The Wild Life of Rocky Mountain National Park

When I was a kid, family vacations always involved camping at state and national parks. We lived in Louisville, Kentucky, where our interaction with wildlife was limited to sightings of cardinals, robins, squirrels, lightning bugs, cicadas, garter snakes, and the occasional raccoon.

A bull elk crosses Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park as travelers gawk in awe. ©Kelly Prendergast

A bull elk crosses Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park as visitors gawk in awe. ©Kelly Prendergast

That’s probably the wildlife status of most people, but if you visit national parks, the repertoire of wildlife expands dramatically. Eagles, marmots, prairie dogs, bears, coyotes, antelope, manatee, wolves, herons, pine marten, wolverines, mountain lions, vultures, bighorn sheep, sand cranes.

Now I live in Colorado, where I have easy access to nearby Rocky Mountain National Park, which received 4.4 million human visitors in 2017. People from all over the world travel to the peaks and alpine meadows hungering for nature and hoping to spot the state flower, the columbine, and wild animals. The bigger, the better.

In summer, there’s bumper-to-bumper traffic on Trail Ridge Road, which runs through Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s the highest continuous motorway in the United States, with a maximum elevation of 12,183 feet. There are frequent pullovers and parking areas along Trail Ridge Road so you can get out and marvel atthe spectacular views of the powerful mountain ranges around you.

Visitors in a parking lot along Trail Ridge Road photograph the passing elk herd. ©Kelly Prendergast

Visitors in a parking lot along Trail Ridge Road photograph the passing elk herd. ©Kelly Prendergast

Surprised by Moose

In July, my husband and friends went hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park to enjoy the scenery and escape the heat of the city. They weren’t surprised to encounter deer and elk along the way. My parents live in the town of Estes Park, the gateway to the eastern entrance of Rocky Mountain Park. In Estes Park, herds of elk and deer hang out in their neighborhood subdivision and the nearby golf course. Once a bobcat took a nap on my parents’ deck. Coyotes occasionally hunt deer near their house. Beaver used to build dams along Fish Creek until the 2013 flood turned the placid stream into a river. (A few tentative beaver seem to be moving back in and engineering their water lodges.)

My husband and our friend Kelly Prendergast (who took the photos for the blog) drove in the early morning over Trail Ridge Road to the west side of the Continental Divide for their hike. (Locals know that to beat the traffic into the park, you have to get up at dawn. Rocky Mountain’s Bear Lake parking lot routinely fills up with cars by 7:00 a.m. And it’s not unusual to encounter a queue of a hundred or more cars lined up at the Park Entrance by 9:00 a.m. to pay the fee to get in.

On any given summer day, park visitors should expect to have abundant, repeated sightings of herds of wild Homo sapiens.

This Mama Moose was on alert as hikers stumbled upon her and her baby. The hikers stopped, turned away and took a different path so as not to disturb the family. ©Kelly Prendergast

This Mama Moose was on alert as hikers came near her and her baby. The hikers stopped, turned away and took a different path so as not to disturb the family. ©Kelly Prendergast

Yet despite the crush of sunscreen-slathered, photo-snapping, soda-slurping humanity, Rocky Mountain Park usually delivers actual encounters with magnificent quadrupeds. When they reached their trailhead, Ken and friends were surprised to see a mother and baby moose, just standing there. Moose can be very dangerous, especially moms with young, so all the hikers kept quiet and moved slowly so as not to alarm the massive animals, and let them move along as they pleased.

Just a bit later, on another fork in the trail, another pair of moose appeared! That’s the magic of the wilderness, and generally moose prefer to be in quieter, more marshy areas of the park. (And by quiet, I mean there are fewer bipeds.)

Another female moose nuzzles her long-legged offspring right at the trailhead to Green Mountain. ©Kelly Prendergast

Another female moose nuzzles her long-legged offspring right at the trailhead to Green Mountain. ©Kelly Prendergast

Elk, on the other hand, are abundant even in areas where there are a lot of people. When a muscle-bound elk bull packing a full rack of sharp antlers decides to walk in front of your car, you let him! In Rocky Mountain Park, if traffic slows and cars get jumbled on the sides of lanes, you can be sure it’s an elk jam—even if you’re too far away to see the mammals. Courageous tourists get out of their cars to shoot videos; the more timid remain in their cars and peep wide-eyed through the windows.

I can’t say I’m super comfortable with 4.4 million of my own species in a land preserve for wild flora and fauna. Most of us visitors are not indigenous to these lands, and it breaks my heart when tiny tundra flowers are trodden. But I get it: People crave the outdoors; they love to breathe fresh, pine-needle-scented air and to jump on rocks or wade across a glacier stream. To be in nature is to feel alive—to become a T-shirt-wearing creature of the wilderness for an hour or two, or eight or ten.

This is why we need national parks—to strip off neckties and power suits—and rediscover our own nature, our own inner moose or magpie, elk or hawk or chipmunk. In nature, we commune with our planet and its infinite diversity. And we’re all better for it.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Moose Crossing: This species loves marshes and lakes. This moose was spotted in the Colorado River along Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. ©Kelly Prendergast

Moose Crossing: This species loves marshes and lakes. My husband and friends spotted this moose in the Colorado River along Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. ©Kelly Prendergast

 

 

 

 

Discover Painted Hand Pueblo: Canyons of the Ancients

Underneath the rocky overhang of Painted Hand Pueblo is the faint, painted outline of a hand that gave this ruin its name. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Underneath the rocky overhang of Painted Hand Pueblo is the faint, painted outline of a hand that gave this ruin its name. ©Laurel Kallenbach

[May 2017 update: The Trump administration has placed Canyons of the Ancients National Monument under review for possible removal from the National Landscape Conservation System, which would endanger the monument’s irreplaceable, ancient archaeological sites.]

If you’re driving through Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in southwestern Colorado, don’t miss a sweet little ruin down a mile of dirt road off Road 10. (It’s not too far outside of Hovenweep National Monument, another enchanting site for prehistoric ruins in the Four Corners area.

My husband, Ken, and I bumped down the road (it can be a little rough) until we found the Painted Hand Pueblo trail leading to a lovely 13th-century Ancestral Pueblo (Anasazi) tower gracefully perched over the canyon.

We parked and then took the short ¼-mile hike. The beginning is easy, leading through piñon and juniper forest. Scrambling down the banded sandstone to reach the tower’s base was more challenging (I was glad to have sturdy hiking boots!). However, the view of the stacked-brick tower beckoned.

As we explored and enjoyed the tower, it was Ken who found and pointed out the faint shape of three white hands painted on rock—the reason for the ruins’ name. The lonely call of a hawk overhead got me wondering about the long-ago artist who left handprints handprint on this peaceful valley.

What’s There: Painted Hand has interpretive signs and brochures at its trailhead. There’s no water or toilets—and the road is rough. (We made it in our Toyota Camry, but if the roads are muddy, you might need a four-wheel drive.)

About Canyons of the Ancients National Monument

Declared a National Monument in 2000, Canyons of the Ancients contains some of the most scenic and archaeological important land in the American Southwest. This unique, federally protected area—176,056 acres—contains the highest known density of archaeological sites in the United States. More than 6,000 ancient sites including cliff dwellings, kivas, and rock art have been identified. 

For more information on the region, visit Mesa Verde Country visitor information bureau.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

(originally published October 2008)

Read more about my travels in America’s national parks and monuments:

Explore a Ruined Pueblo in Canyons of the Ancients National Monument

Ken explores some of the passages at the ruin of Lowry Pueblo. © Laurel Kallenbach

Ken explores some of the passages at the ruin of Lowry Pueblo. © Laurel Kallenbach

[May 2017 update: The Trump administration is placing Canyons of the Ancients National Monument under review for possible removal from the National Landscape Conservation System, which would endanger the monument’s irreplaceable, ancient archaeological sites.]

Along Colorado Highway 491, pinto and Anasazi bean fields line the road—as do spectacular sunflowers. (Dried Anasazi beans, sold as local souvenirs, are an heirloom variety grown from seeds found in ancient pottery.)

At the hamlet of Pleasant View, Ken and I followed Road CC nine miles (on asphalt and gravel) to Lowry Pueblo, just one of Canyons of the Ancients’ multitude of archaeological sites, most of which are unexplored.

This settlement was home to about 40 people in the late 1100s, and the stabilized masonry walls mark small rooms.

Lowry has one of the region’s largest kivas—47 feet in diameter—with floor stones laid in a decorative pattern. The signs tell about the various interpretations of the patterns, which supposedly tell a story.

There’s no gas or food in Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, so pack food and lots of water. And be sure to have a hat, sunglasses, long-sleeved shirt and pants, and plenty of sunscreen to shield you from the intense sun. Sturdy footwear and good socks will protect you from rocks and cactus.

What’s There: Lowry Pueblo is a small site with reconstructed ruins to explore. There are interpretive signs, brochures, a picnic table and pit toilets—but no water.

About Canyons of the Ancients National Monument

Declared a National Monument in 2000, Canyons of the Ancients contains some of the most scenic and archaeologically important land in the American Southwest. This unique, federally protected area—176,056 acres—contains the highest known density of archaeological sites in the United States. More than 6,000 ancient sites including cliff dwellings, kivas, and rock art have been identified. 

For more information on the region, visit Mesa Verde Country visitor information bureau.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

(Originally published on October 18, 2008)

Read more about my travels in America’s national parks and monuments:

The Anasazi Treasures of Canyons of the Ancients

Kokopelli, a fertility character who appears in much ancient Ancestral Puebloan art, adorns this bowl. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Kokopelli, a fertility character who appears in much ancient Ancestral Puebloan art, adorns this bowl. ©Laurel Kallenbach

[April 26, 2017 update: The Trump administration is placing Canyons of the Ancients National Monument under review for possible removal from the National Landscape Conservation System, which would endanger irreplaceable, ancient archaeological sites. The Bureau of Land Management still allows for grazing and oil and gas development on parts of the monument, just as it did before President Clinton designated the federal protection of this land in  June of 2000.]

Ten miles from Cortez, Colorado, is the Anasazi Heritage Center, the visitor’s center and museum for Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. This first-rate museum should be the first stop for every visitor who wants to understand the archaeological treasures of the Anasazi. (The Anasazi are now called Ancestral Puebloans because these ancient people were the ancestors of current Pueblo tribes.)

Ancestral Puebloan pottery ©Laurel Kallenbach

Ancestral Puebloan pottery ©Laurel Kallenbach

First, some background on Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. Declared a National Monument in 2000, this unique, federally protected area—176,056 acres—contains the highest known density of archaeological sites in the United States. More than 6,000 ancient sites including cliff dwellings, kivas, and rock art have been identified. 

I’m a museum buff, and this one lets you see the best of the artifacts—which you won’t see in the field. I learned about kivas (ceremonial, subterranean, circular rooms) and how corn was ground by hand with stones. I even eye-balled some pottery sherds under a microscope. And I marveled at beautifully preserved examples of 900-year-old pottery and tools.

I also loved the philosophy of education and cross-cultural understanding here. There’s a children’s discovery center where you can touch a dog-hair weaving and grind corn between rocks as the Ancestral Puebloans did.

“In archaeology, a rock’s not just a rock,” says Victoria Atkins, the Heritage Center’s interpretive specialist. “It tells a story about what people in the past ate, how they lived, how they spent their time. We try to add a human touch to understanding the past.”

A 10-minute film, “Visit with Respect,” does just that. It outlines rules for preserving ancient sites: Don’t climb on or eat near the ruins, never disturb or remove bits of pottery or rock that you find, and stay on paths. It also illustrates how the ruined villages are sacred to today’s Pueblo tribes—Hopi, Acoma, Laguna—who believe the ruins are home to their ancestors’ spirits. These people ask the spirits’ permission before entering sacred spaces—and offer thanks when they leave.

My husband and I got our first chance to greet the spirits of the ancestors at Escalante Pueblo, located just up the hill from the Anasazi Heritage Center. From this height, we surveyed McPhee Reservoir and Mesa Verde.

Pitchers, cups and ladels on display at the Anasazi Heritage Center museum. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Pitchers, cups and ladels on display at the Anasazi Heritage Center museum. ©Laurel Kallenbach

We also admired the rocky profile of Sleeping Ute Mountain, a range of peaks resembling a fallen warrior with his arms crossed over his chest. He wears a different blanket each season: white in winter, green in spring and summer, and gold in fall. The legend says the warrior will someday rise again.

One note for visitors to Canyons of the Ancients National Monument: there’s no fee to visit, but no water is available, and there are no campgrounds (primitive roadside camping is allowed).

For more information on the region, visit Mesa Verde Country visitor information bureau.

—Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Originally published October 2008

Read more about my travels in America’s national parks and monuments: