The Geologic Story of the Rocky Mountain National Park Colorado
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On January 26, 1915, a particular section of the Rocky Mountains chosen as representative of the noblest qualities of the mountain region was set aside as the Rocky Mountain National Park.

This park covers an area of approximately 398 square miles, situated in the high mountains of the Front Range in north-central Colorado, about 50 miles in a straight line northwest of Denver. Altitudes within it range from 8,000 to 14,255 feet above sea level. The mountains are of such height that during the greater part of each year they are spangled or completely covered with snow. Hence the Front Range is often called the Snowy Range.

Denver, the metropolis of the western plains, through which most of the visitors pass on their way to the Rocky Mountain National Park, is only 50 miles from Estes Park, the gateway. The park is within 30 hours of Chicago and St. Louis and is much closer to Kansas City and many other great centers of population in the central part of the United States. Probably no other national playground is more easily reached by a large number of people.

The appeal of this park to the tourist is varied, and few fail to find satisfaction here. In it are accommodations for visitors of every kind, from the man who wants the conveniences of the modern hotel to the one who wishes to throw off restraint and to live for a time the care-free life. Here he may bivouac by rock and stream in the primeval forest or obtain the comforts of modern life in easy reach of perpetual ice, where cool breezes from the snow fields render delightful the bright summer days and make welcome the warmth of the camp fire on the clear, cool evenings.

The naturalist may find plant and animal life of all zones, from Temperate to Arctic. The artist has an inexhaustible supply of landscapes, ranging in character from mountain crag to flowery glade. The weary in mind or body find new vigor, while the vigorous have inexhaustible opportunities of testing their endurance.

For glorious, sunny days and cool, restful nights the Rocky Mountain National Park can not be surpassed. The weather is dependable. The crisp, sparkling atmosphere, laden with the pungent breath of pine and spruce, is a never-failing delight to the experienced and to the amateur alike. Here the oppressive heat of lower altitudes and damper climates is unknown, and mosquitoes need not be thought of, for the nights are too cold for them. There is an abundance of dead and down firewood for the great, roaring campfires, around which the cool evenings may be spent spinning yarns and telling stories of adventure which no one need believe. Thunderstorms are of frequent occurrence, but little rain falls. The storm soon passes, and usually its most conspicuous result is the wonderful cloud effects which so delight the heart of the artist. The streams are fed by the melting snow of the high mountains, and their waters are clear, cool, and healthful.

Like Bunyan's pilgrims, who in the course of their progress came to the "delectable mountains," the modern pilgrims are coming in increasing thousands to find their hearts' desire in the delectable mountains of the Snowy Range in the Rocky Mountain National Park. They come afoot and awheel, some with blankets and provisions on their backs, many on motorcycles, and great numbers in automobiles. Occasionally a horse-drawn vehicle is seen. But, however they come, it is with eyes fixed on the glowing peaks with feverish impatience to reach the wonderland of the dreams that have illumined the weeks and months during which their vacation plans were forming.

Whether they come in May or November, the general result is the same. The tourist of early summer is charmed by the great snow banks of the white-crested mountains and enthusiastically watches as they disappear and flowers spring into bloom in their place. Many of the plants push their tender stalks through the last remnants of the snow and burst into bloom while the ice actually covers their roots. The midsummer visitor is equally enthusiastic over the flowery glades, the spicy fragrance of the forest, the magnificence of the views obtained during the long excursions, and the exhilaration of venturesome climbing. The late visitor declares that the fall is supreme, when the air is crisp and the trout are hungry; when the frosts are painting the aspen-covered slopes, and the fleecy cover of the peaks is extended lower and lower with each recurring storm, until the whole range is covered for its winter sleep with a mantle of glistening white. But, comes the tourist early or late, the constantly increasing number of visitors and the great number of those who return repeatedly speak eloquently of the fact that the white-crested monarchs of the Snowy Range are to them in truth "the delectable mountains."

PLATE II. FALLS AT THE MOUTH OF GLACIER GORGE. Photograph by Willis T. Lee, United States Geological Survey.


1This sketch was prepared at my request by Mr. Robert S. Yard, of the National Park Service.

The development of Estes Park as a tourist resort was somewhat slow, but it is a matter of interest that tourists began to come as early as 1865, when two campers pitched their tent there. The number entering it in 1916 is estimated as high as 86,000. It was not until 1874 that a stage line was established between the park and Longmont. Three years later a toll road was completed between Estes and Lyons. Then followed a long period of slight activity toward development, but with the new century a fresh start was taken. A long-distance telephone was run into the park in 1900, and in September, 1906, the Estes Park Protective and Improvement Association was formed. One of the first accomplishments of this organization was the establishment of the fish hatchery, which has since been taken over by the State. Other results of its activity are the Highline Drive, the trail up Prospect Mountain, and the protection of game and wild flowers.

A year later, 1907, an automobile stage line was established between Estes Park and Loveland, and in 1909 Mr. Enos A. Mills began his work of urging the establishment of the national reservation.

While the vast tumbled massing of mountains in Colorado became a notable landmark for the early explorers, that magnificently scenic grouping which is now the Rocky Mountain National Park became known only in later years. The reason was that, while it fronts immediately the great eastern plains, it lay apart from and between the natural passes across the Rockies.

The first historical reference to this section is found in the records of the explorations of Lieut. Pike, for whom Pikes Peak was named. Scanning the snow-topped mountain barrier from the plains in November, 1806, Pike singled out its most commanding height and called it Great Peak; but he entered the mountains many miles south.

The second historical reference to this section is found in the report of the exploring expedition under Col. S. H. Long, which President Madison sent out in 1819. While camping at the mouth of the Poudre River on July 3 of that year, the party was greatly impressed with the magnificence of a mountain which they identified as Lieut. Pike's Great Peak. This they formally named Longs Peak in honor of their leader. But neither Long nor any of his party approached the mountain, though some of the party were the first to climb Pikes Peak. Parkman records his first view of Longs Peak in 1845.

The early trappers knew the mountains, which then were fairly alive with game, great and small. Enos Mills states that Kit Carson was probably the first white trapper to visit them. Carson camped in the valleys to the east probably in 1840.

The first settler came in 1860. He was Joel Estes, from whom the broad valley was afterwards named Estes Park. He built a cabin on Willow Creek in the foothills. At that time there were numerous remains of former Indian residents in the valleys, but no Indians. For many years after that the region was visited by trappers, who followed the deer and elk and trapped the beaver in the valleys and shot the bear and mountain sheep in the rocky fastnesses of the great mountains. Settlers came slowly. In 1868 arrived James Nugent, afterwards widely celebrated as "Rocky Mountain Jim."

The superb commanding height of Longs Peak naturally tempted the early comers. In 1864 William N. Byers, founder of the Rocky Mountain News, made the first attempt to climb it. This was unsuccessful, as were all other attempts until August 23, 1868, when Mr. Byers accomplished the feat. With him were Maj. J. W. Powell, who, the following year, made his celebrated first exploration of the Grand Canyon, W. H. Powell, L. W. Keplinger, Samuel Gorman, Ned E. Farrell, and John C. Sumner.

In 1871 the first regular guide on Longs Peak, the Rev. E. J. Lamb, made his first ascent. He descended by the east precipice, a dangerous feat which Enos Mills repeated in 1903.

The exceptionally fine hunting through this entire region caused Earl Dunraven in 1872 to attempt the acquisition of a great preserve. Men were hired to file claims which he afterwards acquired; but these claims proved invalid. But he maintained a ranch in the Estes Valley for some years.

In 1874 Albert Bierstadt visited the region as Earl Dunraven's guest. Some of his most celebrated paintings are the fruit of this visit. This same year the first stage line was established between Estes Park and the village of Longmont, on the plains at the eastern edge of the foothills. Immediately thereafter many came to stay.

The first formal hotel was built by Earl Dunraven upon a site chosen by Bierstadt. This was destroyed by fire. The Dunraven properties were acquired by Mr. F. O. Stanley, who by the erection in 1909 and 1910 of handsome modern hotels costing half a million dollars gave Estes Park its first big impetus as a summer resort. In recent years many hotels of many kinds have been built in the eastern valleys, and last year 86,000 persons found roofs to cover them. Meantime many miles of valley road were laid out, giving access to beauty spots in the glens and gorges between the rocky knees of the great range, and trails were built into the heart of the mountains and across the range to Grand Lake, which meantime had become a prosperous resort on the west side.

In 1915 Congress set apart 358 square miles of the front range, with Longs Peak for the culminating center, as the Rocky Mountain National Park. In 1917 Congress added more than 40 square miles to this territory, bringing its boundary within a short distance of the village of Estes Park.


The Arapahoe Indians once claimed the Rocky Mountain National Park as a part of their domain, and many of their place names are interesting and significant. An effort has been made, particularly by the Colorado Mountain Club, to preserve these names. Some of the Arapahoes, now old men who had visited the park in their youth, were brought back recently and questioned as to names of places and the legends connected with them. The story of their visit has been written by Oliver W. Toll. Unfortunately this story had not been published at the time the present account was written. However, the manuscript was kindly loaned by Miss Harriet Walcott Vaille, secretary of the Colorado Mountain Club, and from it were taken the notes explaining the Indian names scattered through the following description.


The value of a public park largely depends on the use that may be made of it. In accessibility the Rocky Mountain National Park is favorably situated. It contains mountain scenery of the highest order of beauty and grandeur and at the same time is the most easily reached by a large number of people of all our national playgrounds. (See fig. 1.) Its gateway from the east is the village of Estes Park, situated within the mountains in a beautiful valley of the same name. Its gateway from the west is Grand Lake.

FIG. 1. MAP OF ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK (click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

There are several ways of reaching Estes Park (see Pl. I, in pocket) from the plains lying east of the mountains. Three routes are extensively used—the Thompson Canyon Road from Loveland to Estes Park, the Lyons-Longmont Road between Lyons and Estes Park, and the road from Ward northward by way of Allens Park and Longs Peak.

From Estes Park and the several hotels and lodges situated just the boundary of the national park many of the points of interest may be reached by automobile, and the tops of the highest mountains may be reached by a day's travel on foot or on horseback. It is no uncommon thing for a traveler to breakfast at a hotel or lodge on one side of the range, walk or ride over the Continental Divide, and dine on the other side. For general accessibility it will be difficult to find a high mountain resort of the first order that will quite compare with the Rocky Mountain National Park.


The Snowy Range lies in a north and south direction. The gentler slopes are to the west, and at altitudes below timber line they are so heavily forested that few good views can be obtained from the trails. On the east the descent from the Continental Divide is precipitous. Here barren slopes, craggy peaks, and precipices are so numerous that magnificent and unobstructed views are to be obtained everywhere. In many places east of the divide forests have been destroyed by fire, and only the dead trunks remain, some standing, others fallen, to indicate their departed glory; but although the wholesale destruction of these splendid forests is regrettable it is not without its compensation, for many a wonderful landscape has been opened to view in this way which would be obscured by living forests. Also the weirdness of these spectral remains lends a melancholy charm to many a scene and adds variety to the galaxy of interesting spectacles.

East of the mountain crest gorges with walls 1,000 or even 2,000 feet high are common, and between the gorges stand the bold summits in infinite variety of form. As seen from the east, the range rises in daring relief, craggy in outline, snow spangled, and awe inspiring. In stalwart nobility, in calm dignity, and in the beauty and grandeur of varied scenery the mountain group that culminates in Longs Peak (14,255 feet) is unsurpassed. The lover of mountains who feels the inspiration of its imposing stateliness may be pardoned if in his enthusiasm he calls this "the top of the world," as local enthusiasts are prone to do. Many a less imposing place has been so called. There are probably few other scenic regions which combine mountain outlines so bold with qualities of beauty so refined.

The Longs Peak group of summits, loftiest and most imposing in the park, is not the only group worthy of special mention. There is in the northern part of the park an assemblage of mountains culminating in Hagues Peak (13,562 feet), which is scarcely less imposing. In this tumultuous mass are some of the most majestic peaks and one of the finest glaciers in the park.

To the south of Longs Peak the country grows even wilder. The range here is a succession of superb summits. The southern boundary of the park unfortunately cuts arbitrarily through a splendid massing of noble snow-covered mountains. The St. Vrain Glaciers, with their surrounding ramparts, a spectacle of grandeur, lie outside the park, and still farther south the Continental Divide increases in splendor to Arapahoe Peak and its well-known glacier. It is to be hoped that the park will be extended southward to include Arapahoe Glacier, which is the southernmost living glacier in North America.

The west side of the range, gentler in its slopes and less majestic in its mountain grouping, is a region of loveliness and wildness diversified by innumerable streams and lakes of great charm. Grand Lake, which has railroad connections near by, is the largest and deepest lake in the park. It is the center of a growing cottage and hotel population and is destined to become a place of much importance upon the completion of the Fall River Road, which will connect the east and west sides across the Continental Divide.

The mountains of the Snowy Range are very rugged and are cut by deep canyons and steep-walled gorges into an infinite variety of sharp peaks, pinnacled spurs, and crested or serrated ridges. Geologically they are "young mountains" and exhibit all the bold, daring, and attractive characteristics of youth. The Rocky Mountain National Park is in the very heart of the Rockies, and the barren crags and granite cliffs seen in all parts of it make its name eminently appropriate.

The majestic monarchs in the center of the range are flanked by less commanding summits, arranged in order of prominence, down to the rank and file near the foothills, where mountains are so numerous that those which would be exploited in a less imposing presence as scenic wonders are not even named. These, like the more stalwart giants near the crest of the range, are separated by gorges whose walls rise almost vertically hundreds and in some cases thousands of feet. In many places precipices rise in daring relief and craggy outline 1,000 feet or more from relatively level floors. In the higher gorges many of these floors are covered during much of the year with snow or are occupied by frozen lakes. At lower altitudes they are forested or carpeted with grassy turf and beds of wild flowers. At the higher altitudes there are many rock-bound lakes, some occupying basins at the bottom of the gorges, others perched high in the craggy sides of precipices in most unexpected places. These high-altitude lakes range in color through many shades of green and blue. Because the shades vary from time to time these lakes have been called the "gems of the mountains," and their changing color is likened to the varying aspect of jewels.

In the gorges and in many of the broader valleys are found conspicuous evidences of ancient glaciation. Great moraines have been formed by glaciers carrying bowlders and smaller fragments of rock down the valleys and heaping them in great ridges at the sides and end of the ice. In many places the rocks were polished by the ice passing over them. Striated surfaces are found where the bottom and sides of a gorge were scratched by rock fragments held frozen into the moving ice, like a graver's tool clamped in a lathe. Lake basins were gouged out of the solid rock by the moving ice.

For easily read records left by ancient glaciers the Rocky Mountain National Park is almost unique. In few other places do these evidences so intrude themselves upon the eye. The great moraines, such as the long ridge south of Moraine Park, which rises 800 feet or more above the floor of the valley, are so prominent and sharply outlined that even the untrained observer notices that they differ in character from the neighboring hills. The rounded bowlders, the polished and striated surfaces, and the perfectly outlined moraines make this region a primer of glacial geology, whose lessons may be read so easily that no one need miss them. Also in this park there are small living glaciers, samples of the great masses of ice which filled the gorges in past ages. These assist the observer in his effort to realize the grandeur of long ago. We may reconstruct in imagination the great streams of ice which existed here during the Great Ice Age by magnifying these living glaciers many thousands of times until they fill the hollows between the mountains and extend many miles down the valleys. (See Pl. VIII, p. 30.)

The lower slopes of the mountains are wooded wherever they are not too precipitous for trees to take root; in some places the forests have been destroyed by fire, but the higher slopes are barren, for trees do not grow here above an altitude of 11,500 feet. Near this elevation, known as timberline, the struggle for existence is severe and gives rise to many curious and intensely interesting forms of growth, commonly known as timber-line trees. On the slopes above timber line may be found a flora sufficiently varied and unusual to delight the heart of the botanist as well as of the ordinary lover of flowers and plants. Here also may be found the descendants of the arctic plants which were driven southward during the Great Ice Age. Some followed the retreating glaciers northward as the climate moderated; others found a climate sufficiently cool for their needs on the high mountains.

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Last Updated: 11-Dec-2006