Now there's a comprehensive guide to some of our state's most awe-inspiring places.
"When I first moved to Colorado many years ago," writes Jeremy Agnew at the start of his new book, Colorado Above Treeline, Scenic Drives, 4WD Trips and Classic Hikes (Westcliffe Publishers 2005), "I quickly developed a fascination for the scenic and isolated realm at the tops of the mountains.
"This book, then, is the culmination of many trips and years of experience trudging up and down mountainsides and is an attempt to share the beauty and grandeur of these unique and special places."
Mountain lovers who pick up this handy book - whether they're traveling by auto, 4WD or foot - are likely to learn something they didn't know before, and even to develop a deeper understanding and appreciation of Colorado's most fascinating landscapes. Agnew shows the way to the state's classic hikes, drives and even 4WD tours, and other less dramatic but still notable nooks and crannies.
"Colorado's tundra," he writes, "occurs above 11,000 feet elevation and these treeless expanses have a beauty all their own. Their unique, rugged landscapes are exposed to the harshest weather and extreme fluctuations in temperature, yet they host a variety of wildlife and flourish with grassy meadows and fields of low-growing flowering plants many found nowhere else." In other words, "this book introduces you to Colorado's alpine tundra and offers a variety of trips for exploring it firsthand."
Agnew's guidebook is suitable for everyone from the casual to the most hard-core outdoor enthusiast, with route descriptions that include highlights, access, map references and specifics on how to get there.
From a gondola ride to the top of the Vail ski area, an auto tour over 11,990-foot Loveland Pass, 4WD explorations of the San Juan Alpine Loop to hikes to the summits of Mount Princeton and Mount Yale, Agnew guides readers to make their own personal discoveries of Colorado's most exciting landscape. Each tour includes information on side trips, labeled "hikes along the way," where visitors can reach deeper into the high country. The side trip descriptions include important facts about features of the area, the length and difficulty of the hike and anecdotes - like the history of the Alpine Tunnel, the first to bore under the Continental Divide.
As a precursor to the ten auto tours, ten hikes and ten 4WD trips, Agnew provides important information on safety, wildlife, flora and fauna, mountain weather, history and altitude (and its effects) to prepare us for exploring the high country with a better understanding of the alpine world. Agnew has also included firsthand accounts of his experiences in the high country, such as being caught in a thunderstorm ("I dug frantically in my pack for my poncho and quickly pulled it over my head. I crouched down so low that I wasn't the highest object on the landscape, and I balanced on the balls of my feet to minimize my contact with the ground in case of a nearby lightning strike"). More pleasant experiences - like photographing the tundra close up - ease and inspire readers. "From ground level," he writes, "the tundra looks different. The cushion plants of the alpine zone are so small that lying on your stomach is the best way to absorb their detail."
Agnew includes a section on Colorado's human history, going back 11,000 years, when the "early Indian hunters regularly crossed the Continental Divide and left stone walls and chipped stone points as evidence of their travels. Tribes such as the Ute and Arapahoe followed migrating game in the warmer months up into the mountains and above treeline.
"Their paths and trails are still visible in some areas," he writes, that white settlers soon followed too, establishing roadways, passes and railroads which are used today.
"Pikes Peak or Bust" was a commonly heard slogan during the Gold Rush, which began in 1858, after the first discovery of gold in Colorado near Denver. Thousands flocked to the state in search of fortunes, expanding the human presence in the Colorado mountains in ways we still see today. Although prospecting and gold mining still continue today in Colorado, very few miners live year-round above treeline these days. Many of the trips in this guidebook will let readers "see firsthand some of the relics and ghost towns from Colorado's colorful mining history."
In one chapter, devoted to Colorado's tundra environment, Agnew writes, "the word tundra comes from a Russian variation of a Lapp word referring to the open plains of the artic region beyond the northern limit of tree growth in Scandinavia. The word is also used to describe mountaintop ridges and meadows because of the similarity in environment and appearance of the two." These similarities range from thin air, constant wind, lightning and the wild, cold weather to plants and animal communities. Tundra plant life is forced to cope with "a short growing season, poor quality soil, moisture-stripping winds and year round cold weather."
Colorado Above Treeline introduces readers to everything from subalpine valleys to timberline, alpine meadows, melt-water bogs, rocky peaks, snowfields and even gopher gardens, where "many of the tundra's most showy flowers grow in areas where the soil has been disturbed by gophers. The animals' digging and burrowing kills off grasses and alters vegetation patterns, allowing colorful tundra plants such as alpine avens, alpine sunflower, sky pilot, purple fringe, bistort, mountain harebell and snowball saxifrage to move in and flourish." Moving right along, Agnew covers the characteristics of our state's most common trees -- Bristlecone pine, Engelmann Spruce, Limber Pine and Subalpine fir - that are found at high elevations in Colorado.
Before launching into the section describing the ten auto tours, ten 4WD routes and ten hikes, Agnew writes about the animals living above treeline and what to expect from them. "The temperature extremes and harsh weather conditions of the environment above treeline are difficult for any form of life to endure," he writes, "but this habitat is particularly challenging for the animals that make their home there. Food is scarce and so is moisture, despite the snow. Unlike the forested slopes below, the mountain peaks and the tundra have no trees and few shrubs for shelter, exposing creatures that winter on the tundra to the worst of the weather. Yet, as is nature's way, some animals have adapted to living in this environment and even make the tundra their permanent home."
High-alpine survivors include the Rocky Mountain bighorn, mountain goats, yellow-bellied marmots, pikas, the northern pocket gopher, long-tailed vole, long-tailed weasel, snowshoe hare, white-tailed ptarmigan, several birds and insects and even that endangered cold-blooded amphibian, the boreal toad. Many of these creatures have made special adaptations and developed survival strategies, such as size, shape, insulation, hibernation and even migration patterns that allow them to live in the rugged environment above treeline.
Newbies and old-timers alike, Colorado readres will find Agnew's book an excellent source of information. For visitors to the state, it offers the perfect introduction to the splendor of the high country. The bulk of the tours and hikes are found in central Colorado, throughout the Front and Sawatch ranges, and though not a comprehensive guide to all Colorado's high country, Agnew's guidebook has a wealth of information that any visitor to the alpine tundra will find both valuable and interesting. Some routes are easily accessed (common high points like Loveland Pass or Mount Princeton); few are such less-known and off the beaten track sweet spots like the Comanche - Venable trail in the Sangre De Cristos.