Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Rocky Mountain National Park

I was on a business trip to Denver in 2008 with a buddy of mine from work. We had a few hours one afternoon with nothing to do so I suggested we put our four cylinder rental car through its paces and make the drive to the visitor's center at Rocky Mountain National Park.

The park is one of my favorite places in the world. In national park circles this is a little like saying PF Chang's or Maggiano's is your favorite restaurant. Rocky Mountain National Park lacks the isolated beauty of Acadia or Zion and its proximity to Denver makes it a certainty that, especially in the summer, one will have to travel well off the beaten path to find that delicious moment of solace so many national park goers seek when they plan a trip. And to travel off said beaten path, a back country pass must be applied for years in advance.

It's atypical for me to say this, but that's part of why I love the park so much. I've never been there, whether in a car for a brief visit or on foot with just a few awed friends for company two days from the trailhead, and not seen something profoundly beautiful. The park's magic is in its accessibility. On a hazy, claustrophobic day in Denver, one can look west and know that just an hour away, hiding impossibly behind the particulate in the air, is a panorama of natural beauty on a scale that puts daily life in its proper perspective.

My work buddy had never been west of the Mississippi River and was anxious as soon as the road tilted slightly upwards as we weaved toward Estes Park. I made the most of this by repeatedly taking my hands off the steering wheel to fiddle with the radio and point out elk or cyclists or breaks in the tree line. He countered by repeatedly imploring me to keep both hands on the wheel and ease off the accelerator a bit as he snapped pictures out the car window.

I learned long ago that any photos I took would insult my memory of what the views actually looked like. There's just no way to capture the totality of such an impressive landscape and the depth and colors and crispness of the mountains always seems too compressed and demagnified through the lens of a camera. Maybe I'm just a bad photographer. In spite of this, I had packed my camera just in case, but I had no plans to use it. I just wanted to get to the visitor's center and sit and watch and be still.

It was late afternoon and the sun was starting to set. The Alpine Visitor's Center at Rocky Mountain National Park is right at 12,000 feet and even in August it gets really cold in the evening. We were not dressed for this at all, but a lenticular cloud was hovering right above the peak at the visitor's center and as the sun dipped, it did this:

Sometimes you're just in the right place at the right time. The photos still don't do it justice. 


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