Established in January 1915, Rocky Mountain National Park is a living showcase of the grandeur of the Rocky Mountains, with elevations ranging from 8,000 feet in the wet, grassy valleys, to 14,259 feet at the weather-ravaged top of Longs Peak.
The U.S. government acquired the park's original 358.5 square miles in the huge Louisiana Purchase of 1803. In 1820, Major Stephen H. Long and his expedition forces avoided the rugged mountains and were never closer than 40 miles from the peak named for him.
The first settler in the area was Joel Estes from Kentucky. He and his son climbed a high promontory that gave them a view of a breathtakingly beautiful valley below. In 1860, Estes moved his family into a new home in the area now known as Estes Park.
Winters proved too harsh for cattle, so six years later, the Estes family sold out for a yoke of oxen. The Estes cabin was soon converted into guest accommodations, and from that time in 1867 on, the number of visitors to this area has grown steadily.
Because large veins of silver and gold had been discovered in other areas of the Rockies, miners considered the area a land of opportunity and came in droves during Colorado's gold rush of the late 1870s.
By 1880, Lulu City, in what is now the northwest part of the park, was a booming mining town with a raucous reputation. Three years later, it was nearly deserted because the region's mineral riches were far less than dreamed.
Enos Mills, came to the Longs Peak area in 1884, when he was 14 years old, not long after his arrival, Mills bought the Longs Peak Inn and began conducting local nature trips. In 1909, Mills first proposed that the area become the nation's tenth national park to preserve the wild lands from inappropriate use.
He spent several years lecturing across the nation, writing thousands of letters and articles, and lobbying Congress to create a new park that would stretch from the Wyoming border south to Pikes Peak, covering more than 1,000 square miles. He has support from several civic leaders, the Denver Chamber of Commerce, and the Colorado Mountain Club.
The opposition came from mining, logging, and agricultural groups. The compromise drafted by James G. Rogers, the first president of the Colorado Mountain Club, was the establishment of a smaller park (358.3 square miles). In January 1915 under President Woodrow Wilson, it was declared Rocky Mountain National Park.
Rocky Mountain National Park has 60 peaks rising above 12,000 feet to challenge intrepid hikers and climbers. Anyone visiting between Memorial Day and late autumn can see many of these peaks by driving over Trail Ridge Road, which tops out at 12,183 feet. This is the highest, continuous, paved road in the United States.
Construction on Trail Ridge Road began in September 1929, and was completed to Fall River Pass July 1932. The rest was completed in 1938, reaching to Grand Lake. The maximum grade on Trail Ridge does not exceed seven percent. Eight miles of the road are above 11,000 feet in elevation.
In 1990, it gained an additional 465 acres when Congress approved expansion of the park to include the area known as Lily Lake. Today, the park stands as a legacy to those pioneers who looked beyond its harvestable resources and worked to preserve its natural values.