During the Ice Age when massive glaciers were grinding the landscape, shaping the meadows and peaks, Rocky was an inhospitable land. It was not until some 11,000 years ago that humans began venturing into these valleys and mountains.
Spearheads broken in the fury of a mammoth's charge and scrapers discarded along a nomad's trail tell us little about the area's early native peoples. We do know that even though it was never their year-round home, the green valleys, tundra meadows, and crystal lakes became favored summer hunting grounds for the Ute tribe. In setting up their camps, they made use of the straight and slender lodgepole pine as tepee poles. Until the late 1700s, the Utes controlled the mountain territories.
Tepee rings and other signs of summer camps were still evident by the time the first settlers arrived, but few vestiges of those times remain today, other than the large river boulders that Native Americans carried to the top of Oldman Mountain, a site of their ceremonial vision quests.
The U.S. government acquired the park's original 358.5 square miles in the huge Louisiana Purchase of 1803. French trappers and the Spanish explorers before them seem to have skirted the current park boundaries in their wilderness forays. Even Major Stephen H. Long and his expedition forces avoided these rugged barricades in 1820. Long was never closer than 40 miles to the peak named for him.
Published in 1843, Scenes in the Rocky Mountains described the explorations of Rufus Sage from Connecticut. It was the first account of Rocky's wonders to reach unbelieving easterners. Sage spent four years roaming the Rockies, basing his explorations from Fort Lupton, north of present-day Denver. For a month, Sage hunted deer in the area now known as Estes Park.
The first settler in the area was Joel Estes, a Kentuckian with wandering ways. Scouting for game one fall, he and his son climbed a high promontory that gave them a view of a breathtakingly beautiful valley. In 1860, Estes moved his family into a new home in the area now known as Estes Park.
Winters proved too harsh for cattle, so six years later the Estes family sold out for a yoke of oxen. The Estes cabin was soon converted into guest accommodations, and from 1867 on the number of visitors to this area grew steadily.
A Mountain Mecca
The Rockies continued to attract the adventurous, including the great explorer John Wesley Powell, who conquered the summit of Longs Peak in 1868. Just five years later, Anna Dickinson became the first woman to succeed in the climb.
Isabella Bird, an Englishwoman whose extensive travels and writings earned her the first female membership in the Royal Geographic Society, visited Estes Park in the fall of 1873. She fell in love with the area and, incidentally, with Jim Nugent, a well-educated mountain man whose violent death is shrouded in mystery. Bird's book, A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains , attracted many people to the area, as did Frederick Chapin's Mountaineering in Colorado . So while much of the West was attracting homesteaders, the Rockies were also establishing themselves as a tourist mecca.
About that time, an English earl, Lord Dunraven, arrived and laid questionable claim to 15,000 acres as his private game preserve. He also built the fine Estes Park Hotel.
By 1874, a stage line ran between Estes Park and Longmont by way of North Saint Vrain Canyon.
Because large veins of silver and gold had been discovered in other areas of the Rockies, miners considered the area a land of opportunity and came in droves during Colorado's gold rush of the late 1870s. Lulu City, in what is now the northwest part of the park, in 1880 was a booming mining town with a raucous reputation. Three years later, it was nearly deserted because the region's mineral riches were far less than dreamed. It cost the area dearly.
When the miners and first settlers arrived, there seemed no end to the supply of game. Bear, deer, wolves, and elk were abundant. To feed the boom town demand, commercial hunters went to work. A single hunter could deliver a weekly supply of three tons of assorted big-game meat.
The rousing boom times yielded to an industrious homesteading period. Ranchers and farmers felt that the real wealth of the Rockies lay in its water. They fought over rights to it (finally running the greedy Earl of Dunraven out of town) and built ambitious canal systems to transfer water from the wetter western slopes to the drier eastern plains. The Grand Ditch in the Never Summer Range in the park intercepted the stream source of the Colorado River and diverted it for use for cattle and crops. Though homesteading proved no more profitable than mining in this land, another new enterprise showed promise. Dude ranches began attracting city dwellers in quest of an original adventure.
In 1903, F. O. Stanley, inventor of the Stanley Steamer automobile, came to Estes Park for his health. Impressed by the beauty of the valley and grateful for the improvement in his health, he decided to invest his money and his future there. In 1909, he opened the elegant Stanley Hotel, a classic hostelry exemplifying the golden age of touring.
Largely due to Stanley's efforts, the Estes Park Protective and Improvement Association was established to protect local wildflowers and wildlife and to improve roads and trails. "Those who pull flowers up by the roots will be condemned by all worthy people, and also by the Estes Park Protective and Improvement Association," they warned. It was the start of a conservation ethic that has become increasingly important and complex.
Even more important to the future of the area was Enos Mills, who came to the Longs Peak area in 1884 when he was 14 years old. A dedicated naturalist, he wrote eloquent books about the area's natural history. Not long after his arrival, Mills bought the Longs Peak Inn and began conducting local nature trips.
In 1909, Mills first proposed that the area become the nation's tenth national park to preserve the wildlands from inappropriate use. It was his vision that you would arrive here years later to experience the wonderful Rocky Mountain wilderness he knew. "In years to come when I am asleep beneath the pines, thousands of families will find rest and hope in this park," he proclaimed.
Unleashing his diverse talents and inexhaustible energy, he spent several years lecturing across the nation, writing thousands of letters and articles, and lobbying Congress to create a new park that would stretch from the Wyoming border south to Pikes Peak, covering more than 1,000 square miles. Most civic leaders supported the idea, as did the Denver Chamber of Commerce and the Colorado Mountain Club. In general, mining, logging, and agricultural interests opposed it. The compromise drafted by James G. Rogers, the first president of the Colorado Mountain Club, was the establishment of a smaller park (358.3 square miles). On January 26, 1915, under President Woodrow Wilson, it was declared Rocky Mountain National Park.
The park has since grown to more than 415 square miles. In 1990, it gained an additional 465 acres when Congress approved expansion of the park to include the area known as Lily Lake. The National Park Service, the Conservation Fund, and some diligent legislators successfully halted land development in this area adjacent to the park's boundary. It now is an important buffer zone that helps protect the migratory routes of wildlife in the park.
Today, the park stands as a legacy to those pioneers who looked beyond its harvestable resources to its more lasting values.