It's only a mile roundtrip, and the trailhead is easy to reach, but it almost surely is the highest elevation hike most folks will do in their lives, topping out at over 12,000 feet -- if you climb atop a rock outcrop.
The Tundra Communities Trail along Rocky Mountain National Park's Trail Ridge Road can be one of the more arduous hikes you'll do, and not just if you've come up from sea level and are wondering what happened to the oxygen content in the air. No, another problem you might encounter, depending on the day, are winds gusting above 50 mph at an elevation where the normally cool temperatures can feel downright cold due to the windchill, and where cold temperatures can turn deadly.
But this short hike should be part of any visit to Rocky Mountain during the summer months for what it shows off. There are, of course, the spectacular panoramas of the roof of the park, as the horizon claims Mount Chapin (12,454 feet), Sundance Mountain (12,466 feet), Terra Tomah Mountain (12,718 feet), Mount Julian (12,928 feet), and Specimen Mountain (12,489 feet).
But what's really interesting is what's at your feet, and in some cases you have to practically get down on your hands and knees to get a good look at things. What you're looking for are such miniature wildflowers as Alpine Forget-Me-Nots, Alpine avens, and Pearly everlasting. These are not your typical garden flowers, but teeny tiny flowers, some with blooms no larger than a pencil eraser that all but hide the stems.
Well-placed signs along the asphalt-paved trail explain the hardiness of these plants, noting that "at ground level, plants are protected from the harsh elements -- winds may be thirty miles an hour at eye level, but only three miles an hour near your feet."
And, "many alpine plants contain anthocyanin, a chemical 'antrifreeze' that converts sunlight into heat. Plant hairs provide a furry coat that reduces the loss of heat and moisture. These hairs also protect plants from the intense ultraviolet radiation that is twice what it is at sea level."
Plants that grow here on the tundra have to be incredibly hardy and able to get by with little moisture. Strong, hurricane-force winds can scour away any snow that falls, leaving open expanses of tundra, in essence creating an "alpine desert" that receives little more than 2 inches of mosture a year, according to park authorities. "Dense cushion and mat plants survive best here; their moisture-seeking roots penetrate four to five feet into the rocky ground," reads one sign.
The landscape also is home to wildlife. There are yellow-bellied marmots and white-tailed ptarmigan, chicken-like birds that head into "miniature snow caves" to wait out winter storms.
From the small parking area along Trail Ridge Road the trail quickly heads upslope, pulling you across the tundra and showing off the park's roof in all directions. Along the half-mile-long trail you pass not only small clusters of wildflowers, and possibly ptarmigans if you have sharp eyes, but also "Mushroom Rocks," an outcrop of rocks that rises abruptly above the tundra.
The rocks, also known in geology circles as "tors," had their origins deep in some sea where sedimentary layers of sand, silt, and clay eventually were squeezed into a schist that in turn was underlaid by intrusive magma that formed granite. The "mushroom" appearance came as the granite "stem" eroded more quickly than the schist cap.
At the far end of the trail you'll find a rock outcrop that is topped by a "mountain index" that locates mountain ranges in Rocky Mountain National Park, the Colorado River, and the distances to other national parks -- Yellowstone (380), Great Smoky Mountains (1,290 miles), Mesa Verde (265 miles), Yosemite (770), and Isle Royale (1,000 miles), for example -- and which notes the elevation: 12,304 feet.
On this rock outcrop you'll also find a bronze plaque honoring Roger Wolcott Toll, who served as superintendent of Mount Raininer, Rocky Mountain, and Yellowstone national parks.
"Civil engineer, naturalist, mountaineer, whose love of the high country was manifested by helping to make it more accessible for you and your friends."
After returning to your vehicle, head west a bit further on Trail Ridge Road to the Trail Ridge Store and Cafe, where you can get in out of the wind, warm up with a hot drink or lunch, and pick up any souvenirs you might not yet have.