I have been doing tours in Colorado for years but for some reason have never been to Rocky Mountain National Park. The park is
only a 2-hour drive from Denver but it is to the north and we don’t usually go that direction. However, we have recently changed one of our tours to include this park and I was really excited to get a chance to visit.
A popular summer resort and the headquarters for Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park lies along the Big Thompson River. The town has a population of just over 6,000 and it’s elevation is 7,522 feet.
There is evidence of Native Americans living in the area for hundreds of years. In the 1850s, the Arapaho spent summers camped around Mary’s Lake, where their rock fireplaces, tipi sites, and dance rings are still visible. They also built eagle traps atop Long’s Peak to get the war feathers coveted by all tribes. They battled with the Apaches in the 1850s, and also fought with the Utes who came to the area to hunt bighorn sheep.
Some hopeful settlers probably came into the Estes Park valley before the 1850s as trappers, but did not stay long. The town is named after Missouri native Joel Estes, who founded the community in 1859. Estes moved his family there in 1863.
Griff Evans and his family came to Estes Park in 1867 to act as caretakers for the former Estes ranch. Recognizing the potential for tourism, he began building cabins to accommodate travelers. Soon it was known as the first dude ranch in the area, with guides for hunting, fishing, and mountaineering.
In 1884, Enos Mills (1870-1922) left Kansas with his family and came to Estes Park, where his relative Rev. Elkanah Lamb lived. That move proved significant for the area because Mills became a naturalist and conservationist who devoted his life after 1909 to preserving nearly a thousand square miles of Colorado as Rocky Mountain National Park.
Mills was a sickly boy and he believed he gained strength form the pure mountain air. He opened an inn and led many hikers through his beloved mountain range. Between logging and a chance encounter with John Muir (the “Father of the National Parks”) after Muir died in 1914, Mills began lobbying Congress to save the land as a National Park. He succeeded and the park was dedicated in 1915.
Today, Estes Park’s outskirts include The Stanley Hotel, built in 1909. An example of Edwardian opulence, the building had Stephen King as a guest, inspiring him to change the locale for his novel “The Shining” from an amusement park to the Stanley’s fictional stand-in, the Overlook Hotel.
The town was also the site of the organization of the Credit Union National Association, an important milestone in the history of American credit unions.
Trail Ridge Road, the highest paved highway in the United States, runs from Estes Park westward through Rocky Mountain National Park, reaching Grand Lake over the continental divide. It is a forty-eight mile road and you reach the summit where the Alpine Visitor Center is located at 12,183 feet. Wow…talk about cold and windy but breathtaking.
The park is one of the most visited and with it’s location so close to Denver one can understand why. There are 56 mountains over 14,000 feet in Colorado and as you travel through the park you can see Long’s Peak to the south; the northernmost “fourteener” as those mountains are called, at 14,259 feet.
One third of the park is above timberline and that makes sense with over seventy 12,000+ foot high peaks in the area. As you drive the Trail Ridge Road the first stop is Horseshoe Park, full of wildlife, especially elk. And the Bighorn Sheep feed regularly at Sheep Lake.
There are many places you can stop to hike or camp but just driving the road can also be exciting. Once you get past timberline you can see the importance of this park in protecting the fragile alpine tundra, where trees can not grow due to such very harsh conditions. Over three hundred very hardy alpine plants make up this area.
Twenty fiver percent of these plants can also be found in the arctic. This is also a wildlife sanctuary for the many Bighorn sheep who are a symbol of the park.
After you reach the summit, the road descends to Grand Lake and the Colorado River. The river starts in the park and if you travel on I-70 you can follow it to Grand Junction where it turns south to the Grand Canyon and beyond.
If you are interested in reading more about Colorado be sure and check my two part articles called “Colorado by Trains.” Colorado is truly an exciting state to visit. Although it is not known as “The Mountain State” — that title belongs to West Virginia — it is truly a wondrous mountain state.