President Woodrow Wilson signed legislation on 26 Jan 1915 to create Rocky Mountain National Park. In 1976 the natural ecosystems of the park, which represent the Rocky Mountain Biogeographic Province, received recognition through the United Nations "Man and Biosphere" program as an international Biosphere Reserve. The reserve is part of the network of protected samples of the world's major ecosystem types that is devoted to conservation of nature and genetic material and to scientific research in the service of humanity. It provides a standard against which the effects of human impact on the environment can be measured.
Bioshere Reserve - October 26, 1976
Trail Ridge Rd = All-Am. Rd, National Scenic Byway - September 19, 1996
Protecting the Rockies
In 1903, F. O. Stanley, inventor of the Stanley Steamer automobile, came to Estes Park for his health. Impressed by the beauty of the valley and grateful for the improvement in his health, he decided to invest his money and his future there. In 1909, he opened the elegant Stanley Hotel, a classic hostelry exemplifying the golden age of touring.
Largely due to Stanley's efforts, the Estes Park Protective and Improvement Association was established to protect local wildflowers and wildlife and to improve roads and trails. "Those who pull flowers up by the roots will be condemned by all worthy people, and also by the Estes Park Protective and Improvement Association," they warned. It was the start of a conservation ethic that has become increasingly important and complex.
Even more important to the future of the area was Enos Mills, who came to the Longs Peak area in 1884 when he was 14 years old. A dedicated naturalist, he wrote eloquent books about the area's natural history. Not long after his arrival, Mills bought the Longs Peak Inn and began conducting local nature trips.
In 1909, Mills first proposed that the area become the nation's tenth national park to preserve the wildlands from inappropriate use. It was his vision that you would arrive here years later to experience the wonderful Rocky Mountain wilderness he knew. "In years to come when I am asleep beneath the pines, thousands of families will find rest and hope in this park," he proclaimed.
Unleashing his diverse talents and inexhaustible energy, he spent several years lecturing across the nation, writing thousands of letters and articles, and lobbying Congress to create a new park that would stretch from the Wyoming border south to Pikes Peak, covering more than 1,000 square miles. Most civic leaders supported the idea, as did the Denver Chamber of Commerce and the Colorado Mountain Club. In general, mining, logging, and agricultural interests opposed it. The compromise drafted by James G. Rogers, the first president of the Colorado Mountain Club, was the establishment of a smaller park (358.3 square miles). On January 26, 1915, under President Woodrow Wilson, it was declared Rocky Mountain National Park.
Today, the park stands as a legacy to those pioneers who looked beyond its harvestable resources to its more lasting values.
Size and Visitation
Acerage - FY 2001
Gross Area Acres 265,769
The park has grown to more than 415 square miles. In 1990, it gained an additional 465 acres when Congress approved expansion of the park to include the area known as Lily Lake. The National Park Service, the Conservation Fund, and some diligent legislators successfully halted land development in this area adjacent to the park's boundary. It now is an important buffer zone that helps protect the migratory routes of wildlife in the park.
Visitation - FY 2000
Total Recreation Visits - 3,180,889
The snow-mantled peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park rise above verdant subalpine valleys and glistening lakes. One-third of the park is above tree line, and here tundra predominates - a major reason why these peaks and valleys have been set aside as a national park.
During the Ice Age when massive glaciers were grinding the landscape, shaping the meadows and peaks, Rocky was an inhospitable land. It was not until some 11,000 years ago that humans began venturing into its valleys and mountains.
Spearheads broken in the fury of a mammoth's charge and scrapers discarded along a nomad's trail tell us little about the area's early native peoples. We do know that even though it was never their year-round home, the green valleys, tundra meadows, and crystal lakes became favored summer hunting grounds for the Ute tribe. In setting up their camps, they made use of the straight and slender lodgepole pine as tepee poles. Until the late 1700s, the Utes controlled the mountain territories. But the Arapaho, venturing west from the Great Plains in search of bigger game, drove the Utes beyond the Continental Divide.
Tepee rings and other signs of summer camps were still evident by the time the first settlers arrived, but few vestiges of those times remain today, other than the large river boulders that Native Americans carried to the top of Oldman Mountain, the site of their ceremonial vision quests.
Early Explorers and Settlers
The U.S. government acquired the park's original 358.5 square miles in the huge Louisiana Purchase of 1803. But French trappers and the Spanish explorers before them seem to have skirted the current park boundaries in their wilderness forays. Even Major Stephen H. Long and his expedition forces avoided these rugged barricades. Long was never closer than 40 miles to the peak named for him.
In 1820, the Long Expedition officially recorded the location of the park's highest mountain even though Major Stephen Long was never closer than 40 miles to that peak that bears his name. He later said of the area that the plains were "extremely disagreeable" and "wholly unfit for cultivation."
Rufus Sage, a mountain man wrote about " .. beautiful lateral valleys, intersected by meandering watercourses, ridged by lofty ledges of precipitous rock, and hemmed in upon the west by vast piles of mountains climbing beyond the clouds.." This 1843 account was probably written about the park area. It was the first account of Rocky's wonders to reach unbelieving easterners. Sage spent four years roaming the Rockies, basing his explorations from Fort Lupton, north of present-day Denver. For a month, Sage hunted deer in the area now known as Estes Park.
In 1859, Joel Estes, a Kentuckian with wandering ways, and his son Milton rode into the valley that bears their name. Scouting for game one fall, he and his son climbed a high promontory that gave them a view of a breathtakingly beautiful valley.
Milton wrote that ".. No words can describe our surprise, wonder and joy at beholding such an unexpected sight."
In 1860, Estes moved his family into a new home in the area now known as Estes Park becomming the first settlers to move to the area. It is said that his wife Patsy swept the cabin's floor with the wings of eagles.
Winters proved too harsh for cattle, so six years later the Estes family sold out for a yoke of oxen. The Estes cabin was soon converted into guest accommodations in 1867, and from then on the number of visitors to this area grew steadily.
Few other settled in this rugged country. However word about this beautiful area did spread and mountain climbers and other homesteads soon helped to popularize the area. The Earl of Dunraven from England tried to claim nearly 15,000 acres of Estes Park for himself. Beings it was done through fraudulent means, and he was caught, he had to sell much of his claims. He did commission the famous artist Alfred Bierstadt to create a painting of Longs Peak which further help to make the beauty of the area popular.
A Mountain Mecca
The Rockies continued to attract the adventurous, including the great explorer John Wesley Powell, who conquered the summit of Longs Peak in 1868. Just five years later, Anna Dickinson became the first woman to succeed in the climb.
Isabella Bird, an Englishwoman whose extensive travels and writings earned her the first female membership in the Royal Geographic Society, visited Estes Park in the fall of 1873. She fell in love with the area and, incidentally, with Jim Nugent, a well-educated mountain man whose violent death is shrouded in mystery. Bird's book, A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains, attracted many people to the area, as did Frederick Chapin's Mountaineering in Colorado. So while much of the West was attracting homesteaders, the Rockies were also establishing themselves as a tourist mecca.
About that time, an English earl, Lord Dunraven, arrived and laid questionable claim to 15,000 acres as his private game preserve. He also built the fine Estes Park Hotel.
By 1874, a stage line ran between Estes Park and Longmont by way of North Saint Vrain Canyon.
Miners and Homesteaders
In the Kawuneeche Valley, on the western slope, prospectors came from all over in search of gold, and silver. Because large veins of silver and gold had been discovered in other areas of the Rockies, miners considered the area a land of opportunity and headed here in droves during Colorado's gold rush of the late 1870s. The boom towns of Lulu City, Gaskill and Dutchtown popped up. Lulu City, in what is now the northwest part of the park, in 1880 was a booming mining town with a raucous reputation. Three years later, it was nearly deserted because the region's mineral riches were far less than dreamed. It cost the area dearly.
When the miners and first settlers arrived, there seemed no end to the supply of game. Bear, deer, wolves, and elk were abundant. To feed the boom town demand, commercial hunters went to work. A single hunter could deliver a weekly supply of three tons of assorted big-game meat.
The rousing boom times yielded to an industrious homesteading period. Ranchers and farmers felt that the real wealth of the Rockies lay in its water. They fought over rights to it (finally running the greedy earl out of town) and built ambitious canal systems to transfer water from the wetter western slopes to the drier eastern plains. The Grand Ditch in the Never Summer Range in the park intercepted the stream source of the Colorado River and diverted it for use for cattle and crops. Though homesteading proved no more profitable than mining in this land, another new enterprise showed promise. Dude ranches began attracting city dwellers in quest of an original adventure.
Attraction of the mountains began and word of "America's Switzerland" spread rapidly. Now the wealth to be had was through building hotels, dude ranches, resorts and lodges.
About 1909 Enos Mills, a naturalist, writer, and conservationist, operated the Longs Peak Inn. He tramped endlessly across the Rocky's, and grew to love all of it. He began to campaign for preservation of this pristine area. He gave lectures across the nation, wrote letters and articles to champaign his cause, the lands cause. Finally in 1915 his dream came to fruition when President Woodrow Wilson signed the legislation enabling Rocky Mountain National Park to be created. At the park's dedication he proclaimed, "In years to come when I am asleep forever beneath the pines, thousands of families will find rest and hope in this park..."
There is a marked difference in the Rocky Mountain National Park as the elevation changes. At lower levels in the foothills and mountain ecosystem, open stands of ponderosa pine and juniper grow on the slopes facing the sun; on cooler north slopes are Douglas fir. Gracing the stream sides are blue spruces intermixed with dense stands of lodgepole pines. Here and there appear groves of aspen. Wildflowers dot meadows and glades. Higher still, forests of Englemann spruce and subalpine fir take over in the subalpine ecosystem. Openings in these cool, dark forests produce wildflower gardens of rare beauty and luxuriance where the blue Colorado columbine reigns. At the upper edges of this zone, the trees are twisted, grotesque, and hug the ground. Then the trees disappear and you are in alpine tundra, a harsh, fragile world. Here more than one quarter of the plants you see can also be found in the Arctic. From the valleys to its mountaintops, Rocky Mountain National Park encompasses many worlds.
You can't miss this mountain. At 14,255 feet, Longs Peak towers above all other summits in Rocky Mountain. The flat-topped monarch is seen from almost anywhere in the park. Different angles show the great mountain's unique profiles. Changing weather reflects Longs Peak's many moods.
In the summertime - the season when thousands hike or climb to Longs' summit - those moods are fairly predictable. Early mornings break calm, clear and blue. Clouds build in the afternoon sky, often exploding in storms of brief, heavy rain, thunder and dangerous lightning. Begin the trek early, way before dawn, to be back in the car before the weather turns.
The Keyhole Route, Longs Peak's only non-technical hiking pathway, is eight miles long one-way with an elevation gain of 4,850 feet. Typically free of ice and snow from mid-July through mid-September, this challenging route was the choice of celebrated British adventurer Isabella Bird in 1873. Her words of wonder and praise for Longs Peak, which concluded that it was "much more than a mountain," ring true today as if the ink on her book A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains was still fresh.
Bird, who ascended Longs in the company of mountain man "Rocky Mountain Jim" Nugent, was not the first woman to climb Longs Peak. She was preceded to the summit that same year by Anna Dickinson. Both women followed in the footsteps of Addie Alexander and a "Miss Bartlett," two women who successfully climbed Longs in 1871.
Keyhole Route hikers may not know it, but they pass reminders of the past - both happy and sad - on their way to the summit.
The Boulder Field Inn (1925-37), whose stone foundations still can be seen near the Boulder Field Campsite, was the home of young Tiny Collier. Her father owned a popular lodging and guide service. Legend has it that a party of serious mountaineers encountered 7-year-old Tiny during its ascent of the Trough, an arduous gully that challenges most of the 15,000 people who climb Longs each year. Tiny was riding her tricycle.
"What are you doing here little girl?" the surprised climbers asked.
"I'm playing," she responded.
"Where do you live?"
I live here!"
Tragically, there are those who never left Longs Peak alive. A stone gazebo at the Keyhole formation displays a plaque memorializing Agnes Vaille, a well-known climber in the 1920s. The pioneer of numerous mountain routes in the Rockies, Vaille attempted the first winter ascent of the mountain's precipitous east face in January, 1925. She and her climbing partner, Walter Kiener, succeeded after more than 24 hours of dangerous mountaineering through frigid blizzard conditions. While descending the North Face, Vaille fell 100 feet down the rock cliff, coming to a stop in a snowdrift. Her injuries were minor, but because of fatigue and hypothermia, Vaille was unable walk. Battling frostbite that would cost him toes and fingers, Kiener promptly summoned help. Vaille's rescuers a
rrived to find her dead from exposure. Agnes Vaille and about 50 other climbers have lost their lives on Longs Peak. It is not a mountain tolerant of the unprepared. But hiking and technical climbing on the mountain are exciting and rewarding experiences. And they are comparatively safe if common-sense safety principles are applied. Keyhole route hikers should be properly outfitted with clothing, food and water. Use caution when ascending or descending steep areas. Don't be afraid to back down when bad weather threatens.
Once climbed, or even viewed at a distance from the safety of a car, Longs Peak is not a mountain easily forgotten.
The Construction of Trail Ridge Road
Construction on Trail Ridge Road began in September, 1929 and was completed to Fall River Pass July, 1932. Trail Ridge was built to counter deficiencies of Fall River Road. The historic, gravel route was too narrow for the increasing numbers of vehicles. Frequent snowslides, deep snow, and limited scenic views also plagued the route.
The maximum grade on Trail Ridge does not exceed 7%. Eight miles of the road is above 11,000 feet in elevation. Two different contractors were hired to complete different sections of the road. The first section completed, 17.2 miles, was Deer Ridge (8,937') to Fall River Pass (11,794'). Later, in the early 40's, this section was paved.
During road construction, workers had only about 4 months of the year (mid-June to mid-October) to work. The presence of permafrost required that careful attention be paid to construction to avoid permanent quagmires. Planning efforts sought to reduce scarring on the surrounding landscape. Natural construction debris was removed. Log and rock dikes were constructed to minimize scarring and scattering of rock blasting debris. Extra surface rocks were placed lichen-side up. Tundra sod was salvaged and carefully placed on road banks. Rock projections were kept as scenic "window frames" instead of being blasted away. Rocks matching the surrounding land were used for rock walls.
Tractors, graders, horses, a gas-powered steam shovel were used to make the road. During the peak of construction, 150 laborers worked on the road. The road reached Grand Lake in 1938. By 1949, the final cost of building the road was under 2 million dollars, including additions and realignments.
Machines, then and now
Manufactured in Dubuque, Iowa, the 1932 Snowgo, parked in the Headquarters parking area, was an "experimental" machine used to clear Fall River Road in 1931. The machine did very well, but..."All old snow deeper than 45 inches had to be shot first with dynamite in order to loosen it sufficiently for it to fall into the opening of the machine." Edmund B. Rogers, superintendent, Rocky Mountain National Park, from Superintendent's Monthly Report, April, 1931.
Plowing to open Trail Ridge Road for the season begins in mid-April. It is estimated to take 42 days to complete plowing operations. In 1995, it took 55 days to plow Trail Ridge Road.
Equipment is parked at Rainbow Curve. Storms can strand equipment at higher locations. An inch or two of new snow can drift several feet overnight.
The rotary plow, called the "pioneer" rotary, is used to clear the center line all day. The second rotary widens the road. The grader and bulldozer pull snow from the bank-side of the road toward the edge, where snow melts quickly. Water is diverted into ditches and drains. Plowing the road at day's end prevents ice formation. If snow drifts are above 20-25 feet, then the caterpillar climbs atop and knocks the snow down. This is one of the more harrowing aspects of the operator's job.
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