Human History of Rocky Mountain National Park

Humanity's involvement in this area goes back much further than most people realize. Long before the European explorers arrived, this land had been known and cherished by people for thousands of years!

Early Peoples in Rocky Mountain National Park

There are numerous signs that native peoples have been visiting this area for nearly 12,000 years. Hundreds of prehistoric archeological sites in the park point to millennia of human activity. These first peoples were from ancient cultures we know little about. They are often referred to as Paleo-Indians and include groups such as the Clovis, Folsom, and Archaic peoples. As we believe that most of these groups were nomadic, it is unlikely that any of these groups settled permanently in the area. More likely they spent periods of time hunting in the park as they traveled between the Great Plains and the large, grassy areas of Middle Park and North Park on the west side of the Continental Divide.

Tonahutu View

You can see evidence of hunting activities in the park and neighboring areas. Some hunting traps found in the tundra areas are thought to be nearly 6,000 years old. You’ll also find a number of ancient trails that cross the park from east to west which are believed to go back to these ancient peoples.

One of the tribes that has long viewed this area as part of its homeland are the Mountain Ute. It is not entirely clear when they or their ancestors first arrived in this area, but the western side of what is today Rocky Mountain National Park was part of their territory for a very long time, possibly thousands of years. They didn’t necessarily stay on the west side as there are many reports of the Ute traveling over the mountains and down to the Great Plains to hunt bison or for occasional tribal gatherings. Much later, around 1790, the Arapaho tribe arrived from the Midwest by way of North Dakota and Wyoming.

After over 10,000 years of native peoples on this land, the arrival of European settlers, just 150 years ago, resulted in a dramatic change. Both tribes were completely displaced by the arrival of European settlers who demanded, “The Utes must go!” The US government heard the cry of the new settlers and during the 1880s forcibly removed the Ute to a dusty reservation in Utah, where they remain today. Other native peoples throughout Colorado were also moved to distant reservations, ending their ancient connection with the land, and ushering in the age of the white settler.

European Settlers to Rocky Mountain National Park Area

While there is some evidence that trappers and hunters from Spain and Portugal may have passed through this area in the late 1700s, the first written record was from 1843. A man by the name of Rufus Sage was on a trip through the West, and on one of his adventures he came across an isolated area filled with wildlife. Based on his detailed descriptions it is very likely that this was the Estes Valley. At that time even more wildlife filled the valley, and a wide variety of birds gathered at the edges of the lakes. Rufus stayed in this paradise until the leaves fell from the trees and the harsh winter winds arrived, forcing him back down the mountain.

During the winter of 1859 Joel Estes and his twelve-year-old son Milton discovered a beautiful uninhabited valley at the base of impressive high peaks while on a hunting expedition out of Golden, Colorado. They couldn't believe what they had stumbled across, and in the summer of 1860, they built two cabins on the east end of the valley and brought sixty head of cattle to graze their new property. Taking advantage of the abundant and apparently inexhaustible source of wildlife, they sold large quantities of wildlife hides and meat to miners along the Front Range and to distributors in Denver. After a particularly harsh winter in 1866 Joel Estes sold the valley for a pair of oxen and moved to southern Colorado.

During the same period, others began to notice the area in and around what would one day become Rocky Mountain National Park. It especially drew the attention of prospectors and trappers. As the late 1800s progressed, the region entered into the public awareness and began to draw attention from all around the world. Settlers began arriving from near and far to set up homes and ranches in the Estes Valley and later in the Kawuneeche Valley.

First Snow at MacGregor Ranch
MacGregor Ranch

During the ensuing years, several large ranches—MacGregor Ranch and McGraw Ranch among them—were established in the Estes Valley, while on the west side of the Divide the report of gold drew large numbers of miners. These miners established mining towns such as Lulu City and Gaskil along the headwaters of the Colorado River. The mines proved to be far less fruitful than anticipated, and the wave of mining lasted only a few years. In the following years, both mining and ranching gave way to the development of tourism. Dude ranches, hotels, lodges, organized hunting trips, and other attractions began to develop on both sides of Rocky Mountain National Park, and it was clear that this would be the economic future of the area.

For a good book on the human history of this area, get a copy of Rocky Mountain National Park A History by C.W. Buchhotz.