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The Alpine Ridge Trail is a relatively short, but steep path through the Alpine Tundra of Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s a great hike for those who want breathtaking beauty, but don’t want to work too hard for it. Because the trailhead starts at 12,000 feet and there aren’t any trees to block your view, you’re pretty much immersed in panoramic scenery from the get go. There’s also plenty of wildlife, and plenty of people milling around (you can’t have it all).
Hiking on the Alpine Ridge Trail
The Alpine Ridge Trail can be accessed from the Alpine Visitor Center off of Trail Ridge Road — the highest road found in any national park. The trail is just .6 miles round trip, so you can get there and back pretty quickly, but if you strap on your camera, and pack a picnic, you can also make an afternoon of it. Because of erosion issues, the entire path has been paved, and you will have to climb about 225 steps to reach the top. Please stay on the path to avoid damaging this fragile ecosystem. Because the entire area is exposed to the elements, you can expect wind just about all the time, and temperatures can be chilly even in the summer.
At the top, you’ll discover 360 degree views of the surrounding mountains, including the Never Summer Mountains to the west and Mount Chapin, Mount Chiquita, and Ypsilon Mountain to the east.
Wildlife on the Alpine Ridge Trail
The most striking part of this area, aside from the view, is the alpine tundra ecosystem. The fragile plants that make their home here live life on the edge — they must be incredibly resilient to live in such a harsh climate, but they are also quite delicate and fragile. As you make your way up the trail, be sure to tear your eyes away from the snow-capped peaks to check out the tiny plants, lichens, and wildflowers that hug the rocky landscape.
In the spring and early summer, the hills are a blanket of colors — with low-growing alpine forget-me-nots, phlox, paintbrushes, and sunflowers dotting the landscape, often partially covered by a thin sheet of soft snow. We were there in late July, so we saw mostly grass, lichens, and some muddy patches of snow and ice.
Yellow-bellied marmots will often come out in the middle of the day to soak up the sun’s heat on the rocks, and tiny little Pikas will scurry around the slopes. Pikas are relatives of rabbits, and they are only found in the mountainous alpine terrain above 11,000 feet. They’re incredibly cute, like little hamsters, but you have to be quick to spot them, and even quicker to photograph them (I wasn’t quick enough).
As for the big guys, Elk are common in the summer, as are bighorn sheep. We saw both from a distance as we climbed the path. They won’t be particularly perturbed by your presence, so it may be tempting to edge closer for your perfect shot. Please don’t. While they may look harmless, these creatures are powerful, wild, and dangerous when approached. If the animals are reacting to you in anyway, it means you are too close.
More elusive animals in the alpine tundra include coyote, red fox, badgers, and mountain lions. These guys are not particularly fond of humans, and will generally stay away from the more populated trails like this one. As we hiked, I imagined them coming out after the sun set to prey on the fat little marmots in the moonlight. Of course by that time I was happily snacking on s’mores and falling in love with our crackling campfire.
When you’re planning your Rocky Mountain National Park adventure, I urge you to include an exploration of the alpine tundra. There are certainly hikes that offer more solitude, better views, and more incredible wildlife encounters, but not for such a small amount of effort. The Alpine Ridge Trail is a great hike for kids, photographers, and visitors just passing through. It’s a beautiful walk that quickly transports you to one of the most scenic places in all the world.
Need more hiking inspiration, check out these posts:
Looking for Rocky Mountain Hiking Gear? These items will come in handy (click on the photo or link for more info):
- A windbreaker is important in higher elevations, even in the summer. This Marmot Precip jacket is waterproof and windproof.
- Trekking poles make hiking so much easier. These poles are lightweight, retractable, and affordable.
- A tracking guide to the Rocky Mountains.
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