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Rocky Mountain National Park

For the park in Manitoba, see Riding Mountain National Park.

Rocky Mountain National Park
IUCN category II (national park)
View from Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park
Map showing the location of Rocky Mountain National Park
Location Larimer / Grand / Boulder counties, Colorado, United States
Nearest city Estes Park and Grand Lake, Colorado
Area 265,761 acres (415.252 sq mi; 107,550 ha; 1,075.50 km2)[1]
Established January 26, 1915
Visitors 3,176,941 (in 2011)[2]
Governing body National Park Service

Rocky Mountain National Park is a national park located in the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, in the north-central region of the U.S. state of Colorado. It features majestic mountain views, mountain lakes, a variety of wildlife, varied climates and environments—from wooded forests to mountain tundra—and easy access to back-country trails and campsites. The park is located northwest of Boulder, Colorado, and includes the Continental Divide and the headwaters of the Colorado River.

The park has five visitor centers. The park headquarters, Beaver Meadows Visitor Center, is a National Historic Landmark, designed by the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture at Taliesin West.[3]

The park may be accessed by three roads: U.S. Highway 34, 36, and State Highway 7. Highway 7 enters the park for less than a mile, where it provides access to the Lily Lake Visitor Center which is closed indefinitely. Farther south, spurs from route 7 lead to campgrounds and trail heads around Longs Peak and Wild Basin. Highway 36 enters the park on the east side, where it terminates after a few miles at Highway 34. Highway 34, known as Trail Ridge Road through the park, runs from the town of Estes Park on the east to Grand Lake on the southwest. The road reaches an elevation of 12,183 feet (3,713 m), and is closed by snow in winter.

The California Zephyr serves Granby (near the west entrance of the park) by rail from Denver, crossing the Continental Divide through the Moffat Tunnel well south of the park. The park's website suggests Granby as an appropriate rail terminus for visitors,[4] although it lies about sixteen miles from the park without public transportation connections.

The park is surrounded by Roosevelt National Forest on the north and east, Routt National Forest on the northwest, and Arapaho National Forest on the southwest.


  • Geography 1
    • Ecosystems 1.1
    • Wildlife 1.2
    • Climate 1.3
    • Popular areas 1.4
  • Geology 2
  • History 3
    • Early History 3.1
    • Lord Dunraven and his 'land grab' 3.2
    • Later History 3.3
  • Activities 4
  • Gallery 5
  • See also 6
  • Notes 7
  • Further reading 8
  • External links 9


Rocky Mountain National Park encompasses 265,761 acres (415.25 sq mi; 1,075.50 km2) of land in Colorado's northern Front Range. The park is split by the Continental Divide, which gives the eastern and western portions of the park a different character. The east side of the park tends to be drier, with heavily glaciated peaks and cirques. The west side of the park is wetter and more lush, with deep forests dominating.

The park contains 359 miles (578 km) of trails, 150 lakes, and 450 miles (720 km) of streams. The park contains 72 named peaks higher than 12,000 feet (3,700 m), and over one fourth of the park resides above tree line. The highest point of the park is Longs Peak, which rises to 14,259 feet (4,346 m; surveys before 2002 show 14,255 feet (4,345 m))[5] above sea level. On the north side of the park, the Mummy Range contains a number of smaller thirteener peaks, including Hagues Peak, Mummy Mountain, Fairchild Mountain, Ypsilon Mountain, and Mount Chiquita.

Several small glaciers and permanent snowfields are found in the high mountain cirques, including Andrews, Sprague, Tyndall, Taylor, Rowe, Mills, and Moomaw Glaciers.


A view of a tundra landscape in Rocky Mountain National Park.

The lowest elevations in the park are montane forests and grassland. The ponderosa pine, which prefers drier areas, dominates especially on the eastern side of the park, while at higher elevations Douglas fir trees are found. Above 9,000 feet (2,700 m), the montane forests give way to the subalpine forest. Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir trees are common in this zone. These forests tend to have more moisture than the montane and tend to be denser. Above tree line, at approximately 11,500 feet (3,500 m), trees disappear and the vast alpine tundra takes over. Due to harsh winds and weather, the plants in the tundra are short with very limited growing seasons. Streams have created lush riparian wetlands across the park.


Rocky Mountain National Park is home to a wide variety of wildlife. In the higher alpine areas, one can find yellow-bellied marmots and pikas. Larger mammals that inhabit the park include elk, bighorn sheep, black bears, mountain lions, mule deer, and moose. During the fall, visitors often flock to the park to witness the elk rut.


July and August are the warmest months in the park, where temperatures can commonly reach the 80s. In summertime thunderstorms sometimes appear in the afternoons, and visitors should plan on staying below tree line when they occur. Heavy winter snows can begin around mid-October, and last into April. While the snow can melt away from the lowest elevations of the park quickly, deep snow is found above 9,000 feet (2,700 m) in the winter, causing the closure of Trail Ridge and Fall River roads during the winter and early spring. Most of the trails are under snow this time of the year, and snowshoeing and skiing become popular. Springs tend to be wet, alternating between rain and occasional light snow. Light snow can occur as late as July in the higher regions. The west side of the park typically receives more precipitation than the drier east side.

Popular areas

Longs Peak seen from Dream Lake trail

The park is dominated by Longs Peak, which is visible from many vantage points, and has an elevation of 14,259 feet (4,346 m). Each year thousands of people attempt to scale it. The easiest route is the Keyhole Route, which is however feasible for regular hikers only in high summer when it is free of snow and ice. This eight-mile (13 km) one-way climb has an elevation gain of 4,850 ft (1,480 m). The vast east face, including the area known as The Diamond, is home to many classic big wall rock climbing routes.

Not all leave Longs Peak alive and safe. There is a stone gazebo at the Keyhole formation with a plaque memorializing Agnes Vaille, a well-known climber in the 1920s. In January 1925, Vaille fell 100 ft (30 m) while descending the North Face. Vaille survived the fall with minor injuries, but was unable to walk. Her climbing partner, professional mountaineering guide Walter Kiener, went for help; but when rescuers arrived, Vaille had died of fatigue and hypothermia. One of the rescuers, Herbert Sortland, froze to death after breaking his hip while trying to rescue her.[6] Bear Lake, in the heart of the park, is a popular destination and trailhead. The lake lies below Hallett Peak and the Continental Divide. Several trails start from the lake, ranging from easy strolls to strenuous hikes. Bear Lake Road is open year round, though it may close temporarily due to bad weather.

Trail Ridge Road connects the town of Estes Park in the east with Grand Lake in the west. The road reaches an altitude of 12,183 feet (3,713 m), with long stretches above tree line. It passes the Alpine Visitors' Center, a popular destination, and crosses the Continental Divide at Milner Pass. Numerous short interpretive trails and pullouts along the road serve to educate the visitor on the history, geography, and ecology of the park.

The southern area of the park is Wild Basin, a wild and remote region. Several trails cross the area and backpacking it is popular.

The Mummy Range is a short mountain range in the north of the park. The Mummies tend to be gentler and more forested than the other peaks in the park, though some slopes are rugged and heavily glaciated, particularly around Ypsilon Mountain and Mummy Mountain. Bridal Veil Falls is a scenic point and trail accessible from the Cow Creek trailhead, at the Continental Divide Research Center.[7]

The snow-capped Never Summer Mountains are found in the west side of the park. Here the south-trending Continental Divide takes a brief sharp northward loop, which creates an interesting reverse scenario where the Pacific Basin is on the east side of the divide and the Atlantic Basin on the west. The mountains themselves, the result of volcanic activity, are craggy and more often than not, covered in deep snow. This area saw the most extensive mining in the park, and trails lead past old mines and ghost towns.

Paradise Park is hidden in the peaks above Grand Lake. This rugged and wild area has no trails penetrating it.


Map of Colorado. The area of the Rocky Mountain National Park is in dark red.

The Front Range was created by the Laramide Orogeny, the last of three major mountain-building events, which occurred between 70 and 40 million years ago. Tectonic activity during the Cenozoic Era changed the Ancestral Rocky Mountains via block uplift, eventually forming the Rocky Mountains as they exist today. The geologic make-up of Rocky Mountain National Park was also affected by deformation and erosion during the Cenozoic Era. Many sedimentary rocks from the Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras exist in the basins surrounding the park.


Early History

People have been visiting the area of Rocky Mountain National Park for at least 11,000 years. Paleo-Indians left traces in the form of stone tools.[8] Their influence in the region was limited, however, and their visits often transitory.

Native Americans came in their turn. The Ute Tribe visited the west side of the park, particularly around Grand Lake. The Arapaho visited and hunted in the Estes Park region.

The area of the park was Ute territory, used for camping and hunting, until the late 1700s. Then they were driven over the Continental Divide by the Arapaho, who came from the east, continued to enjoy the area until colonists of European descent arrived.[8]

The Long Expedition, led by Stephen H. Long, for whom Longs Peak was named,[9] visited the area in 1820, though they never entered the mountains.

In 1859, while on a hunting expedition, Joel Estes and his son discovered the meadows that eventually became Estes Park. He moved his family there in 1860 and raised cattle. He stayed only until 1866, forced out by long, harsh winters. In the next years, settlers and homesteaders staked their claims in the Estes Park region. Tourists, particularly those interested in climbing the high peaks of the region, appeared after this time.

Lord Dunraven and his 'land grab'

Lord Dunraven (1841-1926), the Irish nobleman, in later life.

The Rt. Hon. The 4th Earl of Dunraven and Mount-Earl, a wealthy young Anglo-Irish peer, was a regular visitor to the area from late 1872. Lord Dunraven was well known in Ireland and Britain as a journalist. He was also an avid huntsman and employed Texas Jack Omohundro as his guide in the Estes Park area. Dunraven subsequently attempted to use parts of the Homestead Acts to lay claim to a vast country estate in the surrounding area in what later became the Rocky Mountain National Park. Dunraven and his agents laid claim to several thousand acres in the area from 1874 onwards, intending to create a private game reserve for affluent hunters.

Dunraven's attempted land grab outraged locals and new settlers in the area. As early as 1876 Dunraven and his agents were finding it impossible to stop new settlers from entering his vast claim and establishing farms. The U.S. Government and the Colorado territorial authorities were unwilling to fully endorse his vast land claims. Dunraven abandoned his vast Estes Park claims in the late 1870s and likely visited the area for the last time in the late 1880s. He continued to claim, however, that the estate was his personal private property up until about 1907

The Earl Dunraven launched a number of business and tourism ventures in the area. In the late 1870s, he established The English Lodge Hotel near Estes Park. The hotel operated until 1911, when it burned down. Lord Dunraven finally sold his remaining lands and interests in the area around 1907 to F.O. Stanley and B.D. Sanborn, two local businessmen. Stanley later established The Stanley Hotel near Estes Park.

Later History

In 1880, a small mining rush began in the Never Summer Mountains. The mining town of Lulu City was established with great fanfare and promotion by the media, particularly by Fort Collins newspapers. The ore mined, however, was low grade; by 1883 the rush went bust, and most of the residents moved on. A satellite town, Dutchtown, was abandoned by 1884.

Enos Mills, then a 14-year-old boy, moved to Estes Park in 1884. He explored the mountains of the area and wrote many books and articles describing the region. He later supported the creation of Rocky Mountain National Park, and he split his time between the mountains he loved and the cities of the eastern United States, where he lobbied for the legislation to create the park. The legislation was drafted by James Grafton Rogers, a Denver lawyer and avid outdoorsman. Mills' original proposal for park boundaries went from Wyoming all the way down to the Mount Evans area, including areas such as the Indian Peaks Wilderness. Much of the land was favored for mining, logging, and other operations, however, so the proposed park was reduced to an area approximating the current park borders. The bill passed Congress and was signed by President Woodrow Wilson on January 26, 1915. A formal dedication ceremony was held on September 4, 1915 in Horseshoe Park. The park has expanded over the years, with the largest parcel — the Never Summer Range — added in 1929.

The 1920s saw a boom in building lodges and roads in the park, culminating with the construction of Trail Ridge Road between 1929 and 1933. The Civilian Conservation Corps handled several building projects during the Great Depression and remnants of their camps can be found in the park today. On June 24, 2010, a wildfire burned over 1,500 acres (6.1 km2) of the park in Larimer County near Estes Park. Estes Park Fire Department believed that lightning may have started the fire.

In September 2013, both the park and the town of Estes Park were heavily damaged by a significant 500-year rain event. The park was closed to visitors September 12–19, 2013, and all roads leading to the park entrance from the east were closed for several days to several weeks. At one point, the only way to leave the town of Estes Park was via Trail Ridge Road, the park's scenic byway leading to the town of Grand Lake on the western side of the Continental Divide. The most lasting impacts inside the park were in the Alluvial Fan area, where flood waters, rocks, and debris washed away parking areas, and much of Fall River Road.[10] After repairs, the road reopened on July 2, 2015.


  • Most visitors to the park drive over the famous Trail Ridge Road, but other scenic roads include Fall River Road and Bear Lake Road.
  • Many visitors hike and backpack. The park contains a network of 349 miles (562 km) of trail and dozens of designated backcountry camp sites. Trails range from easy to strenuous. Many routes are off-trail and the hiker must be careful to leave no trace of their passage.
  • Horseback riding is permitted on most trails. Some trails which are closed to horse traffic allow llamas as pack animals, because their smaller size and softer feet have a lower impact on trail erosion.
  • Rock climbing and mountaineering have increased in recent years. Longs Peak, Hallett Peak and Lumpy Ridge, among others, are famous rock climbing areas. Many of the highest peaks have technical ice and rock routes on them, ranging from short scrambles to long multi-pitch climbs.
  • In the winter, when the trails are covered in snow, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are popular. Backcountry-style Alpine, Alpine Touring and Telemark skiing can be found on the higher slopes.
  • Fishing is found in the many lakes and streams in the park.
  • Camping is allowed at several designated campgrounds.

Rocky Mountain National Park was also a place for downhill skiing. Hidden Valley (Ski Estes Park) operated between 1955 and 1991 along U.S. 34, five miles (8 km) west of Estes Park. The area had been skied by locals long before it opened as a ski area.[11]


See also


  1. ^ "Listing of acreage as of December 31, 2011". Land Resource Division, National Park Service. Retrieved 2012-03-07. 
  2. ^ "NPS Annual Recreation Visits Report". National Park Service. Retrieved 2012-03-07. 
  3. ^ "Beaver Meadows Visitor Center Review | Rocky Mountain NP | Fodor's Travel Guides". Retrieved 2013-06-04. 
  4. ^ "Rocky Mountains National Park directions page". 2013-05-24. Retrieved 2013-06-04. 
  5. ^ "No tall tale: State higher than thought". 2002-07-07. Retrieved 2013-06-04. 
  6. ^ Nesbit, Paul. Longs Peak. 1990
  7. ^ Brachfeld, Aaron (September 2015). "Trail to Bridal Veil Falls, Rocky Mountain National Park". the Meadowlark Herald (September 2015) (the Meadowlark Herald). Retrieved 2015-09-16. 
  8. ^ a b John William Uhler (2007). "Rocky Mountain National Park Information: History". Retrieved 2013-12-07. 
  9. ^ "Topographical Engineers - Stephen Harriman Long". U S Corps of Topographical Engineers. Retrieved 2010-03-21. 
  10. ^ "Old Fall River Road a short-term flood casualty". Estes Park Trail Gazette. 12 December 2013. Retrieved 2013-12-23. 
  11. ^ "Hidden Valley Ski Area". Retrieved 2007-12-02. 

Further reading

  • Buchholtz, C. W. (1983). Rocky Mountain National Park: A History. University Press of Colorado.  
  • Cole, James C.; Braddock, William A. (2009). Geologic Map of the Estes Park 30' x 60' Quadrangle, North-Central Colorado. Scientific Investigations Map 3039. U.S. Geological Survey. This source discusses the geology of the quadrangle, which covers most of Rocky Mountain National Park.  
  • Emerick, John C. (1995). Rocky Mountain National Park Natural History Handbook. Roberts Hinehart Publishers/Rocky Mountain Nature Association.  
  • Frank, Jerry J. Making Rocky Mountain National Park: The Environmental History of an American Treasure (2013)
  • Mills, Enos and John Fielder. Rocky Mountain National Park: A 100 Year Perspective (1995)
  • Musselman, Lloyd K. (July 1971). Rocky Mountain National Park: Administrative History, 1915-1965 (Online ed.). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of the Interior, National Park Service, Office of History and Historic Architecture, Eastern Service Center. Retrieved 18 November 2014. 
  • U.S. Dept. of the Interior. Rocky Mountain [Colorado] National Park (2011) online free

External links

  • Rocky Mountain National Park (National Park Service)
  • Rocky Mountain National Park: A History
  • Rocky Mountain Conservancy
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