Monday, August 15, 2016

Explore Rocky Mountain NP’s alpine tundras

Ute Trail. Photo courtesy of Rocky Mountain NPS.
With so many of Rocky Mountain National Park’s mountains above the tree line, there is plenty of alpine tundra to explore. Indeed, about a third of the national park is in that ecosystem.

The alpine begins at 11,000 feet elevation. It’s mostly treeless with only the hardiest of plants able to grow there. That’s still about 200 species of grasses, forbs and mosses.

Some of those areas and the trails that will get you there include:
Chapin Creek – Elk often can been seen grazing in the tundra on the 1.6-miles round trip (to the creek) Chapin Creek Trail. Park off the side of Old Fall River Road, about 9 miles west of the U.S. Hwy. 34 turnoff.
Flattop Mountain – The rocky summit of Flaptop Mountain sits at 12,324 feet. To reach the tundra, from the Bear Lake Trailhead hike the east side of Bear Lake then go right/east onto the Bear Lake Trail; next turn left/west onto the Flat Top Trail.
Longs Peak – The alpine tundra summit is the national park’s highest point. It’s certainly no day hike, as the East Longs Peaks Trail runs 13.6 miles one-way. Pick up the trail just past the ranger station at the end of Longs Peak Road.
Milner Pass – The 0.6-mile round trip walk 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. Pick up the trail at the Alpine Visitor Center.
Trail Ridge – For centuries, Arapaho and Ute Indians walked this tundra route between their winter and summer hunting grounds. The 4.0-mile one-way Ute Trail follows part of this ancient journey; the trailhead is off of U.S. Hwy 34 between the Rainbow Curve Outlook and the Forest Canyon Overlook.

Learn more about the park’s day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at Rocky Mountain National Park guidebook.