An unapologetic plant geek shares advice and opinions on gardening, the contrived and the natural landscape, as well as occasional topics from the other side of the gate.

August 26, 2009

The Never Summer Ranch

Near the western entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park lies the Kawuneeche Valley. Towering over the valley are the Never Summer Mountains, which I think is a great name even though summer does pay a visit, albeit brief. In 1917 German immigrants Sophia and John Holzwarth settled here after their Denver bar was closed due to prohibition. They soon turned their working ranch into a dude ranch named appropriately enough The Never Summer Ranch. Here they hosted city folk who wanted to hunt, fish, ride horses and generally play cowboys and cowgirls. In the early seventies the ranch became property of the National Park Service, which has now designated it as the Holzwarth Historic Site. Several of the older buildings from the original home site have been preserved and are open for tours. However, the newer lodge buildings located in the meadow were removed so the area could return to its natural state.

The first shot is looking south down the valley, across the meadow towards the town of Grand Lake. I kept expecting to hear dramatic music rise as Lorne Greene approached on horseback.

This little stream is actually the Colorado River only a few miles from its source. The picture below and the one that follows it were taken within yards of each other. Looking north a fast approaching storm was moving in, and to the south postcard skies.

Ligularia bigelovii - Bigelow's Groundsel

Oxytropis splendens - Showy Locoweed

Potentilla fruticosa - Shrubby Cinquefoil

Further up the valley we stopped late in the day at an area called Beaver Ponds. The setting sun was playing off the water and illuminating the emerging insects into little points of darting light.

Next Colorado Post: Lost Among The Lodgepoles

August 24, 2009

Posting From The Swamp

We interrupt our scheduled Colorado programming to bring you this weather bulletin. Southeastern Virginia is turning into a swamp! So far we have gotten 12" of rain and the month is not over yet. Normally we get about 48" for the whole year, so we have gotten 25% of our yearly total in less than a month. Please don't think I am complaining, especially when I reflect on what August of 2007 and 2008 were like, with little to no rain, and I am still very thankful.

We had planned on going to Corova, North Carolina this past weekend, but Hurricane Bill changed that for us. Although he was far out to sea, the forecasters predicted waves well above average, beach erosion and wash-overs on the Outer Banks. This is particularly problematic going to and from Corova. To get there you need to travel in a 4WD vehicle, on the beach, 11 miles past the last paved road. Instead we did some things around the house and around town, including heading out to First Landing State Park for some flatland, sea-level hiking with no danger of altitude sickness. Since this blog has been here before, I will post a few pictures from a different perspective.

Wherever you are, I hope that at the very least you get the weather you need, and if lucky, get what you want.

August 21, 2009

On Top Of The World

During our visit to Rocky Mountain National Park, we made several stops at the Alpine Visitor Center. This place is a very popular spot in the middle of the park, just off of Trail Ridge Rd. near its highest point. The Visitors Center has one building used mainly for information and education and one building that is a huge gift store, restaurant and snack bar. They are linked by an expansive stone plaza, and all three places share a spectacular view. The facility sits on the rim of a glacial cirque, which is sort of like a three sided bowl where glaciers were once formed before flowing down the valley.

The weather at the center can be very chilly, even in high summer, in fact they don't normally even get the road plowed until sometime in May. I was curious about why there were so many tall poles in the parking lot and along the road. The Sherpa Girls informed me that these poles, many of which exceeded 20', are used by the snow plow drivers as guides. It keeps helps keep them from plowing into stone walls or damaging buildings buried by the snow and from running off the road. There are few guardrails, and at many points a distracted driver has only about a foot between the edge of the pavement and a deadly plummet. I can't imagine having to plow 10-15' of snow off of a road you can't see, in a big unruly tractor, next to a sheer drop off - my hat is off to the professionals.

On each visit to the Center, the air was filled with many languages, most but not all were European. One large group was speaking something that sounded like Icelandic, and all of them had this impossibly blond hair. The parking lot was full of cars from all over North America, giant RVs, tourist buses and there were numerous bicyclists. I could not imagine pedaling through the park, fighting the inclines and dodging drivers distracted by the view - my other hat is off to the determined.

On our second visit, the clouds started rising up Fall River Valley towards the center, and by the time we left the view was completely obscured from the Visitor Center. However just below the rim on the western side a wind was blowing the clouds back into the cirque. One thing that will stick with me about the Rockies is how quickly the view, the weather and the biology can change, even differing on opposite sides of the same road or trail.

The last three shots were all taken from the same location within a day of each other.

(the cute critter is a Marmot, and he/she was working the crowd)

Before we leave the center, I need to turn away from the view and make a comment about some of the people that work in the park. Every NPS employee, park ranger and park volunteer we came in contact with was pleasant, knowledgeable and enthusiastic. While on the Ute trail one hiking ranger stopped to ask us how we were doing and did we have any questions. He even dug into his backpack to pull out one of his well-worn reference books to help us ID a wildflower, all the while carrying on a pleasant and informative conversation. This "park culture" among its employees and volunteers is amazing considering the general state of the underfunded park system. My last hat is off to the passionate.

This stood in stark contrast to the people who work for the private company that holds the contract to operate the snack bar and restaurant. The mainly young people employed there stayed very busy - very busy conversing with each other about which one of their fellow coworkers pulled their share, who was a slacker and whose shift was over when. Too busy to even look a paying customer in the eye, saying anything beyond "that will be $10.49", let alone uttering anything along the lines of "thank you". What was even more disconcerting was that the worst offenders where the American employees, the foreign-born summer help was more hospitable. Now that this grumpy, nearly-old man got this off of his retail oriented chest, we can get in the car and head back down.

Next Colorado Post: The Never Summer Ranch

August 18, 2009

The Ute Trail

Our trip to Colorado filled me with memories to replay over and over in my head - to pull out as needed for years to come. However, if I am asked to name the highlight of the trip, I would have to say it was my hike on the Ute Trail. In my mind, it was more beautiful than the grandest cathedral and as closer to God than you will ever get kneeling at an alter.

As the name implies it is an old Native American trail used by the Utes and Arapahos to get over the Continental Divide. We started at the Alpine Visitors Center (which we will visit in the next Colorado post) at about 11,700' in elevation. Being this high is quite a feat for someone who has spent the better portion of his life at sea level. The altitude will tax you if you are not acclimated to it, but fortunately I did much better on this trip than I did 5 years ago. Back then I thought I was having a heart attack while we were visiting Mt. Evans, which is over 14,000'. People are not the only ones who struggle in this environment. It amazes me that any plant or animal can survive here. There can be strong winds, harsh light and eight months of winter, with falling snow recorded in every month of the year. In several of the following pictures you can see there is still snow lingering around even on a late July day.

The first picture is the view from the trail head. If you click to enlarge (which can be done on any picture) you can make out the trail itself in the lower left hand corner. The foreground at first appears fairly barren and full of rocks as we are in alpine tundra where no trees will survive. At this point it really did not matter to me what the ground looked like, I just ate up that distant view of the mountains and the high drama skies. I could be satisfied with that for a lifetime. However, on closer inspection you realize that the ground is not just covered in rocks, but also in little treasures living their lives, trying to attract attention and reproduce in the few short weeks of summer. The wildflowers were everywhere and July is their peak month. This left me with a dilemma - should I look up, out and beyond or look down and between the rocks - oh, and also make sure you don't take a misstep off of the path. I managed to compromise and do a little of each.
Sherpa Girl B. helped me with the identification of the wildflowers, and I have also checked out the only two reference books in the Norfolk Public Library system on Rocky Mountain flora. I hope I have gotten the names correct, but if anyone knows different, please let me know. The first one is Lidia obtusiloba - Alpine Sandwort.
I was glad to see one of my favorite group of plants represented by this Sedum lanceolatum.

Castilleja occidentalis - Western Paintbursh Yellow Form
Pedicularis groenlandica - Elephanthead
The portion of the trail we took is just over 4.5 miles, and about a third of the way through we began dropping in elevation and struggling trees and small ponds began to appear as we entered Forest Canyon Pass.

Here at slightly lower elevations the environment becomes less inhospitable and the plants take advantage of that.

Elk were easily seen at higher elevations in groups made up mainly of cows and juveniles. We spent about 15 minutes watching a herd on a very distant (they looked like ants) and nearly vertical snowbank, in what could only be some sort of frolic, chasing each other in ever expanding and contracting formations. The only bull elk we saw was this one, and as we turned a corner on the trail, here he was in all his glory, totally unconcerned with our presence.
The lower we descended the taller the trees got, and at first we were looking down on their crowns, but eventually came closer to their roots.

For us the trail ended near this rock formation above Poudre Lake at Milner Pass.
If you are ever in the Park, this is a great hike, and since we started at the top and worked downward, it was not as strenuous as you might think, plus it is easy access from the main park road, Trail Ridge Rd. If you would like to see the remainder of my pictures, including more of the wildflowers, please visit my flickr page.

Next Colorado Post: The Alpine Visitors Center