A land of legends, beauty, history, and incredible wildlife, Rocky Mountain National Park envelops the myth of the majestic Rockies in Colorado. Celebrating the park’s 100 year anniversary in 2015, the park greets visitors as the National Park Service itself brinks on its centennial celebration in 2016. Over the last year the park saw a record-breaking attendance starting in November of 2015 where over 4 million guests reveled in the awesome views and incredible adventures the national park holds.
To understand how Rocky Mountain National Park came into existence one needs to trace the early days of the area beloved as Estes Park, Colorado, and the park itself. Recorded history reaches back to the 1850s as the Arapaho Indians visited the region known as their “circle” during the summer months. Eagle traps sat upon Longs Peak in bids for capturing the long coveted war feathers. Dogs hauled their buffalo meat throughout the valley while fights with Apache and then Utes hunting bighorn sheep created further conflicts in the 1850s. All as this occurred the first whites entered the valley mainly as trappers, but not as residents.
Missouri native Joel Estes settled the area in 1859, finally relocating his family to the early community in 1863. The following year a newspaper editor by the name of William Byers ascended Longs Peak, detailing it in the papers with the description of “pristine wilderness,” luring other pioneers westward. In 1867, Griff Evans transformed Estes Ranch into a dude ranch with fishing, hunting, and mountaineering as occupations while guests stayed in cabins on the property. Lord Dunraven arrived in late 1872 with an attempt to claim the entire valley as his own private hunting range. However, the idea did not go over very well, and, instead, he opted to form the first Estes Park Hotel, later claimed by fire in 1911. Rocky Mountain Jim Nugent arrived with Englishwoman Isabella Bird in 1873, helping her with her exploration and personal ascent to the top of Longs Peak.
Rocky Mountain Jim and Griff Evans exist in true legendary tales with the story of their rivalry. After months of a neighborly dispute and anger and resentment building over how both worked with tourists, the two let their contempt boil over into a full battle. Supposedly Evans fired his shotgun into Nugent’s face before racing off to Fort Collins to file charges against Nugent for assault. Instead, he was arrested as Rocky Mountain Jim Nugent passed away from his wounds. However, the case was dismissed as a result of no witnesses.
The following year Alex & Clara MacGregor set up a homestead at the foot of Lumpy Ridge, the homestead now known as a historic site. MacGregor formed a company to create a toll road from Lyons to Estes Park which became known as Highway 36 to modern-day travelers. It was this way that we first entered the region in May of 2015, marveling at how the scenery followed the river with deep, red cliffs of rock on the other side of our vehicle, winding ever deeper west and nearer to the stunning peaks. However, in 1874, it was only fit for pack horses. As the road conditions improved, the number of settlers and visitors increased, leading to more and more hotels erecting in the community as an effort to accommodate all the visitors. Most of those visitors came in search of better health. Colorado and the Rockies in particular were notorious for the clean air helping with pulmonary diseases. Most resorts and hotels furnished their staff with medical professionals as well.
It was the arrival of Enos Mills in 1884 at the age of 14 that marked a turning point. Enos Mills dedicated his life toward conservation and worked as a naturalist, focusing on the beauty of the land and its wildlife after 1909. He pushed for the preservation of the Rocky Mountains and his work paid off with the dedication of the Rocky Mountain National Park in 1915. Included in the park is a variety of climates and environments from wooded forests to mountain tundra along with the Continental Divide and the Colorado River headwaters.
Highway 36 leads visitors into Estes Park, past the Edwardian marvel of the Stanley Hotel established in 1909, and in through the Fall River Road Entrance. Originally a steep and very winding road called Old Fall River Road was the only means for tourists to visit the park over old gravel and dirt. It is still open. We tried it out, only wide enough for one vehicle so travel is limited to one way over to the Alpine Visitor Center. The views are sometimes blocked by the high peaks surrounding it, but there are sights one doesn’t always get to capture. For some moments I felt compelled to sing, “the hills are alive with the sound of music,” almost feeling like I must be in the Alps as Brent snapped images away.
Photo Above by Michelle Touchstone as Brent snaps his image
However, Highway 36 ties into Highway 34, the Trail Ridge Road that took several years to complete. Only able to work in the warmer summer months and carving roads that would not fall away along cliffs and high terrain, the contractors only worked four months out of the year. This is the main road that travels east through the park toward Grand Lake from Estes Park, reaching elevations of 12,183 feet, and facing closures from snow in the winter months. Traveling Trail Ridge Road one sees how different the two sides of the park can be. The east side is drier and possesses peaks with heavy glaciers present. The west side is lush and full of deeper forests, showing too how the snowfalls enter and dump before passing over the peaks to the eastern sides. Longs Peak remains the higher part of the park at 14,259 feet. It remains visible from the crest of the Trail Ridge Road.
Trail Ridge Road was closed when we visited in May, the snow piling higher and higher in banks along the highway as we continued climbing up to the barricade at Rainbow Curve while we glanced back out and over Horseshoe Bend. It was enough to take one’s breath away as the wind whipped around us but the vision was spectacular. Bear Lake Road stays open all year around too and leads up to one of the few high altitude lakes accessed by paved road where trail heads await. If you’re not careful though, the parking lot may fill very quickly. As we journeyed Bear Lake Road ourselves it started to flurry heavily on us. However, our visit in July granted us the opportunity to travel the full distance of Trail Ridge Road.
Photo Above is by Michelle Touchstone
Up on top of the Rockies, I can see why there’s the old joke in “How the West Was Won” by Jimmy Stewart’s mountain man Jeb Rawlins about Jim Bridger joking they were running into men with wings, halos, and harps. It most certainly does feel like you’re as close to heaven as one can get. The feeling remains a little overwhelming. You look out and things fall into perspective. At the top of the road, Brent worried with my asthma I might not keep up on the hike, but I did and met him, marveling at how the tundra is so whipped in the winds over the peaks that almost no vegetation but the sturdiest can survive at that altitude overnight.
The park is absolutely full of wildlife. Elk, sheep, deer, moose, fox, you name it. Our treat was a Great Horned Owl who guarded her babies in the nest and a mother fox watching her little ones play with glee. In July we noticed the elk from May were growing their antlers, covered in velvet. Upon our return for our honeymoon in September the fall leaves turned golden and the elk racks were enormous as they strutted in their rut season, bugling loudly. It was amazing! I can’t wait for our winter adventure!
Elk bull in July of 2015
Elk bull in September of 2015 during the elk rut
You will absolutely fall in love with the spectacular and awesome enchantment of Rocky Mountain National Park. Its magical pull cannot refrain from luring you back. And please stay tuned for Brent and I sharing our book of all four seasons in the park. You won’t be disappointed.
Photo Above by Michelle Touchstone