100 Years Ago Today: Rugged and Raw, Rocky Mountain National Park

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San Juan Prospector, February 21, 1919

What a wild experience it must have been to explore Rocky Mountain National Park in 1919. The park was practically brand new, having been established on January 26, 1915 as the ninth National Park in the United States. The National Park Service was not established until August 25, 1916, when it was created as a response to the trampled wild lands and polluted conditions at Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks. So RMNP also went without supervisory oversight for the first year and a half of its existence, which is why this article writer is excited that the park will finally “be developed in a manner worthy of its unsurpassed scenic attractions.”

Rocky Mountain National Park dedication, September 4, 1915
Rocky Moutnain National Park Dedication Ceremony, Sept. 4, 1915

On April 6, 1917 the U.S. entered WWI, which took over all federal government interests, and the National Parks fell far down on the priority list during the years 1917 – 1918. This meant that RMNP had only built a dozen or so trails that were relatively un-maintained based on today’s standards, and route finding to most peaks was very difficult. One could, however, find four shelter cabins and four ranger stations in remote locations along the trails. Most travelers would use horses to cover the bulk of the trail distance before trading in their spurs for hobnail boots on their approach to a mountain summit.

The Geologic Story of the Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado,
Willis Thomas Lee, 1917

The Ute Trail was one of the longest and most epic trails in the park. It followed what is now Trail Ridge Road. The Ute Trail spanned almost the entire park, with most travelers departing from Moraine Park on the east side and trekking up to altitudes that exceeded 11,500′ for seven continuous miles, until they crossed Milner Pass on the west side of the park and headed down toward Poudre Lakes.

The Ute Trail, which was the Indian’s route over the Continental Divide, whose altitude throughout is never less than 11,500 feet and at one place attains 12,227 feet, offers an experience not to be duplicated in any other national park. The entire crest of this remarkable ridge is scenic to a sensational degree.

Rocky Mountain Rules and Regulations, 1920
Trail Map of RMNP from 1919

Flattop Trail was another incredible route that early mountaineers crossed in the early years of the park. It spanned from Estes Park to Grand Lake, topping out on Flattop Mountain at 12,300′ on the Continental Divide. In the event of a storm, hikers might have stopped at the shelter cabin built by the National Forest Service right at timberline just two miles south from the peak of the mountain.

Finally there was the grandest climb of them all: Longs Peak at 14,259′ high. Known as the King of Rocky Mountain National Park, it was first summitted by a team led by William Byers and Major Powell in 1868. In 1915, 260 people signed the newly installed registry at the summit. By 1916, the total was up to 623. Today, more than 15,000 people attempt the summit, although only about 47% make it to the top and back. More than 60 people have died on the climb, most on the Keyhole route, which was the primary route back in 1919.

Approach to Longs Peak in RMNP
Mountaineering in the Rocky Mountain National Park, Roger W. Toll (1919)

There were very few roads in the park in 1919. Fall River Road, the first in the park to climb up and over the Continental Divide, was not finished until 1920. This dirt road was notorious for its hairpin turns, burly 16% grade, and 14-foot-wide path, which meant two cars could not pass each other safely unless they’d reached a pullout.

Trail Ridge Road, today the most famous and popular road in the park, was built from 1929 – 1932 in order to avoid the pitfalls of Fall River, namely, avalanches, car accidents, poor views, and a grade so steep that cars would need to drive backward to make it up.

1920 RMNP Automobile Rules:

Speeds.—Speed is limited to 12 miles per hour on grades and when rounding sharp curves. On straight open stretches when no team is nearer than 200 yards the speed may be increased to 20 miles per hour.

Horns.—The horn shall be sounded on approaching curves or stretches of road concealed for any considerable distance by slopes, overhanging trees, or other obstacles, and before meeting or passing other automobiles, motorcycles, riding or driving animals, or pedestrians.

1919 USGS Map of Rocky Mountain National Park

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