A Rare View of Rocky Mountain National Park
“The author sitting on top of Long’s Peak, the highest point in Rocky Mountain National park. He worked two summers in Rocky and this true event happened during his second season there.”
Rocky Mountain National Park covers 415 square miles of some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in North America. Overlooks and turnouts along Trail Ridge Road provide breathtaking views of rugged peaks with permanent snow packs, hanging lakes, and waterfalls tumbling into valleys hundreds of feet below. Over four and a half million visitors travel the park every year, absorbing memories that last a lifetime, but the one burned most vividly in my memory was a culmination of unusual circumstances.
In the summer of 1970, I was a lowly Road-Side Caretaker, living and working on the park’s west side. I traveled the western half of the park from the entrance near Grand Lake, Colorado, to the Alpine Visitor Center well above timberline. Trash cans were my nemesis and I made sure they didn’t overflow. In addition, I cleaned out-houses, walked and picked up trash from scenic turnouts and trail head parking areas, and occasionally hiked the shorter trails to clean up after the ever-present, less thoughtful human visitors. Still, it was the best job in the park for work freedom, interaction with visitors, and spectacular views. And, I had keys for all the park service gates.
After visiting family in Fort Collins, I returned one night under a heavy overcast sky. Low clouds blackened the night sky. My headlights barely illuminated the asphalt pavement as I passed the Fall River Entrance Station around 10 pm, but a bright yellow flashing sign read “TRAIL RIDGE ROAD CLOSED.” Thick fog makes mountain driving slow and dangerous. Still, I had to cross over the continental divide to return to the west side of the park for work early the next day. A ranger might be posted at the main gate and they would probably stop me from crossing due to hazardous driving conditions.
I turned my 1967 Volkswagen bug toward a lesser known route to the top, a twisting dirt trail called the Fall River Road. For most of the way this road is just wide enough for one car and travel is restricted to one way, going up. Only cars and pickup trucks without trailers are allowed because of the many, sharp hairpin curves. But this rustic road meets the paved Trail Ridge Road above timberline near the Alpine Visitor Center.
The land and cloud layer met, a thick fog closed tight around me. Dimmed headlights reduced scattered light outside and the dash panel lights were turned down to prevent light distraction within. Still, my vision was limited to blurry images on the roadway a short distance beyond my bumper. A heavy, steel pipe gate loomed out of the night less than twenty feet away. Good thing I knew it was there and had slowed down or I might have driven into the structure. After stopping to open the gate, I stepped back into the obscure black of night. Nothing was visible beyond the fuzzy headlights a dozen feet away; and the heavy, moisture-laden air absorbed all sound.
I drove through and re-entered the night to close and lock the gate before continuing in first gear. My speed was three to four miles per hour. It was going to take a while to navigate the eleven-mile road, which climbs another 3000 feet into the sky.
“Don’t hurry,” my inner voice said, as if there was a choice. Ghost-like tree trunks, barely visible in the thick fog, suddenly crowded the edge of the narrow road. I knew the broad grassy meadow was behind me and still, the first hairpin curve caught me by surprise. Unable to see the slant of the trees and land around me, I failed to notice the upward grade that announced the curve. Any faster and I might have dropped a wheel off the edge. From this point on, the road was narrow with only a few places wide enough for a timid driver to pull over to let another pass. But at this time of night, and with the gates locked, why worry about other vehicles. I was more concerned about bear, deer or elk. I envisioned what an elk might look like. Four legs disappearing up into the darkness as they suddenly rose from the roadbed. I would not be able to see the animal towering over my little car until we were only feet apart and hitting one would be dangerous for both of us.
My headlights penetrated ten to fifteen feet forward, and no light scattered beyond the edge of the road. Looking upward through the windshield, and off to the sides and behind, it was as dark as if the sun had never shined. Fortunately, the short, down sloping front end of the VW bug allowed me to see within feet of the front bumper where the low beams did their best to illuminate the dirt roadbed. I leaned forward, staring intently through the fuzzy haze at the sum of my visible world.
Out of the darkness, beyond my headlight, an eerie round glow formed in the roadway. I slowed to a crawl. The glow became two points of light, the headlights of an oncoming park service truck. I squeezed to the right, my small VW bug nearly scraping a lodgepole pine. I heard the truck’s mirror snap against a tree on the far side and the driver pulled the mirror shut on his side as he crept beside me and stopped. He was a young ranger in his first year at Rocky Mountain National Park. The window of his full-sized truck was above mine, but with the closeness of our vehicles, we were inches apart. I looked up and opened my window expecting him to question my driving a closed road.
“I’m sorry sir,” he said. “I didn’t think anyone would be out here tonight. I apologize for driving the wrong way.”
“That’s all right,” I said, sitting up straighter. He apparently hadn’t recognized me and the uncertainty in his demeanor said he was concerned about my authority. I wasn’t about to tell him differently. “Good thing we met where we could squeeze by,” I said.
“I apologize again,” he said. “I really thought this road was clear.”
“I’m not surprised,” I said. “The fog is thick all the way to Horseshoe junction. Be careful. There are elk in the meadow.” I hadn’t actually seen elk, but it sounded like a statement based in knowledge and concern for a fellow park service employee.
“I will, and thank you sir,” he said. “I apologize again for coming down.”
“No problem,” I said with a smile. “Drive safe.”
The heavy wet air absorbed the sound of the truck, and silence returned even before his tail lights vanished. Alone once again, I closed my window against the cool damp fog and continued. More miles of twisting dirt road lay ahead of me than behind.
The road climbed steadily; but with my limited perspective, I could tell the grade only by the pull on the 4-cylinder engine. The last set of switchbacks signaled a steep climb where one side of the road went nearly straight up, the other, nearly straight down. As if wearing blinders, I leaned forward with my forehead touching the windshield, focusing on the barely visible edge of the road to avoid tumbling down the mountain side. Concentrating on the small surreal world I could see, both time and the road crawled. This had been my position for over an hour. The intense concentration and early morning hour were taking their toll. I blinked often.
I thought I was getting used to the isolation, surrounded by impenetrable darkness, able to see only a few feet to the front, when suddenly the back of my neck tingled. Something was not right. I stopped the car and looked around. Was my mind playing tricks on me? Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, but a shiver crawled up and down my spine. Was my sixth sense telling me some danger was near by? I cracked the window, half expecting a bear to poke his nose in, and strained to hear any sound, but the heavy, water laden air even absorbed the purr of the idling engine. After a few minutes I put the car in low gear and continued on, hoping to leave the apprehension behind.
I came to a long straight stretch of road above the final series of switchbacks. Instantly, my skin tingled, hairs stood on end all over my body. Shivers ran from toes to scalp, my pulse raced. My foot went from gas to brake and my hands knotted around the steering wheel. The feelings magnified until I checked behind the seat to make sure some monster wasn’t lurking there. Then I realized — the car was glowing.
Not my imagination this time, this was real. I could see behind the front seats, the foot pedals, and the entire dash, not just the dimly lighted instruments. Everything inside the VW bug glowed with a pale silvery light, including me. I focused outside. The foggy air surrounding me had the same light intensity as inside the car. While I had been staring at the headlight-road interface, the black night had been replaced by a uniform silvery-gray. Even though it was midnight, the dense fog was glowing as if in early morning daylight. It shown in through every window, evenly exposing everything inside and without casting any shadows. My mind raced to come up with a logical reason. I couldn’t, and there was nothing to do but to continue. The car, myself, and everything around us became brighter until it was like driving through milk. The surface of the road was almost impossible to see. The fog was brighter than my headlights, but I pressed on, half expecting to be beamed up into the belly of some mother ship, a subject for bizarre medical experiments.
Close to the 11,796 foot summit of Fall River Pass, where the Fall River Road meets the pavement near the Alpine Visitor’s Center, the intense glow disappeared in the blink of an eye. My visible world suddenly leaped from a few feet to infinity as I drove out of the fog. A full moon dominated the crystal-clear nighttime sky and the top of the thick cloud layer that started out above me and became a pea soup fog surrounding me, now stretched out before me like a solid bluish-silver carpet. Heart pounding, I stopped on the edge of Trail Ridge Road. Goose bumps returned, but this time from excitement, not apprehension. The top of the cloud was as flat as if someone had smoothed it with an iron. From horizon to horizon, only the tips of 12,000 foot plus mountain peaks rose above the moonlit surface like ebony islands scattered across a foam covered sea. I turned off the engine and headlights and stepped outside, my eyes trying to absorb the panorama before me.
I walked across the tundra toward the cloud carpet less than two hundred feet away. The night was as silent as if still enveloped in the thick fog and not a breath of air stirred. The sharp line between clear air and the cloud was unbelievable. Walking into the cloud, it became ground fog so thick and bright in the intense moonlight that by the time the cloud-air interface reached above my waist my feet were no longer visible. The land here formed a gentle, down curving slope, eventually dropping to a valley thousands of feet below. The tundra was dotted with boulders and crevasses and a fall could break one’s leg. For me to go farther would be foolish beyond words.
How often were atmospheric conditions just right to create the scene before me. Once a year? Every five years? Twenty-five years? And for it to coincide with a full moon? For all I knew, I was the first and only person to ever witness a sight like this. Standing all alone on top of the world, I was drenched in moonlight bright enough to identify the tundra’s belly plants and yet when I blocked the disk with my hand, the inky sky sparkled with stars. At this elevation, the clear, dry air reduced moonlight scatter in the atmosphere and the calm air let the starlight shine through with exceptional brilliance.
Back at the car, I leaned against the hood wishing for my camera and tripod. This was an experience to share, but I was completely alone, isolated on the top of the world. I lingered for 30 minutes, perhaps longer, wanting to imprint the scene in my mind, to make sure I would never forget. And, I vowed never to be caught without my camera again.
Sometime past three in the morning, I tore myself away and started the long drive down the paved road to my cabin just beyond Grand Lake. My car soon disappeared into the cloud, swallowed again by the bright moonlit fog.
Darkness slowly returned, but the image of that scene and the intense emotions from coming through the upper layer of the glowing cloud and seeing the vast panorama spread out before me remain vivid even today. And that simple vow, to always keep my camera close, enabled me to capture several “once-in-a-lifetime” photographs along the way.