During the long weekend of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s fall break, I decided to take a short trip to Rocky Mountain National Park. The park and the surrounding areas have always had a soft spot in my heart. I’ve spent countless days during my summer vacations exploring the alpine tundra and meadows of the park, marveling at the lush fields of wildflowers and the colossal mountain peaks rising high above the mountain valleys. However this was my first time visiting the park in the fall and I found the sights and sounds to be vastly different from the summer.
A bull moose bathed in the first light of the day. Photo by Ethan Freese
When I travel to the park in the summer I’m used to seeing an abundance of wildflowers growing throughout the park, while I was still able to find a few species that were blooming, most of the wildflowers had already gone into dormancy. Despite the lack of wildflowers, the scenery was still breathtaking.
This western aster was one of the few wildflowers still in bloom. Photo by Ethan Freese
Alpine tundra with a view of Long’s Peak. Photo by Ethan Freese
The changing of color of aspen leaves is perhaps the most iconic sign that autumn has arrived in the Rockies. By the time I arrived many of the aspens had already lost most of their leaves but there were still many groves of trees in lower elevation areas of the park bursting with color.
This grove of aspen had yet to lose its leaves. Photo by Ethan Freese
The wildlife in the park also looked and behaved much differently than it does in the summer. The mule deer and elk had lost all the velvet on their antlers and the rut was in full swing. In the early mornings and evenings large herds of elk would gather in the meadows and the larger bulls would diligently protect their harems from rival males. Deep bugles from the bulls and the rattling of antlers could be heard echoing off the mountainsides through the calm of the morning. Squirrels were taking advantage of the mild weather by frantically gathering food before winter’s descent.
These two young bulls were practicing sparring for next year. Photo by Ethan Freese
A pine squirrel gathering food for the coming winter. Photo by Ethan Freese
The streams and rivers of the park were considerably lower than in the summer due to the decreased amounts of snowmelt. It is amazing to think that the water flowing through the mountain streams and rivers of the park will eventually flow into the Platte River where it will be used for everything from irrigation to recreation.
The snowmelt-fueled Big Thompson River. Photo by Ethan Freese
After seeing how much the park varied from the summer to the fall, I realized just how much the changing of the seasons impacts entire ecosystems, from the tiniest of wildflowers to the largest rivers. Now as I sit in class thinking about the golden aspens and bugling elk, I can’t help but plan my next trip to witness fall in the Rockies.
Elk graze in a meadow as the morning sun illuminates the mountain peaks. Photo by Ethan Freese
Ethan Freese is a PBT intern and sophomore at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln majoring in fisheries and wildlife, and grassland ecology and management.