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The History of Estes Park

The History of Estes Park

The Early Days

Estes Park’s history dates back more than 10,000 years. Prehistoric people, and later, Native Americans, would migrate here to hunt for big game and gather certain plants.

Archaeologists have uncovered game drive walls that were used by prehistoric peoples and Native Americans in the alpine tundra above Trail Ridge Road. 
The Arapaho Indians came to this area for hunting and would migrate from the east side of the mountains to the west side up this valley. Old Fall River Road follows their original trail.

In the early 1900s, those who were lobbying for this area to become a national park thought Congress might be more inclined to do so if area peaks and landmarks were named by the Native Americans who once lived here.

Today, Rocky Mountain National Park has one of the greatest concentrations of Native American place names in the United States.

A Few Firsts

In 1859, the first documented white men, Joel Estes and his son Milton, followed a trail that came out on a high point that looked down into a lush valley.
Estes thought the valley held promise as a cattle ranch, so in 1863 he moved his family near what is now Estes Park.

One of the visitors to the Estes cabin was William Byers, publisher of the Rocky Mountain News, a prominent newspaper in Denver that ran from 1859 to 2009, and one of Colorado’s longest running businesses.

Byers came from Denver in August 1864 with several companions, including John Wesley Powell, to climb Longs Peak. Powell and Byers were most likely the first white men to reach the summit of that highest peak. Byers reported about his journey to his Rocky Mountain News readers and named the mountain valley after his host Joel Estes.

In 1873, Anna Dickenson and Isabella Bird both climbed Longs Peak, making them the first documented white women to do so.

Large cattle ranches were established in the 1870s by Horace Ferguson, Abner Sprague, William James, and Alexander Q. MacGregor.


Clara and Alexander Quiner (A.Q.) MacGregor moved to Estes and began ranching in the Black Canyon area. They had three children and worked to help establish the area.

In 1896, at the age of 50, A.Q. was struck by lightning and killed, leaving the ranch in the hands of Clara and their three children.

Lord Dunraven paid for land surveys for Americans and then bought those settlements out. Dunrven sold all this land to Freelan Oscar (F.O.) Stanley and his partner. Stanley then eventually built the Stanley Hotel.

Then, in 1904, Stanley purchased an easement from the MacGregors to lay a steel pipe from the Black Canyon Creek to his home and eventually the Stanley Hotel for running water. The Stanley Hotel was one of the first luxury hotels in the area to have running water.

A Different Kind of Gold

The main economy for Estes Park was tourism, and FO Stanley was instrumental in bringing tourists to the area. He originally came to Estes Park for fresh mountain air to treat his tuberculosis.

He was so grateful for how the mountains improved his health that he invested the rest of his life and a considerable amount of money to help the town.
In 1909, Stanley  built a luxurious hotel for vacationing Easterners. There was no train service to Estes Park, so Stanley ran a fleet of 13 Stanley Steamers from the nearest train station in Loveland up the Big Thompson Canyon, now US Hwy 34. He also ran Steamers from the railroad depot in Lyons on what is now US Hwy 36.

All In A Name

Another early settler in the region, Abner Sprague, built hotels in Moraine Park and then in the Glacier Basin area in what is now Rocky Mountain National Park.
Sprague climbed Longs Peak in 1874 thinking he was the first white man to reach this lofty peak. But when he got to the top, he found some tin cans on the summit with the names of John Wesley Powell and William Byers scratched on them.

Sprague knew the terrain intimately and named many of his favorite places. Alberta Falls was named after his wife and Mills Lake after Enos Mills, the founder of Rocky Mountain National Park. Then there is Sprague Glacier, Sprague Mountain, and Sprague Lake, which Abner constructed so the guests at his hotel could go fishing.

Park vs Park vs Park

Rocky is a national park defined as an area set aside for the preservation of the natural environment.

A large opening created by glacial activity is also a park (Moraine Park).

The town of Estes Park is located in a valley, or park, and named for the first settler of the area.


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