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COTTONWOOD PASS, COLORADO

Traveling Through Mountain Tundra

There is something serene and intoxicating about traveling through mountain tundra, high above the trees. It is like entering another land, far away from the busy life of the forest or city that may be only a few miles away and a few thousand feet lower. The grass and flowers seem so delicate,and yet stand there in freezing winds, tough enough to come back for their brief season each year. Below is a short story of a night spent up in the mountain tundra, followed by a couple suggestions on where you can more easily access the high country.

A Night on the Mountain Tundra

My wife Ana and I drove ten minutes out of town, and found the dirt road that goes up to Storm Lake. We had been up to the lake a month before, shortly after moving to Anaconda, Montana. The road was pretty hard on the car, but we couldn't resist returning. This time we were bringing backpacks, so we could hike up to the tundra and stay the night.

When we arrived at the lake, there were a couple other cars, but nobody in sight. The lake was sparkling in the sun, and the mountains of the Anaconda-Pintler range rose up all around it. It was quiet, and cooler here at 8,000 feet. We put on our packs and started down the trail around the west side of the lake. Twenty minutes later we were past the lake, and the trail steepened.

An hour of zig-zagging up the mountainside, and we finally met another hiker. We stopped to talk briefly, and noticed the handgun on his belt. This seems to be common in Montana. We have seen guns on the hiking trails and in the bars, and the bank tellers don't even blink when customers walk in wearing guns (probably have their own). We didn't think to ask the hiker why he had one.

We didn't find out until later that there are grizzlies in the area here at times, something that some "experts," have denied. At least we had our freon horn to blast if we met a bear, but then maybe that would just get the bear angry.

Tundra Flowers

The trees end just before Storm Lake Pass, and the flowers become small, but colorful and tougher than their delicate appearance suggests. White, yellow and reds. Ana waited among the blossoms patiently while I ran the five-minutes-that-became-twenty up to the peak of Mount Tiny, not quite 10,000- feet high. I suppose it is small compared to some of the surrounding mountains, but it still seems almost rude to give a beautiful mountain a name like that.

Later, up past goat meadow, Ana waited again while I scrambled up the rocks to the top of Kurt Peak (also a foot or two below 10,000 feet). I couldn't find the route back down on the north side where I came up, so I went back up part-way, then down the west side and back north to the grassy slope where Ana was waiting.

Months later we realized how foolish it was to leave Ana alone. Montana has some dangerous animals. About the time we were moving, two teenage boys were attacked by a mountain lion on the hillside just behind town. The fourteen-year-old fired his gun to scare it off. It is worth noting that both boys were probably larger than my gun-less wife. Fortunately, we didn't meet any bears or cougars on this hiking trip, but Ana had other things to worry about.

Aliens on the Tundra

"I hear voices," she told me when we were in the tent. Just mountain winds, I thought to myself. It was her first time camping on the tundra, and in such an isolated place. I assured her that there was nobody within ten miles of us, but then she was worried about aliens landing in the meadow. Hey, it would make a good landing site. Meanwhile, the wind was blowing strong, threatening to shred the tent all night, and sounding like the whispers or screams of ghosts. By morning the wind finally relented, but it was well below freezing. It was time to get Ana home.

Despite the cold that she hates so much, Ana couldn't help but stop to take in the view as we crossed the high meadows on our way home. Mountains, gray with rock, green with grass and flowers, and painted with white patches of snow, were everywhere we looked. Lakes sat in the valleys below, unvisited for weeks at a time. We will be back there again, I think, although perhaps with bear spray and alien repellent.

The Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness

Forty-five miles of the Continental Divide Trail go through the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness. Much of it is high up in the mountain tundra.The other trails in the wilderness are never heavily used, and you can easily find mountains and whole valleys where you'll be the only human residents for as long as you stay. It is difficult to get much information on the area, but you can read a bit more about it at Wilderness.net.

Other Places to Travel through Mountain Tundra

Colorado has many places where you can drive up to the tundra. Look for any passes on the map that are above ten-thousand feet, and you'll probably find tundra there. If you want great hiking above tree-line, Rocky Mountain National park is the place to go. For more information, visit the Rocky Mountain National Park Website.

Glacier National Park in Montana also has wonderful trails for day-hikes through the tundra. This is one of the most beautiful parks on the planet. For more information, visit the Glacier National Park Website.

One of the best drives through the tundra is highway 212 from the northeast entrance of Yellowstone National Park up and over Beartooth pass and then into Montana. The road stays high above the trees for a long stretch, and the views are fantastic.

Mountain Tundra Tips

If you plan to hike, or spend any time outside on the tundra, take the following precautions:
*Dress warmly. I have been snowed on in August in southern Colorado.
*Bring water. The air is dry, and you'll be thirsty.
*Wear sunglasses. It is easy to damage your eyes in the thin air.
*Use sunblock. It is very easy to get a sunburn at high altitude.
*Tell somebody when you'll be back. It's easy to get lost in the rolling mountain tundra.
*Follow trails, if possible, and otherwise try not to damage the delicate environment.
* If traveling very far from home, you might also want to consider travel insurance.

Related Page: Montana Mountains


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