Outdoors

Rocky Mountain National Park’s ‘other’ side ripe for solitude

Today's draw: a step back in time.

That's what it's like for Steve Stager here at the Holzwarth Historic Site, a set of cabins still standing a century later. It's of special interest to this history professor from the Front Range.

But it's far from the only draw to this western side of Rocky Mountain National Park, this smaller, far less visited side. Stager has been coming for 30 years, and every time from the crest of Trail Ridge Road, it's as if he drops into another world – as if the Continental Divide indeed split one dimension from another.

"This right here," Stager says, "it's the wilder side of Rocky Mountain National Park."

That's partly because of such places as the Holzwarth Historic Site, one example of a private settlement that entered the park in the years after its 1915 designation. While the gateway from Estes Park bustled with road construction and tourist developments, this side away from Colorado's population center simply waited. A rugged way of life continued here for a while.

But the wildness is best explained by nature's dominance, banishing the white men who sought to extract riches, such as those miners who built LuLu City, now lying in shambles deep in the forest. They found the harsh environment the Arapaho knew well.

The natives called the ever-snowy mountains Ni-chebe-chii, meaning Never No Summer. They scrape the sky like glass, hanging like the clouds for which they're named – Stratus, Cumulus, Cirrus.

They are the park's only volcanic mountains, looming where ash turned to magnificent rock millions of years ago as later glaciers crafted the landscape. But man, too, has left his mark. A scar is seen across the mountainside, the "Grand Ditch" built to divert water.

Now, human presence is lesser here – at least compared with Rocky Mountain East. About 80% of the park's annual 4.5 million visitors enter through Estes.

As for the entrance from Grand Lake, "I don't think I've spent any time sitting in traffic," says Jeff Doran, creator of the web guide rockymountainhikingtrails.com. "Never more than a minute."

He prefers the east side for the dramatic scenery – more rugged promontories, less forested. As for the experience, though, the west side makes him recall John Muir. What was it the great thinker said of nature as a sanctuary? "The experience I'm trying to find is similar to what he described," Doran says.

And that experience is more likely here.

"Folks who hike on this side are more of the folks looking for that wilderness experience, that solitude," says Barbara Scott, the park's Grand Lake-based supervisor. "They get a little bit more of the trail to themselves."

And they get a variety, from shaded stream corridors to hidden waterfalls, to reflection ponds, to higher alpine lakes and mighty summits such as Mount Baker, like a craggy pyramid over a dew-kissed meadow we toured one recent morning. We came across a volunteer ranger, proud of this "wetter, better side" of the park.

The Colorado River hems the peaks and valleys – the ribbon of life for a diverse ecosystem. For that, Rocky Mountain West "is very appealing in terms of education," says Rachel Balduzzi, education director for the park's resident nonprofit, the Rocky Mountain Conservancy.

With the moisture, grasses and flowers grow in colorful abundance, attracting life big and small. Here one might find more bugs buzzing, more birds singing, certainly more otters and moose.

Also greeting visitors are waves of gray across the hills – dead lodgepole pine standing from a beetle infestation years ago.

"Even though the west side was hit pretty hard from that, we're seeing the forest coming back in new and beautiful ways," Scott says.

Nature's wheel turns again. The trees fall, spreading seeds, and now the sunlight can break through the canopy, prompting renewal. And the landscape is changing in other ways, like Colorado preserves everywhere: More people are coming.

From the east, the park has no way to know how many visitors continue on Trail Ridge Road toward Grand Lake. But parking lots, however fewer, seem to be filling faster.

Over the years, Stager has seen more travel west like him – more traffic.

"It's gotten harder to get here," he says from the historic site, where a crowd builds as the sun climbs.

Still, he came for a reason: He knows he can find peace nearby.

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