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As told to Nina Kokotas Hahn
OUR GUIDE, DAVID SOLZMAN: Associate professor emeritus, Univeristy of Illinois at Chicago
A geographer and the author of The Chicago River: An Illustrated History and Guide to the River and Its Waterways, Solzman, 78, has visited Rocky Mountain National Park every year since 1941.
GO NOW: August is a prime time to visit the park: Wildflowers still bloom early in the month, and daytime temperatures reach the upper 70s—although snow is always a possibility at the higher elevations.
When I was growing up in Omaha, the best day of the year was not Christmas or my birthday but the day my family jumped in the car and drove to Rocky Mountain National Park. Climbing past rolling hills that suddenly thrust up into mountainous peaks thrilled me beyond measure. I’m still a kid today: Flying into Denver, I’ve got my nose pressed against the window, waiting for those mountains to appear.
As a geographer, I constantly marvel at the remarkable variety of the park. It spans 415 square miles, traversing more than three ecosystems and straddling the Continental Divide, with elevations that skyrocket from 7,700 feet all the way up to the 14,259-foot summit of Longs Peak. It has 147 lakes (most formed by glacial retreat), and the headwaters of the Colorado River are found there. It’s also home to bighorn sheep, elk, black bears, and coyotes, not to mention hundreds of species of birds.
The most astounding feature, though, might be the alpine tundra, the high-altitude ecosystem that dominates the third of the park that sits above 10,500 feet. The air is light and cold, and the climate’s too harsh for trees, yet alpine flowers, like miniature forget-me-nots, flourish close to the ground. You can reach it by car on Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous paved highway in North America, topping out at 12,183 feet. I like to drive it at the break of dawn, when it’s just me and the elk, or at twilight, when everybody else is coming down. Along the way, look for lakes dubbed “giant footsteps.” In some places, you’ll see four and five lakes stacked one above the other like a staircase.
The biggest surprise is always the nighttime sky. Walk out at midnight and you will practically fall down from the vertigo—the panoply of stars is that staggering.
Photograph: Holger Leue/Lonely Planet Images