By RICH GRANT
The little resort village of Estes Park sits at the edge of Colorado’s No. 1 attraction – Rocky Mountain National Park – nestled in one of the world’s most beautiful locations. Surrounded by snowcapped peaks with vistas in every direction, this small town has been attracting visitors for more than 150 years. World famous artists, best-selling novelists, murderers, millionaires, climbers, environmentalists, lady adventurers and explorers have all come here — in addition to tens of millions of tourists. And all of them in their own way have fallen in love with Estes Park.
The national park is closed right now with the coronavirus pandemic. But Estes Park has already survived much greater disasters. Floods, fires, droughts – you name it, Estes Park has survived them all. And this little village in its gorgeous setting will survive again, and will still be here welcoming visitors long after the pandemic is a memory.
Here are some of the people who helped make this little town famous:
In 1865, nearly 2o years before he wrote his classic “Around the World in 80 Days,” Jules Verne penned a science fiction novel “From the Earth to the Moon.” It was about the first spacecraft to the moon, which was fired from a gigantic cannon. To follow the spaceship’s progress, Verne imagined a fictional 80-foot-long telescope on top of the mountain that looms over Estes Park and leaves the town in its shadow every evening — the 14,259-foot-high Longs Peak.
This was somewhat remarkable, since in 1865, no known person had ever climbed Longs Peak. Verne mistakenly thought this was the highest mountain in the United States. He wrote: “All the necessary apparatus was consequently sent on to the summit of Long’s Peak … Neither pen nor language can describe the difficulties of all kinds which the American engineers had to surmount … They had to raise enormous stones, massive pieces of wrought iron, heavy corner-clamps and huge portions of cylinder, with an object-glass weighing nearly 30,000 pounds, above the line of perpetual snow for more than 10,000 feet in height.” Quite an accomplishment, especially considering that in 1865, there was only one family living at the base of Longs Peak – that of Joel Estes.
Experience: It’s not quite as big as Verne imagined it all those years ago, but the Estes Park Memorial Observatory’s Ritchey-Chretien telescope is your gateway into deep space.
Joel was a restless man. He and his wife Patsey raised 13 children. Joel crossed the Oregon Trail, went prospecting in California and ended up in Denver in 1859 as a cattle rancher.
The Gold Rush crowds in Denver forced him farther and farther up into the hills, where he finally discovered an incredibly beautiful (and secret) valley at the base of Longs Peak. While the valley was secret, the mountain above it was the highest visible peak from Denver and attracted lots of attention. William Byers, the editor of the Rocky Mountain News, was the first to try to climb Longs Peak, and he stayed with the Estes family. Though unsuccessful in his first climb, Evans rewarded the Estes’ hospitality by naming the valley “Estes Park.”
In 1866, Joel got restless again and sold all of Estes Park for a pair of oxen. He moved back to Missouri. But the memory of the place that still bears his name lingered on. Patsey Estes later said her time there “was like living on the front doorstep of heaven.”
Experience: The Estes Park Museum provides a window into the town’s past, with artifacts and exhibits stretching back to Joel Estes’ time.
John Wesley Powell
John Wesley Powell lost his right arm fighting for the Union at the Battle of Shiloh, a fate that could finish an average men from an active live. But Powell was not an average man. Even with only one arm, he was to become one of the most famous explorers in history. In 1869, he led the first expedition to ever sail down the Grand Canyon in boats. A year earlier, he was with William Byers when they made several attempts to climb Longs Peak, but they were turned back each time by the sheer cliff faces that protected the summit, especially one called the Diamond Face.
Finally, in 1868, they found a route to the top and became the first white men to reach the top, though they found evidence that Native Americans had beaten them to victory. It is estimated that 200,000 people have climbed Longs Peak since then, about 7,500 a year – although 60 have died trying.
Experience: Get to the top of the iconic Longs Peak in a safe and responsible way with a guide from Estes Park Mountain Shop – 14,255 feet above sea level.
The fourth woman in history to climb Longs Peak was destined to become one of the most famous travel writers of all time. Growing up in England, Isabella Bird was frail and suffered from nervous headaches and insomnia. Her doctors recommended an outdoor life, and in 1873 she moved to Colorado, where the air was said to be good for health.
Settling in Estes Park as a base, she eventually traveled 800 miles around the Rocky Mountains with her guide, a one-eyed desperado named “Rocky Mountain Jim” Nugent (see below). Some people said Jim was more than a guide to Isabella. Writing about him in her book, “A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains,” she said he was a “man any woman might love but no sane woman would marry.” In Victorian England, that line was censored from the first edition of her book. Isabella went on to travel and write about all corners of the world and she became the first woman to be elected Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.
Experience: Isabella’s book about Colorado is still a great read and available in the national park gift shops and around town. Drop in to MacDonald’s Bookshop, Estes Park’s original bookstore, family´-owned since 1928, and browse their extensive history section.
“Rocky Mountain Jim” Nugent
Isabella’s guide, “Rocky Mountain Jim” Nugent told so many tall tales about himself that it is difficult to separate truth from fiction. He may have been a trapper for the Hudson Bay Company, a British army officer or a defrocked priest. But we know for sure that he arrived in what would become Rocky Mountain National Park in the late 1860s.
There, a close encounter with a bear left him with a scarred face and a missing eye. Undeterred, he became one of the first guides in Estes Park and helped Isabella Bird and many others climb Longs Peak. But he had a falling out with another rival guide, Griff Evans. A year after Isabella returned to England, Evans shot “Rocky Mountain Jim” in cold blood with a double barrel shotgun. Incredibly, Jim lived long enough to write a statement accusing Evans, but without any living witnesses, Evans never stood trial.
Experience: The Fall River Visitor Center offers a variety of ranger-led educational opportunities, as well as exhibits on wildlife survival – just so you don’t end up looking like “Rocky Mountain Jim.”
A good friend and drinking buddy of the murderer Griff Evans was Windham Thomas Wyndham-Quin, the fourth Earl of Dunraven of Ireland. A rich man, Lord Dunraven first came to Estes Park on a hunting trip in 1872 and fell in love with the place. He loved it so much that. in what has been called one of the greatest land thefts in Colorado history, Dunraven acquired (mostly through unscrupulous means) 15,000 acres of land around Estes Park to create his own private hunting reserve.
But as it turned out, the locals disliked his heavy-handed ways, and they hated his friend Griff Evans even more. On top of that, Dunraven became disenchanted with the large number of tourists visiting his private property, which could be as many as 200 a summer! So over time, the Irish lord lost interest in Estes Park, packed up and moved back to England, never returning.
Experience: Lord Dunraven came from Ireland – but the Dunraven Inn, the classic Estes Park restaurant that bares his name, specializes in Italian food. But certainly he’d approve of the Lord Dunraven, a center-cut sirloin steak charbroiled to perfection. Every September, Estes Parks hosts the Longs Peak Scottish-Irish Festival, one of the largest of its kind in the nation, with pipe bands, Scottish games, jousting, folk singers, bangers and mash, and, of course, whisky.
Before leaving Colorado, Lord Dunraven hired Albert Bierstadt, one of the most famous artists of the day, to create a masterpiece of Estes Park. Dunraven paid him $15,000 – a deal in today’s terms, where Bierstadt paintings sell for $7 million and more.
One of Bierstadt’s paintings of Estes Park and the Rocky Mountains now hangs in the Denver Art Museum. His paintings helped popularize the area around the world. When Lord Dunraven decided to build a hotel, legend has it that artist Albert Bierstadt selected the site for the hotel that would offer the best views and artistic light. That hotel burned down, but the next landlord would replace it.
Experience: Estes Park’s gorgeous sights continue to inspire, and the Art Center of Estes Park’s gallery brings together an array of masterpieces from local artists.
Freelan Oscar (F.O.) Stanley
In 1903, F.O. Stanley, the wealthy inventor and producer of one of the first automobiles, the Stanley Steamer, was stricken with tuberculosis. Seeking a cure, he did what many at the time did and sought out the fresh air of Estes Park. In one season, his health improved dramatically, so he resolved to turn the area into a world-class summer resort.
He purchased 160 acres from Lord Dunraven and in 1907 constructed a grand hotel in the Colonial Revival style of New England, complete with electric lights, telephones and en suite bathrooms. It was the first resort in the world where guests arrived by car (his cars!), rather than by train, coming up from Denver. Stanley helped Estes Park grow into a real resort village. He became friends with naturalist Enos Mills, a writer and protégé of John Muir.
Stanley and Mills worked tirelessly to preserve the area as a national park. In 1915, they succeeded, and Rocky Mountain became the ninth national park. Stanley’s hotel, The Stanley Hotel, became one of the most famous in the nation. It offered every modern service, except heat. The hotel had no heat so it had to close for the winter — a factor that helped determine its future fame.
Experience: Take a step back in time and learn more about the Stanley Hotel’s rich history during a daily guided tour that takes you all over the property.
In late fall 1974, a fledgling writer named Stephen King wanted to cross Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous highway in the nation, which cuts through the center of Rocky Mountain National Park crossing the Continental Divide at more than two miles above sea level.
There was one problem. The road had just closed that day for the winter because of an early snow storm. King sought refuge in the Stanley Hotel. At this time, lacking heat, the Stanley was in the process of closing for the winter, but appreciating the situation of the sudden closing, it allowed King to stay as the only guest. With no one else in the hotel, Stephen King sat up late at the bar with Grady, the one remaining bartender. Then King checked into room 217 … where he had one of the worst nightmares of his life! He walked alone down the empty hotel corridors all night, but by morning, he also had the outline of “The Shining,” his first best-selling hardback book. Both Grady and room 217 make important appearances in the book. The Stanley Kubrick/Jack Nicholson film of “The Shining” was shot in Oregon, but King disliked it so much, he supported a 1997 television movie remake, filmed entirely on site at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park. Today, the Stanley is regarded as one of the most haunted hotels in the world and is studied by paranormal experts.
Ghost tours of the hotel are a popular excursion in Estes Park, and the film “The Shining” plays on cable in every room in the Stanley, 24-7. But don’t watch it there alone.
Experience: Want to discover the Stanley’s “spiritual” side? Night Ghost Tours at the hotel take you to a few darkened spaces, telling the tales behind the “active” phenomena and spirit folklore that have been causing bumps in the night for decades.
IF YOU GO: If you visit Rocky Mountain National Park (4.6 million people did in 2019), the best place to stay in the author’s opinion is Estes Park, which can be touristy in spots, but can also be lovely. The streamside walk through the center of town is one of the most beautiful in any Colorado resort.
Everywhere you go, there are gardens and public art. If you can’t afford a stay at the Stanley Hotel, you can certainly walk up there and enjoy a beer on their porch, looking at the view that was selected by artist Albert Bierstadt. Don’t miss a walk at twilight around pretty Lake Estes at the edge of downtown.
Elk have right-of-way in Estes Park, and it’s not unusual for a small herd to come down on summer evenings to take a dip in the cooling water. There are even special log fences built to make it easier for the elk to get to the lake. Estes is not the town to buy furs and thousand dollar designer outfits, but if you want after a day hiking in the Rockies is a quiet stroll by a stream, an ice cream or a beer, a town with dozens of shops from book stores to Native American goods, from hiking and camping gear to hats and Western wear, musicians playing guitar on the street, then Estes Park is the place for you.
For information: Estes Park. Visit Estes Park also has a superior visitors center on the edge of Lake Estes that can help with all your adventure planning.
…May 8, 2020