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.
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.
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.
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.)
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