Elks, pika, and marmot, oh my! Meet the otherworldly mammals of the alpine tundra. And, learn what it takes to dig out the highest elevation visitor center in the United States out from over 10 feet of snow every year in Rocky Mountain National Park on this episode of Podcasts with Park Rangers.
Show Notes found at: https://www.virtualkamper.com/pwpr9/
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- About Cynthia Langguth
- What’s A Park Naturalist?
- About Rocky Mountain National Park
- The Alpine Visitor Center
- The Building
- Animal and Plant Life
- Sensitivity of the Alpine Areas
- Cynthia’s Love of Rocky Mountain National Park and NPS
- The Rocky Mountain Conservancy
- Thanks to Our Listeners – Let’s Connect More!
About Cynthia Langguth
Ranger Cynthia went on road trips to the National Parks with her family, and carries on that tradition with her son. The summer roadtrips, mountain landscapes, and desert scenery were what drew her to the parks, and as a teen decided to become a Park Ranger.
She’s been with the park service for 20 years and started as an intern at Rocky Mountain National Park. After her internship, she worked at other parks in the NPS but returned to Rocky about 10 years ago.
What’s A Park Naturalist?
Cynthia is considered a Park Naturalist, which is a common term used for Interpretive Park Rangers in natural environments. The role is interchangeable with interpretive ranger, but naturalist sometimes resonates with people a bit better.
Interpreter is a bit more all-inclusive and comprises historical and cultural backgrounds as well. At historic sites, naturalist would not be an appropriate term, but rather historian.
About Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky, as the Rangers call it, is a mountain park with incredible, dramatic mountain peaks sculpted by glaciers. There’s a lot of bare rugged rock with lingering snow in the summer, dense forests, and wide open meadows.
The high mountain alpine ecosystem is buried for 8 months out of the year. People are struck by the scenery, but then there’s a lot of nuance with the various environments and different elevations. The east and west side of the park also feel very different and have different climates during different parts of the year.
In the alpine tundra, the highest elevations of the park, are some of the most dramatic landscapes. Wide expansive views above treeline and it feels otherworldly to some. It’s a bit uncomfortable because you’re no longer surrounded by forest, and it almost feels like a different planet.
You can leave Denver, the major metropolitan city nearby, in flip-flops and tank top, and end up freezing in the alpine areas of Rocky if you arrive unprepared.
The Alpine Visitor Center
Trail Ridge Road travels directly through the center of the park and is the highest paved roadway in the US. You go up to an elevation of 11-12,000 feet and stay up there for 10 miles. Because of the elevation, it’s impossible to keep the road open year round due to the snow.
The road and Alpine Visitor Center close in the fall, and the crew at Rocky doesn’t start digging them out until mid-late April.
The Visitor Center typically gets 10 foot deep drifts against the exterior walls. And, on some years, the snow is often up to the peak of the building at 14 feet.
It’s only open 4 months out of the year, posing many challenges:
- Getting the building accessible in the spring.
- Electricity created by generators.
- Water from wells.
- No phone lines, so they use a microwave communication system.
- No water early in the season because of the freezing temperatures. Also, they must winterize the building in September.
- The high altitude can be difficult for visitors because they can’t handle the thin air.
An EMS facility is attached to the Visitor Center to deal with people who get altitude sickness or other ailments due to the altitude. It’s another layer of complexity to a busy operation at the park.
All Rangers who work at Alpine Visitor Center must also be EMTs. It’s a unique skill set to be able to educate the public, do the EMT work, and remain calm under pressure.
They built the Visitor Center in the 1960s. The design took into account the heavy snow load on the roof, the 100 mph winds common during the winter, and snowmelt paths. It’s the highest Visitor Center in any National Park.
Animal and Plant Life
Since it’s a challenging environment, a lot of the plants and animals have adapted for survival.
There are over 300 species of plants, and the variety of wildflowers in bloom is striking. It’s surprising because you would expect a barren environment at 12,000 feet, but find a miniature garden.
Adaptations include huge taproots to reach water deep beneath the soil crust, and hairs on the plants to keep them warm. The silvery hairs reflect the intense UV radiation. Most of the plants live long lives and must work up a ton of energy to flower.
Because of the short growing season, it takes a lot of energy for these plants to go through all phases of life, and many years. Some plants may not bloom in their first 20 years of life, and live to be 50-100 years old!
There are many different types of animals at elevation: pika, marmots, and in the summer the elk come up to the tundra.
Pika scurry frantically around to get food for all the winter, and marmots lay out in the sun conserving energy since they hibernate 8-9 months.
Elk come up to the alpine tundra in the summer to eat. Down at lower elevations, much of the foliage is beginning to brown, but in the tundra, it’s still nice and green. The season is a bit delayed at the high elevations, creating a prime environment for the elk.
The elk follow the melting snow and greening grass up the mountains. Then as it gets cooler, they move back down to the meadows at lower elevations for the rut — mating season.
The elk are the superstars of the park, and a huge draw for visitors!
In Rocky Mountain National Park, pika are unique to the alpine tundra. They’re really good at storing heat because of their metabolism but can’t shed heat. So, the cool tundra helps them regulate their temperature. Rock piles provide a great home for them to cool off when the temperature gets high.
Additionally, pika don’t hibernate in the winter. All summer long they gather food, and are always moving! They gather flowers and grass, let those dry in the sun, and bring those to their homes for the winter.
The snow provides a nice insulating layer, and it’s important the snowpack is deep or else they won’t survive. So, they can freeze to death if the snowfall is too thin.
Marmots are seen in the alpine tundra most often but are present in all elevations of the park. They hibernate and, like the pika, need a warm protective layer of snow to survive. But, aren’t as susceptible to low snowpack, because they sleep communally.
They begin hibernation in September, and don’t wake up until May! When they’re awake, they lay around on the rocks. They eat a lot and take naps in order to store up fat for hibernation.
Sensitivity of the Alpine Areas
Much of the plant life in Rocky Mountain National Park is susceptible to crush damage, and it can take 10-20 years for plants to recover due to the slow rate of growth.
A cumulative effect happens in popular areas where there’s a lot of foot traffic because many people walking out to get that perfect picture can impact the environment. So, the crew at Rocky recommends people stay on the sidewalks or designated trails when exploring.
Cynthia’s Love of Rocky Mountain National Park and NPS
Cynthia loves the alpine tundra and the complexity of managing the Alpine Visitor Center. It’s her happy place!
Rocky is a landscape that feels like home, and she feels connected here to nature & the future. Connecting visitors to the landscape, and how their choices everyday impact places like Rocky Mountain National Park is what brings her to work every day.
A place like Rocky helps people stay balanced in our world today when there are so many negative things to be sucked into. Getting into the park and taking a hike or smelling the flowers helps Cynthia stay grounded and hopeful.
Ranger Cynthia believes the NPS as a whole preserves the multifaceted, complex, sometimes ugly and often beautiful fabric of who we are as a country. Whether it’s the fact we’ve set aside these iconic landscapes or places of with difficult pasts, we can learn from them all.
There’s so much the NPS preserves and protects, and so many stories. Everyone can find something in our national parks, and the fact we preserve it and include the complexities of what it is to be American is important.
“The National Park System… preserves this multi-faceted, complex, sometimes ugly, oftentimes beautiful fabric of who we are as a country.”
The Rocky Mountain Conservancy
The Rocky Mountain Conservancy, established in 1931, is one of the oldest non-profit cooperating organizations in the National Park System. The group promotes stewardship with the park and provides educational publications, research support and philanthropic aid for Rocky Mountain National Park and surrounding public lands.
To learn more, visit rmconservancy.org.
Thanks to Our Listeners – Let’s Connect More!
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