100 Years of Wilderness, Wildlife and Wonder on Rocky’s West Side

By Mary Peck –

Smoke from smoldering sage wafted through the still evening air as the setting sun cast a glow on Grand Lake. It was September 2014, and a group of visitors and locals was gathered in a circle on the lake’s north shore as part of a special blessing of the sacred lake performed by Calvin StandingBear, a Lakota tribal elder.

The blessing ceremony was among the first of many unique events planned for the coming year on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park in celebration of the park’s 100th birthday.

The character of Rocky Mountain National Park’s west side is something that the majority of park visitors never experience. Of the estimated 3.5 million people who travel to the park each year, about 300,000 see the west side. The east entrance through Estes Park is an easy 90-minute drive from Denver International Airport, and although the west side entrance through Grand Lake is only an hour farther, it does require a higher altitude trek over the Continental Divide by way of Berthoud Pass or Trail Ridge Road.

The park’s centennial, which kicked off September 3 and 4, 2014, and will culminate with rededication ceremonies on the same days in 2015, is an excellent opportunity to discover some of the lesser known treasures and history of a world famous national park, fondly nicknamed “Rocky,” in our own great state. One of those treasures is Rocky’s west side.Trail River Ranch sits at the confluence of the Bowen and Baker streams and the Colorado River. Preservation efforts are being made so that the property can serve as an educational and activity center on the park’s west side.

Author Mary Taylor Young taught nature writing courses in the park for 25 years and was selected to write Rocky Mountain National Park: The First 100 Years (Far Country Press, available at Amazon.com). Taylor Young spent her childhood summers at her grandparents’ cabin near the upper west boundary of the park.

“In general, the west side is much less visited and the trails are not that heavily hiked,” she noted. “And I would bet a lot of people don’t know there’s a mining ghost town there called Lulu City. There’s almost nothing left there any more.” A 3.7-mile hike starting at the Colorado River Trailhead will take you to the site of the once booming mining town.

The town of Grand Lake is considered the gateway to the western entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park. It is home to approximately 400-500 residents in winter and about 3,000 in summer.Many of the west side’s hiking trails begin within the Kawuneeche Valley, a lush 20-mile-long valley carved by the Colorado River at the base of the Never Summer Mountain Range. Its Arapaho name means “Valley of the Coyote,” and, along with the occasional coyote, moose, deer, elk and quantities of other wildlife are likely seen by visitors throughout the valley.

Because it straddles the Continental Divide, the climate on the park’s west side is noticeably different than the more arid east side. Parts of the Kawuneeche Valley can get up to 20 feet of snow in the winter.

“There’s a distinct difference in the weather,” said Rebecca Roland, a Rocky Mountain National Park ranger based on the west side. “A lot of the precip drops on this side. It’s a lot wetter climate.”

All that moisture makes the park’s fertile west side a haven for moose, which became somewhat of a signature for the town of Grand Lake. “They were introduced to North Park in 1978, and two dozen animals have become almost 2,600 in the state,” Roland said.

With an estimated 90 percent of the west side’s adult lodgepole pines lost to the mountain pine beetle, more sunlight is now hitting the aspen and the forest floor. That creates more ground cover for food, and Roland expects moose, elk, mountain lions, bobcats and coyotes to continue to thrive.The theme of the yearlong celebration of centennial events is “Wilderness, Wildlife, Wonder: Honor the Past, Celebrate the Present, Inspire the Future.”

Water, in all its forms, is a frequent and fascinating subject across the area. Roland believes it’s the most important part of Rocky Mountain National Park’s west side.

“We preserve the headwaters of a major U.S. water source,” said Roland. “It’s unique that we have the Colorado River headwaters, and the Colorado gives water to 36 million people. It goes through seven states and two Mexican states, four national parks and five national monuments.”

Front Range dwellers may not wholly realize that the majority of their water comes to them from the west side of the Continental Divide. “Sixty percent of Denver’s water comes from here,” said Roland.

The idea of bringing Colorado River water to the thirsty, populous eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains began in the 1880s. Today there are a total of 19 water-diversion projects on the west side, all created to harness this valuable resource and push it east. They include the hand-dug, 14-mile-long Grand Ditch as well as Grand Lake, Shadow Mountain Reservoir, Lake Granby and the Alva B. Adams Tunnel. The Adams Tunnel runs 13 miles under the park, connecting the west and east sides. Snowmelt enters the tunnel from Grand Lake and, after traveling for about two hours, exits the east portal just outside of Estes Park. As it descends, the water powers several hydroelectric plants before it reaches Horsetooth Reservoir, Carter Lake and Boulder Reservoir.

The immense snowfall makes for a beautiful and fruitful, albeit short, growing season. Homesteaders on the west side largely found ranching difficult if not impossible. Transitioning ranching properties to dude ranches was not uncommon in the early turn of the century.

Holzwarth Historic Site was one of the first dude ranches in the area and was acquired by Rocky Mountain National Park in 1974. It was restored to its 1920s appearance and is home to a number of west side events. Visitors can see cabins filled with furnishings and artifacts from the era.

While there are still private residences within the park, many of them, as well as private land, were acquired for the park in the past 100 years.

Trail River Ranch, just 4 miles inside the park’s west entrance, is one of the few remaining ranches in the park. “It was homesteaded in 1914 and started as a cattle ranch, like many did,” said Dave Lively, local historian and centennial speaker series volunteer. “But it eventually became a resort property for the family.”

The volunteer group Friends of Trail River Ranch* is now working to preserve and restore the property for use as a public learning and activity center that will provide in-depth educational experiences on the park’s west side.

Buildings that serve a variety of electric power from Mountain Parks Electric Association, Inc., headquartered in Granby. Operations Superintendent Bruce Van Bockern said that power lines run about 10 miles into the park and were originally constructed in the 1950s. But with frequent outages due to trees falling on the lines, the decision was made to bury the nearly 48,000 feet of line. The project was completed in 2008.

“It’s unique in itself that we’re able to work with the park service,” said Van Bockern. “They know, as we know, how important it is to maintain the lines.”

While the inefficiency of tending to power outages roughly twice a week on the west side is now gone, Van Bockern said the Mountain Parks linemen would make haste getting out of the office to check out issues and take in the stunning beauty of the park while they worked. “It’s a blessing to be up here,” he said. “Every day seems like a vacation.”

Mountain Parks Electric is a key player in the area’s west side centennial celebrations throughout the year, and a main sponsor of the park’s 100th anniversary signature parade event in downtown Granby on July 4.

“It’s really about the people who come here and the communities around the park,” said Roland. “It’s much more of their celebration than it is just ours, so we decided that would be a good way to celebrate, to let the communities hold events.”

The theme of the yearlong celebration of centennial events is “Wilderness, Wildlife, Wonder: Honor the Past, Celebrate the Present, Inspire the Future.”

With its rich, distinct history, honoring Rocky’s past means honoring the past of a place unlike any on earth.

“If you think about writing the history of any park with the words Rocky Mountain in its name, you’re just going to have to start with the beginning of the mountains, so essentially the dawn of time,” said Taylor Young. “There are rocks in the park visible from Trail Ridge Road that are a billion years old.”

Ten thousand years ago humans lived intermittently in the mountains in areas that now fall within the park’s boundary. The Ute people lived there 6,000 years ago, and the Cheyenne and Arapaho occasionally made excursions to the mountains but mostly lived on the plains.

Fur trappers and traders arrived in the early 1800s. A half century later, the gold rush was in full force and tourism increased as word spread about the beauty of Estes Park and Grand Lake.

“It’s interesting how people managed to get here,” said Kathy Means, park volunteer and vice president of the Grand Lake Area Historical Society. “And then when they came, they stayed, because it was hot in the city. The lake was the attraction here.”

Rocky Mountain National Park was dedicated on September 4, 1915, thanks to the efforts of naturalist Enos Mills, businessman F.O. Stanley, Rocky Mountain News editor William Byers, Colorado Mountain Club president James Grafton Rogers and other advocates.

Members of the Colorado Mountain Club played important and interesting roles in driving the legislation that created the park. In 1914, at the suggestion of the U.S. Geological Survey to have the peaks within the proposed park named, two young women within the club ventured to Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation and arranged for Arapaho elders and an interpreter to travel into Estes Valley on an expedition to name many of the peaks and other geographic locations. During the two-week excursion, the Arapaho men named 24 peaks and the Kawuneeche Valley.The Little Buckaroo barn is one of the most widely photographed barns in Colorado. Built in 1942 by ranchers from Louisiana, the barn is on the National Register of Historic Places as an excellent example of Cajun Mountain style architecture.

The Colorado Mountain Club is celebrating the centennial by leading climbs of 100 peaks in five different regions of the park, which will total 100 miles.

If that sounds overly ambitious, Trail Ridge Road, the ”highway to the sky,” is an unforgettable option for viewing the highest elevations of the park, ascending to just over 12,000 feet. Drivers can tour Rocky for 48 miles between Grand Lake and Estes Park along the highest continuous paved road in the country. Mother Nature decides its travel season, but it’s generally open from late May through October.

However you see it, whenever you see it, one thing is certain: You will be changed by the spectacular year-round wonder of the west side. “It’s a year of celebration,” said Roland. “It’s a big deal.”

Whether it’s to be part of a profound lake blessing, join ranger-led snowshoe walks and ski tours, visit a museum, ice fish, attend a historic re-enactment or to enjoy a wealth of other memorable experiences, plan a visit to wish Rocky a happy birthday this year. You’re the one who will go home with a gift.

Click here to watch a short pictorial of the Rocky Mountain National Park.
Mary Peck is a freelance writer who enjoys the wealth of experiences and learning opportunities that every story offers. She lives with her family in Northern Colorado.

* Friends of Trail River Ranch is a committee of Rocky Mountain Conservancy, a nonprofit organization supporting Rocky Mountain National Park.