Rocky Mountain National Park
A History
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It was a rainy September day in 1982 when I hiked to the ruins of Rocky Mountain National Park's largest ghost town, Lulu City. As a disintegrating monument to the mining era, a few crumbling log walls testified to the town's existence a hundred years before. A rustic National Park Service sign tersely recounted the futile search for quick wealth that occurred on the surrounding slopes. The rainy weather enhanced a somber feeling of failure that pervaded that site. And an aura of mystery hung in the air, filled with ghosts and ruined dreams. But at the same time there was a lively aspect to that setting. Lightning from a rain storm danced off nearby ridges; thunder echoed through the valley; and pellets of rain bounced into the infant Colorado River that tumbled nearby. All around the old townsite nature appeared busy reclaiming that spot, rebuilding the meadowland on either side of the well-worn hiking trail. There, at Lulu City, history hardly seemed distant; it was something anyone could touch, smell, feel, and almost hear. Any historian would like to take a reader on a jaunt such as that, a hike into history.

Our search for the past is a little like kicking around in an old ghost town. It is delightful to imagine how those oldtimers lived, to try to guess what problems they encountered, to become envious of their successes, to feel haughty when viewing their failures. Ghost towns, like history itself, encourage us to believe that we, too, might stumble upon a nugget or two, but of wisdom rather than wealth. It does not seem to matter that others have kicked the same tin cans, for it is the search alone that enchants us. Our curiosity moves us to try to understand the past.

Rocky Mountain National Park. (click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

Located astride the Continental Divide in north-central Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park encompasses 417 square miles of the rugged Front Range and Mummy Range of the Rockies. With its high country predominating, elevations in the Park climb from 7,800 feet above sea level along the eastern slope to a height of 14,255 at the Longs Peak summit. The sweep in elevation produces the scenic grandeur of the area and it also creates three distinct life zones. In the lower regions is the montane zone, noted for its meadows and Ponderosa pine as well as a mix of Douglas fir, lodgepole pine, and aspen. Farther above lies the subalpine zone with its Englemann spruce, alpine fir, and limber pine. And beyond the tree line, above 10,500 feet in elevation, lies the alpine zone, remarkable for its barren-looking tundra which constitutes nearly a third of the Park's terrain. Geographically, the Park's eastern slope forms the headwaters of the St. Vrain, Big Thompson, Fall, and Cache La Poudre rivers while western slope streams form and feed the Colorado River. The villages of Grand Lake on the western slope and Estes Park on the eastern side act as gateways for travelers entering the Park, with more distant towns such as Granby, Loveland, Lyons, or Longmont also offering access. The predominent roadway in the region is Trail Ridge Road, which bisects the Park. Crossing the crest of the Rockies, it climbs to an elevation of 12,183 feet and strides Fall River and Milner passes as it angles over the mountains. Rocky Mountain National Park retains a wild interior, dotted with lakes and ribboned with streams. With its rugged backbone of jagged mountains, the Park displays wilderness and wildlife, spectacular scenery and ecological treasures, a popularity and a past, all of which enhance its reputation as The Heart of the Rockies.

Over the years the pull of the Rockies has produced a steady stream of people coming to investigate these wonders. Most people came and left without telling us what they saw or experienced. Only dimly can we trace any native American presence here. With a bit more clarity we can discover a few tracks left by adventuresome trappers and hunters and by Joel Estes, one of the region's earlier pioneers. Somewhat more literate travelers followed, however, bringing such writers as William N. Byers in the 1860s, Isabella Bird in the 1870s, and Frederick Chapin in the 1880s. With these accounts our historical knowledge of the region grows. Quite a number of other happy pleasure-seekers, hunters, and homesteaders came to these mountains as well, with such men as the Earl of Dunraven attempting to gain personal possession of the whole area. Rudimentary in its earliest forms, publicity detailing the beauties and charm of the region started in conversations, letters, newspaper articles, and a book or two. Gradually, that publicity attracted those seeking amusement in fishing, hunting, or a hundred other pastimes. Prospectors searching for gold and silver also arrived, along with a handful of ranchers. The ranchers, in turn, developed an infant resort business, discovering that recreation produced a gold of its own.

Meanwhile, a growing demand for water—one of the Rockies' main resources—stimulated the building of diversion projects, canals, and reservoirs. Wide use of water prompted demands for conservation, resulting in protection for the area as a national forest. Also from conservationist ideology came thoughts of preservation. Those ideals, combined with the developing resort interests and with recreation, resulted in the establishment of Rocky Mountain National Park in 1915. The creation of this national park publicized the region even more. Over the years, National Park Service officials cultivated a national playground idea in Rocky Mountain National Park while also protecting this preserve from exploitation. Each year saw the Park grow busier, especially as scenic highways made the region more accessible and acceptable to modern travelers. A boom in park tourism resulted. Eventually, more elaborate steps had to be initiated to protect the Park against this onrush of people. Too much popularity meant renewed efforts toward preservation.

At every stage of this story, from the earliest trapper to the most recent tourists, scenery and adventure compelled people to record their observations and experiences. Many writers merely described the mountain panorama in superlatives that beggar literary economy; far fewer recorded events of historical significance. Only a handful of writers ever attempted to chronicle the march of mankind into these mountains and place the events of the past into perspective.

However they traveled, whether they came to visit or to stay, people quickly discovered that this stretch of the Rocky Mountains was well worth the trip. (Rocky Mountain National Park Historical Collection, hereinafter cited RMNPHC)

It is into this historical gap that this volume attempts to venture. Naturally, brevity mandates that not every pioneer's name can grace the pages that follow. Not every event can be fully described. History, after all, is partly the process of selection: every subject offered here has been chosen from a dozen left unmentioned, selected for significance, and offered as an example of a mentality or way of life that characterized an era in the Park's history. Many gaps will still remain. Based on research and seasoned judgement, however, an historical panorama will unfold, for the history of Rocky Mountain National Park is more than just a series of dates or the sentences from people's post cards. It is more than floods and fires, and more than old newspaper articles and dusty accounts. It is the story of mankind encountering mountains: of trappers and travelers, ranchers and resort operators, prospectors and water project developers, conservationists and crusaders, preservationists and park rangers, as well as millions of vacationing visitors. The people of Rocky Mountain National Park's past provide a tale that deserves to be told.

Like the beckoning notes scribbled by vacationers, dozens of documents allow historians to journey through time, to sample the pleasures of the past. (RMNPHC)


Rocky Mountain National Park: A History
©1997, University Press of Colorado All rights reserved.
This text may not be reproduced in any manner without the express written consent of the University Press of Colorado.