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History of Rocky Mountain National Park - A Quick Guide for Families
The History of Rocky Mountain National Park

Families on vacation in Rocky Mountain National Park can learn that visitors have been hiking in the
area since the end of
the last ice age.

Prehistoric hunters, Ute people, mountain men, explorers, gold miners, dude ranchers, mountain climbers, photographers, and scientists are just a few of the people who have spent time in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Check out the great display where kids can dress up as some of these characters at the Fall River Visitor Center.

Photo: The Holzwarth Historic  Site in Rocky Mountain National Park teaches visitors about early guest ranches in the Kawuneeche Valley.

Add a touch of nineteenth century elegance when you travel in Colorado with the kids.

Read our article:Colorado's Historic Luxury Hotels

Did You Know?

Colorado has four national parks, six national monuments, and two national historic sites.

Photo: A young hiker mulls over the mysteries of ancient architecture at Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.

Living the High Life

Tundra plants tough enough to withstand intense ultra violet radiation and extreme cold, just can’t handle it when a lot of people step on them. And they take a long time to recover when a trail is worn through. In fact, the hint of an old Ute trail is still visible off of Trail Ridge Road, long after it was abandoned.

After the Ice Age

ven older artifacts, Clovis points, in fact, suggest that people have been hunting in the park for as many as 12,000 years. A half dozen of the projectile points have been found on the surface in the mountain passes. Dating of the points shows that people ventured into the high country on the heels of retreating glaciers at the end of the Ice Age.

Early archaic people left abundant evidence of their hunts. Mt. Albion projectile points and stony remnants of game drives 6,000 to 7,000 years old suggest that people retreated to the mountains during periods of drought on the plains. The Flattop Mountain game drive site has low rock walls and stone hunting blinds. The walls were used to herd or funnel the animals together, while people drove them from behind. At the end of the walls, hunters hiding down wind behind the blinds would ambush the animals, killing several at one time.

In spite of the ingenious methods for capturing game, the archaic people left no evidence that they wintered in the high country. For that matter, very few animals spend the cold months at altitude, or even in the Kawuneeche Valley. It is likely that the people followed the game to Middle Park.

Ute and Arapaho Names

he Ute or a linguistically related people have used the resources in what is now Rocky Mountain National Park since those archaic times. More recently, Apache ceramics from around 1500AD appeared in the area, and the Arapaho people arrived around 1800. Several place names in the park bear Arapaho names, including the Kawuneeche Valley, the Tonahutu Creek and Valley, and Onahu Creek and Trail. Tonahutu is said to mean big meadows in Arapaho, while Onahu means “one who warms himself by a fire” and refers to a horse with that habit.

The Upper Beaver Meadows area bears the remains of a battle between the Apache and the Arapaho that lasted for three or four days in about 1838.

Whose Peak is It?

lthough the highest peak in Rocky Mountain National Park bears his name, Stephen Long and his 1820 expedition never ventured closer than about where Denver is now. From there he turned south and three members of his expedition climbed Pikes Peak. (Zebulon Pike never climbed the mountain named after him, either.)

Estes' Park

Although mountain men hunted, trapped, and traded in the area, the first recorded European-American settlers came in 1859. Joel Estes and Milton, his son, ventured into the valley of the Big Thompson River below Lumpy Ridge that year, bringing the rest of the family back the next summer to settle. William Byers, in the Rocky Mountain News was the first to refer to the place as Estes’ Park.

Even so, the family found ranching there to be too hard, and sold their claim. Their cabin was used to shelter guests, foreshadowing the industry that was to become the main livelihood for most of the valley’s residents. 

The scenery attracted adventurous tourists and hoteliers to cater to their needs. By 1874, a stage line ran from Longmont to Estes Park. In 1909 inventor F. O. Stanley built the Stanley Hotel, and promoted auto touring in the Fall River area.

West of the Divide

The second half of the nineteenth century saw several gold and silver strikes in the Colorado Rockies. The mineral wealth sent waves of prospectors into the mountains looking to strike it rich. Miners built as many as 40 mines on the east side of the park and 10 on the west side. Lulu City and Gaskill sprung up to support the miners, but busted quickly enough when the mines didn’t strike enough color to pay.

Towns and ranches on the west side of the park found income in tourism after mining’s bust. Visitors ventured into the valley to hunt and fish and recreate at dude ranches in the area.

Protecting the Park

Even as tourism increased and was encouraged, residents of the valley saw the need to protect the natural landscape. Early in the twentieth century, the Estes Park Protective and Improvement Association was established. In 1909, Enos Mills, a local lodge owner and guide proposed national park status for the area. He wrote, spoke, and lobbied in favor of a huge national park that would cover over 1,000 square miles. In 1915 President Woodrow Wilson did sign the bill designating Rocky Mountain National Park, although it encompassed only 358 square miles at the time.

Since then, the park has added acreage, and in 1976 it received status as a Biosphere Reserve from the United Nations. Trail Ridge Road was designated an All American Road and National Scenic Byway in 1996, while status as a Globally Important Bird Area was conferred upon the park in 2000.

Excerpted from The Family Guide to Colorado's National Parks and Monuments,
(c) Carolyn Sutton 2006, all rights reserved. Copies available from Westcliffe Publishers and

Related Links:

Best Family Attractions in Rocky Mountain National Park
Ranger Programs for Kids in Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park Restaurants and Picnicking
Lodging and Campgrounds in Rocky Mountain National Park
Towns near Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park Quick Geology Guide
Rocky Mountain National Park Quick Wildlife Guide
When You Go Information for Rocky Mountain National Park
Considerations for Families in Rocky Mountain National Park

Colorado National Park Directory
Colorado State Park Directory