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Field Division of Education
The Geology of Rocky Mountain National Park
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Purpose and Scope:

The purpose of this report is to present a statement of the salient facts of the geology of Rocky Mountain National Park. Emphasis has been placed upon certain phases of the subject which might serve as a basis for museum exhibits and exposition purposes. The material contained in this report has been derived from a critical review of the more important literature dealing with the Rocky Mountains of Northern Colorado. A bibliography of these papers accompanies the report and original sources are often quoted in the text.

The work has been carried on under the direction of the National Park Service, Field Division of Education as part of CWA project SLF-4.

Location and General Character:

Rocky Mountain National Park includes an area of approximately 398 square miles situated in the high mountains of the Front Range in north-central Colorado. The region extends on either side of the continental divide, lying between Larimar, Grand, and Boulder Counties. Estes Park, the eastern gateway, lies approximately 50 miles north-west of Denver by direct line, and is easily accessable by modern means of transportation. Grand Lake is the western entrance. Several roads and many fine trails run through the park, opening up a vast scenic wonderland of giant peaks, rugged ridges, and sparkling mountain lakes. These lakes are fed by living glaciers and snow fields in sheltered, steep walled gorges and cirques. Animal life is varied and abundant and the vegetation ranges in character from that of the middle altitudes to the extreme alpine. The lower valleys are often carpeted with meadows surrounded by great forests, in marked contrast to the barren and rugged peaks and rock strewn ridges of the higher elevations above timber line.

The great snow-capped range extending through the center of the park has a north-south trend, its southern portion forming a part of the continental divide. This ridge with its peaks, many of which are over 13,000 feet elevation, forms the most prominent topographic feature of the park. The culminating point of the higher elevations is Longs Peak, named in honor of Col. S. H. Long who conducted one of the earliest explorations in this region. It rises 14,255 feet above sea level. This peak is situated on an eastern spur extending a few miles east from the main ridge. The eastern descent from the snow capped range is precipitous, while the western descent is more gradual. The main range is flanked by less commanding summits, arranged in order of prominence, down to the rank of foothills. Although somewhat dwarfed by the more majestic monarchs, the flanking ranges are exceedingly rugged, the massive ridges often being separated by gorges whose walls rise almost vertically, hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of feet. At the higher altitudes are many rock-bound lakes, some occupying basins at the bottom of the gorges, others perched high in the craggy sides of precipices in the most unexpected places. The changing color in these high altitude lakes has well led to their being called "gems of the mountains."

In the gorges and in many of the broader valleys are found conspicuous evidences of ancient glaciation. Great moraines have been formed by glaciers carrying boulders and smaller fragments of rock down the valleys and heaping them in great ridges at the sides and end of the ice. In many places the rocks are polished by the ice passing over them. For easily read records left by ancient glaciers, the Rocky Mountain National Park is almost unique.

The lower slopes of the mountains are wooded wherever they are not too precipitous for trees to take root. At an altitude of about 11,500 feet, known as timberline, the struggle between trees and elements is severe. Here may be found many interesting and curiously formed shrubs with gnarled and twisted trunks and branches, either growing close to the ground, or taking refuge behind protecting boulders and ridges. These are commonly known as timberline trees. On the slopes above timberline may be found a flora consisting mainly of descendants of arctic plants driven southward during the Great Ice Age.

It was because this region displayed so many of the grande features representative of the Rocky Mountains that it was set aside as a national park on January 26, 1915.

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