“I have found a dream of beauty at which one might look all one’s life and sigh.”
― Isabella L. Bird, 1873
The main entrances to Rocky Mountain National Park are just a few minutes from Estes Park. The two have been entwined for over 100 years. “Rocky” is one of the crown jewels of our country’s national park system. Its soaring and rugged mountain peaks, delicate alpine tundra, cascading waterfalls, mountain meadows, historic glaciers, thousands of species of wildflowers, hundreds of species of birds, and abundant wildlife, make it hard to imagine the area as anything else but a national park.
Estes Park marks its Centennial in 2017 and has always provided the creature comforts for visitors seeking the wonder, adventures, and tranquility to be found in Rocky Mountain National Park. Over the last hundred years and more, our guests have redefined those creature comforts, but the experience of the park remains largely the same. For the generations of families who have vacationed in Estes Park, it is possible to literally walk and adventure in the footsteps of our predecessors in the unchanged and grand experience that is Rocky Mountain National Park!
In the Beginning
While glaciers sculptured the meadows and peaks, Rocky was a harsh, inhospitable land. It was not until 11,000 years ago that humans ventured into Rocky’s mountains and valleys. Spearheads broken in a mammoth’s charge along lonely, discarded trails tell us little about these early native people. The Ute tribe preferred the area’s green valleys, crystal lakes, and lush meadows. The Utes dominated the area until the late 1700s.
With the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, the U.S. government acquired the land now known as Rocky Mountain National Park. Spanish explorers and French fur trappers skirted the area during their wilderness forays. Even Major Stephen H. Long, the explorer for whom the peak is named, avoided these rugged barricades in his famous 1820 expedition. In 1843, Rufus Sage wrote the first account of Rocky’s wonders, called “Scenes in the Rocky Mountains.”
Go West, Young Man
Gold was discovered in Colorado in 1849 and growing numbers of people began to make their way into the Estes Valley. Most of the gold mining was farther south, but one miner did come into the valley: Joel Estes, the man for whom the village was later named. Estes, an adventurer who had struck it rich in California a decade earlier, found the Estes Valley in 1859. His wife and children joined him and they lived in the Estes Valley from 1860 to 1866.
Early Tourism: Rustic and Captivating
In 1864, William Byers, the owner and editor of the Rocky Mountain News, came to the area and named it Estes Park. Estes found the high altitude and short growing season made farming impossible, and he sold his homestead to Welshman Griff Evans. Evans built guest cabins and established the valley’s first dude ranch. Many historical players to the area were his guests.
One of Evans’ guests was the Earl of Dunraven, an Irish Earl. He so fell in love with the area that he decided to acquire the whole valley for his own private resort and hunting preserve. Dunraven’s dubious activities to achieve that goal eventually were defeated by area ranchers and mountain men.
“People came in disputing claims, kicking up rows: exorbitant land taxes got into arrears; and we were in constant litigation. The show could not be managed from home, and we were in constant danger of being frozen out. So we sold for what we could get and cleared out, and I have never been there since.” – Windham Wyndham-Quin, The 4th Earl of Dunraven.
Another world-known guest of Evans was the Englishwoman Isabella Bird, who traveled to Colorado solo in 1873 and was determined to make it to Estes Park. She recounted her adventure in A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, which included her recollections of her friendship with Mountain Jim and their dangerous summit of Longs Peak.
Arrival of Working “Dude” Ranches
Cattle ranches were established in the 1870s by, among others, Alexander and Clara MacGregor, who brought in prized herds of sturdy Aberdeen Angus cattle. The MacGregor Ranch and Museum is still a working ranch. Another settler, W. E. James, built the Elkhorn Lodge and added to his income with a “fish ranch” where they would catch 500 to 800 trout a day for restaurants in Denver.
Tourists arrived and joined ranchers, hunters, miners, and homesteaders, often casually staying in their rough abodes. By 1900, the national conservation and preservation movements were growing and strengthening, championed by Theodore Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, and John Muir, promoted an appreciation for nature and advocated for its preservation.
” The guest comes to stay every minute of his vacation he can spare. If he fails to see every nook and corner of the place on one visit, he comes year after year….they go home rested.” – Abner Sprague, early rancher and resort owner, 1914
Automobile Tourism Transforms Estes Park
F. O. Stanley, originally a guest at the Elkhorn Lodge in 1903, arrived from Newton, Massachusetts, seeking a cure for tuberculosis. Stanley developed the patented dry-plate photographic process and co-invented the Stanley Steamer automobile with his twin brother F. E. Stanley. The mountain air was so beneficial to his health that he settled in Estes Park for the summers, first building his private residence and then the Stanley Hotel as a luxury hotel in the tradition of Eastern grand hotels. The Stanley opened in 1909 and cost more than half a million dollars to build. The publicity generated by the hotel created a boom in Estes Park’s resort business. Stanley ran regular “mountain bus” trips up the Big Thompson Canyon from the Loveland train station, one of the first shuttle services in the Rocky Mountain region and establishing it as the origin of automobile tourism in the western United States.
Stanley is often credited for the integral part he played in the establishment of Rocky Mountain National Park. As president of the Protective and Improvement Association, Stanley was very aware that the scenic beauty of the Estes Valley depended on maintaining it in its natural state with its abundant wildlife. He formed a strong friendship with local naturalist Enos Mills who ran the nearby Long’s Peak Inn. With Stanley’s financial support and active encouragement, Enos Mills campaigned across the country for the protection of the Rockies of Northern Colorado.
“For twenty-six consecutive years I have been a summer visitor to Estes Park. This has given me an opportunity to watch its growth; to see the village grow from one having only two cottages to having several hundred cottages; to see the hotels increase from four to some 25; and the time required to go from Denver to Estes Park reduced from an all-day’s journey to a comfortable ride in an automobile in two and one-half hours.” – Freeland Oscar Stanley, 1928.
Enos Mills, a naturalist, guide, and lodge operator, championed the creation of the nation’s tenth national park, “Rocky,” in 1909. He is widely regarded as the father of Rocky Mountain National Park. He tirelessly spent several years lecturing across the country, writing thousands of letters and articles. He lobbied Congress to create a new national park here. Most civic leaders supported the idea, as did the Denver Chamber of Commerce and the Colorado Mountain Club. Mining, logging, and agricultural interests generally opposed it. President Woodrow Wilson signed the Rocky Mountain National Park Act on January 26, 1915, completing the realization of Enos’s hard fought-for dream.
In 1915, as the park was created, private lands dotted the park, and many had been offering lodging to guests since well before the turn of the century. These lodge keepers had maintained roads, built trails, and guided visitors into the mountains. The first superintendent arrived, and he too began to construct facilities to support visitors. As visitation increased after World War I, very basic park facilities and private lodges became inadequate. Rangers built maintained trails, comfort stations, and museums to meet visitor expectations.
Millions of Americans were unemployed during the Great Depression of the 1930s. As part of The New Deal, President Franklin Roosevelt promised and put people to work in programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). In Rocky Mountain National Park, CCC recruits housed at six camps built roads and trails, erected buildings, fought wildfires, managed predators, and planted trees. During the 1930s, when labor was readily available, the National Park Service built Trail Ridge Road.
Unlike visitors to many other parks with direct rail access, many visitors came to Rocky Mountain National Park in their automobiles. Rocky was always an auto park. Because of this, road building and maintenance was a high priority. Although Fall River Road crossed the Continental Divide through the park, the road was old and hard to navigate. The new, professionally engineered Trail Ridge Road meandered through forests and meadows and took drivers to remarkable heights. It remains the highest continuous paved highway in the United States and the only place other than Alaska where cars can travel through Alpine Tundra.
Today, Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park offer the best “Real Rocky” experience to be found. For over 100 years, the town of Estes Park has provided a welcoming base camp for the truly authentic—and affordable—mountain adventures of Rocky Mountain National Park. Offering genuine small town hospitality, Estes Park makes visitors feel welcomed and at home from the moment they arrive. On the ground, visitors have easy access to exciting but not expensive adventures, starting with exploring the 265,000 wilderness acres of In the spring, summer, and fall months, Estes Park is a hub for hiking, mountain biking, and fishing. July brings the , considered one of the best small rodeos in the nation. Visitors can enjoy golf, horseback riding, and whitewater rafting nearby. In winter, activities are centered not on downhill skiing—lift-served peaks are about an hour away—but on snowshoeing and country and backcountry skiing. Winter is a wonderful time for seeing wildlife! More than 200 unique retail stores and galleries can be explored, and over 130 restaurants offer diverse and wonderful fare to satisfy any appetite. Nearly all are proudly family-owned and operated, some for generations.