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Rocky Mountain National Park

[Photo] Rocky Mountain National Park
Photograph courtesy of the National Park Service

Rocky Mountain National Park Multiple Resource Area

Located in north-central Colorado, the Rocky Mountain National Park straddles the Continental Divide and encompasses the Front Range and Mummy range. The boundaries of the park enclose a surprising concentration of peaks, with elevations ranging from 8,000 feet in the west, grassy valleys to 14,259 feet at the weather-ravaged top of Longs Peak, providing visitors with opportunities for countless breathtaking experiences and adventures. The eastern slope of the park forms the headwaters of the St. Vrain, Big Thompson, Fall, and Cache La Poudre Rivers which tumble through precipitous canyons. Smaller creeks and streams of the western slope merge to form the Colorado River. Trail Ridge Road, rising through a series of steep switchbacks (a bend in the road often called a “hairpin turn”) which bisect Rocky Mountain National Park, linking the park’s two urban gateways—Grand Lake on the western slope and the village of Estes Park on the east. With 359 miles of trail offering endless opportunities to hikers, backpackers and horseback riders, the Rocky Mountain National Park also offers recreation for anglers, bird-watchers and photographers within its scenic boundaries.

[photo] Rocky Mountain National Park
Photograph courtesy of the National Park Service

Historically, the Rocky Mountains are an ancient range, with the majority of mountainous growth occurring in the Mesozoic and early Cenozoic, and witnessing the age of dinosaurs and the rise of mammals that followed. While American Indians have been in the region for 10,000 years, by the time of European contact in North America the Utes, who spoke a Uto-Aztecan language and with a presence in the State and the neighboring states of Utah and New Mexico, are the oldest continuous people in Colorado, with their presence going back at least one thousand years. The Utes frequently traveled in the western region of the present-day park while the Arapaho, an Algonquian speaking nation which split into the Northern and Southern Arapaho (historically allied with the Cheyenne nation in Oklahoma), hunted in the region later known as Estes Park. In the fall of 1859, prospector Joel Estes and his son Milton first laid eyes on the region that would later bear their name. Joel had prospected with some success in California, and when the ‘fifty niners’ began to pour into Colorado, Joel was with them. Joel fell in love with the surroundings and soon established a small cattle ranch. One of the Estes’ first visitors was William N. Byers, editor of the Rocky Mountain News. With a party of three others, Byers was determined to be the first to ascend nearby Long’s Peak. This 1864 attempt failed, but in writing an article for his newspaper, Byers called the park by the name of his hosts, thereby giving Estes Park its title.

[Photo] Rocky Mountain National Park
Photograph courtesy of the National Park Service

In 1891 the Federal Government enacted legislation called the Forest Reserve Act, which encouraged conservation of forests and their watersheds. In 1905, in accordance with these Acts, the area of Rocky Mountain National Park was set aside as part of the Medicine Bow Forest Reserve. When Congress passed the Rocky Mountain National Park Act in 1915, the legislators focused on Rockies’ scenic and natural wonders. Still, what became the park held many cultural treasures including ancient trails, game drives, cattle ranches, and lodges. Early Superintendents tried to develop roads, backcountry cabins, and trails to blend with the surroundings. Rangers manipulated the landscape to look more "natural;" they suppressed fires, planted seedlings, and controlled predators. The National Park Service purchased private lands and removed buildings, roads, post offices, driveways, irrigation ditches, and fences.

The historic resources within Rocky Mountain National Park reflect a typical sequential pattern of frontier use. The mining frontier in the park was quickly followed by the cattle and ranching industries. Shortly thereafter, growing farming interests along the Front Range constructed irrigation canals and small reservoirs to tap the headwaters of the eastern and western slopes. Miners and the first cattle ranchers who entered the area of necessity built crude log or frame structures. Dude ranchers, and after 1915 the National Park Service, consciously continued building within this rustic architectural tradition.

Ten historic sites in Rocky Mountain National Park were nominated to the National Register of Historic Places. An idea of their nature can be gleaned from the following descriptions. Today what is known as the Holzwarth Trout Lodge and Ranch Historic District had its beginnings in 1919. Situated along the Colorado River in the Kawuneeche Valley, the Trout Lodge was an ideal location near the Fall River Road. Renamed the Never Summer Ranch Historic District by the National Park Service the twelve buildings include cabins, an icehouse, and a wood shed, among others.

[photo] Moraine Park Amphitheater- Rocky Mountain National Park
Photographer: Cheria Yost, courtesy of the National Park Service

The William Allen White Historic District originated with William Allen White, who in 1912 purchased a series of cabins. These included a main cabin and a smaller cabin which became his studio and two small sleeping cabins, which commanded a scenic view on the eastern end of Moraine Park. The ruins of mining towns can be found in Lulu City at the headquarters of the Colorado River and Dutchtown, built in the 1880s by disgruntled miners leaving Lulu City and founding their own settlement four miles west. Fall River Road was noted for its history of transportation within the park, includes a Work Camp located in Upper HorseshoePark where Colorado State convicts lived in 1913, when they began construction of the road. Trail Ridge Road, completed in 1935, was the highest continuous trans-divided highway in the United States; 11 miles of its route are more than 11,000 feet above sea level. Possessing historic stone retaining walls pullouts and culverts, the construction of this road was a significant engineering and landscaping achievement.


[Photo] Utility Area Historic District
Photographer: Rodd Wheaton, courtesy of the Rocky Mountain Regional Office, National Park Service

Rustic architecture can be found in the Utility Area Historic District and Fall River Entrance Historic District. The 16 employee residences, Beaver Meadows Visitor center, three garages, horse barn and other buildings of the Utility Area Historic District were built between 1923 and 1941 when building in the parks was at its height. With the Landscape Engineering Division providing plans, first out of Los Angeles and later San Francisco, and with the labor of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Public Works Administration (PWA), the Western Parks were able to accomplish a great deal of construction, especially in the 1930s during the Great Depression, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created these “New Deal” programs to deal with unemployment. Other rustic structures can be found in the Fall River Entrance Historic District and various isolated buildings found throughout the Park but not within the two historic districts. Shadow Mountain Lookout and the Ranger Station at Glacier Basin Campground are two of these.

With five drive-in campgrounds and over 200 backcountry campsites serving backpackers, Rocky Mountain National Park provides a variety of experiences. Although the scenic mountains and wildlife dwarf any human construction project, past or present, the importance of our past in the park is visible as a reminder of the American people’s idea of the National parks, creating stewardship of the land for all to enjoy.

The Multiple Resource Nomination for Rocky Mountain National Park was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on January 29, 1988. For more information about Rocky Mountain National Park please go to the official Rocky Mountain National Park website.

The North Inlet Trail and Lake Haiyaha Trail, both in Rocky Mountain National Park were highlighted in our Landscape Architecture Month Feature.




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