12 July 2010
A Day on the Tundra
As we neared tree line, views of the tundra covered peaks came into view. So green at this time of year! Despite it being the peak of summer there are still many snow fields on the slopes. When I say green, I'm thinking in terms of the high alpine zone known as the tundra. Above tree line at elevations of 11,000 feet and higher, the average summer temperatures are in the upper 40's. One of the things I learned on this trip is that trees can't survive where the summer temps average below 50 degrees F! The tiny plants here often grow for decades and some for centuries. So, though it may not seem that green, when you think about the odds this elevation zone has to overcome, frigid temps, low oxygen, relentless wind, deep snow, permafrost and a growing season of 8 to 12 weeks, it really is quite amazingly green!
Near the Continental Divide, we took a short hike out on the tundra where the wild flowers were in bloom!
At this altitude, plants grow low to the ground with deep roots that travel down through the permafrost. These alpine clover are only a couple of inches high.
This is Alpine Phlox in lovely pale shades of blue and white, only an inch high.
Alpine Avens covers the ground in many places creating a golden carpet. These are about 3" tall.
One of my favorites is the Rose Campion, in places there are brilliant mounds of pink. This one averages only 1 to 1 1/2" tall.
The deep frost heaves rocks up to the surface such as this large quartz boulder. Many of the rocks are covered in a rainbow of lichen.
At the top of Trail Ridge, the roof of the Visitor Center is covered with a grid of heavy logs which provide strength for the roof to withstand the immense snow that drifts over the top in the winter. i've been there early in the spring when the snow was so deep that it still flowed well over the height of the roof and deep narrow paths were shoveled out to the doorways.
Heading back down to the valleys on the main roadway, we passed this large herd of healthy elk. They summer on the tundra, feasting on the plants here. The herds are enormous and there are many who are concerned that they are over grazing the tundra, especially the tundra willows which are home to the ptarmigan.
From the top of Trail Ridge, the views of other mountain peaks and high mountain lakes are spectacular. The lakes in this view are only accessible by the most determined backpacking climbers, who must first obtain limited back country permits and then must pack in, with little to no trail to follow.
I love that there are still areas in Rocky Mountain National Park that have been left so pristine. It's part of what makes this park one of my very favorite places. Each time I visit, there are new things to see, or old things to see again with a new perspective! And always, there is lots of wildlife to see. We saw Big Horn Sheep, Elk, Mule Deer, coyote, Least Chipmunks, Golden Mantled Ground Squirrels, Chickaree Squirrels and many varieties of birds on this trip! This view of the Mummy Range (of mountains) was taken at the top of Trail Ridge. The carpet of flowers was gorgeous!/p>