December 7, 2023 in Colorado

The Wild West Town that Gave Birth to Rocky Mountain National Park

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Early History

The Estes Park valley has been inhabited for over 10,000 years. The valley was a hunting ground and ceremonial meeting place for various Native American tribes, particularly the Ute tribe. The Ute primarily lived in the mountains during the summers and migrated to the plains during the winters. They called the valley “the Circle” because of its nearly circular shape.

There are multiple archeological sites within the Estes Park valley and Rocky Mountain National Park that reveal ancient campsites and tools. These sites indicate the Native Americans would travel to the valley to hunt for bison, elk, deer, and other small game. The land provided an abundance of edible plants as well. The Ute and other tribes also considered the valley a sacred meeting place for ceremonies and celebrations.

Various Native American tribes frequented the Estes Park valley up until the mid-19th century. At that time, European diseases and westward expansion forced the tribes out of the area. But much of their ancient history remains within the valley’s mountains and forests.

Estes Park’s Founding

Estes Park was founded in 1859 by Joel Estes, who came to the area while leading an expedition to hunt big game. Joel Estes was drawn to the area by the striking natural scenery and abundant wildlife. He settled in the valley near the confluence of Fall River, Fish Creek, and the Big Thompson River. This area would come to be known as Estes Park.

Joel Estes constructed a cabin and became the first permanent settler in the valley. For several years, Estes lived in the valley during the summers while he trapped beavers and hunted for meat to get through the winters. Estes would pack his furs to Denver where they were sold and then return to spend the summers in the valley that now bears his name.

For the next decade, Estes Park remained relatively isolated with only the occasional explorer or hunter passing through. However, that began to change in the late 1860s as word of the area’s stunning scenery and abundance of wildlife spread. Estes laid the foundations for settlement in the valley that would steadily grow with tourism and become a beloved mountain town.

Settlement and Early Tourism

Estes Park’s early tourism boom began with the Earl of Dunraven, an Irish nobleman. In 1872, Lord Dunraven acquired a 15,000 acre parcel of land that encompassed much of present-day Estes Park. His intent was to establish an exclusive hunting preserve and private vacation retreat for himself and fellow British aristocrats.

Lord Dunraven built lodging facilities, including a hunting lodge known as the Estes House, to accommodate visiting guests. The surrounding wilderness offered excellent big game hunting opportunities. Elk, bighorn sheep, deer, and other animals were abundant. Dunraven stocked the rivers with fish to support recreational fly fishing.

To provide access to Estes Park, Dunraven financed the construction of the first wagon road over the Continental Divide. This road followed an old Native American trail, crossing Berthoud Pass into what later became Rocky Mountain National Park. The route was steep and rugged, but it allowed people to reach Estes Park by wagon from the east.

Though intended as a private playground for nobility, word of the area’s spectacular scenery and recreational offerings spread to others. Wealthy tourists from the eastern U.S. began booking visits. This ushered in Estes Park’s era as a tourism destination catering to an exclusive, upper-class clientele in the late 19th century.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Estes Park’s beautiful mountains and wilderness are protected under Rocky Mountain National Park. The park was established in 1915 through efforts by Enos Mills and others who lobbied the government extensively to protect this area of outstanding natural beauty and ecological significance.

Rocky Mountain National Park stretches across 416 square miles encompassing alpine lakes, a large variety of wildlife, fragile alpine tundra, and ecosystems ranging from montane forests to subalpine forests. The continental divide runs through the park with elevations ranging from 8,000 feet to over 12,000 feet.

Popular destinations in the park include Bear Lake, Emerald Lake, and Trail Ridge Road which crests over 12,000 feet Showcasing breathtaking views. The park provides over 350 miles of hiking trails, opportunities for backcountry camping, rock climbing, fishing, and wildlife viewing.

Protecting this landscape was crucial to conserve habitat, watersheds, and the stunning beauty of the Colorado Rockies. Today, Rocky Mountain National Park remains an iconic natural area, attracting millions of visitors each year. Estes Park’s economy relies heavily on tourists who come to enjoy the access and views of the national park.

The Stanley Hotel

The majestic Stanley Hotel overlooks the town of Estes Park from its perch on a hillside overlooking the valley. This storied hotel has its origins with F.O. Stanley, the inventor of the Stanley Steamer automobile.

F.O. Stanley first came to Estes Park in 1903 when his doctor suggested the mountain air might help alleviate his tuberculosis symptoms. Impressed by the beautiful valley and invigorated by the clean, cool mountain air, Stanley decided to invest in the valley. In 1909, he opened the elegant Stanley Hotel to cater to wealthy Easterners who shared his newfound appreciation for the Rocky Mountains.

The Georgian Revival-style hotel was an architectural marvel, featuring running water, electricity, and telephones in every room. Stanley ensured it had all the modern amenities to attract discerning travelers accustomed to high-end accommodations. With its expansive grounds and breathtaking views, the Stanley Hotel quickly became a highlight of any visit to Estes Park.

Stanley himself lived in the hotel during the summers and became a prominent figure in the Estes Park community until his death in 1940 at the age of 91. His vision left an indelible mark on the town, establishing tourism as a cornerstone of the local economy that continues to thrive today. The Stanley Hotel remains a crown jewel of Estes Park, attracting visitors from around the world.

20th Century Tourism

Estes Park continued to grow in popularity as a tourist destination throughout the 20th century. The construction of paved highways made the town more accessible to automobiles, bringing more and more visitors each year.

After World War II, the rise of disposable income and paid vacation time allowed middle class families across America to travel for leisure. Many decided to spend their vacations experiencing the natural beauty of Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park. Dude ranches and lodges catered to these new road-tripping tourists.

In the 1960s and 70s, the quaint and rustic atmosphere of Estes Park appealed to the counter-culture movement. Hippies and other young people traveled through on cross-country road trips or hitchhiking adventures. The town became known as a popular and affordable stopping point.

The advent of modern skiing in Colorado during the mid-1900s established the state as a winter sports destination. This brought tourism traffic to Estes Park year-round rather than just the summer months. Resort communities like Vail were founded and ski resorts expanded. More visitors passed through on the way to the slopes.

By the end of the century, Estes Park hosted over 2 million tourists per year. The town boomed with hotels, restaurants, shops, and other amenities to serve these visitors. The main street became very commercialized, lined with souvenir stores and fast food joints. But the surrounding valley and park retained their natural scenic beauty that continued to attract vacationers.

Recent Developments

Estes Park has faced several natural disasters and challenges in recent decades that have impacted the community. In 1982, the Lawn Lake Flood caused significant damage when Lawn Lake Dam failed and released over 200 million US gallons of water. Three people died and millions of dollars of damage was done to downtown Estes Park. As a result, the town implemented stronger floodplain regulations.

In 2010, Estes Park saw its worst fire season ever, with three major fires burning over 20,000 acres. The largest was the Fern Lake Fire which burned over 3,500 acres and caused smoke damage to downtown stores. While no buildings burned, these fires lead to increased fire mitigation efforts.

In 2013, Estes Park was isolated by catastrophic flooding along the Big Thompson River, caused by several days of record rainfall. Hundreds of homes were destroyed or damaged. While downtown Estes Park was largely spared, the tourism economy was badly hurt. The town has since worked to upgrade infrastructure and improve river channels to prevent future flooding.

The town has also had to adapt to challenges like the pine beetle epidemic in the early 2000s that killed many trees. Estes Park has worked to mitigate wildfire risks and improve forest health. More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 caused a major decline in tourism. As vaccines have rolled out, Estes Park has worked to rebuild tourism safely.

Through fires, floods, beetles, and pandemics, Estes Park has shown resilience and adaptation in recent decades. The community continues to invest in infrastructure, forest health, fire mitigation, and flood control to become more sustainable and prepared for future challenges.


Estes Park was incorporated in 1917. The town operates under a council-manager form of government, with a town board consisting of a mayor and six trustees. The mayor is elected at-large by voters to serve a two-year term, while trustees are elected within their districts to serve staggered four-year terms.

Day-to-day operations are overseen by a town administrator appointed by the town board. Some key services provided by the town government include police, fire protection, street maintenance, water distribution, wastewater treatment, planning and zoning, building inspections, and parks and recreation.

Elections for mayor and trustee positions are held in April of even-numbered years. In addition to the mayor and trustees, residents also elect a municipal judge and treasurer. The town holds public meetings to enable residents to engage with elected officials and town staff on local issues and decisions impacting the community.

Overall, Estes Park’s local government aims to promote a high quality of life for residents while balancing growth, development, tourism, and stewardship of the area’s natural resources. The town works to provide efficient services that support economic vitality and sustainability.

Economy and Employment

Estes Park’s economy relies heavily on tourism. Many of the jobs in the area are in hotels, restaurants, retail shops, tours, and other businesses catering to visitors. According to the Estes Park Economic Development Corporation, over 90% of jobs in Estes Park are in the tourism industry.

The town’s largest employers are the Estes Park Medical Center and the Estes Park School District R-3. Other major employers include the Stanley Hotel, Rocky Mountain National Park, and several large hotels like the Historic Crags Lodge.

While tourism drives the economy, Estes Park has worked to diversify business and jobs. Recent initiatives have focused on attracting or growing technology companies that can leverage the town’s quality of life. The area has seen some growth in sectors like software, research, scientific development, and consulting services.

Outside of the main town area, ranching and agriculture have historically been important to the economy. Cattle and livestock operations remain active throughout the Estes Valley. The town has maintained its ranching heritage through events like the annual Elizabeth Stampede Rodeo.

Estes Park has a seasonal economy that fluctuates through the year. The peak tourist season during summer and fall generates the bulk of revenue and employment. Many businesses are only open from May through October. The off-season sees far fewer visitors, and many workers are laid off during winter. The town continues working to build up options for year-round tourism.

Culture and Recreation

Estes Park offers many cultural and recreational activities for visitors and residents to enjoy throughout the year. Some of the top attractions include:

Rocky Mountain National Park – The crown jewel of Estes Park. The national park spans 415 square miles and contains alpine lakes, a variety of wildlife, scenic drives, and over 300 miles of hiking trails. Popular activities include wildlife watching, hiking, backpacking, rock climbing, and camping.

Lake Estes – A serene 800 acre reservoir surrounded by mountains and open spaces. Popular for boating, kayaking, standup paddleboarding, fishing, and picnicking.

Downtown Estes Park – Filled with local shops, restaurants, coffee houses, galleries, and more. Fun to stroll along the riverwalk or browse the stores.

Annual Events – Estes Park hosts various annual events and festivals like the Wool Market, Scottish/Irish Highland Festival, Rooftop Rodeo, and Elk Fest. Live music and entertainment all season long.

Golf – Two premier golf courses, including the historic 18-hole Estes Park Golf Course which offers incredible mountain views.

Wildlife Viewing – Spot elk, deer, bighorn sheep, eagles, and other wildlife in their natural habitat in and around Estes Park.

Museums – Estes Park Museum provides exhibits and artifacts detailing local history. MacGregor Ranch Museum is a living history ranch.

Theater & Performing Arts – Cultural events at local theatres like Fine Arts Guild Theatre Company and shows at the Performance Park Amphitheatre during summers.

Spas & Wellness – Relax at one of Estes Park’s many spas and wellness centers, offering massages, soaking pools, yoga classes, and more.

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