While no visitor to Rocky Mountain National Park can deny its resplendent natural beauty — from towering mountains to serene meadows — the park owes much of its present state to human planning and management. Beginning with the lodge owners that guided the first tourists through the Rocky Mountain wilderness and maintained the area’s first trails and roads, human stewardship has factored heavily in the history of the park.
But the first forces that influenced the park were geologic. Rocky Mountain National Park was shaped by glaciers, and remained covered in ice until about 11,000 years ago. Fossil evidence suggests that the first humans in the area hunted mammoths, but were nomadic and did not establish permanent settlements. Even the Ute tribe, which made extensive use of the land in the present-day park into the 1700s, did so only seasonally.
European exploration of the region was primarily the province of fur trappers until the Pike’s Peak gold rush of 1859. Gold fever brought a wave of settlers, many of which turned to homesteading as gold fever faded. While the harsh Rocky Mountain winters soon proved that lifestyle inviable, white settlers continued to be drawn to the region for its breathtaking scenery and ample game hunting.
The idyllic wilderness was championed by the equally ascendant tides of conservation and tourism. There was an early and prevalent sense of local pride in the region, evident in the establishment of local conservation interests such as the Estes Park Protective and Improvement Association. Enos Mills, a local lodge owner, naturalist and guide — who is reputed to have scaled the 14,000-foot Long’s Peak more than 300 times in his life — was a leading advocate for the establishment of Rocky Mountain National Park.
Although opposed by industries such as mining and ranching, the park was established by President Woodrow Wilson in 1915. Its original area was just more than 358 square miles, and had little infrastructure other than what local lodge owners had already built. Increases in visitation behooved the construction of more and better facilities in the years following the First World War, which were further enhanced by projects of the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression.
In addition to building improvements like roads, trails and buildings, the early stewards of the park took an active role in managing the ecosystem by extinguishing wildfires, planting trees and controlling predators. While these early tasks did much to increase the accessibility of the park, and aid in the restoration of species such as deer and elk, they were flawed. For example, excessive predator control led to an unhealthily large, overly dense elk population.
Changes in park policies enacted in the 1960s and 1970s placed conservation efforts at odds with visitors’ desires for increased access to the park’s wilderness. In order to preserve the park for future generations, rangers had to find a way to manage the present one. This was achieved through the development of a permit system for backcountry access, camping restrictions and increased education efforts that continue to this day.