Happy 100th Anniversary Rocky Mountain National Park!

When people outside of my field find out that I do research in national parks, inevitably the question of “Do you have a favorite national park?” comes up.  I always have a really hard time choosing; each national park is unique and I honestly I like them all. But when pressed, I usually respond with “It’s a tie between Isle Royale National Park and Rocky Mountain National Park.” I have already done a blog post about why I love Isle Royale National Park. Given that tomorrow is the 100th anniversary of the signing of the legislation that created Rocky Mountain National Park, I figured that I would celebrate it’s centennial by writing a post about why I love Rocky Mountain National Park.

My first visit to Rocky Mountain National Park during a research scoping visit. I am the one on the left looking around in wonder and awe (photo by Annie Weiler).

Rocky Mountain National Park is located in the Front Range of Colorado, not far from Denver and Boulder.  The park receives about 3.4 millions visitors per year and has a fairly handy alternative transportation system connecting the park and park destinations to the gateway community of Estes Park, Colorado.  During all of 2015, the park will be celebrating its 100th anniversary with a variety of events. So why does this park hold a special place in my heart?


First, a bit of park history just because I love all national park-related history and Rocky Mountain NP has a particularly interesting one. According to the historical timeline of Rocky Mountain National Park, paleoindian hunters entered the region as long ago as 10,000 BC.  The area was then temporarily visited and utilized by the Ute, Apache, and Arapaho tribes; although the Utes seemed to have dominated in the area until the 1700s.  In 1803, the area that is now Rocky Mountain National Park (and most of the western US) was bought by the United States from France through the Louisiana Purchase.  The area was not really explored by non-Indians until 1820 when an expedition led by Stephen H. Long ventured into the area. Long’s Peak (the 14’er in the park) was named after Stephen H. Long.  During the late 1800s, most of the activities in the area were related to the homesteading, ranching, and the gold rush. By the time the year 1900 rolled around, tourism in the area had begun to increase and tourism-related businesses were popping up in the now established town of Estes Park; such as the Stanley Hotel (yep, the one from The Shining).

At the same time that tourism to the area was increasing, so were the preservation and conservation movement across the United States. By 1906, Enos Mills – homesteader, naturalist, and inn-owner – was lobbying for the area around Long’s Peak to be made into a national park.  His hard work paid off and on January 26, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Rocky Mountain National Park Act.  The park itself would be dedicated on September 4th, 1915 and Enos Mills became known as the “Father of Rocky Mountain National Park”.  During the depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) worked heavily in the park. In the 1930s, there was even a ski area built in Hidden Valley that operated until 1992 and was removed in 2002. In 2009, the Omnibus Public Land Management Act was passed and this piece of legislation had a huge influence on Rocky Mountain National Park by establishing 250,000 acres (about 90%!) of the park as designated wilderness.

Rocky Mountain National Park dedication ceremony on September 4th, 1915. Enos Mills is on the far left (photo by NPS).


Wildlife & Wildflowers

One of the things that I found so striking when I visited Rocky Mountain National Park for the first time was the range of ecosystems you can find in the park. Wetlands, vast meadows, seemingly endless pine forest, subalpine lakes, and alpine tundra can all be easily accessed by the trails and roadways in Rocky Mountain National Park.  This range of habitats means the park is full of charismatic wildlife and stunning plant life (including my personal favorites – tundra wildflowers).

Well hello there tiny, tundra wildflowers (photo by Ashley D’Antonio)

It’s hard to tell but trust me, there are five (5!) moose in that photo! Taken during a backpacking trip on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park (photo by Ashley D’Antonio)

Bull elk on the tundra in Rocky Mountain National Park (photo by Ashley D’Antonio)


Recreational Opportunities

Rocky Mountain National Park has so many amazing, year-round recreational opportunities that I do not think I could ever get bored in the park. I worked there on a research project for two summers and I still feel like I have only begun to explore everything the park has to offer. There are hikes for all abilities, including easily accessible hikes to multiple 13,000 peaks and wonderful trails for backpacking. The park includes some iconic climbing destinations (i.e. Long’s Peak) and is becoming a hot spot for bouldering. Fishing is a popular activity as is wildlife viewing; especially in the Fall when the elk are bugling. Cycling (especially up to Trail Ridge Road) is another common recreational activity in the park and Trail Ridge Road is opened to bicycles in the spring before it is opened to personal vehicles.  The park is a great recreation destination during all seasons – not just during its peak use time in the summer. Rocky Mountain National Park is one of my favorite winter snowshoeing destinations and apparently the park also has some awesome sledding!

Dave and I snowshoeing to Emerald Lake (photo by Ashley D’Antonio)

Solo hike on a day off from field work; on the summit of Mt. Ypsilon.


Gateway Community

Additionally, the town of Estes Park is my favorite gateway community of any national park I have visited thus far. The town is incredibly walk-able and has a variety of recreational opportunities itself (including golf, running, biking, and boating). USDA Forest Service land also borders Rocky Mountain National Park, expanding the hiking opportunities and providing visitors (and my field technician during two summers) a place to mountain bike.

Personal Significance

In the courses I teach, I usually devote one lecture to place attachment. Place attachment is the idea that humans attribute personal meaning to particular places. I usually use my “place attachment” to Rocky Mountain NP as an example. My first visit to the park was also my “first day” of graduate school. My Master’s thesis work was all conducted in Rocky Mountain National Park. During my two summers of field work there I fell in love with the park, the nearby towns, and Colorado in general. I met my field technician, Annie Weiler, who has since worked with me on several other projects and became a dear friend. Some of the colleagues I met during my research there I am still working with.   Rocky Mountain National Park has become more than just a recreation destination for me – it is a place of cherished memories, a place where science happens, a place where friendships were made, and work connections were forged. It is the one national park that I am always longing to get back to.

Annie working with me near Alberta Falls (photo by Ashley D’Antonio)


For the 100th anniversary of Rocky Mountain National Park I am planning on doing the following things to celebrate: (1) finish my dissertation, which includes data collected in the park. (2) head back there for a bit of research this summer (without Annie but with come colleagues from my second summer there), (3) take advantage of some of the awesome celebratory events that will be happening, and (4) buy some delicious, celebratory roast from Kind Coffee!

So try to make a visit to Rocky Mountain National Park this year if you can, take advantage of their centennial events, or at the very least order yourself some coffee.

Snow blowing off the backside of Long’s Peak (photo by Ashley D’Antonio)

“We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us.”  – John Muir  

(yes, I know that quote is about the Sierras but I think it applies to Rocky Mountain National Park as well)


2 thoughts on “Happy 100th Anniversary Rocky Mountain National Park!

  1. “Place attachment” describes very well why the most meaningful place in the world to me is a half-acre of rock in the Meeker Park area, adjacent to the park. My wife grew up climbing that rock during stays at her grandfather’s cabin. My wife and her cousins called it “The Mountainette,” but the folks at the Meeker Park Lodge called it “Big Rock.” I proposed to her there and our children have now grown up climbing that rock. Just thinking about it I can see Mount Meeker and Twin Sisters rising above, smell the bristlecone pines, and feel the timeless granite. I am looking forward to reading more about your work in this area.

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