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 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


  1. Once again, incredible photos, some of those shots are absolutely masterpieces. You have such an eye for landscapes. Wish I had such a capable vision.--Randy

  2. Can you go back this winter to get some snow shots?

  3. What magnificent scenes, especially with the clouds lying low on the mountainsides.

    I remember being on the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier and I don't ever want to go there again! lol I don't know if there are guardrails now, but there weren't then, and I found it most nerve-wracking!

  4. Oooooooooo, that is awesome. It is nice that the employees at the park are so helpful and courteous. As for the restaurant employees, that reminds me of kids at the university that I come in contact with on a daily basis. I have to agree that our foreign students are generally more polite than the American ones.

  5. Nearly old man??? Feeling a little curmudgeon-y? Maybe it is the thin air? The views are wonderful --they remind me of the Alps at Hitler's Eagle's Nest....trying to get a photo and the clouds are in the way.
    It is literally on top of the world!

  6. More great shots, thanks for sharing all the beautiful views. I had the same experience when we went on a cruise a few years back. There were employees from all parts of the world, but the American ones were not as hospitable. Doesn't say much for us huh? ;)

  7. Hi, Les, you were a long way from home!

    Did you see that everyone wins a Cobrahead weeder who entered on my blog giveaway? Please send me your email address so I can get you the info on how to get yours.

  8. Randy,
    Thanks for the great praise. I enjoy the process and that helps.

    Right now, that is not in the works. On top of that, I am many things, but a cold weather person is not one of them.

    Sweet Bay,
    I was thankful I did not have to drive, but that did not make it any easier to look out the window. When we were stopped, all was fine.

    I hire several young people a year at work. It is becoming increasingly more difficult to find people who have a knack for working with the public. Perhaps it is the result of too much screen time.

    On my trip we marked the last year of the fourties for me. So I think nearly-old will do for the next decade at least.

    Like you, I am afraid that this attitude among our young folk may be indicative of something that shouldn't be. Perhaps a little less privilege and less of a sense of entitlement may change things.

    Thanks again!!!


  9. Absolutely stunning photos, Les, the Colorado Tourism Board should hire you! And you have a good excuse not to brave cold weather to come back to RMNP in the winter - Trail Ridge Road is closed usually by October when they get their first heavy snowfall. And in May I wouldn't have that snowplow job up there for anything in the world!

  10. These are great shots and I wish I was there too - just been in the mountains in Austria!

  11. All those clouds swirling around the mountains remind me of volcanoes out-gassing.

    Colorado is a beautiful state.

  12. So nice to be above the clouds for a day isn't it? What--you don't have Icelandic folk coming by your nursery to chit chat? It's only cause they haven't heard your dog sing.

  13. Lost,
    Please tell the board I am willing whenever they want to fly me out, put me up in a nice hotel and send me to good restaurants.

    Thanks for stopping by. Will you be sharing your pics from Austria?

    I kept thinking while I was up there that it looked very volcanic, minus the fumes and lava.

    We do have a few accents at the garden center. Unfortunately Loretta has to be feel completely comfortable to peform.


  14. I really enjoyed all the Colorado posts. Your comment on the American employees was telling. At the High Line the other night, the only person I saw really looking at the plants was a young European woman (blond, perhaps Swedish) who was trying to determine what Pycnanthemum muticum was. I told her in English and botanical Latin, and she really appreciated knowing. From appearances, most of the Americans were not interested in the plants. Sort of a self-satisfied, complacent attitude to the whole affair. Maybe I'm a curmudgeon.

  15. James,
    I believe I am a curmudgeon-in-training and think the whole country's attitude sometimes is one of self satisfied complacency. To any new situation "how will this affect me", "will I have to change my life".


  16. Les, I am loving your Colorado series and stunning photos. On flickr, too. You might like to see a fellow botanizer on there: Happy you liked Lens Culture--finally a photo mag/site that isn't super esoteric or super "sell your photos now!!!"
    ~a fellow curmudgeon in training.
    p.s. Buddy could not figure out where Loretta's howling was coming from. Now I think he's freaked by my laptop!

  17. Lynn,
    Thanks for the flikr link, I added it to my contacts and will explore it later. I have not had time to poke around the millions of members yet. I hope Loretta has not traumatized Buddy. She is a very crazed dog and when I play the clip of her singing with herself, she sings again, forming a trio.