The Park by the Park 

A mid-summer trip to Colorado for a wedding in the foothills above Denver, a wedding so lovely that even an untimely rain shower couldn't dampen it, was a highlight for us one year. And we also took advantage of our presence two time zones west to spend a week in one of our favorite little towns, the Park by the Park.

Just why it is that we like Estes Park so much isn't exactly clear to us. Especially in the summer, it's horribly crowded, not only with people but also with elk(!). There really isn't much there in the way of restaurants or the other normal vacation amenities. And we don't know anybody.

But we just love the place.

One reason we like it so much is probably that we spent lots of time up there when we used to live in Boulder, about an hour down the hill, and we learned how to deal with all the traffic and other hassles. On uncounted occasions, we got up early and drove through Estes Park for a breakfast "training walk" in Rocky Mountain National Park next door, sometimes twice in a weekend. These walks served us well as preparation for our across-the-divide forced marches—twenty miles or so, with several thousand feet of elevation change, from Bear Lake on the east side of the Continental Divide to Grand Lake on the west side—and the experience with Estes Park got us used to the crowds.

And Rocky Mountain National Park itself is the other reason. Memories from all that time we spent there linger, and we can still think of Rocky as an extended back yard. Once again this year, we discovered that there are no new trails for us to explore—at least not of the day-hike variety. But that was just fine, because we haven't been there for a few years, and reacquainting ourselves with those old friends was the perfect vacation.

Rocky is one of the gems of the National Park Service, in the same class with parks at the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Yellowstone. There's no big hole in the ground (just the opposite, in fact), or thousand-foot cliffs with spectacular waterfalls, or geysers; but, like those other parks, Rocky draws folks from all over the world. On the main drag in Estes Park, Elkhorn Avenue, you can hear the variety of languages that you would expect to hear at JFK or another big international airport.

That main drag is the place to avoid, at least from mid-morning to early evening. It's lined with a curious variety of shops, some practical, some absurd, all designed to separate tourists from the contents of their bank accounts, and traffic both on the street and on the sidewalks is in a perpetual state of near gridlock.

Now, for the most part the gridlock is due to cars (and trucks and RVs and busses) and to people milling about. But there is also the elk problem. Lack of predators, except for big-game hunters, and the exclusion of hunting from the National Park has resulted in an elk population explosion. And, despite having brains about the size of walnuts, the elk are smart enough to have discovered that the plants in town taste much, much better than the natural forage in Rocky. But who can blame them? Bluegrass has got to be more tasty than aspen twigs. Plus, there are the gardens that people plant for dessert.

The elk actually benefit the town, because during the fall—what would otherwise be a down time—surprisingly large numbers of people show up to watch the rut, the annual elk mating ritual. It makes all the sex and violence on television seem positively puritanical.

Although their behavior is more amusing in the Fall, they're all over the place year 'round. So, now and then, an elk will stroll down Elkhorn Avenue, oblivious to the traffic, on its way to the bluegrass lawn in front of the library. Then it's true gridlock and you just don't want to be there.

And we weren't. We were sitting on the deck of our cabin, right next to the Big Thompson River, watching Long's Peak play peek-a-boo through the clouds. And, as a bonus, the trout in the Big Thompson were only marginally smarter than the elk, and just as hungry!

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