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

 

 

 

 

Fresh Farm-to-Library Fare Served at Seeds Café in Boulder

I stopped into the Boulder Public Library yesterday to have coffee with a friend at Seeds Library Café and wound up having an iced latte and this gorgeous, mouthwatering Fruit Salad with Chèvre.

The Summer Fruit Salad with Chèvre at Seeds Library Café ©Laurel Kallenbach

The Summer Fruit Salad with Chèvre at Seeds Library Café ©Laurel Kallenbach

All the organic veggies are fresh from the Boulder County Farmer’s Market, which runs the café. This eye-popping salad contains Colorado peaches and cantaloupe, various radishes, summer greens, cucumbers, and Haystack goat chèvre. It was artistically arranged by one of the courteous staff, who topped off the colorful combo with edible flowers.

Seasonal soups, sandwiches, and baked goodies are all available to purchase at Seeds Library Café. And the seating—where you can read books while you sip or eat!—overlooks Boulder Creek, which flows beneath the bridgeway that connects the north and south sides of the library.

In July 2017, there’s construction around the library, so the view isn’t as tranquil or lovely as usual, but I couldn’t take my eyes off this salad, so I barely noticed!

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

River & Woods Chef Gets Creative with Sustainably Caught Fish

I didn’t even know I liked mackerel, much less sardines. But Chef Daniel Asher, of Boulder, Colorado’s River and Woods restaurant made me a convert—and proved his prowess in the kitchen.

Chef Daniel Asher, of River and Woods restaurant in Boulder, started a summer luncheon with sustainable Bela sardines and a smorgasbord of other complementary flavors. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Chef Daniel Asher, of River and Woods restaurant in Boulder, started a summer luncheon with sustainable Bela sardines and a smorgasbord of other complementary flavors. ©Laurel Kallenbach

At a special event, Asher showed off the Bela Seafood line, a family-owned business that has fished off the Algarve coast of Portugal for generations. Bela’s tuna, mackerel, and sardines are certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council.

“I’m always on the lookout for sustainably produced foods that are truly delicious,” says Asher. “We cook sustainably here at River and Woods, but flavor comes first, so we’re very picky.”

Chef Daniel Asher ©Laurel Kallenbach

Chef Daniel Asher ©Laurel Kallenbach

Apparently, Bela’s fish—which comes packed in organic extra-virgin olive oil in cans or jars—passed the Asher test. And, as it turns out, mine. Chef Asher started us out with sardines, presented on a gorgeous smorgasbord table with smashed avocado, baby kale, fresh lemon, crisp-fried onions, and nori, with which we could make little sardine burritos.

Hesitantly, I chose a small sardine in olive oil with organic piri-piri (an African chili pepper used in Portugal) and drenched it with lemon and added avocado. To my surprise, the sardine was mild, and I went back for seconds!

Grilled sardines, flavorful chowders, mackerel, tuna are the local dishes in the Algarve, Portugal’s hottest tourist destination. (Someday, when I visit the Algarve, I’m told I must try the cataplana—a combination of sausage, clams, and ham stirred together with paprika, onions and coriander.) Of course, sardines are the staple of almost every dish in coastal Portugal.

And here’s the scoop on Bela’s sardines: they’re wild-caught by purse-seine netting, washed by hand, and then cooked prior to canning. They’re hand-packed within hours of the catch and never frozen. And these little fish are good for you: A serving of sardines delivers 11 grams of protein, omega-3s, vitamin D and calcium all in one, low-calorie meal!

A Tuna Waldorf Salad featuring Bela skipjack tuna: yet another of Chef Asher's sustainable creations. ©Laurel Kallenbach

A Tuna Waldorf Salad featuring Bela skipjack tuna: yet another of Chef Asher’s sustainable creations. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Bring on the Seafood

Next Chef Asher served bamboo cones filled with a Bela Skipjack Tuna Waldorf Salad with cinnamon-coated almonds, mizuna, Just Mayo vegan “mayonnaise,” rosemary-olive oil “caviar” and local carrot shavings. All of us “samplers” raved over this whimsical salad. And the tuna is pole-and-line caught.

Finally the pièce de résistance: Mackerel Paella that blended Mediterranean influences such as charred Valencia oranges with Colorado-grown quinoa and gourmet mushrooms from Mile-High Fungi. The mackerel was wonderful, and this oily fish is also earning kudos for its high omega-3 content.

Paella with Bela-brand mackerel at River and Woods ©Laurel Kallenbach

Paella with Bela-brand mackerel at River and Woods ©Laurel Kallenbach

Come on Over to River and Woods

Aside from enjoying the wonderful, sustainable fish dishes, I loved spending some time at River and Woods. The creators behind the restaurant strive for sustainable and local ingredients, and this friendly eatery aspires to creating what they call “community-sourced cuisine,” featuring Colorado comfort foods with innovative twists. For instance, meatloaf gets a makeover, and voilà, you’ve got Lamb and Oat Meatloaf with pumpkin-seed salsa verde and crispy sweet-potato bites. And don’t miss the Seasonal Deviled Eggs with rosemary oil pearls, English peas, breakfast radish, pea shoots, and microgreens.

In summer, you can catch live music in River and Woods’ “backyard’ dining area on Wednesday nights. And chances are I’ll be there too!

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

More about restaurants that serve sustainable seafood:

Portugal's Algarve Region: where Bela Seafood is caught and packaged. This is Marinha Beach, a popular tourist spot. Photo Turismo de Portugal

Portugal’s Algarve Region: where Bela Seafood is caught and packaged. This is Marinha Beach, a popular tourist spot. Photo Turismo de Portugal

 

 

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: