Road Trip Record: Three Ecosystems in One Hike

RMNP Montane Ecosystem
Time to get in the wayback machine for a trip down science/nature travel memory lane.  In the summer of 2012, just after I had finished my MS degree and just before I was slated to move on (and up the coast) to start my PhD, Meridith and I planned and executed the Amazing Besties National Parks Road Trip!  Meridith was tantalizingly close to completing her MS degree as well, so it totally counted as a double celebratory trip!  Our goal was to see as many national parks as possible, with an eye to balancing quality and quantity, and road trip our way from Las Cruces, New Mexico (Mer’s former hood), up to Portland, OR for the Ecological Society of America conference, then scoot back down the California coast to Long Beach, where I would pack my stuff into a truck and move!  If you’re new to this series of blog posts, I highly recommend you check out the summaries of the early stages of our trip, which were originally posted on Meridith’s former blog and later migrated to our current one.  Clickity-click for:  the take-off, Carlsbad Caverns National Park (days one and two), ABQ New Mexico, on the road, Zion National Park (day one and two), me getting us really lost, Arches National Park, a babal about invasive species, and Rocky Mountain National Park day one!   

Day 11
Rocky Mountain National Park
Total Miles Hiked: 8.9 (67.2 overall)
About 95% certain this is a portion of Bear Lake from above.

When last we left our Amazing Besties National Park Road Trip, we had just finished our first full day in Rocky Mountain National Park.  We had taken an awesome hike up Deer Mountain, seen 18 big horned sheep, and I had beaten Meridith in a friendly game of pool.  We didn’t let all this fun keep us up too late though.  We had big plans for the next day, July 20, 2012.  

Pretty sure this is Meridith “being a critter” in the montane ecosystem.
We got up early, as per the instructions of the friendly park ranger we spoke with on the previous day.  We were planning to hike the Flattop Mountain Trail, which peaked in altitude at 12,324 ft!  The ranger had warned us afternoon thunderstorms were common in the region, so we wanted to get an early start and avoid getting caught in the weather on an exposed mountain.  Plus, Bear Lake Road (the road to the trail head) would be closing after 9am, necessitating a shuttle trip if we didn’t get up and get going.  The many benefits of getting friendly with the park rangers!  I love having the inside scoop.

Wildflowers and feetz
We were rewarded for our early start with a sparsely populated Bear Lake area, which is one of the most popular spots in the park.  After a stop to apply sunscreen (easy to get sunburned at high altitude!) and fill up our hydration bladders, we found the Flattop Mountain trailhead and began our ascent.  The park ranger had suggested this trail based on our desire to get a bit of a physical challenge (8.9 miles roundtrip and almost 3000 feet of elevation gain) and see all three high altitude ecosystems the park had to offer. We are the nerdiest of nerds.  

We started off in the montane ecosystem, much like what we had hiked through the day before on Deer Mountain.  According to the park’s website, montane ecosystems occur between 5,600 and 9,500 feet.  We saw many of the characteristic pines of this ecosystem.  We were also treated to some lovely lupins (Lupinus), Indian piantbrush (Castilleja), as well as some other pretty wildflowers whose faces don’t have a name in my mind.  One of my favorite parts of climbing up is looking back down at the same landmark over and over again.  Watching Bear Lake get smaller and smaller as it peeked from between trees made the first mile or so go very quickly.

Subalpine Ecosystem, everything look so intense!
That is a huge cairn, which we though was hysterical.
As we moved up into the subalpine ecosystem, spanning the range from 9,000 to 11,000 ft in elevation, the vegetation began to change.  Short, gnarled subalpine spruce and Engelmann fir dominated the landscape, but a few pines persisted.  Most of the larger trees we spied had the tops snapped off, making them look a little naked.  We hypothesized (like you do) that snow was the likely culprit.  I remember being in Africa and thinking I could tell, just by the character of the plant life, that this was a hard place to live.  I felt the same way about the tough looking scrub trees along the trail.  Way to stick with it, guys!  At this point in the hike, the types of animals we saw also started to change.  We saw our first yellow-bellied marmot!  These guys are essentially just fatty squirrels.  It’s funny, because the noises we made upon catching our first glimpse were very similar to the noises he made while checking us out from his rock.  Appreciative squeaks all around!  
Amazing alpine tundra!
Mt. top naps for the win.
Finally, our hike brought us into a true alpine tundra ecosystem.  I think I might have been annoying Meridith a little bit with the phrase, “I totally have a crush on this ecosystem.”  I totally do!  It’s just so fascinating.  This ecosystem begins around 11,000 or 11,500 ft in elevation, past the point where trees can grow.  Due to the exposure, liquid water is a major limiting resource, meaning tundra is basically a type of desert ecosystem.  I was instantly squatting down, peaking at plants, and pointing out adaptations I thought were similar to those we had seen at Zion and Arches National Parks.  Suddenly, we heard the most precious of little sqees.  A pika!  This adorable alpine guinea pig pretty well made my day.  Due to my love affair with the tundra, it took me a little while to notice that Meridith had flagged down and boarded the Struggle Bus.  The impacts hiking at high altitude have on a person are, in my experience, not correlated at all with physical fitness.  In retrospect, Meridith likely had a touch of altitude sickness.  Pro tip for those prone to such things, a preemptive Advil or some such thing can help you make it!
Being the total trooper that she is, Meridith made it to the top of Flattop Mountain (and so did I)!  We both oohh-ed and awww-ed at the view for about 2.5 seconds before taking an epic mountain top nap.  Highly recommended.  When we awoke, we were both feeling grand.  We ate a spot of lunch, then poked around the mountain top, enjoying our accomplishment, before heading back down the way we had come. (Editor’s note: This is about the time I decided to aggressively drop my camera for the umpteenth time, dislodging some vital wiring innards, essentially rendering the back screen useless. However, it still managed to arrive alive at the end of our journey!) See Meridith’s previous post about the proper way to descend on a hike.
For example, on the way down, you might notice a huge field of wildflowers
you missed on the way up!
We were feeling really good about ourselves at this point, and super excited about the play day we had set-up with one of our friends from the previous night.  We shared food and chatted around the campfire well into the evening.  He convinced us to take Myers Briggs Personality test and, as fate would have it, Meridith and I have super compatible personality types.  The descriptions pretty much said, “You guys should be best friends and take lots of adventures together.”  Noted Myers Briggs.  Eventually, we had to break-up the party and head to bed.  The next day, we were hitting the road again, this time for Yellowstone National Park!
Obligatory NP Sign Pic

Elk, Deer, and Sheepsies, oh my!

Day Ten

Rocky Mountain National Park

Total Miles Hiked: 10.24 (58.3 overall)


Who Pooped in the Park? Who?!

The ranger who helped us (this time I didn’t remember to peep his name tag) could tell right away that we were bonafide nature nerds. You start dropping science slang like ‘ecosystems’ and ‘habitat’ and you’ll see the smile on the rangers face. You’re one of them now. He suggested a long hike up Flattop Mountain for the next day. We’d have to wake up early to make it to the trail head before the road closed in that direction; we were too late to do so today. We could, however, try our luck with the Deer Mountain loop as well as varying other short trails with wildlife opportunities. We were certainly gaining experience in hikes with high elevation gains. I’m not sure if they ever get easier. Perhaps, you, oh reader, knows an answer? Deer Mountain was a 6.2 mile trail with a 1000 ft gain. Our quads and calves would take most of the strain. And a strain it would turn out to be at the very end. Stairs. Stone stairs to the top. Don’t they know I’ve already hiked up a few thousand feet. Is this some kind of a joke? Rachel soldiers on ahead, while I take the ol’ slow and steady tortoise approach. Breath. 

A little yellow flower child hiding in the bushes.

There is no better motivation that looking up to see a small scrap of a girl looking down at you inquisitively. 

“You’re almost to the top.”

“I don’t know, is the view worth it? Or should I just turn around?”

“I think you can do it.”

Her solemn answer cinched it. And at the top, I arrived. Rachel giggled down at me, knowing I had it in me the whole time, and sometimes I can be a bit of a slow poke. 
We laid out our prepared picnic, but soon had to battle both the habituated chipmunks and the dark clouds rolling our way. We don’t need much of an impetus to scarf down our sammies after that hike, and we soon do a quick tour of the available views before descending once more. Now, some people will try and tell you that going down is much harder than going up the hill. I find this to be utterly preposterous and question the sanity of these naysayers. Hiking down hill, you are more relaxed, less sweaty, often full of a snack or lunch, and generally in a much better mood. The worst is over. You get down so much faster than the hike up took you.  There’s a reason for the phrase ‘it’s all downhill from here’. You can smile and chat with the hikers still on the struggle bus. “So close! Watch out for lightening!” You may even hold your arms out like your an airplane and let gravity pull you faster and faster down the slope. Airplane noises are optional, but recommended. Keeping an eye out for rocks and switchbacks is required. 

Rocked carried down to the alluvial fan.

The visitor center may be my new favorite way to start my mornings. Especially visitor centers when you’re in a new park. New postcards to look through (still need everyone’s snail mail addresses:, new stickers, new patches (my favorite), new books, new maps, new poop books. Also, we can chat with new rangers. As stated previously, Rachel and I love figuring out what sort of sights we’d like to see and how far we want to hike during our stay and getting suggestions from the Information Desk. It has yet to let us down. We knew we wanted another moderate-strenuous hike, we wanted to hike in and explore all three available ecosystems, and we desperately wanted to see some bighorn sheep or a moose. 

And then you’re magically back at the trail head. No time at all.

We opted for a tiny viewpoint for our resting area/mid-day reprieve. A 70+ year old  reservoir dam had burst in 1982 releasing 220 million gallons of water to race its way to Horseshoe Park. That much water moving with such speed is a deadly, and often startling, in its sheer force. The aquatic juggernaut scooped up rocks, trees, and whatever else it darn well pleased and carried them along it’s path, pounding into anything that dared get in the way. It was only an observant garbage collector, who phoned in the roaring noises, that saved the majority of the people in the path of the water catastrophe. Three people still lost their lives as the rush of water swept through a campground. The debris the flood carried was deposited in a large fan-like array (alluvial fan) that even 25+ years later can be easily observed. 

We left feeling somber and in awe of the raw power that nature possess. 

We were in need of relaxation after such an impressionable stopover. 


After two parks of hoping and searching, we were still on the hunt for the elusive Bighorn Sheep. We had seen deer all over the place. They were no big deal at this point. Elk nearly immediately greeted us the evening before on our drive into Rocky Mountain NP. Herds could be seen along the roads and moving carefully through campgrounds. Our last stop of the day was a quick drive to Sheep Lake. We focused really hard on our desire to see the sheepsies. 

And then the cars ahead of us slowed to that tell-tale creep that indicated the sighting of some charismatic critter. Could we be so lucky?



We got to the pull-in and parked.

We’d arrived just in time to watch a herd of sheep cross the meadow in front of us. Mommas and babies. 

They’d spent the day frolicking and were now heading back into the hills.

We nearly missed them. 

But we didn’t!


We had a nice rest while we watched the few lingerers and chatted up the ranger on duty in the area. Ranger Volunteer Gina was lucky enough to be assigned to the Sheep Lake station for the day instead of her usual visitor center position. She informed us that the sheep hadn’t been viewed in the area since Independence Day weekend. She told us more about her adventurous summer as a park intern and how she often ran programs at the visitor centers. Talk about an awesome guest post…here’s hoping!

Feeling alive with satisfaction, we managed to pull out a few more miles that evening during our periodic jogs. We found a path leading to a road and subsequent trail from our campground and had a mini-evening adventure. If you’re a runner, you must head to the National Parks for some of the most gorgeous scenery ever. Just don’t pull a Meridith and stumble all over the place while craning your neck to see the views.  

We were so pumped with energy from our day and run that we decided to head into the nearby town of Estes Park for some sugary Starbucks drinks and internet time. Can’t be a mobile grad student without a little productivity. 

We were so starved for solid internet connections that we were eventually (politely) kicked out of the coffee shop and continued to suck up the precious from the outside tables. We must’ve seemed like normal, decent people that didn’t smell like days of hiking and driving because we eventually garnered invitations for drinks and pool in the nearby bar from barefoot boys. Rachel knows better by now to try and dissuade me when beer, billiards, and bare feet are involved. 

We stayed long enough for Rachel’s team to dominate in a fair Best Two Outta Three round and for me to find a co-author for my envisioned, future e-textbook on biostatistics before we retreated back into the park for sleep. 

Question of the Day:
Could Rachel and I beat you in a game of pool?

Hello, Goodbye

Day Nine

Arches to Rocky NP

Total Miles Hiked: 0 (48.06 overall)

We knew leaving Arches NP and Moab that our destination would be vastly different than our origin. I was more than happy to finally be trading the sand, sun, and rock formations in for the soul refreshing mountains, trees, and streams. Such an eventful day of driving deserves to have its own road trip mix. We’ve jammed to all of these songs on our drives.



Rachel’s Ramblings:
I was a bad invasive species ecologist for the first few stops on our trip.  Meridith and I had discussed out travels before leaving and both agreed we wanted to minimize our impact on the parks we visited.  One of the major challenges facing many ecosystems on the planet are invasive species.  If any of you have been with Meridith’s blog for the long haul, you know over her spring break she came and profiled my (and my lab’s) work on wetlands in California.  If you’re just now following her, the short version is this:  I study the impacts of invasive species on ecosystem processes, usually applying potential impacts of invasive to food web structure within a certain community.  Invasive species are, by definition, any organisms non-native to an area which cause some sort of harm by their presence. Thus, I’m uniquely concerned about my own ability to spread the species I study around the different areas I work.  To keep this from happening, because, really, how embarrassing would that be, I take some pretty simple precautions.  

So, why do I feel I was bad for the first few stops on our trip?  You see, Meridith and I had developed a plan for avoiding spreading seeds, spores, or small critters between parks, but we failed to implement it until we were traveling from Arches NP to Rocky Mountain NP.  I justified it because Carlsbad, Zion, and Arches were all pretty similar ecosystems with lots of species overlap.  That aside, we didn’t follow the plan, and we should have, but now we are, and you can too!  I’d like to point out before going on, that this method is really more my opinion and based on conversations I’ve had with other scientists.  I haven’t looked up these things in the scientific literature (though I know the literature exists, and I would love it if you sent me some!).  However,  I think these steps are practical and that they do help, or at least they certainly don’t hurt.  I would encourage everyone traveling between ecosystems, especially those known to have invasive species, to take similar steps or do their own research on the topic.

A Few Simple Tips to Avoid Being a Vector for Invasion:

  1. Clean your shoes between locations.  Seeds, small mollusks, fungal spores, and lots of other things can cling to the bottom of your shoes, or get stuck in the tread of your boots.  If you can, make a bleach solution and soak the soles of your shoes.  If you don’t have access to bleach (like we don’t) give the soles a good scrubbing, then spray them down with 409 and let it sit for a little while (remember this is what the ranger did to our boots at Carlsbad Caverns NP).
  2. Wash and dry (preferably on high) clothes worn in one area before wearing them in another area.  You know how plant parts love to stick to your socks and pants and everywhere while you are hiking in the woods?  Plants are clever, but you can outwit them.
  3. It’s the whole “take only pictures, leave only footprints” thing, this is just one more application of this really important advice.  This goes a little without saying, but we have heard the Junior Rangers at each park promising to leave the pretty flowers they see so that other can enjoy them (so cute!).  Another good reason to not pick flowers, buy seed packs from areas outside your home region, or otherwise transport wild plants or animals is to avoid the spread of invasive species. 

Question of the Day:
Will you adapt any of Rachel’s tips to help stop the spread of invasive organisms?