Rocky Mountain National Park, located in north-central Colorado encompasses 415 square miles of spectacular mountains and forests filled with wildlife, 300 miles of hiking trails, rivers and streams, 600 rustic buildings, and some of America’s most beautiful scenery. Spanning the Continental Divide, it is best known for the Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuously paved highway in North America, as well as more than 100 mountain peaks that rise above 11,000 feet, including Longs Peak at 14,259 feet.
People first appeared in the area about 11,000 years ago when the glaciers receded from the Rocky Mountains. These Paleo-Indians first hunted mammoths and as the climate changed, they hunted bison, elk, bighorn sheep. The Ute Indians were the first modern peoples to use portions of the park, spending summers in the valleys and retreating to the lower elevations during the harsh Rocky Mountain winters. The Arapaho also utilized the area.
In the early 1800s, mountain men such as Louis Vasquez and Andrew Sublette, were frequent visitors of the valleys as they worked at trapping furs and trading with the Indians. In 1820, Stephen H. Long led the first official expedition into the area and named Longs Peak after himself. However, he avoided the rugged peaks of what is now Rocky Mountain National Park. This expedition was followed by others in the next several decades, including those led by General Henry Dodge in 1835 and John C. Fremont in 1842.
One of the first permanent American settlers was Joel Estes, for whom Estes Park is named. He first explored the Estes Valley in 1859 when he and his son Milton set out to follow an old Indian trail from Fort Lupton, on the South Platte River, where Joel raised cattle. After climbing to the top of a high ridge, he saw for the first time the park that would someday bear his name. He liked what he saw and reportedly said, “The very place I have been seeking. Here I will make my home.” The next year he laid out his claims and established a homestead. By 1863, he moved his family to the area and began living year-round. They were soon joined by several other families who were scattered across the landscape. The Homestead Act of 1862 encouraged more settlement.
The Pikes Peak gold rush of 1859 drew hopeful miners and speculators all across Colorado. Some of these men tried their luck in several places in what is present-day Rocky Mountain National Park. On the slopes of Long’s Peak, the Eugenia Mine can still be seen, although it did not yield much ore. On the western slope of the Continental Divide, Joe Shipler had a bit more success in 1879 by finding silver on the mountain in the northwest part of the park that today bears his name. He was able to gain financiers in Fort Collins to build Lulu City as a mining town. Lulu was the name of one of the financier’s daughters. By 1881, there were 40 cabins and several businesses in the small town. Conflicts between the American residents and Dutch immigrants led to the establishment of Dutchtown to the west of Lulu City. Despite this growing community, it became apparent that the silver was low quality, and the cost of operating the mines was too high. The town was abandoned by 1885 by all but Joe Shipler who continued to mine for the next 30 years.
Two more government expeditions from the United States Geological Survey traveled through in 1869 – the Hayden expedition and the Powell expedition. Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden was surveying overland from Denver, Colorado to Santa Fe, New Mexico and John Wesley Powell wanted to track the Colorado River from its headwaters to its outlet in the Gulf of California. Both parties made a climb of Longs Peak during their expedition. Powell’s party was accompanied by William Byers of the Rocky Mountain News who publicized the climb and added his voice to others that expounded the beauty of Longs Peak and the surrounding area. Hayden’s party was made more notable by the presence of Anna Dickinson, the first Euro-American woman to climb Longs Peak.
Later, Isabella Bird, an Englishwoman traveling through Estes Valley climbed the mountain. Today, Bird’s Longs Peak climb is the topic of legend in Estes Park due to her association and possible romance with Jim Nugent, more commonly known as Rocky Mountain Jim. Nugent had a reputation as an outlaw and was not popular with the wealthier citizens of Estes Park. He was famously in conflict with dude rancher Griff Evans who had purchased Joel Estes’ homestead when the Estes family moved from the area. During the 1870s interest had grown in the area as an outdoor paradise and attracted both Americans and people from abroad. One of these individuals was Thomas Whyndham-Quin, the fourth Earl of Dunraven, who was a wealthy Irishman. Like many of his class, he wanted to own large areas of land for his personal use. Jim Nugent and many others protested this accumulation of land and ultimately Dunraven was thwarted in his ambition to make the valley into his personal hunter’s paradise. Many of the lands were then put up for sale or given back to their original owners.
As the number of settlers increased in the area, water was scarce and in 1890, the building of the Grand Ditch began. The project diverted water from the streams and creeks of the Never Summer Range for eastern plains farmers near Greeley and Fort Collins. The ditch flowed over the Continental Divide at La Poudre Pass at 10,175 feet, delivering the water into the Cache La Poudre River. Work on the 14.3 miles long ditch continued until 1936.
In the decades leading up to the 20th century saw many dreams for the valley and these dreams really gained momentum around 1900. Landowners discovered that it was more profitable to wrangle “dudes” than it was to wrangle livestock on the dynamic Rocky Mountain landscape. One of these individuals was Abner Sprague. He had first come to the Estes Valley in 1868 as a surveyor and by the late 1870s had made the Moraine Park area his home. In addition to being a surveyor, Sprague was also a prospector, rancher, amateur geologist, naturalist, and soon-to-be lodge owner.
He and his wife, Alberta, found themselves entertaining guests as people traveled through the valley and began to charge room and board. They then built additional lodging and the operation got so large he needed help and offered a partnership to his wife’s cousin, James Stead. The business successfully expanded and began offering guided excursions. However, there were challenges amongst the owners. Alberta Sprague and Mrs. Stead had many differences of opinion regarding the operation of the ranch which led to Sprague selling the business to Stead and building a new lodge in Glacier Basin. He dammed the creek and created a fish pond which today bears his name. Sprague Lake is still a popular destination for anglers and other visitors. Unfortunately, there are no remains of Sprague’s buildings today
Respiratory illnesses brought many people to the Colorado mountains hoping that the clear air would cure them. Freelan O. Stanley was one of these travelers and became so enamored with the area that he was willing to finance a road from Loveland to bring more visitors to the area, particularly friends and acquaintances to the Stanley Hotel he was building. His Stanley Steamer became an integral part of the tourism to Estes Valley in the form of the Estes Park Transportation Company, which transported visitors and freight from the train stations in Lyons and Loveland.
During the early 1900s, visitors would often arrive by train and then contract a wagon or automobile to bring them into the valley. This sort of travel was expensive and visiting Estes Park was an elite activity. Beyond the Stanley Hotel, Sprague’s Lodge, and Stead’s Ranch there were many other lodging facilities in the area such as the Elkhorn, the Baldpate, the Moraine Park Lodge, the Horseshoe Inn, the Fall River Inn and dozens more throughout Estes Park and nearby towns. During this time, Moraine Park was a functioning town complete with its own post office, school, liveries, eating establishments, as well as the many options for lodging. Near Grand Lake, there were more hotels.
In 1884, a 16-year-old boy traveled from Fort Scott, Kansas to stay with relatives who lived on a homestead near the base of Longs Peak. He had grown up sickly and his family hoped that the Colorado air would improve his health. This teenager was Enos Mills, who would become a central figure in the creation of Rocky Mountain National Park. Upon his arrival in the area, Mills became enamored with the nature and landscapes of the Longs Peak area and subsequently climbed Longs Peak more than 250 times. On a trip to California, he had a chance encounter with John Muir, the famous naturalist of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Muir inspired Mills to take up the pen and begin writing about the land and wildlife that he loved so much. He published 14 books about the Longs Peak area during his life and was a vocal activist for the preservation of the area. In 1901, he established Longs Peak Inn, a rustic hostelry having cabins complete with steam heat and private baths, in order to encourage “city-folk” to visit Estes Park. As the owner of the Longs Peak Inn, he joined many other lodge owners in their support of a national park.
“In years to come when I am asleep beneath the pines, thousands of families will find rest and hope in this park.” — Enos Mills
The idea for Rocky Mountain National Park came from many different sectors of society: businesses, preservationists, politicians, and private citizens. This momentum for national parks began in the 1890s when it was declared that Manifest Destiny had been achieved and the Frontier was closed.
Throughout 1913 and 1914 Enos Mills and several organizations began to lobby Congress to create a new national park. In general, mining, logging, and agricultural interests opposed it.
On January 26, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Rocky Mountain National Park Act., which exempted the lands from further settling and hunting.
“Many thousands are bound to find their way to this glorious country, yet reached by relatively few. We are trying to do our part to bring the thousands here.” — Stephen T. Mather, Assistant Secretary of the Interior, September 1915
At that time, private lands dotted the park and many of these people hosted guests and their lodges. These lodge keepers maintained roads, built trails, and guided visitors into the high country. When the first park superintendent arrived, he too began to construct facilities to support visitors. The earliest managers of the park had a meager budget with which to protect the 358.3 square miles under their jurisdiction.
As visitation increased after World War I, the simple park facilities and private lodges became inadequate. Rangers built comfort stations, museums, and well-maintained trails to meet visitor expectations.
Between 1913 and 1920 the Fall River Road was built by the State of Colorado and Larimer and Grand counties to encourage tourism. This narrow unpaved single-lane road climbed up the deep Fall River Valley to Fall River Pass, then dropped down a series of sharp switchbacks to the Colorado River in the Kawuneeche Valley. This road proved difficult for early automobiles to traverse and clearing the shaded route of snow each year was a difficult and dangerous undertaking. Soon after it was completed, the park began planning a replacement.
In 1917, John Holzwarth Sr., a German immigrant, moved his family to the Kawuneeche Valley, after his job as a saloon-keeper in Denver came to an abrupt end as a result of the enactment of prohibition in Colorado. He soon built a homestead at the foot of the Never Summer Mountains and started a cattle ranch. His location on the west side of the Colorado River, next to the newest national park, soon began attracting guests. The family decided to open a guest ranch, which they called the Holzwarth Trout Lodge. As tourism in the area increased over the next decade the Holzwarth family began development of a dude ranch on the east side of the Colorado River, which became known as the Never Summer Ranch. The site, which includes several historic buildings, is now within the national park’s boundaries.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, millions of Americans were unemployed and President Franklin Roosevelt promised a New Deal, in which he created programs to put people to work. One such program was the Civilian Conservation Corps. In Rocky Mountain National Park, young male recruits lodged at six camps built roads, trails, and buildings; put out wildfires, planted trees, and managed predators.
The National Park Service built a new Trail Ridge Road between 1926 and 1932, climbed nearly a 1,000 feet higher but crossed more open terrain. The new two-lane road was carefully designed by landscape architects to avoid damage to the fragile alpine scenery it crossed. During the peak of construction, 150 laborers worked on the road. The maximum grade on Trail Ridge does not exceed 7%, and eight miles of the road are above 11,000 feet in elevation. Reaching 12,183 feet on Trail Ridge, it is the highest continuous highway in the United States.
During World War II, visitation to all the national parks declined dramatically. After the war, a surge of baby-boom families found the facilities in disrepair and Congress approved a new program to improve facilities in 1966. During this time, the National Park Service acquired many of the old guest lodges within the park boundaries, removed all the buildings and built new campgrounds and parking lots. At that time, the National Park Service considered Rocky Mountain a natural park, and therefore management decisions aimed to return the landscape to pre-contact conditions. Though there are about 600 buildings in the park today, there were once twice that many. It wasn’t until 1988 that the “natural” designation lifted and a new mandate towards historic preservation embraced. Since then, numerous park buildings have been restored or rehabilitated.
Today, Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the most visited national parks in the nation with about 4.5 million visitors annually. The 260,000-acre park is located in portions of three counties – Larimer, Grand, and Boulder — in north-central Colorado, about 65 miles northwest of Denver, Colorado.
Rocky Mountain National Park
1000 US Highway 36
Estes Park, Colorado 80517
Compiled & edited by Kathy Weiser-Alexander, updated May 2020
Source – National Park Service