From the hill behind my home, I can see the snowy summit of one of Colorado’s most popular 14ers, Longs Peak, nearly 25 miles away. Jutting above the less prominent mountains of the Front Range, Longs Peak is the sentinel of Rocky Mountain National Park, signaling from its lofty 14,259-foot elevation that the heart of the Rockies is near.
Before Anglo westward expansion, these mountains were home to the Arapaho and the Ute Indians, and initially drew settlers and ranchers to the area during the silver boom of the 1880s. The land was vast, and available to those committed to making it work. Almost immediately, word of its sheer beauty traveled long and far, creating a tourism industry that prevails today, and attracted nearly 3.5 million visitors to the park last year.
Known locally and affectionately as “Rocky,” the park is more than just a pretty place. Now celebrating its 100th year, Rocky continues to offer its timeless, wild solitude, attracting us today just the same as it always has.
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One-third of Rocky Mountain National Park’s nearly 266,000 acres is alpine tundra—the delicate, yet unforgiving environment that exists above treeline. In most other places in the country and the world, according to RMNP spokesperson Kyle Patterson, “you’d have to hike for days, likely, to get to [the tundra,] if you had the ability to do that.” But in Rocky, all you need is a car.
The park’s accessibility has major appeal to today’s travelers. The east entrance in Estes Park is about 90 minutes from the Denver International Airport, and the west entrance in Grand Lake, on the other side of the Continental Divide, requires a short hour more. Once inside the park, it’s a scenic 48 miles from gate to gate and across the divide on Trail Ridge Road—the nation’s highest continuous paved road that takes you through three different mountain life zones and gains approximately 4,500 ft. in elevation as you travel from either valley to the tundra. Being able to see so much in such a short amount of time is partly why Rocky is so rare and valuable.
Additionally, 95 percent of Rocky’s acreage is designated Wilderness: “an area … untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
In other words, wild. Ninety-five percent of RMNP is wild and free from roads and machinery. While there are 92 miles of paved roads throughout the park, there are approximately 355 miles of trails crisscrossing through Rocky’s backcountry. Even better, about 260 miles of those trails are accessible from the back of a horse.
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Many writers and historians often credit Rocky for being so automobile-friendly over the course of its history, but horses have long played an integral role in the park’s story. And though construction on a road traversing the tundra began before Rocky’s designation as a national park, for the past 100 years and more, horses have enabled us, then and now, to truly immerse ourselves in its wilderness.
A few summers ago, my friends and I loaded up the trailer and did an overnight pack trip to Mirror Lake, tucked inside the northern boundary of the park. For a time, we followed the Cache la Poudre River—Colorado’s first and only designated wild and scenic river. With each passing mile, our route followed the ever-narrowing waterways that are the headwaters of Front Range streams, and then Atlantic Ocean-bound rivers. On the way in, we passed a few men who had been fishing at the lake. On the way out, I remember seeing no one else until we reached the trailer. In between, we camped by a lush, creek-fed meadow, and summited the 12,702 ft. Comanche Peak, providing us with unobstructedviews of Rocky’s Mummy Range to the south, and the Comanche Peak Wilderness to the north.
Riding in the park is a real treat, as Shannon Clark of the historic MacGregor Ranch knows. Describing a ride she took from the ranch to Lawn Lake through the Black Canyon, Clark recalled the incredible diversity of the wilderness she experienced.
“It’s really secluded. You don’t see any people, really, and the terrain changes so much—you’re in heavy trees on a steep incline and you get up and you get [into] aspen groves and meadows. That’s probably my favorite ride I’ve ever taken.”
The MacGregor Ranch is bordered by the national park on three sides in the Estes Valley. It was homesteaded in 1873 and running cattle before the arrival of the 20th century. Today, it is the only ranch in the valley that continues to run cattle, though its success is largely dependent upon its 50 or so volunteers. The ranch manages to sustain through a 1983 conservation easement with the park and Clark is one of two payrolled employees who oversee its management.
In the summer months, the ranch is open to the public and offers educational programs and a museum, which tells the story of the MacGregors, from their arrival in the valley, until the death of the last family member, Muriel MacGregor, in 1970. With trails and wildlife and water and people continuously crossing boundary lines, the park and the ranch maintain a symbiotic relationship that allows them to effectively manage shared issues.
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On the west side of the park in the Kawuneeche Valley, through which the Colorado River runs, is the Historic Holzwarth Site.
John “Papa” Holzwarth was born in Germany in 1865 and emigrated to St. Louis at the age of 14, as a bonded servant to a baker. Often mistreated by the baker, Papa ran away and managed to find some cowboy work in Texas, moving horses across the plains.
The story gets interesting here and when I asked Kathy Means of the Grand Lake Area Historical Society if it was all really true, she happily suggested that it’s the truth “as far as we know.” Means, who is the park expert on the Holzwarth Site, has researched the family extensively and had her findings verified by existing members of the family.
According to an interview with Papa’s son, Johnnie, after a few weeks on the trail, the party encountered some aggravated Natives, causing Papa to walk away from his trail duties, and, after a few miles, wound up as the camp cook for a sheep-farming outfit on the Texas/New Mexico border, where Billy the Kid worked for a time.
The chronology of events is rather vague at this point in the story, but before Papa reached the age of 20, he had learned to shoot from Billy the Kid, been a Texas Ranger for three months, buried Billy the Kid’s victims in the Lincoln County War, worked at a saloon in Las Vegas, N.M., and participated in a man-hunt for Geronimo, which ended in Papa suffering a flesh wound to his leg during a 10-mile sprinting fight with the Indians they scared up in their search.
In truth, the fact that the Lincoln County War occurred in 1878—the year before Papa immigrated from Germany to St. Louis—makes me think that Johnnie may have gotten some, if not many, of his details mixed up, but it sure makes for a good story.
In any case, in the 1880s, Papa found out his brother was driving the stage between Georgetown and Hot Sulphur Springs, south of today’s park boundaries, and Papa moved to Colorado, engaging in numerous business ventures until finally homesteading his family’s ranch in 1917 on what is now the Colorado River (prior to its renaming by President Warren G. Harding in 1921, the Colorado River was known as the Grand River).
What began as a cattle ranch quickly turned into a guest ranch as the Holzwarth family realized the potential of making a living hosting the continually arriving tourists. First advertised as the Holzwarth Trout Lodge, guests paid $2/day for meals and accommodations, as well as horseback rides and the chance to pull 20 lbs. of fish out of the pristine waters of the Colorado. The interest in fishing died off, but the tourists kept coming, allowing Johnnie to take over and grow the business, which operated under the titles of the Holzwarth Trout Lodge, the Holzwarth Ranch, the Holzwarth Dude Ranch, and finally, the Neversummer Ranch, named for the Never Summer mountain range that looms over the park’s western border.
For more than half a century, the ranch afforded its guests prime access to the national park and its backcountry, offering day trips, overnight pack trips, and even a three-day jaunt across the divide to the opera in Central City.
Sold to The Nature Conservancy in 1973 and transferred to the Park Service a year later, the ranch—one of about 10 that once operated in the valley—is the only remaining homestead within the park’s western boundaries. In the summer, visitors can tour the original cabins, while the site can be accessed throughout the year, just a few miles past the Kawuneeche Valley Visitor Center.
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The term “throughout the year” doesn’t apply to very much of Rocky. The park is open all year, but, depending on the weather, access across the park stops between October and May. For approximately eight months, Trail Ridge Road is closed and the Estes Park and Grand Lake sides of Rocky are cut off from each other.
Being that the Estes Park side is the more frequently visited, it’s easy to understand that the Kawuneeche Valley has fewer visitors. Somewhat surprising, however, is how many fewer.
Of the park’s nearly 3.5 million guests, only 20 percent use the west entrance, meaning most won’t visit the verdant Colorado River valley and see the moose that, once introduced in 1978, have come to thrive in its environment. And of those who do visit the Kawuneeche Valley, it reasons that even fewer of them will, for instance, make the effort to get to Lulu City—a ghost town tucked inside one of the park’s valleys that was once a booming silver mining town with 200 residents and 40 buildings, established in 1879 and then gone bust by 1885.
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In the park’s peak season, each month seems to offer something unique. June is often relatively cool compared to the rest of the season and timed right, can allow for an incredible and riotous display of wildflowers in the lower elevations.
In August, Hi Country Stables, which runs the national park’s liveries, offers a handful of days on which it guides a 21-mile, 10 to 12 hour horseback ride over the Continental Divide to the town of Grand Lake. The ride is only available in August as it takes that long for snow to clear off the trails across the tundra. A month later, new snows will cover the land again.
Then, in the fall, between September and early October, visitors are privy to an event that has become a massive draw for Rocky—the rut. Each year, the park’s valleys fill with hundreds of elk, the bulls bugling and battling to win cows for the season. Nearly as many telephoto lenses fill the valleys during this event, but rest assured, the elk are on unabashed display, so that even your camera phone can capture the drama.
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Rocky, in all months and seasons, has the ability to grace its visitors with the kind of weather that’s best described as a blessing. To witness such natural beauty under clear skies and a warm sun is an unmatched experience. But just as easily, the weather systems in Rocky can force us to our knees.
On Sept. 9, 2013, a cold front stalled on the east side of the divide in Rocky and unleashed about 15 inches of monsoon rains into the headwaters of the Big Thompson, the Fall, and the St. Vrain rivers. Moving downhill fast, the rivers swelled, washing land, debris, and more water through the park and the Front Range, eventually taking out bridges, train tracks, highways, and homes, as the muddy waters spread across the flood plain east of the mountains.
Though the storm was predicted, the two roads leading to Estes Park were destroyed in the floods, effectively stranding the communities surrounding Rocky, as well as everyone in the park. At the Beaver Meadow Visitor Center, which became an impromptu campground as people were evacuated from other areas of the park, guests were told, as Horace Greeley once said, to go west, across the tundra that would only remain passable until the imminent winter snows arrived.
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Now in its 100th year, Rocky Mountain National Park is geared to move forward. Flood repairs are still underway; many of the park’s bridges were repaired in 2014 and Old Fall River Road—the one-way, sharply winding dirt road up the mountain and the first completed road across the park—will reopen in July. The task of repairing trails that were damaged by the dozen major landslides that occurred during the floods is still on the docket.
Also on the docket is a season of celebrations. If there was ever a year to indulge in everything Rocky has to offer, this is it. From historical lectures and movie premiers, to guided trips, and cake cutting, 2015 is chock-full of events that will introduce you to the Rocky that only the locals and the lucky have come to know. Journey its trails and seek solitude. Return home telling your tales of Rocky Mountain National Park, its history, and its immense wilderness, and how it is so much more than just a pretty place.