The mountains within the park fall naturally in two groupings. The Front Range cuts the southern boundary midway and runs north to Longs Peak, where it swings westerly and carries the continental divide out of the park at its northwestern corner.
The Mummy Range occupies the park’s entire north end. The two are joined by a ridge 11,500 feet in altitude, over which the Fall River Road is building to connect the east and the west sides of the park.
The lesser of these two, the Mummy Range, is a mountain group of distinguished beauty. Its climax is an arc of gray monsters, Ypsilon Mountain, 13,507 feet, Mount Fairchild, 13,502 feet, Hagues Peak, 13,562 feet, and Mount Dunraven, 12,326 feet; these gather around Mummy Mountain with its 13,413 feet. A noble company, indeed, herded in close comrade-ship, the centre of many square miles of summits scarcely less. Ypsilon’s big Greek letter, outlined in perpetual snow, is one of the famous landmarks of the northern end. Hagues Peak supports Hallett Glacier, the most interesting in the park. Dunraven, aloof and of slenderer outline, offers marked contrast to the enormous sprawling bulk of Mummy, always portentous, often capped with clouds. The range is split by many fine canyons and dotted with glacial lakes, an undeveloped wilderness designed by kindly nature for summer exploration.
But it is the Front Range, the snowy pinnacled rampart, which commands profoundest attention.
From Specimen Mountain in the far northwest,, a spill of lava, now the haunt of mountain sheep, the continental divide southward piles climax upon climax. Following it at an elevation well exceeding twelve thousand feet, the hardy, venturesome climber looks westward down a slope of bald granite, thickly strewn with boulders; eastward he gazes into a succession of gigantic gorges dropping upon the east, forest grown, lake-set canyons deep in mid-foreground, the great plateau spreading to its foothills far beyond the canyons, with now and then a sun glint from some irrigation pond beyond the foothills on the misty plains of eastern Colorado. Past the monolith of Terra Tomah Peak, with its fine glacial gorge of many lakes, past the Sprague Glacier, largest of the several shrunken fields of moving ice which still remain, he finds, from the summit of Flattop Mountain, a broad spectacle of real sublimity.
But there is a greater viewpoint close at hand. Crossing the Flattop Trail which here ascends from the settlements below on its way to the west side, and skirting the top of the Tyndall Glacier, a scramble of four hundred feet lands him on the summit of Hallett Peak, 12,725 feet in altitude. Here indeed is reward. Below him lies the sheer abyss of the Tyndall Gorge, Dream Lake, a drop of turquoise in its depths; beyond it a moraine reaches out upon the plateausix miles in length, a mile and more in width, nearly a thousand feet in height, holding Bierstadt Lake upon its level forested crown, an eloquent reminder of that ancient time when enormous glaciers ripped the granite from these gorges to heap it in long winding hills upon the plains below. Turning southerly, the Wild Gardens further spread before his gaze, a tumble of granite masses rising from lake-dotted, richly forested bottoms. The entrance to Loch Vale, gem canyon of the Rockies, lies in the valley foreground. Adjoining it, the entrance to Glacier Gorge, showing one of its several lakes, rests in peaceful contrast with its impressive eastern wall, a long, winding, sharp-edged buttress pushing southward and upward to support the northern shoulder of the monster, Longs Peak, whose squared summit, from here for all the world like a chef’s cap, outlines sharply against the sky. Hallett Peak welcomes the climber to the Heart of the Rockies at perhaps their most gorgeous point.
South of Hallett difficult going will disclose new viewpoints of supreme wildness. TOtis Peak, nearly as high as Hallett, looks down upon the Andrews Glacier, and displays the length of Loch Vale, at whose head towers Taylor Peak, a giant exceeding thirteen thousand feet.
I have not sketched this tour of the continental divide as a suggestion for travel, for there. are no trails, and none but the mountaineer, experienced in pioneering, could accomplish it with pleasure and success, but as a convenient mode of picturing the glories of the continental divide. Some day a trail, even perhaps a road, for one is practicable, should make it fully accessible to the greater public. Meantime Flattop Trail invites valley dwellers of all degrees, afoot and horse back, up to a point on the divide from which Hallett’s summit and its stupendous view is no great conquest.
The gorges of the Wild Gardens are most enjoyed from below. Trails of no difficulty lead from the settlements to Fern and TOdessa Lakes in a canyon unsurpassed; to Bear Lake at the outlet of the Tyndall Gorge; to Loch Vale, whose flower-carpeted terraces and cirque lakelets, Sky Pond and the Lake of Glass, are encircled with mighty canyon walls; and to Glacier Gorge, which leads to the foot of Longs Peak’s western precipice. These are spots, each a day’s round trip from convenient over-night hotels, which deserve all the fame that will be theirs when the people come to know them, for as yet only a few hundreds a summer of Rocky Mountain’s hundred thousand take the trouble to visit them.
To better understand the charm of these gray monsters, and the valleys and, chasms between their knees, we must pause a moment to picture what architects call the planting, for trees and shrubs and flowers play as important a part in the informal architectural scheme of the Front Range as they do in the formality of a palace. It will be recalled that the zones of vegetation from the equator to the frozen ice fields of the far north find their counterparts in altitude. The foothills bordering the Rocky Mountain National Park lie in the austral zone of our middle and eastern states; its splendid east-side plateau and inter-mountain valleys represent the luxuriance of the Canadian zone; its mountains pass rapidly up in a few thousand feet through the Hudsonian zone, including timber-line at about 11,500 feet; and its highest summits carry only the mosses, lichens, stunted grasses, and tiny alpine flowerets of the Arctic Zone.
Thus one may walk waist deep through the marvellous wild flower meadows of Loch Vale, bordered by luxuriant forests of majestic Engelmann spruce, pines, firs, junipers, and many deciduous shrubs, and look upward at the gradations of all vegetation to the arctic seas.
Especially interesting is the revelation when one takes it in order, climbing into the range. The Fall River Road displays it, but not dramatically; the forest approach is too long, the climb into the Hudsonian Zone too short, and not typical. The same is true of the trail up beautiful Forest Canyon. The reverse is true of the Ute Trail, which brings one too quickly to the stupendous arctic summit of Trail Ridge. The Flattop Trail is in many respects the most satisfying, particularly if one takes the time to make the summit of Hallett Peak, and hunts for arctic flowerets on the way. But one may also accomplish the purpose in Loch Vale by climbing all the way to Sky Pond, at the very foot of steep little Taylor Glacier, or by ascending Glacier Gorge to its head, or by climbing the Twin Sisters, or Longs Peak as far as Boulder Field, or up the St. Vrain valley to the top of Meadow Mountain, or Mount Copeland.
All of these ascents are made by fair trails, and all display the fascinating spectacle of timber-line, which in Rocky Mountain National Park, I believe, attains its most satisfying popular expression; by which I mean that here the panorama of the everlasting struggle between the ambitious climbing forests and the winter gales of the summits seems to be condensed and summarized, to borrow a figure from the text-books, as I have not happened to find it elsewhere. Following up some sheltered forested ravine to its head, we swing out upon the wind-swept slopes leading straight to the summit. Snow patches increase in size and number as the conifers thin and shrink. Presently the trees bend eastward, permanently misshaped by the icy winter blasts. Presently they curve in semi-circles, or rise bravely in the lee of some great rock, to bend at right angles from its top. Here and there are full-grown trees growing prostrate, like a rug, upon the ground.
Close to the summit trees shrink to the size of shrubs, but some of these have heavy trunks a few feet high, and doubtless have attained their fulness of development. Gradually they thin and disappear, giving place to wiry, powerful, deciduous shrubs, and these in turn to growths still smaller. There are forests of willows just above Rocky Mountain’s timber-line, two or three inches tall, and many acres in extent.
From the Front Range, well in the south of the park, a spur of toothed granite peaks springs two miles eastward to the monarch of the park, Longs Peak. It is this position in advance of the range, as much as the advantage of its 14,255 feet of altitude, which enables this famous mountain to become the climax of every east-side view.
Longs Peak has a remarkable personality. It is an architectural creation, a solid granite temple, strongly buttressed upon four sides. From every point of view it is profoundly different, but always consistent and recognizable. Seen from the east, it is supported on either side by mountains of majesty. Joined with it on the north, Mount Lady Washington rises 13,269 feet, the cleft between their summits being the way of the trail to Longs Peak summit. Merging with it in mass upon the south, Mount Meeker rises 13,911 feet. TOnce the three were one monster mountain. Frosts and rains carried off the crust strata, bared the granite core, and chipped it into three summits, while a glacier of large size gouged out of its middle the abyss which divides the mountains, and carved the precipice, which drops twenty-four hundred feet from Longs Peak summit to Chasm Lake. The Chasm, which is easily reached by trail from the hotels at the mountain’s foot, is one of the wildest places in America. It may be explored in a day.
Mountain climbing is becoming the fashion in Rocky Mountain National Park among those who never climbed before, and it will not be many years before its inmost recesses are penetrated by innumerable trampers and campers. The “stunt” of the park is the ascent of Longs Peak. This is no particular matter for the experienced, for the trail is well worn, and the ascent may be made on horseback to the boulder field, less than two thousand feet from the summit; but to the inexperienced it appears an undertaking of first magnitude. From the boulder field the trail carries out upon a long sharp slant which drops into the precipice of Glacier Gorge, and ascends the box-like summit cap by a shelf trail which sometimes has terrors for the unaccustomed. Several hundred persons make the ascent each summer without accident, including many women and a few children. The one risk is that accidental snow obscure the trail; but Longs Peak is not often ascended without a guide.
The view from the summit of the entire national park, of the splendid range south which should be in the park but is not, of the foothills and pond-spotted plains in the east, of Denver and her mountain back-ground, and of the Medicine Bow and other ranges west of the park, is one of the country’s great spectacles. Longs Peak is sometimes climbed at night for the sunrise.
The six miles of range between Longs Peak and the southern boundary of the park show five towering snow-spotted mountains of noble beauty, Mount Alice, Tanima Peak, Mahana Peak, Ouzel Peak, and Mount Copeland. Tributary to the Wild Basin, which corresponds, south of Longs Peak, to the Wild Gardens north of it, are gorges of loveliness the waters of whose exquisite lakes swell St. Vrain Creek.
The Wild Basin is one of Rocky Mountain’s lands of the future. The entire west side is another, for, except for the lively settlement at Grand Lake, its peaks and canyons, meadows, lakes, and valleys are seldom visited. It is natural that the east side, with its broader plateaus and showier range, should have the first development, but no accessible country of the splendid beauty of the west side can long remain neglected. Its unique feature is the broad and beautiful valley of the North Fork of the Grand River, here starting for its great adventure in the Grand Canyon of the Colorado.