Ground squirrels, much like squirrels are the entertainers of the forest but what to us is entertainment, for the chipmunk is the work of storing food for the winter. They just move so fast it appears comical to us but make no mistake, these are serious omnivores whose diet includes nuts, insects, grain, small frogs, fungi, worms and bird eggs. One of the things that makes them so cute is also one of its greatest food-gathering assets. Their cheek pouches expand their entire face but make it possible for them to carry a lot more food to their dens or food caches.
These cute critters play an important part in the ecosystems they are part of and feeding them is a selfish way to get a photo or make yourself feel like a do-gooder. You are actually hurting them by forging bad habits and taking them from what they were put on this planet to do. We know deep down that a carrot is better for us than a candy bar but many still choose the latter. Chipmunks do not know candy bars and the like unless we expose them to them. Let ground squirrels eat what is right for them and keep man-made garbage solely for polluting our own bodies.
While camping at Odessa Lake, I was nearly attacked by a ground squirrel. Ok, stop laughing. It wasn't really an attack but it did run right up my back when I had it turned to the little critter. He was looking for a hand out and had obviously gotten many or he would not be so aggressive. Do NOT feed wildlife, please.
The North American Elk, not to be confused with the European Elk, which is really the North American Moose here. Where is here? Confused yet? Well, I was the first time someone started calling what I call a moose an elk. I don't actually mind a different name, it's just confusing when it's the same name as the one I use for something else. At the end of the day, it's just another big deer, right? Well, not as big a member of the deer family as the moose but still plenty big. And don't start calling them reindeer either, that's caribou here in North America and they are just not the same though they look a lot more like that than a moose, which looks quite a bit like a horse come to think of it, not to confuse you. ;)
So, the North American Elk is one of the largest members of the deer family and can reach 5 feet at the shoulder and weigh 1000 lbs. Males grow antlers each spring and prepare to rut and mate in fall. They drop them in winter to conserve energy as these bony appendages grow up to an inch a day! Man, just imagine if they did not shed them and its implications on the following mating season!
The Rocky Mountain National Park population is a great success story. Hunted to extinction by 1890 by settlers to the Estes Park area for their meat, 49 elk were brought from Yellowstone before the area was a national park. To further the cause, many of their natural predators like grizzlies and wolves were hunted to elimination. This led to a swift rebound and today, there are estimated to be 3200 elk in summer and early fall.
While we had seen elk in many of the national parks over the summer of 2008, the most sensational sightings were by far in Rocky Mountain National Park in September of that year.
As Autumn falls upon Rocky National Park, elk descend from higher elevations to more expansive meadows for the annual mating season. This is when the largest males, often weighing in at more than 1000 lbs, start to strut their stuff and scare off smaller competitors with their impressive antlers. They become quite territorial about their “harems” and spend all their energy defending them from rivals. Luckily, actual fights are rare, the animals realizing the potential for life-threatening injury. In general, the smaller animals defer to the larger ones though they still like to test the waters for when their time comes.
We enjoyed watching this routine every morning and evening during our visit to Rocky Mountain National Park in late September 2008. It seemed the big males would never have enough energy to actually mate with all the running around they had to do. They seemed positively exhausted at times and they are particularly susceptible to the hardships of winter which are upon them no sooner than the mating season is over.
The rutting and mating seasons are very much intertwined. Though rutting sounds like two big males ramming into each others head, the term rut comes from the Latin for “roar.” Also known as bugling which is perhaps more descriptive of its sound, it is the sound made by males to intimidate each other as well as attract females. Appropriately enough, though younger males and even females can emit the sound, the large bulls have the most fierce bugle. It is thought to be a form of physical release for this big males during this highly stressful period where they are run ragged defending their turf.
This was one of the real highlights of our trip to Rocky Mountain National Park in late September 2008. We would lie in our tent and listen to this magnificent calls of nature all night. Sometimes it sounded like a bull was right by our tent and surely elk were wandering through our campground as it was in one of the best places to observe the rutting season, Moraine Park.
There is a miniature theme park here with rides for the little ones, and for the adults, gondolas and a funicular that will take you above and into the Royal Gorge. At 1,053 ft above the Arkansas River, this is the highest suspension bridge in the world.
Bear Lake is found at the end of a 10-mile one-way road from the Beaver Meadows Entrance Station. Along the road you will pass through Moraine and Hollowell parks, past Sprague Lake and Glacier Gorge Junction.
Bear Lake is nestled in a high mountain basin and on its shore are some very picturesque picnic sites. A 1/2 mile trail entirely circles the small lake, offering spectacular views all the way around. I was at Bear Lake with my son, Chris, on a late spring day when much of the trail was still covered with snow, very deep in places, making hiking difficult. Because of the limited parking and high popularity of the park, a shuttle bus provides access during the peak season.
Bear Lake shuttle stop covered in snow. There is no shuttle in the wintertime, as the lack of crowds renders this service unnecessary. The stop is used in wintertime by snowshoers and skiiers who are gearing up for a trek down one of the area's icy trails.
The mountains are the big scenic draw in this park, but equally popular are the sprawling alpine meadows, teeming with wildflowers and elk in the summertime. As the road climbs to the tundra, wildflowers and wildlife are scarse. But in the relatively lower lying areas, both are plentiful.
In addition to Long's Peak, the famous fourteener, numerous towering peaks adorn Rocky's landscape. The peaks are best viewed from along Trail Ridge Road, where the road climbs alongside the tundra. But, when snow makes the road largely impassible, striking views of these mountains can also be found along the lower elevations of Bear Lake Road.
Moraine Park is located on the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park. The park is actually a valley and the Big Thompson river runs through it. Best of all, the road is open year round (Trail Ridge Road, which runs through RMNP, is closed during the winter.)
This is one-way road, a bit crowded, that was the original road over the mountains in 1920. Today, we can take a historic trip back to when the 'Tin-Lizzie' and the Model A were the cars of choice. There are many opportunities to stop and enjoy the view, but only if you're driving the road on a less busy day. Every turn-out was crowded and cars were continuously going by.
For pictures and comments, please see my
Fall River Road (lower half) travelogue, and my
Fall River Road (upper half) travelogue.
Okay, it's not that far off the beaten path. It's along the north side access from Estes Park. Sheep Lake is where the Mountain Sheep come down from the mountain for water. Because of the regular occurance of the sheep in this area, there is now an information station, parking and signs 'Drive slowly, sheep crossing'. We didn't see any, but there were many people who had seen the sheep that day.
Be sure to look down at your feet - and not just up in the air around you. It might be easy to overlook the profusion of wildflowers that cover the hillsides for a few weeks every summer. Nature takes full advantage of whatever limited sunlight and "warmth" it can get.
Separated from the rest of Rocky Mountain National Park by Highway 7, this mountain does not receive as much attention as others in the area do. There is an easy trailhead access off the highway. It is a few miles south of Estes Park, CO. The hike is moderate to strenuous, depending on skill level. Most of this is in the forest, however, the summits are just above timberline. There will, weather permitting, be spectacular views of surrounding peaks--especially Longs Peak from the summit. This hike is best done in the morning during the summer.
Off of Highway 7 as you drive south from Estes Park are some entrances to the park. The Wild Basin entrance does not receive anything near the degree of activity that Trail Ridge Road gets. However, you have a great chance to see wildlife and there are some very nice trails in this area.