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Monumental Birthday

Rocky Mountain National Park and surrounding towns celebrate 100 years of stunning natural beauty.

Enos Mills was a sickly little boy born on the plains of Kansas more than 140 years ago. When he was 13 years old, doctors determined that he wouldn’t live much longer, and at that age and in that time, perhaps only his parents would have mourned the loss.


In Title: Bear Lake and Hallet Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. There are 150 lakes within the park. Jack Olson photo

Above: Enos Mills, who would become known as the father of Rocky Mountain National Park, climbing Longs Peak. National Park Service photo

Below: The moon starts to appear over Longs Peak, which provides a challenging climb to hearty adventurers. National Park Service photo


But Mills lived another 40 years, eventually helping to give this nation one of its most treasured gifts. You see, that unexceptional little boy left home for Colorado, hoping that the fresh mountain air would do him some good. In the end, his life made a huge difference and his move to Colorado did us all quite a bit of good. It is because of Mills that we have Rocky Mountain National Park, and if he were alive today, he’d be lighting the candles on a really, really big birthday cake this year.

Mills is considered the father of Rocky Mountain National Park, which this year is 100 years old, making 2015 a very special year to head west again to celebrate the gift of those purple mountains majesty.

Creating Rocky Mountain
National Park

“Right from the beginning, it was a crown jewel in what would become our national park system,” says Barbara Scott, the park ranger responsible for coordinating the anniversary celebration. The legislation that created Rocky Mountain National Park set the stage for the “Organic Act” of 1916 that created the entire National Park Service, which now totals 405 units.

Mills had envisioned a much bigger park, but he and others were successful in protecting more than 400 square miles of terrain from mining, forestry, and development. More than a third of the park is located above the tree line with elevations ranging from 8,000 feet to 14,259 feet. There are 77 peaks over 12,000 feet, making this the highest park in the U.S. Many of the 360 miles of trails are original to the Ute and Arapahoe tribes who were the first residents of this region.

Around nearly every turn, the magnificent vistas of ponderosa pine and juniper contrast with tranquil images of bubbling mountain streams and wildflower-filled meadows. From powerful bighorn sheep to elk, moose, black bear, and mountain lions, the park’s abundant natural resources remind us that humans are simply visitors in this playground.

Rocky Mountain National Park has always been a leader in preserving its resources. It was among the first of the national parks to issue backcountry permits to manage user impact on resources, and among the first to use shuttle busses to minimize carbon emissions. It also has one of the country’s largest volunteer forces with nearly 1,900 people signing on for duty each year.

What To Do in Rocky Mountain National Park

An estimated 3.4 million people a year visit the national park, and roughly 80 percent (2.7 million) of those people enter the gates on the south and east sides at Estes Park, Colo. Many visitors who enter here never travel much farther than about halfway across the Trail Ridge Road to the Alpine Visitor Center, elevation 11,796 feet, and that’s such a shame. There’s so much more to do here.

One place not to miss is Lily Lake, one of the best destinations for wildflower viewing, particularly during an early summer visit. This is where Mills lived and documented the splendor of the mountains in an effort to achieve national park status for the land he loved.

If you’re really energetic and skilled, try climbing–or at least hiking–near Longs Peak. Mills climbed it nearly 350 times in all seasons. Not bad for a sick kid from the flatlands.

The Holzwarth Historic Site has a nice, easy trail to hike, much easier than climbing Longs Peak. Round-trip, it’s just a little more than a mile, all on flat terrain. This is where, in 1917, John Holzwarth began a little trout fishing business that later expanded into a dude ranch. A number of original buildings remain, as well as an old miner’s cabin that dates to 1902.

However, the best reason to take this little walk is for the peaceful and sweeping view of the Kawuneeche Valley. Here, one of the streams that eventually becomes the Colorado River bubbles over stones and through a valley filled with wildflowers and wildlife. In all, there are 150 lakes and about 450 miles of streams in the park, including the headwaters of the Colorado River.

Where to See Wildlife

The best wildlife viewing, of course, takes place in the early morning hours or the evening hours just before sunset. It seems that the elk, nearly 1,000 of them, prefer to hang out more on the east side of the park. Their bugling during mating season in September has become one of the best reasons to visit; park personnel report weekends in September are crowded with visitors. In addition, there are about 400 head of bighorn sheep in the park, and one of the best places to see them is around Milner Pass and Sheep Lake.

Moose prefer the west side of the park, accessed through the community of Grand Lake. Just before you pass the sign welcoming you to the park, on the right-hand side of the road, a number of low bushes conceal a little stream dearly loved by moose.

One of the rangers we talked to called Grand Lake the “natural” side of the park; it’s certainly the quieter side. But no matter what side of the park you’re on, remember that you are in one of our nation’s natural cathedrals. When you approach wildlife, be quiet and respectful. To get your best wildlife viewing experience, use your park voice. Those around you want to hear the wildlife, not you.

Where to stay

Unlike Yellowstone, Yosemite, and some of other beloved national parks, there are no lodges within the confines of Rocky Mountain National Park. There are more than 600 established camping sites in the park, as well as the entire backcountry, but for a roof over your head and someone else to fix your meals, you’ll find an endless selection of hotels, motels, cabins, and guesthouses in Estes Park and Grand Lake. Seriously, there are thousands fitting all lifestyles, price ranges, families, and interests.

Adjacent to the park’s west gate is the Grand Lake Lodge, a National Historic Landmark. Billed as “Colorado’s Front Porch,” the scenic view of the mountains and the wildlife here rivals anything else available in the park.

Built from timber cut when the Trail Ridge Road was built through the park between 1929 and 1932, the Grand Lake Lodge has 70 guest cabins located across the property. The lodge restaurant, known for its exquisite preparation of wild game and fresh Colorado trout, is a destination in itself. The gift shop, too, offers some lovely items made by area artists that reflect the best of Mother Nature.

You might also find a book or two highlighting the efforts of Mills and others who made this special place available for all of us to enjoy 100 years ago.

Diana Lambdin Meyer is a contributor from Parkville, Mo.

March/April 2015 Issue


The centennial of Rocky Mountain National Park is a yearlong event with special activities planned in many of the surrounding communities. Literally hundreds of activities are planned throughout the coming year.

If you have visited the park before, share your favorite memories and photos on the site

For more information, contact:

Rocky Mountain National Park,
(970) 586-1206 or

Visit Estes Park,
(800) 443-7837 or

Grand County Tourism Board, (970) 531-7020,

To visit Rocky Mountain National Park, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides.

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