What makes Rocky Mountain National Park so special?

Labor Day visitors on the Labor Day weekend in 2013 worked their way up the Alpine Ridge Trail with Trail Ridge Road in the background . Photo/Allen Best

Labor Day visitors on the Labor Day weekend in 2013 worked their way up the Alpine Ridge Trail with Trail Ridge Road in the background . Photo/Allen Best

National Park defined by what it lacks as well as its many virtues


by Allen Best

This year is the 100th anniversary of the creation of Rocky Mountain National Park, which must be considered among Colorado’s most valuable assets. From the Wild Basin to the Mummy Range, and from Moraine Park to the Never Summer Range, it’s a large chunk of magnificent landscape.

Adding even more value to “Rocky” is its proximity to Colorado’s urban population. From the summit of Long’s Peak, the highest point in the park, you can see the homes of two-thirds of Colorado’s 5.4 million residents. Getting to the gateway towns of Estes Park and Grand Lake is a simple two- or three-hour drive from metropolitan Denver.

I’m partial to the Kawuneeche Valley, located north of Grand Lake. The melodic name, which comes from the Arapahoe tribe, always delights my ear. But it’s also a geographic oddity. From the bottom switchback of Trail Ridge Road, the Continental Divide lies both east and west. In that crease of landscape are the humble headwaters of the Colorado River.

The Never Summer Range from the Kawuneeche Valley. Photo/Russell Smith

The Never Summer Range from the Kawuneeche Valley. Photo/Russell Smith

Growing up on the eastern plains, I was more captivated by the profile of Longs Peak, silhouetted by the setting sun from 100 crow-flying miles away. Much later, to my great joy, I climbed Longs, the state’s 15th highest peak, but also its sibling peak, Meeker, just a few feet shy of 14,000 feet, but no less worthy. Denver’s Park Avenue West points directly toward those twin peaks.

But for all its spectacular scenery, Rocky Mountain National Park is as much defined by what it lacks, the ores of precious metals. Colorado’s mineral belt sweeps from west of Boulder in a giant arc across the state to the San Juan Mountains. Off to the side there’s also the giant, gold-filled caldera of Cripple Creek and Victor. In this swath of mineral mountains the landscape is a Swiss cheese of excavations, the hillsides spotted with orange-hued mine dumps.

Land in the mineral belt is also a quilt of long, narrow pieces of private land intermixed with the national forests. It’s why, south of Breckenridge, people live nearly to the summit of Hoosier Pass, elevation 11,542 feet. It’s also why, if you backpack deep in the Holy Cross Wilderness south of Beaver Creek, you can cross private property.

The San Juans have every bit the spectacular beauty as Rocky Mountain National Park. But a park there would have been difficult, giving the mining activity that continued even as Rocky Mountain National Park was dedicated on Sept. 4, 1915. In the northern Front Range, prospectors found almost nothing. The mining excitement at Lulu City, on the west side of the park, along the banks of the babyish Colorado River, lasted scarcely longer than a good political scandal. As a result, Estes Park and Grand Lake were tourist towns from the beginning, their architecture even today more restrained than the gussied up Victorians financed by the silver fortunes in Georgetown, Leadville and Aspen.

Rocky Mountain National Park can also be seen as an example of where Colorado learned from California’s successes and failures. Through books and magazine articles, John Muir had sung the praises of wilderness in the Sierra Nevada. He famously climbed a tree to experience a storm from the tree’s perspective. He stayed up late over the campfire with Teddy Roosevelt, who he thought—not altogether correctly—was a kindred spirit.

Muir was of singular influence in creation of Yosemite National Park. But to his great agony, he could not block construction of a dam within the park called Hetch-Hetchy that even now provides water for San Francisco.

 Enos Mills, at left, at the dedication of Rocky Mountain Naitonal Park in 1915.

Enos Mills, at left, at the dedication of Rocky Mountain Naitonal Park in 1915. Photo courtesy of National Park Service.

Enos Mills was Colorado’s version of John Muir. He arrived from Kansas when 14, on doctor’s orders to seek out more healthy air, and here he matured and prospered. He was greatly influenced by Muir and, like his role model, seemed happiest when gamboling in wild landscapes. In one of his many books, Mills tells of watching a grizzly bear one day in spring sliding down a steep slope, seemingly for the sheer thrill of it, then climbing back up the slope and doing it again. He also established a humble lodge, where drinking was strictly prohibited. He was focused solely on the wonders of nature. He climbed Longs Peak more than 200 times.

Mills is often called the father of Rocky Mountain National Park, because he pushed hard for park designation. At the time, the U.S. Forest Service was new and still refining its mission. For that matter, so was the National Park Service. In time, they settled on very different paths. The Forest Service became more concerned about multiple use, and the Park Service less tolerant of compromises.

Transmountain water diversions are one place where these arguments about compromises played out. Work on the Grand Ditch, incised into the flanks of the Never Summer Range by immigrant labor, began in 1890, a quarter century before park designation. This water culled from the Colorado River was seen as vital to allow corn and other crops in the Fort Collins and Greeley areas to reach full maturity in late summer. Extension of the canal was authorized after creation of the national park.

The Colorado River at its headwaters in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo/Ann Schonlau

The Colorado River at its headwaters in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo/Ann Schonlau

Later came an even greater diversion, the Colorado Big-Thompson. The historian David Lavender called it a “massive violation of geography,” because of the sheer volume of the diverted water. But diversion infrastructure does not broach the park boundaries. The water is instead diverted from near Grand Lake through the 13.1-mile Alva Adams Tunnel, helping nourish crops as far downstream as Julesberg and kitchen faucets as far away as Fort Morgan.

Water also figures into one of Rocky’s most dramatic stories, the failure of the dam at Lawn Lake in 1982, another dam created to store water for farming on the plains. The flood created a giant alluvial fan on the valley floor, a sobering testament to the enormous power of moving water. Last year, I was astonished to discover that the Park Service signs explaining the dam rupture had mostly been buried, this time by a new layer of detritus swept down in the torrential rains of September 2013. Natural history trumped human history.

Humans today still play a huge if mostly quiet hand in reshaping Rock. We have, of course, rid the landscape in Colorado of the grizzly bears that Enos Mills observed. Through activities regionally, on the farms, in the feedlots, and in the drilling patches along the eastern plains, we’ve altered the composition of the air and begun, in small but ways discernible to scientists, begun to modify the vegetation in the park. And then there’s the likely alteration on an even larger scale of the park through the global greenhouse gases now accumulating in the atmosphere, squeezing winter and likely to raise treeline in decades ahead.

Restraint matters, and that’s the great lesson of Rocky Mountain National Park on its 100th anniversary. Commercial opportunities are restrained. Physical access is provided, most notably with Trail Ridge Road, but the internal-combustion engine does not rule.

But you should, if you have the physical ability, try to stand atop Mt. Richtoften or slide down Sprague Glacier or just stroll in the Wild Basin. For all his books and magazine stories, Enos Mills espoused direct experience over the vicarious. A little bit of sweat will yield a great reward.

This essay, written in June, originally appeared in the Aug. 9, 2015, issue of The Denver Post. Ironically, the spill of three million gallons of polluted water from the Gold Kine  Mill in the San Juan Mountains occurred on Aug. 6.


About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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