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Rocky Roads

"I hope this thing doesn't break," says the young man standing beside me, laughing nervously as he peers over the railing of the viewing platform cantilevered out over Forest Canyon. The platform appears to be substantial enough for the small crowd standing on it, but we would fall a long way if it failed.

The Forest Canyon Overlook is one of several dozen overlooks on Trail Ridge Road, a portion of U.S. 34 that spans Rocky Mountain National Park. The highway is an easy drive of 48 miles between Estes Park at the east entrance and Grand Lake at the west. Considered a premier scenic drive, it provides the traveler in a hurry the opportunity to sample the delights of the Rockies in just a few hours.

Someone in the crowd shouts, "Look! Beavers!" On the grassy slope below the rock face that is the north wall of Forest Canyon, two balls of thick brown rippling fur seem to be playing a game of catch-me-if-you-can among the boulders and the shrubs clinging to the steep slope. The animals are marmots, not beavers, but there is enough resemblance to excuse the error.

They charge up the slope toward the viewing platform, running around large boulders and right over small ones. Finally noticing the crowd on the platform, they abruptly halt. They study us for a moment and then wheel and race back the way they came.

I lift my gaze to the opposite wall of the canyon where snow-capped peaks thrust into a cobalt sky. On the forested flanks of Mount Ida, sparkling like diamonds on green velvet, the Gorge Lakes gleam in the morning sun.

Far below the viewing platform, beyond my sight and hearing, the Big Thompson River, hidden deep within spruce and pine forests, carries snow melt in its continuing task of carving Forest Canyon from granite.

Forest Canyon on one side, Fall River Canyon on the other, Trail Ridge Road snakes over Trail Ridge, a remnant of the high plateau that gave birth to the Rocky Mountains. Stretching more than 11 miles above treeline, it's the highest continuous highway in the country. It offers unobstructed views of rugged scenery.

The obvious feature of Trail Ridge is a tortured, glacier-carved landscape dominated by majestic, sheer-faced peaks. A second feature, subtle and easily overlooked, is the alpine tundra over which the road passes. Most of the life above timberline is found on the tundra, the unglaciated plateau. The peaks are beautiful but largely barren.

A casual glance suggests that the tundra is like a Midwestern prairie. But an average elevation of more than 11,000 feet and fierce winter winds that scour the ground create a climate that rivals that of the Arctic. The ecosystem may be unique among the lower 48 states and is one of the most interesting on the planet.

With a growing season that's measured in weeks, life on the tundra is life on the edge, hardy yet fragile. A plant may need years to recover from being walked on, and visitors are discouraged from wandering off designated walking areas. Hikers use narrow foot trails. But if you're just driving through, you have been provided with a means to experience this place.

At the Rock Cut turnout, approximately midway between Estes Park and Grand Lake, a paved nature trail about a quarter-of-a-mile long leads to an intimate view of tundra life.

Some of the most charming of mountain flowers will be found in the tundra. Depending on your arrival, you may see the alpine forget-me-not, alp lily, alpine columbine, mountain marsh marigold, mountain candytuft, alpine wallflower, tall chiming bells, fairy primrose and the lovely harebell, the true bluebell of Scotland.

Animal life supported by the tundra includes the golden marmot, the comical character observed at Forest Canyon Overlook. The marmots are likely to be busy fattening up for a long winter hibernation.

The tiny pica ("rock rabbits") don't hibernate but build runs beneath the snow. If one should be scurrying along looking as if he is carrying a load of hay, he is. The pica harvest grass and store it for the winter. They will whistle warnings upon your approach, but they are used to people and probably won't bother to hide.

Birds visiting the tundra in the summer include the Stellar's jay, ravens, hawks and eagles. The Clark's nutcracker will snatch treats from a hand held aloft. Ptarmigan pecking among the rocks are difficult to spot, but persistence will be rewarded. Experts at camouflage, the wily ptarmigan are speckled brown and gray in summer and solid white in winter. They even grow feather "snowshoes" for winter wear.

With luck, you may see elk or the shy Rocky Mountain Bighorn sheep.

The nature trail ends at a large rock outcrop. Its surface is covered with multicolored lichens arranged in abstract patterns. Deep fissures give testimony to the struggle between water and stone, between process and inertia, and declare water the winner. On the other side of the rock the Fall River Canyon may be filled with mist, the peaks of the Mummy Range soaring beyond.

At Fall River Pass, a short distance west from Rock Cut, the Alpine Visitor Center interprets the ecosystem above timberline.

After a day filled with grand vistas and the unique life of the tundra, we returned to the Forest Canyon Overlook to watch the sun set over the great chasm. There, almost close enough to touch, unconcerned by our presence, a lone golden eagle was effortlessly soaring on the wind blowing up the rock face. Facing the sun, he was apparently also watching the sunset. I believe that he rode motionless on the wind, there in the last golden rays of the day, simply for the sheer joy of it.

If you go:

Getting there: Rocky Mountain National Park is about 65 miles northwest of Denver and is easily reached from either the east or west.

Park information: Write to the Superintendent, Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park, CO 80517, or call (970) 586-1206. You will be provided with park information and maps to help you plan your visit.

The park has camping available in five campgrounds, one of which is limited to tents. Reservations are accepted for up to eight weeks in advance. Numerous backcountry campsites are free, but registration at park headquarters is required. There is no lodging available in the park.

Fall River Pass has the park's only concession, the Trail Ridge Store, a snack bar and souvenir shop. Unfortunately, the cuisine is limited to standard American fast food, but kids seem to like it.

The elevations found in the park can result in cold weather even in summer, and flurries on Trail Ridge Road are not unknown. You would do well to have some winter clothing with you, especially if you're camping or backpacking.

Autumn weather typically consists of warm days and cool evenings, but you should be equipped for winter. Blizzards have occurred in September, and evenings can be quite chilly even in good weather.

Accommodations: Write to the Chamber of Commerce, Estes Park, CO 80517 or Grand Lake, CO 80447. Both cities have a full range of lodging, restaurants, camping and medical facilities. Lodging varies from the usual motel to stream-side cottages to the historic Stanley Hotel in Estes Park. You will need reservations in the summer.

David H. Neal is a free-lance writer living in Arvada, Colo.