Established by Congress on January 26, 1915, the park exhibits the massive grandeur of the Rocky Mountains. Trail Ridge Road crosses the Continental Divide and looks out over dozens of peaks that tower more than 13,000 feet high. Longs Peak (el. 14,255 feet) is the highest peak in the park. The high point on Trail Ridge Road is 12,183 feet. The road is closed from late fall, to the Memorial Day weekend. Because of the high elevation of the park (8,000 feet to over 14,000 feet) visitors need to take time to acclimatize. People with various medical problems should check with their physician before coming to the park.
Elk, mule deer, big horn sheep, moose, coyotes and a great variety of smaller animals call the 416 square miles (265,769 acres)of the National Park home. During the winter months snowshoeing and cross country skiing are very popular. Hiking is available on 346 miles of trails. Many trails can be hiked any time of the year.
June and July are the best months for seeing the wild flowers. Weather conditions determine when and where flowers bloom; call 970-586-1206 for up to date information. In the fall, viewing the elk rut (mating season) is a wonderful opportunity to see and learn about these magnificent large animals. Almost 90% of the park is managed as wilderness, making it a great place to enjoy solitude and the natural beauty of the Rocky Mountains.
History & Culture
During the Ice Age when massive glaciers were grinding the landscape, shaping the meadows and peaks, Rocky was an inhospitable land. It was not until some 11,000 years ago that humans began venturing into these valleys and mountains. Spearheads broken in the fury of a mammoth’s charge and scrapers discarded along a nomad’s trail tell us little about the area’s early native peoples. We do know that even though it was never their year-round home, the green valleys, tundra meadows and crystal lakes became favored summer hunting grounds for the Ute tribe. In setting up their camps, they made use of the straight and slender lodgepole pine as tepee poles. Until the late 1700’s, the Utes controlled the mountain territories.
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, other than the large river boulders that Native Americans carried to the top of Oldman Mountain, a site of their ceremonial vision quests.
The U. S. government acquired the park’s original 358.5 square miles in the huge Louisiana Purchase of 1803. French trappers and the Spanish explorers before 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 Rocky’s wonders to reach unbelieving easterners. Sage spent four years roaming the Rockies, basing his explorations from Fort Lupton, north of present-day Denver. For a month, Sage hunted deer in the area now known as Estes Park.
The first settler in the area was Joel Estes, a Kentuckian with wandering ways. Scouting for game one fall, he and his son climbed a high promontory that gave them a view of a breathtakingly beautiful valley. In 1860, Estes moved his family into a new home in the area now known as Estes Park.
Winters proved too harsh for cattle, so six years later the Estes family sold out for a yoke of oxen. The Estes cabin was soon converted into guest accommodations and from 1867 on the number of visitors to this area grew steadily.
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 succeed in the climb.
Isabella Bird, an Englishwoman whose extensive travels and writings earned her the first female membership in the Royal Geographic Society, visited Estes Park in the fall of 1873. She fell in love with the area and, incidentally, with Jim Nugent, a well-educated mountain man whose violent death is shrouded in mystery. Bird’s book, A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, attracted many people to the area, as did Frederick Chapin’s Mountaineering in Colorado. So while much of the West was attracting homesteaders, the Rockies were also establishing themselves as a tourist mecca.
About that time, an English 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. By 1874, a stage line ran between Estes Park and Longmont by way of North Saint Vrain Canyon.
Because large veins of silver and gold had been discovered in other areas of the Rockies, miners considered the area a land of opportunity and came in droves during Colorado’s gold rush of the late 1870’s. Lulu City, in what is now the northwest part of the park, in 1880 was a booming mining town with a raucous reputation. Three years later, it was nearly deserted because the region’s mineral riches were far less than dreamed. It cost the area dearly.
When the miners and first settlers arrived, there seemed no end to the supply of game. Bear, deer, wolves and elk were abundant. To feed the boom town demand, commercial hunters went to work. A single hunter could deliver a weekly supply of three tons of assorted big-game meat.
The rousing boom times yielded to an industrious homesteading period. Ranchers and farmers felt that the real wealth of the Rockies lay in its water. They fought over rights to it (finally running the greedy Earl of Dunraven out of town) and 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 the stream source of the Colorado River and diverted it for use for cattle and crops. Though homesteading proved no more profitable than mining in this land, another new enterprise showed promise. Dude ranches began attracting city dwellers in quest of an original adventure.
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 and to improve roads and trails. “Those who pull flowers up by the roots will be condemned by all worthy people and also by the Estes Park Protective and Improvement Association,” they warned. It was the start of a conservation ethic that has become increasingly important and complex.
Even more important to the future of the area was Enos Mills, who came to the Longs Peak area in 1884 when he was 14 years old. A dedicated naturalist, he wrote eloquent books about the area’s natural history. Not long after his arrival, Mills bought the Longs Peak Inn and began conducting local nature trips.
In 1909, Mills first proposed that the area become the nation’s tenth national park to preserve the wildlands from inappropriate use. It was his vision that you would arrive here years later to experience the wonderful Rocky Mountain wilderness he knew. “In years to come when I am asleep beneath the pines, thousands of families will find rest and hope in this park,” he proclaimed.
Unleashing his diverse talents and inexhaustible energy, 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, logging 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 (358.3 square miles). On January 26, 1915, under President Woodrow Wilson, it was declared Rocky Mountain National Park.
The park has since grown to more than 415 square miles. In 1990, it gained an additional 465 acres when Congress approved expansion of the park to include the area known as Lily Lake. The National Park Service, the Conservation Fund and some diligent legislators successfully halted land development in this area adjacent to the park’s boundary. It now is an important buffer zone that helps protect the migratory routes of wildlife in the park.
Today, the park stands as a legacy to those pioneers who looked beyond its harvestable resources to its more lasting values.
Nature & Science
The grand scenery of Rocky Mountain National Park is the product of a complex geologic history spanning almost 2 billion years. The area occupied by the Park has been repeatedly uplifted and eroded. Although many of its mountaintops have been flattened by ancient erosion, recent glaciation has left steep scars, U-shaped valleys, lakes and moraine deposits. The Park’s oldest rocks were produced when plate movements subjected sea sediments to intense pressure and heat. The resulting metamorphic rocks are estimated to be 1.8 billion years old. Later, large intrusions of hot magma finally cooled about 1.4 million years ago to form a core primarily composed of granite. During the long Paleozoic Era, the Rocky Mountain National Park area was variously submerged, lifted up and eroded. Early in the Mesozoic Era, approximately 100 million years ago, dinosaurs roamed the shoreline of a shallow sea which extended from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Ocean. Animal remains were deposited in layers of sand, silt and mud. The resulting sedimentary rock layers (including fossils) are now exposed in the foothills to the east of the Park.
Almost 70 million years ago, the Rocky Mountain Uplift began. Giant blocks of ancient crystalline rock, overlain by younger sedimentary rock, broke and were thrust upward. Even as the uplift occurred, streams started eroding away the sedimentary rocks washing new sediments to the east and west. When the sedimentary rocks were mostly gone, erosion continued leveling the ancient Precambrian rocks until only a few isolated remnants projected above the gently rolling landscape. The gentle slopes atop Trail Ridge and Flattop Mountain are remnants of this erosion surface.
During the Cenozoic Era, some faulting and regional up warping lifted the Rocky Mountain Front Range as much as 5,000 feet to its present height. Some volcanic activity left young volcanic rock in contact with Precambrian rocks. The volcanic rocks are seen mostly on the Colorado River District of the Park. Differential movement along faults disrupted drainage patterns, resulting in higher mountains, waterfalls and large valley areas, such as Estes Park Valley. Streams had established drainage patterns with V-shaped valleys cut into hard rock before the climate became cooler, perhaps 2 million years ago. In the higher valleys, snow changed to glacial ice which flowed down the valleys. Glacial erosion changed V-shaped valleys into U-shaped valleys. The converging rivers of ice flowed down into lower valleys where the ice warmed, melted and dropped the debris it had scraped from the mountainsides above. Loose rock material carried by the ice was deposited along the sides, forming lateral moraines. At the ends of the glaciers, ice carried rocks were dumped to form terminal moraines.
Although glaciers must have filled the high valleys and then melted at least four different times, only the latest two times (Pinedale and Bull Lake) left evidence which is easy to find. During the latest time of major glaciation, glaciers from Forest Canyon, Spruce Canyon, Odessa Gorge and numerous tributary valleys all flowed together and melted in the area now called Moraine Park. This glacier deposited distinct lateral moraines along the south and north sides of Moraine Park and a terminal moraine against the small mountain (Eagle Cliff) to the east. Similar glaciers were melting in the areas now called Glacier Basin, Horseshoe Park and Kawuneeche Valley.
Today, steep semicircular scars (cirques), often containing snow, indicate the tops of U-shaped glaciated valleys. Chasm Lake, below the east face of Longs Peak, rests in the bottom of a cirque. A cirque on Sundance Mountain is easily seen from Trail Ridge Road and numerous cirques may be seen from Bear Lake Road. Glacial erosion also left scratches (striations), grooves and polished surfaces on some of the rocks.
The few small glaciers and snowfields now occupying the tops of glacial valleys are only hints of what the ice age was like. The park’s high mountaintops were not covered with glacial ice and a few of the lower valley areas of the Park escaped the effects of glaciation. The Twin Owls and Gem Lake Trail area has coarse-grained granite rounded into interesting shapes by millions of years of non-glacial erosion.
Outside the Rocky Mountain National Park, water from melting glaciers helped carve canyons to the east. Hogback ridges were left near Loveland and Lyons by differential erosion of sedimentary rock tilted up against older crystalline rock of the mountains.
Rocky Mountain National Park occupies only a small part of the 200 mile long Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, but the Park’s mountaintops show the effects of ancient erosion and many of the valleys illustrate classic features of glaciation.
The spectacular mountain scenery of the Rocky Mountain National Park is literally brought to life by the plants and animals that make their home here. Flowering plants, from the first pasque flower in April to the last aster in September, add color, fragrance and movement to the landscape. Especially intriguing are the alpine wildflowers that survive the extreme climate of the tundra, completing their yearly life cycle in just a few weeks.
Although the park is most famous for its large animals, particularly elk and bighorn sheep, a glimpse of a tufted-eared Abert’s squirrel, an iridescent broad-tailed hummingbird, or a squeaking pika can be equally thrilling. Early risers and those watching at dusk often have the best “luck” at seeing wildlife.
The observation of plants and animals helps create an experience that makes each visit unique. Visitor centers can provide advice on current plant and animal viewing highlights.
Throughout its 416 square miles of rock-ribbed wildness, Rocky Mountain National Park truly is a land of superlatives. Here, at least 60 mountains exceed 12,000 feet, topping off at 14,259 feet on the football field-sized summit of Longs Peak. Names such as Cirrus, Chiefs Head, Isolation, Mummy and Storm evoke the grandeur of this high landscape. Although the great peaks comprise the essence of the park, the delicate alpine flowers, clear lakes, rushing mountain waters and impressive forests appeal to all the senses. An array of wildlife bighorn sheep, ptarmigan, coyote, elk adds life to the landscape.
Throughout its 415 square miles of rock-ribbed wildness, Rocky Mountain National Park truly is a land of superlatives. Here, at least 60 mountains exceed 12,000 feet, topping off at 14,255 feet on the football field-sized summit of Longs Peak. Names such as Cirrus, Chiefs Head, Isolation, Mummy and Storm evoke the grandeur of this high landscape. Although the great peaks comprise the essence of the park, the delicate alpine flowers, clear lakes, rushing mountain waters and impressive forests appeal to all the senses. An array of wildlife bighorn sheep, ptarmigan, coyote, beaver adds life to the landscape.
The wide variety of elevations and habitats create a choice of activities for visitors. From scenic dives and short strolls along a gentle trail to more ambitious daylong hikes to vertical mountain climbs, Rocky Mountain National Park offers many ways to experience nature in all its splendor.
Bicycles are only allowed on park roads. Unfortunately, park roads have narrow or no shoulders and often carry heavy traffic. To minimize conflicts with vehicles, plan your ride for the early morning hours. Try to be off the road in late afternoon when thunderstorms and lightening create serious hazards.
Rocky Mountain National Park is meant for hikers. Rocky Mountain National Park currently contains over 360 miles of trails, some penetrating the most remote areas of the Park. These trails range in difficulty from easy to most difficult. As always, be prepared, as weather conditions change rapidly in the mountains. If you are new to the park, rangers at the visitor centers and backcountry office can provide advice on trails that are appropriate for different fitness and experience levels.
As you plan your hike, keep in mind that park elevations range from 7,500 to over 12,000 feet. Even very fit individuals coming from lower elevations may experience altitude problems. Symptoms include headaches, shortness of breath, insomnia and rapid heartbeat. after a few days your body will have made some physiological adjustments to higher elevations, but full acclimation may take a weeks. To minimize symptoms drink plenty of fluids, avoid alcohol, don’t skip meals and get plenty of rest.
Although you may not feel thirsty, the “thinner” air at high elevations actually results in increased water evaporation from your lungs. Again, drinking extra water may prevent a bad headache or other altitude symptoms.
Ultraviolet light is stronger in the mountains because there is less atmosphere for the sunlight to pass through. Wear sunscreen, a hat, sun glasses and consider covering up with a long sleeved shirt if you are out in the sun for extended periods.
Lower elevations on the east slope of Rocky Mountain National Park are usually free of deep snow. At higher elevations, arctic conditions prevail. Sudden blizzards, high winds and deep snowpack are common. The west side of the park experiences more snow, less wind and clear cold days during these months. Most high country overnight trips require gear suitable for -35 degrees or below. Skiing and snowshoeing conditions are best in January, February and March.
Spring comes to elevations 8,000′ to 9,500′ in late April, although snowfall is not uncommon at this time of year. Unpredictable weather alternates between warm and cold, wet and dry.
In June, spring is just reaching the subalpine country 9,500′ to 11,500′, while summer is on the plains. Wildflowers begin blooming at lower elevations in late April or early May. Many trails are still snow-covered. In late May, Trail Ridge Road opens for the season.
On the alpine tundra 11,500′ to 13,000′ wildflowers bloom from late June to early August. afternoon thunderstorms and wind are normal patterns. Always be prepared for temperature drops of 10-20 degrees F.
September and October bring clear, crisp air, blue skies and generally dry weather. An early snowstorm may occur. Aspen leaves start changing colors in mid-September. Elk mating season begins in September and continues through most of October. Trail Ridge Road usually closes for the winter by mid-October.
Rocky Mountain National Park
1000 Highway 36
Estes Park, CO 80517-8397
Operating Hours & Seasons
Rocky Mountain National Park is open 24 hours a day year round. Visitors can enter or exit at any time. If they are planning to stay overnight, park visitors must be in a designated campground site or a backcountry campsite reserved by a valid permit.
The Headquarters and Kawuneeche visitor centers are open daily (except Dec. 25) year round. The visitor center near Lily Lake is open daily from June through August; the Alpine Visitor Center from Memorial Day weekend through mid-October; and the Moraine Park Museum mid-May through mid-October. The information kiosk at Bear Lake operates from late spring through the fall and usually opens on winter weekends and holidays. Summer-only information stations are located at Sheep Lakes and Corral Creek, which is accessed from Colorado 14 north of the park.