Rocky Mountain
Administrative History
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Located along the Continental Divide in northern Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park became famous as a winter sports center soon after its creation. One old-timer remembered that

most of the kids in Estes Park cut their eye teeth on the art of skiing . . . . From the earliest good snowfall, the sound of one after another skiers calling 'track' could be heard at the intersection on the main street. [1]

Probably the first active group to use the Park for winter recreation was the Colorado Mountain Club. Its members began their ski and snowshoe trips into Bear Lake, Fern Lake and other areas of the Park's east side as early as 1917. In February of that year the Park hosted a winter sports carnival. Considered "a new departure in National Parks," the carnival attracted 463 people, 85 of whom were members of the Colorado Mountain Club and the Estes Park Outdoor Club. Events included snowshoeing, skiing and tobogganing. [2]

The Park administration did nothing to discourage this growing interest in winter sports. If anything, officials were delighted by developments. In 1920, Acting Superintendent J. A. Shepherd noted that "It is felt that winter sports in the Park are just beginning to come to their rightful place among the favorite popular amusements." [3] The Park allowed interested citizens to make improvements on ski courses at Fern and Odessa Lakes. A beginners' course was added at Fern Lake and a new ski trail was marked out at Spruce Lake. Also completed was a new ski trail between the Brinwood Lodge and Fern Lake. In 1924, Superintendent Roger Toll, long a member of the Colorado Mountain Club, echoed the thoughts of many sportsmen when he announced: "There are great possibilities for the future development of winter sports in this region." [4]

Evidently the local business interests agreed. The winter sports movement in Estes Park, formerly sponsored by the Estes Park Group of the Colorado Mountain Club, was taken over by the Colorado Ski Club, an organization promoted by local businessmen. On February 7, 1926, this group helped organize the Colorado State Ski Tournament, held on Old Man Mountain just west of Estes Park. The meet attracted the best skiers in Colorado. Competition was intense as the winners gained the right to represent the state at the national championships at Duluth, Minnesota. Over 3,000 spectators watched from the surrounding hills. [5]

For several years following the tournament, interest in winter sports lagged, due to uncertain snow conditions. Aside from the annual Colorado Mountain Club outings, there were no organized winter sports activities in the region. The formation of the Rocky Mountain National Park Ski Club in 1931 did much to stimulate a revived interest. This organization made up of townspeople and Park employees, had as its Director Chief Ranger John S. McLaughlin. The club adopted a resolution urging that a ski hill and toboggan slide be built within the Park's boundaries at Hidden Valley. [6] One of the Club's most interesting projects was the staging of a ski tournament on June 28, 1931, when members hauled over 300 cubic yards of snow from Fall River Pass and deposited it on Elkhorn Hill, a mile west of Estes Park.

Such winter sports activities received official Park Service blessing. Among the 5,000 spectators on Elkhorn Hill was National Parks Director Horace M. Albright. He maintained there was no reason why the Park area could not be made into a winter resort as well as a summer resort. "It has been done in other parks," he said, "and we will have to find a place for the toboggan slide, ski jump, etc., where it will not mar the natural beauties of the Park." [7]

By April 1932, Park officials had tentatively decided to build "a winter sports playground" in Moraine Park. When Director Albright visited the Park in September he told officials of the local ski club that the matter of building a ski hill was "strictly up the superintendent." The Estes Park Trail, however, quoted Albright as promising to do "everything in his power" to help out. Albright went on to assure Estes Park officials that it was the policy of the Service "To further a winter sports program and any other thing that would permit the people to use their parks to the maximum." [8] The precedent for developing ski areas in national parks had already been established in Yosemite National Park. There a local club and the Park Service co-sponsored a winter sports program.

Encouraged by this news, local people talked of building a ski area to rank with Lake Placid, New York, the site of the 1932 winter Olympic Games. They envisaged ski and toboggan courses in Moraine Park, which presumably would make Rocky Mountain National Park a place "of major importance in the winter sports world." To such facilities would be added others for iceboating, skating and bobsledding—all to cost less than $50,000. The Denver Post reported that throughout Estes Park signs were posted saying: "Director Albright! We want a winter sports course." [9] As though in response to the local hopes and demands Superintendent Edmund Rogers announced at year's end that

The national park service . . . has a comprehensive winter sports program outlined for Rocky Mountain National Park to be followed out as soon as funds can be made available. [10]

The depression did not dampen winter sports popularity, for during 1933, three ski tournaments were held in the Park. The winter carnival of the Park ski club was held at Bear Lake in January. Two weeks later the Grand Lake Winter Sports Club held its ski meet on its home course. At both outings, Park rangers cooperated by laying out the cross country courses. The Estes Park mid-summer carnival was held on June 25 before 1,600 spectators. [11]

A few months later, Superintendent Rogers took the first step for fulfilling an earlier promise to develop in the Park "the best ski hill in the United States"; [12] he led a "blue ribbon" party to search for an appropriate hill with an adequate supply of snow. [13] He was not successful in his quest, but his continued commitment to the cause of winter sports appeared in his Annual Report:

There is no doubt but that this region has some of the greatest winter sports possibilities in the country. We have the snow, the community is enthusiastic and it is hoped we can do our share towards bringing about a realization of their hopes. [14]

Yet, understandably, some people in the community were becoming increasingly impatient with Park Service promises. The Trail demanded: "Now let's have that ski course." [15]

In March 1934, the Park received nation-wide publicity as it hosted the National Down Mountain and Cross Country Ski Races. This marked the first time that such races were held in a national park. The one-mile downhill race was staged at Hidden Valley, while the 18-kilometer cross country event was run from Bear Lake to the Brinwood Hotel, via Fern Lake and Odessa Gorge. Park Rangers McLaughlin and Jack Moomaw acted as officials at all events. Coloradans placed in a majority of the events. They were led by Joseph J. Duncan, Jr., of Estes Park, who became the national down mountain champion when he "hurtled down the terrifying course" in two minutes 58 2/10 seconds. [16] Meanwhile, both the Endovalley campground area and the Bierstadt Lake region had been considered as winter sport sites, but no clearcut plans had been drawn. Lack of funds coupled with landscape Architect Harold Baker's reservations about "scarring the landscape" delayed further positive action.

Undaunted, the Estes Park Trail maintained that Hidden Valley, which was centrally located, could be developed by using rather than destroying the contour of the land. The Trail believed that Park officials were over-playing the "scarring" issue. It editorialized:

Quibbles about 'scarring' the park have never seemed to us more than the poor argument of obstructionists. It might just as easily be argued that roads and trails should never have been built in Rocky Mountain National Park.

The answer that, after all the parks are for the enjoyment and recreation of the people of America is not only an argument for the building of roads and trails, it is an argument for the building of a winter sports center in Rocky Mountain National Park. [17]

To satisfy at least partially the demand for winter sports facilities Park officials increased their various services. Rangers cleared and bladed a beaver pond in Hidden Valley, thereby making it suitable for ice skating. For the convenience of skiers, the Park Service kept open the Bear Lake Road as far as the Bear Lake parking area, the Trail Ridge Road to Hidden Valley, and the Fall River Road to Willow Park. [18] The Trail first contemptuously called these services "teasers." [19] Later it saw in these deeds a readiness "to lift the vague talk out of the realm of the impossible and actually do something about it." [20] Upon further reflection, this paper lauded the Park's efforts. The Trail continued:

With the super skating rink on the Beaver Pond and the skiing available . . . with all roads kept open directly to the sports areas, Estes Park can look forward to the busiest winter week-ends in its history.

Let's all get behind the National Park Service and show them that we appreciate what is being done for this community. [21]

In seeming response to the Trail's plea, the public use of the Park's ski areas during the 1936-1937 winter season exceeded all expectations. In addition, a demand for the promotion of hockey caused Park officials to help organize a local hockey league to play on the Beaver Pond rink. Other new developments to increase sports activities included the construction of an ash-can slide at Willow Park and a new trail in Hidden Valley. Still, the Park allowed no construction that would mar the Park's scenery. Winter sports developments utilized only natural conditions.

Superintendent Thomas J. Allen, Jr., was proud of the Park's accomplishments, as he reported:

The National Park Service, during recent weeks, has put a great deal of study into Winter Sports possibilities of Rocky Mountain National Park. In order to do something definite . . . we have spent considerable money, while rangers and park workmen have put in extra time and effort to show their interest. As a result, winter sports are now easily accessible to Estes Park, and roads are being well maintained to those areas. [22]

Often critical of the methodical approach of Park officials to winter sports, the Trail heaped praise on Superintendent Allen. "Never before in the history of the National Park," it claimed in 1937, "has there been a superintendent who was as interested in winter activities as is Mr. Allen." [23]

Soon, however, David Canfield, young Superintendent of Crater Lake, replaced Allen. Canfield was no stranger to snow sports, having fought for winter sports development at Crater Lake. He promised the Trail that he would do "everything in his power" to continue and expand the work of Allen. [24] Not long after his arrival, he was handed a petition carrying 10,000 signatures and calling for the expansion of winter sports facilities.

Canfield realized that Park facilities and personnel were inadequate to meet the demands of overflow crowds. At times CCC enrollees were pressed into service to help Park rangers supervise the parking areas and ski trails. To prepare adequately for the 1938-39 winter ski season, Canfield assigned his staff to begin preparations months before the first snows fell, in order to ensure that ski runs, toboggan slides, and shelter cabins would be ready for the winter sportsmen. [25] Despite such efforts, Canfield made it clear that he was contemplating no new construction. He asserted:

There will be no construction of artificial facilities such as ski jumps and ski tows nor will any professional meets be encouraged. Every effort will be made to make park snow sports attractive to novices as well as experts in the use of sliding facilities available very much as Nature made them. [26]

The Park's winter-time clientele continued to increase, and from October 1, 1938 to May 31, 1939, over 75,000 people patronized it. Canfield, therefore, had reason to complain that the existing winter sports facilities were unsatisfactory, overcrowded, and incapable of adequate expansion. Over 90 percent of the skiers used the three narrow and dangerous ski trails at Hidden Valley. The public use of the recently completed ski courses at Berthoud Pass on United States Highway 40 south of Granby had no noticeable impact on the numbers visiting the Park. [27]

Clearly, emergency steps were necessary to alleviate the congestion at Hidden Valley. Either its facilities had to be expanded significantly or a better ski area had to be found elsewhere in the Park. Canfield had no basic objections to developing a new ski area; he was, in fact, "all for winter sports." On the other hand, he considered it "completely unthinkable" to build a ski run at Hidden Valley, for it was just "a common hill." [28] Therefore, almost from the day he arrived in the Park, Canfield had sought another area well suited for winter sports development. After a cursory investigation, he found that the area at the end of Mill Creek seemed to meet the Park's needs.

On March 4, 1940, Canfield sent a special task force to investigate more closely the Mill Creek Basin. Led by Assistant Superintendent McLaughlin, the group included Park Ranger Ernest Field and Park Photographer Charles Humberger. They reported that the area was a distinct improvement over Hidden Valley. The terrain was judged well suited for winter sports facilities such as parking areas, shelter cabins and downhill runs. However, its location, approximately two miles above the Park's two CCC camps, was practically inaccessible. Humberger took several pictures to be included with Canfield's request for federal funds to begin road construction to the Basin. [29]

Until a definite decision was reached on the Mill Creek development plans, the Park did nothing to improve Hidden Valley's facilities. The only change in that area's appearance came in March 1941, when local high school boys constructed and installed a primitive ski tow. [30] After the close of World War II, the annual demand for winter use areas in the Park grew geometrically. Communities and civic organizations made their own investigations of areas suitable for winter sports development, while Park officials continued their studies of the Mill Creek area.

In the meantime, conflicting reports filtered down from the Park Service hierarchy on its development plans. John Doerr, former Park Superintendent, told the Estes Park Chamber of Commerce that Rocky Mountain National Park stood at the top of the list for winter sports development. Because of the adjacent Estes Park Village, no facilities would have to be built inside the Park to feed and house skiers. According to Doerr, maps had already been drawn and plans made for the development of a ski area in the Park. [31] Yet Secretary of Interior Krug later informed the Chamber of Commerce of the impossibility of "doing anything" about Hidden Valley, although he held out the hope that "something might be done" at Mill Creek. [32]

Such an explanation did not satisfy local sportsmen. More over, while the Park Service vacillated, the Forest Service not only built a ski area in the vicinity of Allenspark but also ran buses to and from the area. In an angry editorial, the Estes Park Trail lashed out at what it considered the delay and deception of the Park Service bureaucracy:

We've got quite a case against the Great White Father in Washington.

Or, perhaps we should say that the case is rather strong against . . . those civil service employees who go on year-after-year directing policies under the theoretical supervision of political appointees who are too busy tending their fences to pay a great deal of attention to the common complaint of J. Q. Citizen.


Our unfortunate position is that most of our ski areas lie within the National Park, and the benign nod of our Great White Father must be obtained before we are able to develop our present area, or find a new one.

Power and congratulations to Allens Park—but in this other end of the Rocky Mountain National Park area we are thwarted by some Washington big-wigs who write long tomes on why it can't be done. [33]

Amid the rash of promises and charges, attendance increased and conditions worsened at the Park's winter sports areas. As early as March 1948, Canfield surveyed the inadequate Hidden Valley facilities and concluded that "the saturation point has long since been reached." Skiers complained vehemently about the skimpy facilities. Over a dozen Chambers of Commerce and several winter sports clubs joined in the angry barrage. Letters of complaint sent to the Park were forwarded to the Colorado congressional delegation. [34] And all the while Hidden Valley experienced heavier-than-ever use. The skier days-of-use there during the winter season of 1949-1950 totaled 8,811, an increase of forty-seven per cent over the previous season. Canfield deemed further sports development absolutely necessary. [35]

By late 1950 the Estes Park Chamber of Commerce, through its Winter Sports Committee, had settled upon Hidden Valley as the only desirable place for winter sports development. Committee studies had shown alternative sites unsuitable, for Mill Creek had "everything but snow," and development in Willow Park would involve costly road construction. Indirectly, the Park Service lent encouragement to the committee. Park Ranger Ernest Field, a member of the Winter Sports Committee, told Chamber officials that although the Park Service frowned on permanent ski developments, the Hidden Valley area might "grow gradually with demands." [36]

Certainly the demands were growing in volume and frequency. The number of skiers who used Hidden Valley during December 1950, showed an increase of 377 per cent over the previous December. Such popularity meant that even to provide marginal assistance for the Hidden Valley area proved expensive to the Park Service. Canfield found it "interesting, if not somewhat startling" to note that during the 1950-1951 ski season the cost to the Park of keeping the road open to the ski area was $5,150.47. This expense covered only the operational cost of snow removal equipment and did not include the time spent by rangers patrolling the area. [37]

By April 1952, the Trail was calling for an "all-out and coordinated community effort" to develop Hidden Valley. [38] It pointed out that skiing was becoming increasingly popular in Colorado. For instance, daring the previous winter ski attendance at Arapahoe Basin in the Loveland Pass area had increased 231 per cent over the preceding year. Moreover, at Aspen, the average skier stayed a week to ten days, while at Estes Park, skiers left after four hours. In view of these facts, the Estes Park Chamber of Commerce submitted to the Park Service a prospectus which included a proposal for the construction of a permanent chair-lift ski-tow at Hidden Valley. As the Trail reminded its readers: "A rope-tow-narrow trail area appears to have the appeal of kissing your girl-friend's mother . . . just a substitute for the real thing." [39]

In response to this local activity, the Interior Department equivocated. Secretary Chapman sent word that while he "did not pledge himself to the support of the project . . . he likewise did not turn it down." [40] Hardly more decisive was a telegram from Parks Director Conrad Wirth in August. He assured everyone that the Park Service was

sincerely interested in providing the best possible service for visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park in all seasons within the limits of funds available. . . . [41]

By autumn, the ski lift proponents had secured powerful friends in their campaign. Senators Charles Milliken and Edwin C. Johnson, along with Congressman William Hill, assured the Estes Park Chamber of Commerce of their support. Perhaps feeling heat from Capital Hill, Director Wirth again wired the Estes Park Trail, this time at some length of explain the position of the Park Service:

I want you to know . . . that we are very anxious to have the Park used twelve months of the year, and that it is our hope and desire to work out a program whereby skiing will be a recognized use in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Skiing in Hidden Valley presents a very difficult problem, in that any permanent structure there would be unsightly to summer Park visitors who will perhaps always exceed greatly the winter visitors in the Park. We would not want to do anything to Hidden Valley that would be detrimental to the fine scenic qualities there. [42]

Then, "as a result of local pressure," the Park Service agreed to conduct a survey of the Hidden Valley ski area. First in October of 1952 and again in the following February, Harold G. Fowler, Landscape Architect from the Service's Western Office of Design and Construction, visited the Park to study the terrain and investigate the possibilities of an extensive development. [43] After hearing of Fowler's favorable conclusions, the Trail predicted that "the first big hurdle has been taken towards obtaining a chair lift for Hidden Valley. [44]

More encouraging news came from the State Capitol in Denver, for in February 1953, the Colorado State Senate approved a request to the Park Service to authorize construction of the chair lift and allied developments at Hidden Valley. The Senate's Memorial was introduced by Stephen L. R. McNichols of Denver and E. J. (Ted) Herring of La Porte. [45] After its adoption, the House also gave its approval.

By June, local optimism had melted with the winter snows. The, Trail found the ski lift proposal to be "bogged down as badly as the [Korean] armistice talks." [46] Having heard nothing from Washington since early spring, the Trail decided to make some news of its own. It reminded its readers that the Government was not being asked to develop Hidden Valley, but only to grant permission so that private capital could develop the area under Park Service supervision. [47] The Trail then urged the establishing of a "war chest" of from $3,000 to $5,000 so that the local Development Committee could go ahead with plans for ski tows, warming shelters, estimated income graphs.

and all the rest of the details which will help . . . convince the National Park Service that the answer should be an unqualified 'yes' to our request for permission to build the chair lift. [48]

Predictably, this defiant stand brought a typical reply from the Park Service, when Director Wirth explained:

They recognize the need for additional winter sports facilities; however, they believe the additional facilities should be of modest character, scaled to the present recognized needs, normal expectancy of growth, and the number of skiers. The Service feels that these facilities should be designed for winter use only and, as such, there is considerable doubt as to whether the facilities proposed would be a sound financial investment.

The National Park Service would be opposed to the operation of a chair lift in Hidden Valley during the summer months, as it would be destructive to the scenic values and the enjoyment of the Park by hundreds of thousands of people now enjoying travel over the mountains on Trail Ridge Road which the federal government has spent millions of dollars to provide. [49]

Nevertheless, the persistent pressure applied by winter sports enthusiasts paid off, for in July 1954, Assistant Secretary of the Interior Orme Lewis and Parks Director Wirth issued a joint announcement calling for immediate action on the Hidden Valley improvement program. Final plans called for T-bar lifts, instead of chair lifts, at Lower and Upper Hidden Valley, and a warming shelter and shuttle bus service. [50] Surveys began on July 19, under a party of five men on loan from the Bureau of Reclamation. Control points and traverse lines were established, along with topography for the parking and lodge areas. [51] By October, preliminary survey work had been completed and the Park Service then allotted $130,500 for the construction of basic facilities. [52]

Actual construction of the ski area, begun on October 5, was supervised by a new Park superintendent, for James V. Lloyd replaced David Canfield on September 1. [53] Lloyd diligently studied ski area operations. During a four-day period in January, he and Harold Fowler visited seven popular ski areas in California. They were especially interested in the Badger Pass ski area of Yosemite National Park. [54] In February, they inspected Arapahoe Basin ski area in Colorado. In an effort to develop an interpretive program, Lloyd relied on studies by Park Naturalist Ed Alberts and found that they helped in developing exhibits and other interpretive devices. [55] Later, seasonal ranger-naturalists Slater and Beidleman reported on the possible use of the area as a summer interpretive center.

By the summer of 1955, the Hidden Valley ski area had been outfitted with two new Austrian disc-type ski lifts, the first ever used in the United States. The lower lift was 1,200 feet long, with a vertical rise of 280 feet, and it could carry 400 skiers an hour. The upper lift on the Big Drift measured 2,300 feet long, climbed 750 vertical feet, and could carry 800 skiers each hour. Also built during the winter was a 400-car parking lot. [56]

Superintendent Lloyd completed negotiations for the building of a ski lodge by August 15, when the Park awarded the $87,888 contract to the Eagle Construction Company of Loveland. Blueprints called for a two-story concrete structure with a natural wood finish exterior. Interior features included a snack bar, ski rental service, ski lockers, first aid facilities, a cafeteria, and a large lounge with an open fireplace. The original design for the lodge was drawn by Cecil Doty of the Park Service's Western Office of Design and Construction in San Francisco. He was considered one of the nation's outstanding designers of resort lodges, and had previously designed the Hurricane Ridge Lodge in Olympic National Park. [57] Of the four interpretive panels on display in the lodge, one portrayed the weather conditions, while another described the forest-type at Hidden Valley. A third panel suggested the type of animal life, and the last concerned the history of man in the region.

The facilities at Lower Hidden Valley were officially opened on Sunday, December 18, 1955. Park Naturalist Ed Alberts acted as master of ceremonies for the 700 skiers and spectators. Special guests included N. T. Petrocine, president of the Estes Park Chamber of Commerce, Clarence Graves, Mayor of Estes Park, I. B. James of the Colorado Transportation Company, Superintendent Lloyd, Representative William Hill, and the Queen of Hidden Valley, Sheila Brick of Denver. [58]

From the beginning, Park personnel were directly involved in the operation of the ski facilities. By February 1956, weekend interpretive activities had crystallized into a program of informal illustrated talks in the lounge of the lodge building. That month, seasonal naturalists Beidleman and Slater gave nineteen talks to a total of 788 listeners. Then too, Lloyd and Assistant Superintendent Hartzog spent holidays and weekends at Hidden Valley "organizing operations and observing public use there." The Park rangers patrolled and packed ski trails, patrolled roads, and supervised the operation of the lodge. [59]

The following year, naturalist talks were shifted to the lunch room or lounge at opportune times, and beginning in June, ranger-naturalists manned the lodge on a daily basis. They conducted interpretive talks and short nature walks at unscheduled times as conditions of visitation dictated. During the next season, motion pictures on the Park Service were shown on weekends.

A summary of the 1957-1958 winter interpretive program offered evidence of the variety of presentations for but one year at the Hidden Valley area:

Grand Total Attendance5,145
Types of Programs and times given National Park Service-related conservation and natural history films90
Hidden Valley film40
Mission 66 film27
Total number of programs157
Number of days programs were presented [60]37

The Park Service has maintained an active interest in the Hidden Valley area to the present (1968). Some responsibilities were lifted from rangers' shoulders in April 1963, when the concessioner, the Colorado Transportation Company, assumed responsibility for safety patrols. Most of the Park's interest in the skiing operation came to center on naturalist activities. Though Hidden Valley, since 1959, has been opened five days a week during the winter season, the Park's interpretive program functions only on weekends. Approximately ten per cent of all visitors attend naturalist programs; while total interpretive contacts run to over forty per cent. [61] Considering that 60,000 people visited the ski area during the 1964-1965 season, the seasonal and permanent naturalists often found large and enthusiastic audiences for their services. [62]

On an inspection trip to Hidden Valley in 1955, Park's Director Conrad Wirth mused that the Service faced the grave responsibility of "weighting today's requests against the possibility of destroying tomorrow's heritage." [63] It was impossible to satisfy both naturalists and sportsmen with the ski area development. Skiers wanted some trails, a larger building, and more facilities. Nature enthusiasts mourned the loss of the trees already removed for the present modest development. Considering the promises made by Park Service officials during a forty-year period, some development was inevitable. What finally occurred was a compromise, satisfying to neither side in the controversy.

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Last Updated: 15-Jan-2004