We could see slowly moving cars the size of a fly and small lakes surrounded by fir trees adorning the slopes of the mountains.

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The highest overlook on the Trail Ridge Road was breathtaking in all its aspects. It was at an elevation of 12,180 feet and is named Rock Cut overlook. Here there is an interpretive trail, called Tundra Communities Trail, which is about 0.5 miles long and has a slight elevation gain. The gain in elevation is only 175 feet, but it feels like much more due to the low level of oxygen and extremely strong gusts of wind which blows typically 30 miles per hour. It makes it difficult to walk sometimes. In winter the winds can blow up to 150 miles per hour. The gusts of winds on the mountain top are so strong that it feels like your mind and soul was blown away. The ultraviolet radiation is about twice as strong as at sea level. It is crucial to protect your skin with sunscreen and your eyes with dark sunglasses.

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Millions of years ago this alpine arctic region of the Rockies was at the bottom of a sea. It was lifted by forces of nature to become ancient plains and subsequently the tops of mountains. Glaciers never reached that high. Due to seasonal temperature fluctuation the soil, saturated with moisture, froze and thawed many times during the year. This process pushed rocks to the surface. Now they form a bizarre landscape of piled broken granite rocks with patches of lichens, moss, sedges and seasonal wildflowers, growing during a short arctic summer. This summer lasts from 6 to 8 weeks. Lichens and flowers which grow in high altitude produce a small amount of acid, which erodes the rocks.

The tops of the mountains were covered with permafrost during the last ice age. After the glaciers retreated lichens were the first to grow in this area. In winter strong winds blow snow from this alpine tundra and it receives very little moisture. The plants developed root systems that penetrated 4 to 5 feet deep into the ground.

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The Tundra Communities Trail is marked by large rocks in the shape of mushrooms. They were formed at the bottom of an ancient sea by two types of geological strata: dark schist tops and lighter colored granite stems. During volcanic activity hot magma from the depth of the earth penetrated the schist and after cooling off it became granite. When this area was lifted by geologic activity and became a plateau strong winds eroded the granite more quickly than the schist tops.

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Lichens and moss growing in crevices between the rocks form pretty colorful ground cover. We found a tiny yellow flower even though it was the end of the summer season. Plants growing in arctic tundra adapted to a harsh environment by producing anthocyanin, which is a natural antifreeze and converts sunlight into heat. Tundra plants also have tiny hairs which help them keep warmth and moister and which also protects them from ultraviolet radiation.

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Wildlife in the tundra consists of bighorn sheep, elk, and ptarmigan. Ptarmigan is a bird that changes its feathers from white in winter to speckled brown in summer. There are also marmot, pika, rosy finch, American pipit, and horned lark. John Muir once said: “Who can imagine beauty so fine in so savage a place, but gardens are blooming in all sorts of nooks and hollows.”

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Ute and Arapaho Indians traversed this terrain on their way to the summer hunting grounds on the Great Plains.
The sky was clear and there was not a single cloud. Maybe there was a strong wind that blew them away or perhaps we were above the clouds.

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This place is so bizarre. It leaves you breathless, speechless and wondering about whether you are on Earth, in another world, or somewhere in between.

Here you can watch videos of the Tundra Communities Trail and the overlook.

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