Estes Park has been welcoming visitors since before it became a town
After celebrating the 100th anniversary of Rocky Mountain National Park and the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service these past couple of years, this year—April 17 to be exact—marks the 100th anniversary of the Town of Estes Park. All year long, town events will have a Centennial flavor.
Since the late 1860s, when Griff Evans established a dude ranch here, Estes Park has been welcoming guests with spectacular scenery and hospitality to match, according to its marketing materials. Nearly 50 years later, F.O. Stanley of steam car fame further perpetuated the town’s reputation as a resort destination when he opened his namesake hotel. The town’s rich history and notable legacy of “offering guests an experience like no other” continues to this day.
The history of Estes Park goes back much further than 100 years, but it wasn’t until 1917—two years after the formation of Rocky Mountain National Park—that it was incorporated and began moving forward as a full-fledged town. “We are all benefiting from the vision and forward-thinking of those civic leaders 100 years ago,” Town Administrator Frank Lancaster said. “It’s a time to celebrate those first 100 years and celebrate the anticipation of moving forward into the next century.”
A major effort of the yearlong celebration is funding a Legacy Project to make improvements to the Knoll-Willows Open Space and renaming the area to honor the Centennial. Plans are in place for trail improvements, interpretive signing, benches, restoration of damaged areas and other improvements, while maintaining the natural character of the area.
The full history of the Estes Valley, although relatively short, is rich with interesting, and important, characters and events. Though the first pioneer families came to ranch and farm, most quickly discovered a more profitable living could be made by taking care of summer visitors who arrived in ever-increasing numbers to rest and recreate.
According to Estes Park Historian Laureate and Centennial Team member James H. Pickering, milestones over the first 100 years include the completion of Fall River Road over the Continental Divide in 1920, and its successor Trail Ridge Road a decade later. Also important was the completion in 1944 of the 13-mile Alva Adams tunnel, keystone of the Colorado-Big Thompson Trans-mountain Irrigation Project that brings water from Grand Lake under Rocky Mountain National Park to irrigate farms along the Front Range. Other notable events include the Big Thompson Flood of 1976, the Lawn Lake Flood of 1982, and the epic flood of September 2013.
Pickering is especially fond of, and well-versed in, Estes Park’s history. He first came to the valley in the late 1940s, when he vacationed with his parents and sister in a 1916 log cottage on the lower slopes of the Twin Sisters, high up in the Tahosa Valley. “There were bearskin rugs on the floor, a creaky old hand-wound Victrola that played raspy World War I records, and at night I slept under layers of blankets in an upstairs room with an open window. You never forget that kind of ambiance,” he said.
The former English professor is fascinated by the people and places in Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park, “which together are one of America’s best-loved and most visited places from Native American times to our own,” he explained. “Estes Park played a key role in the development of Colorado’s tourist industry, and from the beginning was a magnet for fascinating individuals, steam car pioneer F. O. Stanley and conservationist Enos Mills among them.”
It’s difficult for Pickering to choose just one period of the town’s history that is most intriguing. “While I am interested in the pioneer times of the 1870s—and such colorful individuals as Joel Estes, Griff Evans, the Earl of Dunraven, Rocky Mountain Jim, and Isabella Bird—I guess I would pick the first decade of the 20th century when local residents came together to build a community, and found a town,” he said. “I find the dynamics of those days both interesting and instructive, particularly in terms of the issues and problems we face today.”
Museum Director Derek Fortini is also most interested in the period between 1910 and 1919, just before and after the town was formed. “This is a time when the downtown district was in its building boom,,” he said. “There was also the formation of many notable entities, such as Rocky Mountain National Park, the Estes Park Library and the Town of Estes Park. This is a time when Estes Park’s identity was being formed and it really took shape to become what it is today. It is also interesting that many issues that are dealt with today, such as transportation and environmental concerns, also came into light during this period.”
Although visitors and residents have differing interests when it comes to the town’s history, “people seem to love to hear about how Estes Park is unique in that it has been a destination since the start,” Fortini said. “Unlike many other Colorado mountain towns, it did not have an industry and became a destination, it has been a destination from the start. In telling the story, individuals seem to be fascinated at the various reasons people have, and still do, visit Estes Park. Whether it was hunting—or now to simply view the wildlife—horseback riding, hiking, rock climbing, mountaineering, scenic driving tours. And, as activities have evolved, so has the lodging industry, the infrastructure of the town, as well as major events that attract thousands of people.”
According to Pickering, “lots of folks come to Estes Park to visit the Stanley Hotel, drawn by stories of it being haunted—something it really was not until Stephen King visited and wrote The Shining,” he said. “Most of the rest of us, including those who make Estes Park their home, are interested in the local landmarks of history throughout the Estes Valley and in Rocky Mountain National Park, where important events of the past… actually took place.
Keep up with centennial-year events by visiting, and revisiting, the special Centennial page on the town’s website. “When folks visit, be sure to come by the Estes Park Museum whose exhibits tell our story… and don’t hesitate to ask questions of anyone you see,” Pickering said.
“We have a lot to celebrate and have a ton of fun events planned,” Fortini said. “This is not just an opportunity for residents to celebrate, but also for those who love to visit Estes Park.”
- Estes Park Museum
200 Fourth St. • 970-586-6256
Open Friday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.;
Sunday, 1-4 p.m.
- Estes Park Visitor Center
Open Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. • 970-577-9900
- Estes Valley Library
335 E Elkhorn Ave. • 970-586-8116
Open Monday -Thursday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday, 1-5 p.m.
- Rocky Mountain National Park
(970) 586-1206 • Open 24 hours
- Town of Estes Park/Town Hall
170 MacGregor Ave. • 970-577-3588
- Visit Estes Park
Originally published in the April 2017 issue of the MMAC Monthly