Rocky Mountain National Park: It Shames the Andes and Alps
l ain't never seen them, but my common sense tells me the Andes is foothills, and the Alps is for children to climb.
So said mountain man Del Gue in one of the memorable lines from Jeremiah Johnson, a 1972 movie that helped rocket Robert Redford to stardom for his rugged good looks. Del Gue, of course, was comparing the Andes and the Alps to the Rocky Mountains.
The only shame if you're a fan of the Rocky Mountains was that the movie was shot primarily in Utah, with the backdrop of the Wasatch Range and the pink and white sandstone ramparts around Zion National Park. Technically, that backdrop falls just outside the Rocky Mountain Province and is geologically associated with the Colorado Plateau.
Surely, the more rugged metamorphic peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park would have been just as superb, if not more realistic, for a movie about 19th century trappers in the Rocky Mountains. Anyone who's traveled Trail Ridge Road through Rocky Mountain National Park, seen both the snow-capped peaks that rise above 14,000 feet and the cold, relatively barren tundra, and felt the biting wind in their faces, knows this landscape would have been perfect for the movie.
But if you take Del Gue's reference to the Rockies, and the opening lines of the movie, in which Jeremiah Johnson is told to "head west and turn left at the Rocky Mountains," there's PR enough for the Rockies in general, and for those who saw the movie and turned to their maps, probably a little left over for Rocky Mountain National Park.
Not that Rocky Mountain needed the PR. After all, when Jeremiah Johnson hit the big screen the national park was already 57 years old, having been designated on January 26, 1915. Heck, Rocky Mountain passed the 1 million mark in visitation in 1948, when the World War II soldiers were starting to get serious about seeing this country. Visitation to the park eclipsed 2 million annually in 1968, and by the time Redford was learning how to skin 'griz the park was drawing 2.5 million visitors a year.
If you're one of the tens of millions who has visited Rocky Mountain over the years, you can thank Enos Mills for the pleasure. Though born in Kansas, Mills headed West at an early age (with hopes the drier climate would improve his sickly health) and fell in love with Longs Peak and the surrounding landscape. By profession he was a mountain guide, leading customers more than 250 times to the top of 14,255-foot Longs, but his passion was seeing the landscape protected as a national park.
A friend of John Muir, Mills shared his zeal for conservation and spent years championing the concept of a "Rocky Mountain National Park." That goal was realized on this date in 1915, and when it was done Mills forever after carried the title of "Father of Rocky Mountain National Park."
Unfortunately, that designation did not cast a protective net around the park from everything and anything. Lately Rocky Mountain has been in the news for its burgeoning elk herds, herds that, without a predator to keep their population under control, are exacting a harsh price on Rocky Mountain's vegetation.
For now the park is resorting to sharp-shooters and birth control in an effort to keep the elk numbers in proper ratio with the park's other resources, but some groups are hoping wolves some day will be the ultimate solution.
Air quality also has been a concern for the park. When Superintendent Vaughn Baker worked to address the problem, signing a letter with Colorado officials that outlined what he felt was the upper limit of nitrogen loads in the park, the Colorado Springs newspaper took him to task for trying to play an "environmental czar."
All that said, Rocky Mountain is not to be missed if you get the chance to visit. The high country remains relatively pristine, progress is being made to officially designate nearly 250,000 park acres as wilderness, and the backcountry is a wonderful escape from the 21st century.