Friday, May 27, 2016

Day hike near top of the world at RMNP

Alpine Ridge Trail at Rocky Mountain National Park
Topo map, Alpine Ridge Trail.
If you’re looking to prove your mettle, you may want to hike one of Rocky Mountain National Park’s shortest trails.

The 0.6-mile round trip Alpine Ridge Trail gains 300 feet while sitting at an altitude of 12,000 feet above sea level, where there’s significantly less oxygen than most of us are used to. Because of that, the route through the alpine tundra appropriately is nicknamed Huffer’s Hill.

Your reward? Panoramic vistas and tiny wildflowers…oh, and self-pride in knowing you did one of the toughest day hikes around.

To reach the trailhead, take U.S. Hwy. 34/Trail Ridge Road to Fall River Pass. Use the parking lot for the Alpine Visitor Center. For the more adventurous, the Old Fall River Road also leads to the visitor center. Both highways close during winter, usually mid-October to May.

The trailhead is at the eastern end of the parking lot where Old Fall River Road enters it. You’re at 11,796 feet elevation.

Much of the surface is either paved or a series of rock slabs that form a staircase across the tundra.

The park’s alpine tundra is a harsh environment that begins where the treeline ends at about 11,000 feet above sea level. Because of the rocky surface and extreme cold, plants growing here are diminuative. The majority are perennials while lichen clings to rocks.

This open meadow makes a great feeding ground for elk, and you’re likely to spot a few of them grazing or resting as you walk. Most of the other mammals here are far smaller, however, and you may be lucky enough to spot a chipmunk, snowshoe hare, gopher or a yellow-bellied marmot.

The trail’s destination is the top of an unnamed nob that offers 360 degree views of the surrounding area, including the pass to the southeast. To the east is another nob, known as Marmot Point. The Never Summer Mountains rise in the west.

When done taking in the sites, retrace your steps back to the parking lot. The visitor center offers displays about the tundra, a small ranger station, gift shop/bookstore, bathrooms, and a small snack shop.

Final note: If a thunderstom is approaching, skip the trail. As you’re above the treeline, you’ll be among the highest objects on the ground and a prime target for lightning.

Learn more about national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.