Estes Park history

Estes Park photo from early 1900s
A photo of Estes Park taken by the National Photo Co. in the early 1900s. / Library of Congress collection

By Sue Deans

Estes Park sits in a valley that for thousands of years was a gathering place for Native American hunters and a summering place for the Ute and Arapaho Indians. Major Stephen Long passed through on one of the first explorations, and Longs Peak was named for him.

After gold was found nearby, miner Joel Estes, the area’s first settler, arrived there around 1860 and later brought his wife and 13 children plus a herd of cattle. William Byers, editor of the Rocky Mountain News, who visited the family, made sure that the town was named for Estes.

Estes learned quickly that his plan for cattle ranching didn’t work well at altitude, so he sold his property to a dude rancher. Then a hunting lodge built by the Earl of Dunraven brought more attention and more visitors to the town, forming the basis for today’s tourist economy. Other ranchers later brought in cattle breeds that thrived in the area and many of their ranches are still operating. A “fish ranch” in the late 1880s at Elkhorn Lodge caught 500 to 800 trout a day to ship to Denver restaurants.

In 1903, F. O. Stanley, who with his brother invented the Stanley Steamer, came west looking for relief from tuberculosis. He felt so good in Estes Park that he stayed and built the Stanley Hotel, which opened in 1909. Interest in the hotel , a landmark visible from all over town, has brought tourists to Estes Park for years. Stanley began mountain bus trips in his steam-powered cars up the Big Thompson Canyon east of the city.

Millions have visited over the years, enjoying everything from fudge and salt water taffy to eclectic art galleries. Many of the visitors go on to Rocky Mountain National Park, entering just 10 minutes from the city limits. The park celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2015.

In July 1982, an earthen dam burst at Lawn Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park, sending the Roaring River out of its banks and into downtown Estes Park.

Three people camping in the national park died in the flood and the town’s main street was devastated. Damage was calculated at $31 million and motivated a major facelift of the downtown area. A riverfront walkway, Victorian light fixtures, flowers, trees and a sculpture garden have beautified the city center. Again in 2013, flooding affected the city, and caused serious highway damage in the Big Thompson Canyon.

Tourists continue to stream into the city and the park, enjoying activities in all four seasons.