Historic Buildings

There are about 600 buildings in Rocky Mountain National Park, though there were once twice that many standing within park boundaries. For much of the twentieth century, the National Park Service considered Rocky Mountain a natural park, and therefore management decisions aimed to return the landscape to pre-contact conditions. Though some buildings were protected, not until 1988 was the "natural" designation lifted and a new mandate towards historic preservation embraced. Since then, numerous park buildings have been restored or rehabilitated.

What is a Historic Building?

A historic building is listed in or eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. The National Historic Preservation Act of 1967 requires the National Park Service to nominate resources for listing. In order to be eligible for listing, a building must be significant to our history--in architecture, archaeology, engineering, or culture. Buildings must convey a sense of time and place. Generally, they must also be at least 50 years old.

Why Are Park Buildings Significant?

Park buildings are generally listed in the National Register because of their architectural significance or their association with ranching and tourism in the region.

Architectural Significance

Most of the park's buildings are rustic in style. The first director of the NPS, Stephen Mather, advocated rustic design within parks as early as 1918 believing that buildings should blend with their natural surroundings. With wood shingle roofs, log framing, stone foundations, exposed rafter tails, and dark-stained siding, many buildings within Rocky Mountain NP exemplify this design philosophy. The Twin Owls Residence behind MacGregor Ranch is one of the earliest extant National Park Service-constructed buildings in the park.

Association with Ranching and Tourism in the Region

Before Congress established Rocky Mountain NP in 1915, the areas around Grand Lake and Estes Park were filled with cattle ranches. With the growing popularity of tourism in the area, many of these ranchers converted their properties to dude ranching. They built cabins to house their guests. During the 1930's, 40's, and 50's, many park visitors stayed at one of the guest ranches in the area, including McGraw Ranch, Never Summer Ranch, Green Mountain Ranch, and Onahu Ranch. You can visit all of these sites in Rocky Mountain National Park. Many other visitors built vacation homes in and near the park. These homes, many of which are used to house park employees, represent the growth of the local tourism industry.

A Sampling of Historic Buildings

Even visitor buildings like campground ranger stations and comfort stations are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Built in 1939, the Timber Creek Campground Comfort Stations have exposed rafter tails, exposed log framing, and board and batten siding. The Ranger Station at Glacier Basin Campground (1930) has a stone foundation, exposed rafter tails, and log construction. The National Park Service built Aspenglen Comfort Station (1942) with wavy siding, echoing the nearby riparian area of Fall River. The Keeper of the National Register designated these and other National Park Service-constructed rustic buildings in 1988.

There are ten backcountry buildings listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The backcountry cabins share the rustic style, although materials vary from stone to log depending on the environment. Examples can be found at Fern Lake (1925), the Keyhole on Longs Peak (Agnes Vaille Memorial Shelter, 1927), Willow Park (1923), Lawn Lake (1931), Shadow Mountain (1933), Thunder Lake (1930), and Twin Sisters (built by the National Forest Service in 1914).

The Utility Area Historic District is significant for its rustic design. National Park Service employees designed these buildings in the 1920's and 1930's. Young men in the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal work program, built some of the buildings. Many are still used for their original purposes. This area includes housing for permanent employees and their families, maintenance shops and garages, and ranger offices.

In January 2001, the Secretary of the Interior designated the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center a National Historic Landmark, the highest historic designation reserved for just 2400 properties across the nation at the time. Built in 1967, it is nationally significant for its contribution to the National Park Service Mission 66 program and for its embodiment of modern National Park Service architecture. Mission 66 was a park building program that began in 1956. Its goal was to transform the National Park Service to meet postwar conditions, including modernizing visitor facilities. Beaver Meadows Visitor Center also embodies National Park Service modern architecture. Tom Casey of Taliesin Architects, a design firm started after Frank Lloyd Wright's death in 1959, designed the building. It exemplifies Wright's belief in organic architecture, which attempts to integrate a building into its surroundings. Taliesin Architects, therefore, continued the tradition of rustic design in Rocky Mountain National Park--utilizing modern materials--into the 1960's.

Last updated: December 1, 2015

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