Connecting the quiet west side of Rocky Mountain National Park with its more popular east side near Estes Park is the NPS’ highest paved road, Trail Ridge Road. The scenic, twisting, winding road traverses through the heart of the park from Estes Park on the east side to Grand Lake on the west. It’s the only way to get from one side of the park to the other. But more noteworthy, it’s the highest paved road in our national park system. The two lane road is 48 miles long, ten of those miles above tree line, topping out at 12,183’.
Although I am not comfortable driving the rig towing across the road, I do want to drive a portion of it, if only the Tracker is up for the job. So I get an early start while the air is cool and crowds are light, check all the fluid levels, and start the gradual climb up the switchbacks, up 10,759′ and over Milner Pass across the Continental Divide, winding in and out tall lodgepole pines in the shadow of the Never Summer Mountains. The Tracker handles the climb like a champ, and before I know it, I come to the turnout for the Alpine Visitor Center.
Given the alpine tundra is home to completely different flora and fauna than the lower regions of Rocky Mountain National Park, the tundra region has its own visitor center. At 11,796’, it’s the highest visitor center in the national park system. Only open for five months of the year, the facility is fully self contained, relying on generator power, a small dam to catch snow melt for its water cache, and a daily sewage removal system.
As per my usual MO, I stop into the Alpine Visitor Center to ask about recommended hikes in the area. The Ranger recommends the Ute Trail, and out an back trail once believed to be used by the Ute Indians, four miles to Milner Pass. “You’ll have a really good chance of seeing alpine gentian on the trail. It’s the last wildflower to bloom for the season.” I am intrigued by the notion of this last bastion of summer, and am determined to locate it. However, I have no idea what it looks like, I just like the notion. 😉 So I go to the bookshelf in the visitor center to look it up:
“The elegant blossoms of arctic gentian scattered throughout the meadow turf community signal the end of the brief alpine summer. This gentian is one of the last plants to bloom on the tundra, and as its name implies, it is also found throughout the Arctic. The purplish flower buds unfold into a vase-shaped white cup streaked and dotted with purple.”
Sounds lovely! I shall make it my quest!
I hike almost the full four miles to Milner Pass and don’t see a sign of the alpine gentian. In fact, I am now below tree line, so no chance. I’m disappointed that I may have missed it, and even more disappointed that if the last flower has bloomed, summer’s ending may be even sooner than I realize.
I continue on up the Trail Ridge Road, past the highest point at 12,183’, and on down to Rock Cut, a pull out alongside the road where a cut was blasted through the rugged side of the mountain to make way for the road.
Rock Cut turnout is also the location of the 2 mile RT Tundra Communities Trail, which offers a chance to get up and out in the midst of the tundra while staying on a formal path. (Even though there are signs everywhere warning that it takes 100 years to recover, kids still run across the tundra, trampling it in their game of chase.) I take the path up, slowly scanning the ground for the alpine gentian. Like all alpine flowers, they hug the ground where it can be up to 30° warmer. At first, they continue to elude me. But then I see a clump of them right alongside the trail! Once I get a lock on them, it seems as if they are everywhere!
Along the same trail, I come to a kiosk with a passage from Ann Zwinger, author of Land Above the Trees:
“I cannot help but wonder if the Indian women and children who used this part of the trail enjoyed the plants that they saw if they had names for them, and if so, what they were. And I wonder, when they walked towards the plains at the end of summer, if they too felt a sense of sadness at summer’s ending.”
My quest to find the apline gentian now complete, I too can’t help but feel a sense of sadness as well that not only are these beautiful ephemeral blooms fleeting, so are the days of beloved summertime…