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A Flatlander Changes Her Altitude

Jun 18, 13 A Flatlander Changes Her Altitude

Being a lifelong flatlander from the Texas Gulf Coast, I don’t have a lot of experience with mountains. The last time I saw the Rockies, I was six years old. I was quite excited that our son had moved to Denver, giving us a good excuse for a return visit. Our trip, the first week in June, gave me the chance to revel in mountain-ness. Those of you who are used to mountains may laugh at me, but I felt like I was on a voyage of discovery. The first interesting thing we saw was in New Mexico. There was a white cliff up ahead, and I was wondering what kind of mineral made it that color. As we got closer, I noticed that this “mineral” was also along the roadside. Then, I realized that whatever it was sat on top of the ground. Suddenly, I realized that it had to be snow or very dense hail. The temperature outside was about 54 degrees, so hail seems more likely, but it sure looked like snow. Unfortunately, there was no place to stop safely to see for sure. Perhaps someone who lives in the area can tell me.

Another thing I noticed as we traveled was the elevation-induced precipitation. It was so foggy between Raton, New Mexico and Pueblo, Colorado that we couldn’t see the mountains, though we were pretty sure they were there. We spent the night in Pueblo, and the next day there were the mountains! I could see how green the mountains to the west of I-25 were compared to the plains to the east of I-25. I used to teach my social studies students that warm air will hold more water than cool air, and so when the clouds are forced up the sides of the mountains they can’t hold all that water vapor, and so rain happens.  Here was the evidence right in front of me.

The next day we went to Rocky Mountain National Park. Wow! We saw flora and fauna that you just don’t see in East Texas: Ponderosa pine, aspens, bighorn sheep, and elk. We saw the sheep almost immediately after entering the park, but we didn’t see the elk until about 300 yards from the exit as we were leaving. We stopped for a closer look. Two of them were resting under trees. They were very impressive with their large velvety antlers. As we got carefully closer, one of the elk stood up. He was obviously not concerned about me or my camera. Believe me, I was watching for any sign that he was annoyed! It was more like he wanted to make sure I got a good profile shot.

The first thing we did in the park was hike the Alluvial Fan trail. It is an easy, 1/2 mile hike over reasonably level ground that was perfect for people like me still getting used to the thinner air. The alluvial fan was formed in 1982 when Lawn Lake dam failed. According to the Rocky Mountains National Park website, Lawn Lake was created at the end of the last ice age. When the dam failed, it released 29 million gallons of water down Roaring River to the valley floor, creating a 42-acre alluvial fan. The power of the water is evidenced by huge boulders larger than cars alongside the streambed. A quick-thinking park employee made a timely call to park rangers which kept the death toll down to three as the waters submerged campsites and flooded nearby Estes Park.

The best part of our visit to the park was driving the Trail Ridge Road. The Rocky Mountains National Park website explains that this road is the highest continuous motorway in the United States with a maximum elevation of 12,183 feet. Much of the road is above the tree line with a tundra ecosystem. I was in awe of the scenery. I felt like I was on top of the world. We were higher than some of the snow-capped mountains! Majestic peaks, lush valleys, mountain lakes, even a wetland, it’s all right there. In addition to lots of turnouts where you can stop and enjoy the scenery, there is a café and gift shop at the halfway point. I was rather amazed that the restrooms there were closed because the pipes were frozen…in June.

So, now I have come down from the mountaintop. I’m back home in the heat and humidity, looking forward to my next visit to the mountains.

Image Credit: National Park Service

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