Visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park see craggy peaks, bugling elk, fierce electrical storms, and a profusion of wildflowers. And, although most visitors use the park's trail system, few notice the trails themselves. This would no doubt please the generations of Rocky's trail builders. Their goal was for trails to disappear into the sublime landscape. There are several hundred miles of trails in the park, and most can be associated with three broad historical themes: first trails, recreation and tourism, and naturalistic design.
First trials is a context for corridors used for transportation. These are not consciously designed, but rather paths of least resistance. Often, there is not a "line on the map" representing the trail. Rather, these are corridors connecting waypoints, such as archeological sites. As transportation methods evolved, so too did the corridor. The Santa Fe Trail and the Mormon Trail are examples of this type of corridor-trail. In Rocky, the Ute Trail (which shares the corridor with Trail Ridge Road) is the best representation.
The second category is the association with recreation and tourism. When Congress established Rocky Mountain National Park in 1915, 100 miles of trails existed. Private lodge owners, local improvement associations, and citizens built and maintained trails, which often began at lodges (that today are parking lots) and went through scenic vistas to lakes. In 1920, when Rocky's budget increased and Roger Toll became superintendent, the park improved these existing trails and built new ones. This period coincided with an increase in park visitors who desired hiking and extended camping as recreational activities. Fern Lake exemplifies an early, very popular trail that was constructed and maintained by lodge keepers and local tourism boosters before the national park was established. Natural and built features—i.e., lodges, bridges, waterfalls, creeks and lakes—identified the path. Even though the alignment shifted in its early days, the trail continued to connect these important features.
The third category is National Park Service naturalistic design, which focuses on professionally-designed trails. Both engineers and landscape architects planned trails in Rocky following standards established by the National Park Service. There was both an aesthetic component and technical component. The aesthetic component required the use of local materials such as rock, wood, and dirt to harmonize with the local environment. For example, bridges should use logs the same diameter as the trees in the adjacent forest. The technical component required a 15% maximum grade, 3-4 feet width, and sustainability through the use of stone steps, log checks, and log or stone culverts. Both the National Park Service and the Civilian Conservation Corps built naturalistic design trails, such as the East Inlet Trail.
Longs Peak trails require their own category, because they are so important to the park's history. The Longs Peak trail is significant as an almost legendary trek to the top of a prominent front range Fourteener, attracting hardy tourists since the 1860’s. The trail is also where Enos Mills developed and honed his naturalist skills, preparing him to become the most vocal advocate for the creation of Rocky Mountain National Park.
Bridges, overlooks, rock walls, signs, lakes, waterfalls, elevation benchmarks, stands of vegetation, and views are all important elements of historic trails. Maintenance on park trails has not changed significantly over time, which helps to preserve their historic character. It also helps to preserve the sense of place familiar to anyone who has ventured into Rocky's back country.
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