A Place for the Wild
Driving into Estes Park, the view of the snow-peaked mountains let you know you’ve arrived. In fact, anywhere in town, the breathtaking view of mountain ranges and the herds of elk that wander the golf courses remind you that you’re in a wild place.
Rocky Mountain National Park was established in 1915 – one year before the National Park Service was created to manage the country’s growing collection of public recreation lands. In Estes Park, first settled by Joel Estes, the network of advocates for the creation of a National Park most visibly featured Enos Mills (friend of John Muir), who served as a mountain guide and traveled to give lectures on the importance of preservation. Though he is often credited as the “Father of Rocky Mountain National Park,” the idea was first hatched by H.N. Wheeler of the Forest Service, and he was not alone in the efforts.
Isabella Bird, a British traveler, had published her letters about her visit to Estes Park and the summit of Longs Peak 20 years prior – writings which captured the beauty of the landscape and the imaginations of people across the world. The efforts were also supported by F.O. Stanley, inventor of the Stanley Steamer, hotelier and businessman – with advocacy from the Estes Park Woman’s Club and the Colorado Mountain Club. “There was a crusade that had to happen for the park to exist,” – which is true for many, if not all, of the parks.
But this only captures the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park. For the dramatic landscapes of the east are the vast meadows and ranches of the west side, Grand Lake. Despite some tension about the removal of lodges within park bounds, the west side largely welcomed the park and the construction of a road over the mountains, which would bring more visitation and more business to the “quieter side” of the park. Both Estes Park and Grand Lake – often described separately or in contrast to one another – were established long before the park and are indeed part of a single park, united in their advocacy to help protect the land they share.
Our research in Rocky Mountain National Park included interviews with a network of historians, museum directors, and long-time park rangers, volunteers, and locals who grew up just outside the park. We found it much easier to connect with park rangers in the Rockies, who generously spared an hour while ramping up for their busy season. In both instances, when we asked for a picture, they responded, “You want me to get the hat, right?”
Our many conversations led us to these themes as we search for stories that capture the essence of Rocky Mountain National Park:
A Natural History Park
The Rockies were proposed as a wilderness park in the 1970’s, and designated in 2009. It remains 95% wilderness today, home to megafauna like elk, moose, bighorn sheep, and a handful of black bears. Being a wilderness also limits the construction of roads or other development, and so the park has become a haven for backcountry hikers, skiers, and mountain climbers looking for solitude.
This definition has also influenced the management of the park. Moraine Park once hosted lodges and a golf course, all torn down to return the landscape to nature. Local historian Curt Buchholtz toured us around a number of historic sites - the Elkhorn Lodge that housed Colorado’s first park ranger, the site of Lord Dunravens very first tourist lodge, Enos Mills’ and Isabella Bird’s cabins – all of which sit outside the park bounds, without indication or preservation. These decisions speak to the Rockies self-image as a wilderness park.
Two major human feats of engineering that go over and under a wild landscape. Trail Ridge Road brings cars to the extreme conditions of the alpine tundra at 12,000 feet—the highest continuous motor road in the United States. The Colorado-Big Thompson Water project diverts water under the mountains, from the west side of the Continental Divide to the fields of the east. Tunneling began from both sides of the mountain in the 1930s, and met in the middle, off by a mere 7/16 of an inch.
Being in the Rockies means you’re anywhere from approximately 8,000 feet above sea level, up to the 14,000 foot summit of Longs Peak. The dramatic scenery, and the perceived health benefits of the clean mountain air, have drawn visitors for the last century. As P.T. Barnum once said about Colorado, “2 out of every 3 people is coming here to die, and when they get here, they find they can’t do it!” Various climates play home to all kinds of megafauna – the aforementioned elk, moose, and bighorn sheep, and the now extinct grizzly bear and mammoth – that attracted game hunters.
With the park brought Trail Ridge Road, offering visitors access to the dramatic alpine tundra, and the Alpine Visitor Center, the country’s highest at 11,796 feet. Here is an unforgiving yet fragile landscape, with thin soil, strong ultraviolet light, and bitter cold. Only the white-tailed ptarmigan stays the whole year. And mountain climates can change suddenly–a sunny day gives way to a windy thunderstorm, a clear afternoon turns into a hazy mist. These rapid changes are reflected in the region’s most famous campfire story, “The Blue Mist.”
Whiskey’s for Drinking, Water’s for Fighting
Most of the trails in the Rocky Mountains seem to end at a pristine mountain-top lake. Streams run along with abundance and force, but these snow melts are important sources of water beyond the park itself and for all of the United States.
The Rockies are the home of the Continental Divide. Water that falls west of the Divide flows to the Pacific Ocean, while water that falls east reaches the Atlantic. The rain that falls and snow that melts in the mountains is so desperately needed by those in the lower plains that it is often the subject of heated political negotiations. It was only recently that the state of Colorado passed a law allowing property owners to collect a single barrel of rainfall per property. So let’s revise that old sea song for the Rockies – water water everywhere, but all of it controlled.
For all these human efforts to control water, it’s water itself that has again and again refused to be controlled. The 2013 Colorado flood, the 1982 Lawn Lake Flood, and the Big Thompson flood of 1976 all caused massive destruction in Estes Park, reminding us of the mighty power of a resource we try to control.
Most accounts of human history go back first to Paleo-Indians following mammoth at the end of the ice age, then to the Ute and Arapaho tribes, who also moved through to hunt, settling elsewhere to escape the harsh winters. The famous Arapaho pack trip of 1914, organized by Harriet Vaille and Edna Hendrie of the Colorado Mountain Club, sought to strengthen the case of preservation to Congress by recalling traditional Arapaho place names. Ironically, Ute tribes had a longer history in the land, but were hesitant to return due to their legends of a tragedy at Grand Lake.
Shortly after arrival, European settlers found many of their enterprises would come up short here. The short growing season of roughly 40 days led to the saying that “all you can grow around here is radishes, pansies, and hell.” Mining camps on the west side panned for gold, only to soon find that there was no profit to make. The primary business of the area soon turned to providing lodging for the visitors that would flock to the area each summer.
Lodging, Homesteading, and Dude Ranching
Abner Sprague, one of the first settlers here, said, “We came here for small ranch operations, but guests and visitors became so numerous, at first wanting eggs, milk, and other provisions, then wanting lodging, and finally demanding full accommodations, that we had to go into the hotel business or go bankrupt from keeping free company!”
Isabella Bird’s travel writings sparked a word of mouth that brought travelers to Estes Park. After a long journey of 8 days, visitors sought to stay among the mountains for a long visit. And so, welcoming guests into one’s home (homesteading) or onto the grounds of their ranches (dude ranching) became, by default, the primary industry.
All sorts of pioneers blazed the way for homesteaders here. There were tough women; the most famous being the Harbison sisters, Kitty and Annie, who together ran one of the longest and most successful homesteads on the west side. Over on the east, the Hondius family opened the Elkhorn Lodge to visitors, where one would get a room and a horse for their stay. And F.O. Stanley built the first luxury hotel, the first in the nation to run entirely on electric power, and one that would host Stephen King and inspire “The Shining.” That legacy of summer lodging continues today, as Estes Park grows from a community of 6,000 to 25,000 each summer.
Though we hit the road for Zion National Park today, we know our work is not done in the Rockies. The legacies of transience and wilderness mean we’ll need to dig a little deeper. Without a local organization that holds the history and culture intimately (like the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in the Smokies), we recognize we will need to look harder to uncover Ute & Arapaho legacies in the Rocky Mountains.
Filmmaker Nick Molle muses in his film The Living Dream: 100 Years of Rocky Mountain National Park that, “people are coming for the same reasons as they did 50-80 years ago. There are not a lot of places you could say that about.” And, as we head out of the region, it is evident that this is true. The stunning wilderness continues to attract visitors in soaring numbers, as campgrounds continued to fill up and highways were buzzing with traffic heading to Estes Park. Last year, the park attracted 4 million visitors and are already seeing an increase in visitation for 2016.
We’re eager to head from the mountains into the desert. And as we enter the busy season of many national parks, this question rings in our heads: “We want everyone to have this experience, but what is this experience turning into?”