During the Ice Age, massive glaciers ground the landscape, shaping the meadows and peaks, and making the present-day park area an inhospitable land. It was not until some 11,000 years ago that humans began venturing into its valleys and mountains.
… We know that even though the area was never the year-round home of early native peoples, the green valleys, tundra meadows and crystal lakes became favored summer hunting grounds for one particular group, 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. It was the Arapaho, venturing west from the Great Plains in search of bigger game that drove the Utes beyond the Continental Divide. They were the area's first "tourists," for they left no trace of permanent settlements. 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.
Early Explorers and Settlers
… The U.S. government acquired the lands that later became Rocky Mountain National Park as part of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. But French trappers, and the Spanish explorers that preceded 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 in 1820-Long was never closer than 40 miles to the peak named for him.
Published in 1843, Scenes in the Rocky Mountains described the explorations of Rufus Sage from Connecticut. It was the first account of the area's wonders to reach unbelieving Easterners. Sage spent four years in the Rockies and hunted deer for a month in the area we know as Estes Park.
The first settler in the area was Joel Estes, a Kentuckian with wanderlust. In 1860, Estes moved into a hunting cabin, where he stayed with his family. Winters proved too harsh for cattle, so six years later Estes sold out for a yoke of oxen. The Estes cabin was converted into guest accommodations in 1867, and from then on the number of visitors to the area grew steadily.
The west side of the Rockies was also attractive to settlers. In 1865, Grand Lake's first permanent white resident, "Judge" Joseph Wescott, came to Hot Sulphur Springs seeking the benefits of the waters. By 1877, he was Grand Lake's first postmaster. The Proctor family, friends of Wescott, arrived that same year and spent their summers on the lake until 1885. The Proctor's home, like many early settlers' homes, was not built to withstand the winters, which slowed the population growth of the area.
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 successfully climb it. Isabella Bird, an Englishwoman and the first female member of the Royal Geographic Society, visited Estes Park in the fall of 1873. Bird's book, titled A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains, attracted many people to the area, as did Frederick Chapin's Mountaineering in Colorado. While much of the West was attracting homesteaders, the Rockies were establishing themselves as a popular tourist destination. During that time, an Irish 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, locally known as the English Hotel. By 1874, a stage line ran between Estes Park and Longmont by way of North Saint Vrain Canyon.
Miners and Homesteaders
… Because large veins of silver and gold had been discovered in other parts of the Rockies, miners considered the area a land of opportunity. They headed here in droves in the late 1870s during Colorado's gold rush. In 1879, Lulu City was founded in what is now the northwest part of the park. It became a booming mining town with a raucous reputation. Four years later, it was nearly deserted because the region's mineral riches were far less than what had been anticipated.
When the miners and first settlers arrived, the supply of game seemed endless. Bear, deer and elk were abundant. To feed the boomtown demand, commercial hunters went to work. A single hunter could deliver a weekly supply of three tons of assorted big-game meat. By 1900, large game was almost gone from the east side of the park.
The rousing boom times yielded to an industrious homesteading period. Grand Lake became the supply and equipment depot for the boomtowns, and for a time, it was the county seat. Unfortunately, home-steading proved as difficult as mining.
Ranchers and farmers felt that the real wealth of the Rockies lay in its water and they fought over rights to it. They 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 several stream tributaries of the Colorado River and diverted them for irrigating eastern plains crops.
… A new enterprise, dude ranches, showed promise. Hotel de Hardscrabble, or Camp Wheeler, was one of the more successful ventures of the day. Built at the foot of Milner Pass, the cabin and tent resort housed guests who came on horseback and by wagon over rutty roads from Grand Lake or by an Indian trail from Estes Park. The ranch was known for its excellent meals of wild game and the hunting and fishing opportunities nearby.
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 as well as to improve roads and trails. It was the start of a conservation ethic that has become increasingly important and complex.
National Park Status
… Enos Mills, who came to the Longs Peak area in 1884 when he was 14 years old, was important to the future of the area. A dedicated naturalist, he wrote eloquent books about the area's natural history. In 1902, Mills bought the Longs Peak Inn and began to conduct local nature trips.
In 1909, Mills first proposed that the area become the nation's 10th national park to preserve the wildlands from inappropriate use. 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, log-ging 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 (with an area of 358.3 square miles). On January 26, 1915, under President Woodrow Wilson, this land was declared Rocky Mountain National Park. The park has since grown to 415 square miles. Today, it stands as a legacy to those pioneers who looked beyond its harvest-able resources to its more lasting values.
… Until 1915, when Congress voted to establish this land as a national park, the area's valleys had been threatened by agricultural development, its wildlife endangered by hunting, and its hills, mountains and forests distressed by mining and logging. It would be wonderful if that act had been all that was needed to protect the park. In the years that have followed, however, new challenges have arisen and today there are matters of serious concern, not only to conservationists, but to all who love and enjoy the park.
… Increased numbers of visitors within the park exerts tremendous stress on the en-vironment. When a majority of the park's annual visitors congregate in a few favored spots, these areas are often critically damaged, in effect being "loved to death." For this reason, NPS implemented a back-country permit system to limit the number of backpackers using a specific area at any particular time. This system protects those sites and introduces these campers to beautiful areas that they might other-wise have overlooked.
Another threat to the park's well-being is the effect of continuing commercial and residential development encircling the park. Not only does land development limit the animals' winter ranges and migratory routes, endangering their survival, but it also alters and impairs the park's environment by increasing erosion and pollution, and disturbing the soils, vegetation and natural vistas.
Managing the Park: A Balancing Act … Naturalist John Muir once said, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it is hitched to everything else in the universe."
The park's resource stewardship staff is continually working to maintain the balance of the park's precious ecosystems. Careful planning and positive action are required as the park moves forward with its preservation efforts.
Park biologists recognize that the Rocky Mountain ecosystem doesn't stop at the park's boundaries and work with local organizations to protect the park resources beyond its borders. For example, the park collaborates with the state of Colorado to monitor air quality and manage elk populations.
The park is committed to restoring as much of the interior of the park as possible to pre-settlement conditions. Several lodges predating the park have been removed, as was a nine-hole golf course in Moraine Park. The downhill skiing facility at Hidden Valley was closed in 1992, and the area has been restored. An aqueduct and three dams built prior to the establishment of the park were purchased and removed and restoration of the former reservoirs completed. The park's backcountry permit system, initiated in 1972, has established a means to limit camping in the backcountry to reduce human impact on the environment.
Potentially destructive recreational activities are prohibited within the park. Off-road recreational vehicle use, the use of bicycles on trails and hang gliding or paragliding from mountaintops (such as Longs Peak) is strictly forbidden. Please see the "Things To Do" chapter for more information about park activities.
… More than 250,000 acres within Rocky Mountain National Park are designated wilderness, which protects, forever, the wild values of this spectacular park. As always, Rocky Mountain National Park must maintain a careful balance between preserving the park and providing for its visitors' enjoyment. It is a major task, one that requires all users to accept some responsibility as park stewards. Working together, park staff and visitors can ensure the survival of this precious wonderland. Many park trails, including the one to Dream Lake, are located in wilderness areas. Remember to practice 'Leave No Trace' principles when visiting these and other areas the park.
What a Visitor Can Do
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- Keep wildlife wild. Don't feed the animals and birds. As strange as it may seem, not feeding them greatly protects their welfare. When wild animals and birds become dependent on humans for food, they lose their ability to forage and cease to be part of the balance of nature. The animals can no longer fend for themselves, leaving them at risk when handouts disappear at the end of the summer season. As Enos Mills said, "It is better to let the wild beast run and let the wild bird fly; each harbors best in his native nest, even as you and I."
- Reuse and recycle water bottles, plates and cups! Disposable items may make camp cleanup easier, but after they are thrown away they become a permanent part of the landscape. Bring your own reusable water bottles and refill them at park visitor centers. Use biodegradable packaging, as well as aluminum cans and glass bottles that can be recycled. Recycling receptacles are available throughout the park.
- Pack a small litter sack with you when you hike and pack out more litter than you bring in. No one expects you to shoulder the burden of keeping the entire park clean, but there is a real satisfaction in knowing that you left the area in better shape than you found it.
- Volunteer in the parks! For more information about how to volunteer in Rocky Mountain National Park, please visit nps.gov/romo or call (970) 586-1330. On a larger scale, there are programs such as Take Pride in America, in which groups can work together to clean up an area, improve hiking trails where erosion and overuse are taking a toll, or identify and remove exotic plants that might encroach on native species. Visit volunteer.gov or nps.gov/romo for more information.
: Oh, Ranger
Publications - 2014-2015 Guide to the Parks, Rocky Mountain National Park … URL: http://www.OhRanger.com
National Park Service RMNP History & Culture source
: History & Culture
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Backbone of the Continent
From Mexico to Alaska, for 2,700 miles the great Rocky Mountain chain forms the backbone of North America, the world's longest mountain barrier. Set in the Southern Rockies, Rocky Mountain National Park could be called "the top of the world for everybody." Here treeline and tundra - the miniaturized alpine world - are accessible to all along the park's Trail Ridge Road. This highest major highway in North America tops out at 12,183 feet above sea level not far from the Alpine Visitor Center (see map on the back). At the Tundra Communities Trail east of the visitor center you can park your car and take a walk in the alpine realm that hikers and backpackers elsewhere may labor thousands of feet uphill to experience. And what an experience! Here is one of the most expansive areas of alpine terrain in the United States. Nearly one-third of the park is above treeline-11,400 feet of elevation in the park-the limit above which conditions are too harsh for trees to grow.
Rocky Mountain National Park holds 72 named peaks above 12,000 feet of elevation. Longs Peak, at 14,259 feet, is the northernmost so-called "fourteener - peak rising above 14,000 feet - in the Rocky Mountain chain. Great Earth forces thrust the Rockies skyward 70 million years ago, but many of the exposed granite rocks in this park are much older: 1.3 billion years or more! Three major glacial episodes from 738,000 to 13,750 years ago sculpted the scenery that inspired citizens to persuade Congress to make this a national park in 1915, one year before Congress created the National Park Service. For over 30 years most of the park has been managed like designated wilderness-to preserve its natural conditions and wilderness character. The National Park Service mission is to preserve this natural treasure unimpaired for the enjoyment of this and future generations. We invite you to join us in this great adventure of preservation and enjoyment.
Mountain Ute and Arapaho
… Following retreating glaciers 10,000 years ago, humans first began living intermittently among these mountains. With great knowledge of plants and animals they lived off the land. By 6,000 years ago the Ute, or Mountain People, dominant here, lived in bands scattered throughout Colorado and Utah. They followed game and traveled over set seasonal routes, collecting plants along the way. Other groups, including the Cheyenne and Arapaho, lived primarily on the plains, hunting buffalo, with occasional mountain excursions. (Photo: Ute family's tipi near the Rocky Mountains, © Denver Public Library)
European Americans Arrive
… Early 1800s European American fur trappers and traders sought beaver throughout the Rockies until pelt prices fell in the 1840s. An 1858 gold rush in the Rockies created the boom towns of Denver, Boulder, and Golden. Mining didn't pay much here, but people discovered the area's beauty. Gold-seeker Joel Estes and his son, hunting to supply Denver markets, found the valley now named for him. In 1860 he built cabins for farming and market hunting. Scenery soon outpaced commodities in value and tourism began to develop.
… Tourism continued to grow in Estes Park and Grand Lake as word of the mountains' beauty spread. A forest preserve was created, but many conservationists feared the surrounding mountains would be exploited. The idea of creating a national park and protecting the wilderness beauty of the area grew. Through the efforts of Enos Mills, F.O. Stanley, James Grafton Rogers, Joe Mills, and other Colorado citizens, Congress established Rocky Mountain National Park in 1915. (Photo: The park was dedicated September 4, 1915, in ceremonies held at Horseshoe Park, National Archives)
Ecosystems of the Rockies ...
Alpine … Above 11,400 feet of elevation
Subalpine … 9,000 - 11,400 feet of elevation
Montane … Below 9,000 feet in elevation
… Alpine tundra occurs above treeline where the climate is extremely harsh. Fierce drying winds, bitter cold, intense ultraviolet light, thin soil, and a brief growing season let only specialized plants and animals thrive. Alpine plants are tiny, growing close to the ground. Many have waxy leaf surfaces to resist moisture loss, or dense, tiny hairs to trap warmth against stems and leaves. Plants just inches tall may grow taproots six feet long to get moisture and anchor them against the wind. Alpine winters are long - for nearly eight months average temperatures do not rise above freezing. Animals survive by migrating, hibernating, or staying put. The ptarmigan is well-adapted for staying put. It's large, dense body holds in heat, and feathers cover even its eyelids, nostrils, legs, and feet. Ptarmigan can actually gain weight in winter by eating nutrient-rich willow buds.
(right: yellow-bellied) escape winter by piling on fat in summer, nearly doubling their size, then hibernating seven to eight months. Their greatly slowed metabolism and heartbeat and lowered body temperature, 40°F, let them survive on their fat all winter. Most other animals migrate. Triggered by shorter days, cooler temperatures, and diminishing food sources, migrating animals start to leave the tundra in August. American pipits fly to Central America; other tundra dwellers, like elk and coyotes, move down into lower valleys in and near the park.
Round with tiny ears and tails to reduce heat loss, pikas
(left) stay active in winter. They gather and dry plants in summer's sun, then store them as haystacks under rocky talus. Pikas like yellow-blossomed alpine avens, which contain chemicals that naturally preserve the hay against winter mold and rot.
(right) are masters of camouflage. Their plumage changes from a speckled brown in summer, to mottled
in autumn, to white
in winter, letting them blend in with surrounding rocks and snow. When danger approaches, the ptarmigan can conserve energy by simply standing still than flying. Ptarmigan eat the buds of dwarf alpine willow.
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SUBALPINE … The subalpine ecosystem lies between 9,000 and 11,400 feet. Long, cold winters, short, cool summers, and high annual precipitation -30 inches or more - characterize its climate. It is the highest, windiest, and snowiest forest. Much of the snow that falls on the alpine tundra is blown down into the subalpine. Engelmann spruce and subalpine firs dominate the landscape and do well in the snowy winters. The abundant moisture produces a rich understory of broom huckleberry and juniper shrubs and many colorful wildflowers like arnica, fairy slipper, twin-flower, and senecio.
Limber pines thrive in wind-blown areas and are often twisted and turned. Winds can also stop growth on the windward side of spruce and fir trees, creating flag or banner trees. At treeline,
low-growing trees called krummholz (German for "crooked wood") grow more horizontally than vertical and some may be hundreds of years old. Martens, long-tailed weasels, chickarees, and snowshoe hares frequent the subalpine forests. Birds are more often heard than seen. The melodic voices of the hermit thrush, ruby-crowned kinglet, and pine grosbeak are among those commonly heard in the dense cover of the subalpine forests. Martens
(right) are agile tree climbers quick enough to catch chickadees and birds. On the ground they will prey on chipmunks, mice, ground squirrels, marmots, rabbits, and pikes. Seldom seen, boreal owls
(left) hunt at night.
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… As you enter the park, you are entering the montane ecosystem - a land of pine forests and beautiful mountain meadows. Open stands of ponderosa pine dominate the drier south-facing slopes of the montane. Mature trees can be 150 feet tall and 400 years old. As the ponderosa ages, its bark changes from gray-brown to cinnamon-red and often gives off a sweet fragrance when warmed by the sun. Groves of Aspens are common and their golden color in autumn add splendor to the park.
Bull elk congregate with cows and calves for the fall rut in September and early October. Look for aspen bark scarred to the height of elk antlers. In places like Moraine Park, elk eat the aspen's soft inner bark and young shoots and in fall rub antlers on the trunks to shed velvet
The openness of the ponderosa forest allows sunlight to reach the many grasses, shrubs, and flowering plants that thrive here. Chokecherry, wax currant, and serviceberry bushes provide food and shelter for many insects, birds, and other animals. Mountain bluebirds feed and perch in open meadows. Tassel-eared Abert's squirrels get food ponderosa pines.
North-facing pines escape the drying effects of the sun. Dense stands of Douglas fir, lodgepole pine, and an occasional Engelmann spruce cover these hillsides. Shade-tolerant plants grow on the forest floor. A black bear pear with her cubs may move through the forest toward a favorite food source. Interspersed within the forest are large, expansive meadows with streams and wetlands. Grasses, flowers, and water-loving small trees thrive here. Dense groves of aspen can be found at meadow edges. Deer and elk feed on vegetation. Coyote pups retreat to their den hidden in willows while a red-tailed hawk flies overhead. Meadows, created long ago by glaciers, provide rich and diverse habitats for wildlife in the park.
Short-winged and agile birds of prey, northern goshawks (right) are adapted for swift flight through dense forests. They like to nest in tall aspen trees, whose summer and fall leaf colors dazzle the eyes.
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: National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Rocky Mountain National Park Colorado tourist brochure
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