Park History: Rocky Mountain National Park

Lawn Lake Area, Mummy Mountain. NPS Photo.

Though a relatively short drive from Denver, and joined at the hip to the bustling gateway town of Estes Park, Rocky Mountain National Park is a pretty wild place.

Proof of that exists in the current search for wolves in the park. Proof also can be found just standing atop Trail Ridge Road and taking a long, 360-degree gander at the alpine surroundings.

Given life on this date back in 1915, Rocky Mountain National Park can sate the most avid backcountry traveler...and even those front-country wanderers who aren't terribly comfortable with hoisting a pack upon their backs and disappearing into the woods for an extended period of time.

True, these days we seem to hear more about the park's issues than its beauty. And there are definitely some issues, such as how to manage the park's rather large elk population, how to protect the park's air quality, and, of course, how to make do with an insufficient budget.

So far, thankfully, none of those issues can take away from the park's breathtaking beauty. From the Mummy Range and Never Summer Range to the Gorge Lakes Area and Wild Basin Area the park offers a vault of, well, Rocky Mountain beauty. And since the 48-mile-long Trail Ridge Road is the only road that cuts through the park, there's plenty of room for exploring the backcountry without fear of encountering civilization.

The tantalizing possibility that wolves are migrating down from Yellowstone only adds to the park's richness. To envision wolves once again loping across Rocky Mountain's landscape is a wonderful thing. Of course, park managers and local officials no doubt probably hope that doesn't happen because of the management headaches it might create. But once the tourist dollars tied to wolf-watching start rolling in, as they have in Yellowstone, there might be a different take on the call of the wild.

But wolves aren't a necessary ingredient of Rocky Mountain's pedigree. Along with its natural resources the park boasts a rich cultural background, ranging from prehistoric nomads who hunted and gathered in the park to the stories revolving around Enos Mills, the rightly judged father of Rocky Mountain National Park.

When it comes to recreation, you can take a short, or long, hike, climb a mountain, look for wildlife, or simply enjoy the setting. Get out of your car near the top of Trail Ridge Road and you can get a pretty good idea of what the scenery far north in the Alaska Arctic looks like. Hike to Alberta Falls and you'll see a completely different setting.

There are five campgrounds (not counting two other group campgrounds) where you can pitch your tent (four where you can park your RV, though none has any hookups). And if you don't want to cook every night, there are great restaurants in Estes Park and Grand Lake.

It still only costs $20 for a week-long access by car to the park, and if you live close enough the $35 annual pass remains a pretty good bargain.