When visiting the mountains there are some things to keep in mind to ensure that you have a safe and wonderful trip. Here are a few of the key things to remember as you hit the trails.
How to Stay Safe on Your Hike in Rocky Mountain National Park
The Cardinal Rule
The first thing you should always do before you head out into the wilderness is let someone know:
- exactly where you are going (destination);
- what your route will be (which trails you will travel to get there);
- when they should expect a call from you saying you’ve returned; and
- when they should contact the authorities.
The person you arrange this with needs to be someone you can rely on, who will remember that you are out there and will take action if they don’t hear from you. The other important part of this is that you must stick to the plan you have given, even when it is inconvenient. If you twist your ankle deep in the mountains, the park has the best chance of finding you if they are informed in a timely manner and know exactly where to begin the search.
Rocky Mountain National Park is a high elevation park and it requires time for your body to adjust. If you don't take the time to adjust or if you ignore the warning signs in your body it could be very dangerous and possibly even fatal. Read this section about preparing for high elevation. This is especially important to know for those who are hiking into the mountains.
The biggest mistake anyone can make with regard to the weather is to judge it based on your own experience at home. You might look out the window in the morning to see blue skies and sunshine and assume that it will be a nice day. Or you might assess the weather at the trailhead when it might be warm and calm and decide to leave your jacket in the car only to later find yourself in the middle of extreme conditions.
The weather in the mountains of Colorado is almost certainly not like the weather you have at home. Here the weather can change greatly from one part of the park to another, from one elevation to the next, and it can also transition rapidly within a very short period of time. In the mountains it is wise to be prepared for almost anything, from snow in August to sunburn in February. Even so, there are some weather trends and specific seasonal challenges to be aware of.
Spring Weather Safety
In the spring (April through early June) one is likely to expect springlike conditions similar to what you may have at home, but in the mountains, this is a snowy time. You can expect higher trails to still have a lot of snow cover into late May or early June. You can also expect large, heavy snowfalls during this time of year. While the lower meadows and surrounding towns may be snow free, the heart of the park will still be shedding its white coat. Spring is also a time to be aware of avalanches. During this time of year they occur mostly in the afternoons as the heat of the day causes the snow to melt. If you have to cross steep snowfields, you’ll want to do it in the mornings and with proper equipment, as it can be quite icy at the start of the day. The spring is also a time when the rivers become dangerous. Each spring people underestimate the power of the streams and need to be rescued. It is best to keep your distance from streams and rivers at this time of year.
Summer Weather Safety
During the busy summer months, the park typically experiences intense afternoon storms. These often involve not only heavy rain and high winds but also significant drops in temperature along with dangerous lightning and sometimes a great deal of hail. It is not safe to be above the trees, beside a lake or in open meadow when these storms move in, as you are likely to attract lightning. There have been a number of lightning-related deaths in the park. Some of these have been along Trail Ridge Road. The best way to ensure that you are not one of them is to stay below tree line or in a vehicle during the afternoon storms. If you see a storm moving in and you're up high, make your way down to the trees as quickly as you can. Because of this, if you are planning to summit a peak or planning to hike across open tundra, leave the trailhead early in the day and be back into the trees by midday. However, don’t assume that the weather will always follow this pattern. Storms can creep up even in the morning or later in the evening, so always stay aware and be prepared to turn back if the weather looks threatening.
Another challenge with the weather is that while it may be mild down at the trailhead, it can be at or below freezing at higher elevations. There are days when it is about 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius) in Denver and 35 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) with high winds up at 12,000' (3658 m). You won't want to be up there without winter gear in those conditions. Surprisingly, you can encounter a snowstorm at higher elevations during almost any month of the year.
Autumn Weather Safety
During the autumn, especially after the second half of October, you are likely to encounter colder temperatures and very high winds. The winds can often gust upwards of 70 mph (30 m/s). This is enough to knock you off your feet, especially up high where there is no wind protection. If you are on cliff edges, ledges, or places where a fall could be serious, always be prepared for unexpected wind gusts. Keep your body weight low, your feet spread out a little, and keep a hand on surrounding rocks. The more points of contact you have with the ground the more stable you will be.
Such winds are also likely to blow trees down, so it's no safer in the forests. Falling trees are something you should take seriously, as they can fall on you from behind. You may not even hear them break due to the roar of the wind. You definitely don't want to be out if the winds are gusting above 40 mph (18 m/s) and even at lesser speeds you should always stay aware of the potential for falling trees.
Winter Weather Safety
The winter has its own unique set of challenges and must be taken seriously. The winds howl during much of the winter, scouring the areas above tree line and depositing the snow on the forests below. When hiking, snowshoeing, or skiing in the park during the winter months you need to be avalanche aware. Slopes between thirty and forty-five degrees are the ones that are most dangerous and should be avoided unless you know how to properly assess them. Even some popular trails cross slopes that occasionally avalanche. Check the Colorado Avalanche Information Center website (www.caic.org) to check current conditions. Another danger is that some slopes may have been turned to ice by the winds and could be dangerous to cross without the proper training and equipment. Also, it is important to be aware that the ice on the lakes and streams can be thin, particularly near inlets and outlets.
One of the most important things you can do to ensure that you have a safe and successful trip into the wilderness is to head out with the right attitude. It is not gear that will keep you out of harm’s way or help you to handle an emergency; it is the important hardware that sits between your ears.
The main attitudes we need to have are humility, flexibility, and composure. These are something that you will find in all great outdoor adventurers, who know they are not as powerful as the elements they face, recognize their limitations, and then use patience and wisdom to overcome them. These folks know that when they find themselves in trouble, instead of panicking they remain calm and form a thoughtful plan of action.
One of the biggest dangers in Rocky Mountain National Park is a determined insistence on reaching a particular goal, whether that be a summit or the completion of a particular hike. We often refer to this as “summit fever.” This insistence can be deadly when it causes us to be so goal focused that we ignore wisdom. When that storm is building above tree line, we may feel like we should race on in order to accomplish our goal, but wisdom says to either try another day or wait below tree line until the storm has passed. Lightning has killed many who have this “summit fever” attitude. In the same way, machismo or a goal-focused determination says to push on as the headache and nausea worsen, but wisdom says to head back down to a lower elevation. The one who listens to wisdom will live; the one who ignores wisdom may encounter High Altitude Pulmonary Edema or even High Altitude Cerebral Edema, putting their life at risk. Listen to the voice of wisdom and live to conquer another day.
Rocky Mountain National Park is home to over sixty different species of mammals, as well as many birds, insects, and fish, so it is very likely that at some point you will encounter wildlife on your hikes through the park. Knowing what to do in an encounter can help keep it a safe and enjoyable experience. The first thing you should know is that it is illegal to approach wildlife in the park. They are to be left undisturbed. You know that you've gotten too close when they turn to look at you. If you encounter wildlife along the trails, keep your distance and wait until they depart before continuing onward. For most animals, it is recommended that you keep a distance of two bus lengths; for potentially dangerous wildlife such as moose and bears, keep a distance of three bus lengths.
Along with this, you should not attempt to feed any of the animals, as human food can make them ill. The squirrel population in Rocky Mountain National Park has had a problem with the bubonic plague, which developed because of the way some types of human food decomposes. Not only does feeding animals cause them problems but also if you are bitten by one of them they can potentially transmit the bubonic plague, rabbies, hantavirus, or other diseases to you. I am fairly sure this would not be on most people's bucket list.
It is unlikely that you will run into a bear or mountain lion, though moose encounters are becoming more common. If you do come across one of these animals here's what you should know:
In Rocky Mountain National Park live about twenty black bears. There are no grizzly bears in Rocky. Black bears generally avoid people unless there is food left out to attract them. This is why bear canisters are required for anyone camping in the backcountry. Often people who are new to Rocky buy bear bells to alert the bears that you are coming. These are not necessary and there is little evidence that they do anything other than alert other visitors that you are new here. In my nearly 20 years of hiking this park I have only see a couple of bear on a trail. It’s very rare to encounter one. However, if you do encounter a bear, stand up tall and make loud noises such as shouting or clapping. This will typically scare them away. If you have small children, keep them near you and if you are with others, group together. If attacked, fight back! Never try to retrieve anything once a bear has it.
Though not a native species to this area, moose are becoming more and more prominent in Rocky Mountain National Park since their introduction to Colorado in 1978 by the Colorado Department of Wildlife. While more numerous on the west side, sightings are becoming increasingly common on the east side as well. They can be found almost anywhere in the park but are most likely to be found in marshy areas, especially areas with an abundance of willows. During my hikes in the park, I must have come across well over twenty either right on or right next to the trail. Unlike bears, there is a high likelihood you may encounter a moose.
While they seem slow and docile, they are not to be messed with and can be very unpredictable. If agitated, they can charge without warning. As they can weigh up to 1,500 pounds (680 kg) and are incredibly strong, they can easily knock the strongest person to the ground and trample them in seconds. Like other large animals, you want to give them a lot of space. It is recommended that you keep a distance of three bus lengths between you and a moose. If you accidentally have a close encounter, try to put an object like a tree or large rock between you and the animal while you slowly back away. As long as you give them the required space, they are generally happy to ignore you.
There are only thought to be a small number of mountain lions in Rocky Mountain National Park, as they have very large territories. They are elusive and almost never seen. If you are lucky enough to see one, keep your distance. When out hiking on the trail remember to keep children close to you and don't let them run ahead. Jogging is not recommended, as it can trigger a mountain lion’s attack response. If you do have a close encounter, hold your ground or back away slowly. Face the lion and stand upright. Do all you can to appear larger such as raising your arms or holding a stick over your head. If you have children pick them up. If the lion behaves aggressively wave your arms and throw objects at it to convince it that you are not prey and that you may be dangerous. If attacked, fight back! Afterward, notify a ranger of your encounter. Encountering a mountain lion is rare. You are much more likely to be hit by lightning or a falling tree than to be attacked by a lion.
As a general rule there are very few biting insects in Rocky Mountain National Park, which makes hiking here a real pleasure compared to other parks. However, there are times and places where you may encounter swarms of mosquitoes. Apart from the general discomfort they may cause, there is also the possibility that they could carry the West Nile virus. Generally, it is the very young, the elderly, or those with suppressed immune systems who are most likely to be harmed. Nonetheless, it would be wise to protect yourself when you are hiking through areas with large mosquito populations. Cover your skin with clothing they can’t bite through and use some form of mosquito repellent. I also carry a head net for these occasional but uncomfortable situations.
During the spring, sometimes beginning as early as February, ticks will come out in force, particularly in the warmer low-elevation areas. They often hang on the long grasses or on the branches of trees, waiting for a meal to walk by. Ticks in the park may carry Colorado tick fever or Rocky Mountain spotted fever, both of which can cause serious illnesses. There are several things you can do to protect yourself. Firstly, reduce the amount of exposed skin and close off openings to the skin; for example, with long pants that are tucked in at the bottom. You can wear gaiters, put a rubber band around your pant leg, or pull your socks up around the outside of your pant legs. You will also want to wear a long-sleeve shirt, a hat, and something around your neck. Secondly, there are some tick repellents that can be used to make you less attractive. Some are designed for clothing and others for exposed skin. Thirdly and most importantly, as soon as you are done with your hike, check your clothing carefully and then fully check your body. They like to crawl into areas like belly buttons, ears, hair, underarms, and genital areas. The CDC recommends that you put your hiking clothing in the dryer for at least ten minutes on high heat to kill any ticks that may have come home with you.
If you do find a tick don’t worry, as it generally takes up to a day before they can burrow in enough to transmit disease. If they have begun to bite, you’ll want to remove them with a tweezer, being sure to grab them from the pinchers rather than from their body and making sure to remove all the mouth parts. I then recommend putting them in a Ziplock bag with the date on it and put them in the freezer. That way if any symptoms develop, you can bring the tick in with you for testing. If no illness appears you may use them as condiments. Just kidding! If you experience a fever within two weeks of the bite see your doctor and let them know you were bitten by a tick.