They are our nation’s greatest natural treasure. Celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service with a look at some of the Southwest’s best, from Arches and Big Bend to Zion. First up: Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado
By Tim Neville
The road out of the Fall River Visitor Center on the eastern side of Rocky Mountain National Park doesn’t look like much at first. The views are often blocked by trees. The asphalt bolts instead of swoops. From the seat of a bicycle it’s easy to believe things can’t get too tough.
A few years ago I found myself in that park and on that road, the Trail Ridge Road, giddily zooming along to the sigh of a cool summer morning julienned in my spokes. It’d been years since I’d sat in the saddle of a road bike, but the movement, the rhythm, felt deeply familiar. Now, older and mellower, I settled in, strong and confident, just a dude in tights so tight they could make the wildflowers blush.
Some friends and I had come to Rocky specifically to ride Trail Ridge, or 42 of its 48 miles anyway. Built in the 1930s, the road today must surely count among our country’s finest test pieces, especially for cyclists in a national park. Though the grade never goes beyond 7 percent, which is still pretty tough, about a quarter of the road remains above 11,000 feet. It is, after all, the highest paved through road in any national park, and it wends through fairytale terrain. There’s Hidden Valley and Iceberg Pass. Pullouts with crenelated stone walls offer views of Forest Canyon and glimpses of Longs Peak, the park’s only 14er. Even at its high point, a butterfly might land on your nose.
Eventually things did get tough. The road reared skyward and so began the long slog up nearly a vertical mile of climbing. I downshifted, found my spin and watched my sweat dot the pavement as the pace dropped to a crawl. On and on it went. Curve after curve. RV brakes singed the air yet somehow the suffering was all so lovely. The moody forests yielded to tundra. The tundra gathered into peaks. I saw bighorn sheep and elk. A stranger high-fived me when I hit the Continental Divide at a lung-taxing 12,000 feet.
Although I never blew up and I never bonked, the hours-long effort had taken its toll. So that afternoon after burgers and beers in Grand Lake, a community of about 200 people on the western side of the park, I traded my ride for a fly rod and iced my legs in the cold waters of East Inlet creek. I caught one fish, then two, and soon more rainbows than I could remember. They were small but radiant and worthy, which, after a day like that, was exactly how I felt.