After spending almost a week on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park, I still hadn’t had enough of the mountains. Steamboat was beautiful, but the ridiculously expensive RV park where I was staying was too far in the opposite direction from the hiking trails, requiring a tedious drive through traffic to get to any areas suitable for a hike. A look at the map reveals it won’t be that far to backtrack from the I25 corridor to Estes Park to visit the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park.
I go online knowing campgrounds inside the park book up six months in advance. By some fluke, there is an entire week of consecutive nights in the same spot available in the very popular Moraine Campground. It had to be a cancellation. My nervous knuckles and sweaty palms race across the keyboard to claim the space before it’s sold out like the other 246 sites.
I am particularly happy about being in the Moraine Campground because of its bus stop on the east side shuttle system. Not only will this save the Little Tracker from having to climb the mountains and do the road work to get to the trail heads, but I won’t have to jockey for position in RMNP’s over-crowded parking areas.
But even more fun is the freedom that the shuttle service brings for doing one way hikes without having to backtrack. Rocky Mountain National Park has 350 miles of trails, many of them which intersect like tangents of a spider web. Having access to the shuttle system means I can take off in many directions without having to worry about getting myself back to the same trail head. Just head down any trail that feeds in to a bus stop, which ultimately takes me back to the Winnie!
My first morning on the shuttle’s Moraine Line, I am the only person on the bus. I remark to the driver that I got an early start, fearing the bus would be crowded. I express my delight to find that the park is much quieter than I anticipated. He responds, “That’s because you hit it at the right time! Here in the park, we call this ‘the season of the newly wed and the nearly dead!’ It’s the time of year when the kids are all back in school, and the only people who have vacation time are young people without children, or the retirees. So….the newly wed and the nearly dead!”
I nearly fell over dead with laughter!
But…it’s not just the two-legged newlyweds. Love is in the air! It’s mating season for the elk, and love songs can be heard throughout the evening. Cooler temperatures and shorter days signal the start of the mating season called the “rut.” Bull elk can be heard bugling in an effort to attract females or challenge another bull.
The elk spends all day grazing, and consumes on average 20 lbs of grasses, pine needles, bark, and shrubs. During the summer growth cycle, a healthy diet can mean antler growth for the bull elk at a rate of an inch per day. They grow a new pair of antlers every year which can weigh up to 40 lbs, then shed them in early spring to start over. I find it fascinating that the antlers actually have feeling before they harden, as the “velvet” which provides blood supply to the antlers begins to itch when it sheds. Knowing this will certainly add to my discomfort when viewing the “rack wall” at Cabelas.
I am fortunate enough to run into a large herd of elk on two of my hikes in two different places, though likely the same herd. The first time, I can hear them long before I can see them. Along the path, I can hear the bugling, but having little experience with the signals, I have no idea how far away they are, or how many there are. I am stunned to crest the trail and see them so close, and in such large numbers. There must have been fifty of them.
The next day, I choose a different hike in close proximity in hopes of seeing them again, and come upon them just as they are crossing the river. I try to keep my distance, but they are right alongside the path, so I wait, while standing behind several large boulders. Meanwhile, it’s fascinating just listening and watching the bull and his harem interact. The cows and calves make mewing sounds and chirp back and forth at each other like a small town social.
I enjoy hearing the bugling sound, a screeching scream of the bull elk, just as I enjoy the howl of the coyote, especially in the wee hours when I am safe inside the Winnie. When the night is still and quiet beneath the thumbnail moon, their sounds make me feel like I am someplace in the wild.
“Without parks and outdoor life, all that is best in civilization will be smothered. To save ourselves, to prevent our perishing, to enable us to live at our best and happiest, parks are necessary to find ourselves, in which to think and hope to dream and plan, to rest and resolve.” Enos Mills, father of the RMNP, internationally known naturalist, author, lecturer, and nature guide.