History of The Rocky Mountains for Kids

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Imagine yourself in paleolithic times, also called the stone age.  You are one of a group of early people living in the mountains.  You and your family have been traveling higher and higher each year into the mountains to try to find elk and deer to hunt.  You traveled along well-worn trails in the hills.  These trails are made by animals and now you are stalking them.  You come upon a bush with some berries and stop with your people to pick and eat some.  In a nearby stream, you scoop a drink of water with your hands.  You look around and appreciate the beautiful mountains and nature around you.  You are in the Rocky Mountains! 

The Rocky Mountains are a mountain range that runs through Colorado and north all the way to Canada. Within the mountain range, there is a national park called the Rocky Mountain National Park.  The Park is in north-central Colorado and is full of mountains, alpine lakes, and many different types of animals. 

Formation of the Rocky Mountains

Over many centuries, which are sets of 100 years, massive glaciers shaped the rocky mountain range.  A glacier is a large piece of ice that forms over time from snowfall. It builds up and then slowly moves over hundreds and thousands of years!  While glaciers covered the Rockies, nothing could grow in the area.  It wasn’t until about 11,000 years ago, that the Rocky Mountain glaciers warmed up and moved far enough that plants began to grow and animals began to visit the area.  After this, humans in the area began exploring the valleys and mountains.  We know this because researchers have found spearheads made out of rocks along the trails in the area.  Historians, people who study history, can tell how long people have lived in an area by looking at how old their tools in the area are.

The Utes

The first people who lived in the area were called the Ute tribe.  There they survived by hunting mammoths. Mammoths were gigantic, harry animals with long tusks.  The Ute people did not live in the Rocky Mountains all year long.  Instead, they lived close by near the base of the mountain range in the winter.  In the summer, when it was warm enough, the Ute people traveled into the green valleys and beautiful lakes of the mountain range.  

The Utes first started traveling along what is now known as the Trail Ridge Road in the Rocky Mountain National Park.  They were hunting and foraging for food.  Foraging means to get food by hunting, fishing, or gathering wild plants. 

The Ute people were the main group of humans in the Rocky Mountain area for thousands of years until the late 1700s.  Can you imagine how long that is?  A very, very long time. Sometimes we tend to forget how very long Native American people lived in North America before their first contact with Europeans. 

Spanish Explorers

In the 1700s, European people who had come to America started to travel farther west and explore the Rocky Mountain area. This included Spanish explorers and French fur trappers who had gone around the mountain range in their travels. Later European immigrants started to explore the mountain range. It took many years for European explorers to make their way through the Rocky Mountains since back then, people did not have the technology and winter supplies and equipment that we have today that would make exploring much easier.

Purchase by the U.S. Government

In 1803, the U.S. government bought the land now known as Rocky Mountain National Park as part of the famous deal called the Louisiana Purchase.  In 1820, an army major named Stephen H. Long decided he would explore the mountain range further and so he set out on an expedition with a group of climbers. He was able to see parts of the Rocky Mountain range that others hadn’t made it to.  And he even named a mountain after himself: Long’s Peak.  When he returned home, he wrote about his travels.  

Because of the excitement that Long’s expedition caused and the opportunities that the west offered, white settlers began arriving in the area in the mid-1800s.  As more and more white people came to the area, many Native Americans who lived there started to be displaced.  This means having to move because you don’t have anywhere to live. Most Native Americans in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado ended up leaving the area or moving to reservations.

Gold Rush

In 1859, there was a gold rush at Pikes Peak.  Many people from all over America came to the Rockies to look for gold.  Much like the California gold rush, they hoped to strike it rich.  But only a few people ended up getting wealthy.  Many more came out but never found gold.  They often stayed in the area and built houses and settled down. By the late 1860s, this meant that there were lots of new settlers now living in the area and lots of small homes built in the Rocky Mountain ranges. 

The winters in the Rockies are very harsh and cold.  This made it difficult for people to live and find food high in the mountain areas. This meant that people usually lived lower down from the peaks, where there are more bears, deer, wolves, and elk.  The area is very beautiful, so word started to spread back to the eastern states in the USA about the Rockies.  Soon more Easterners started moving out to the area to live.

Also, there were rumors and superstitions that the water that came from the mountain streams and rivers had healing qualities.  This means that people thought that if you drank the water, it could heal you if you were sick or disabled.   The mountain water became more precious than gold in that it could also be diverted, or redirected, using dams and barriers to help bring water to fields for farming cattle and crops. 

Following the growth in ranchers, hunters, and miners in the area, the next group that started to arrive in the Rocky Mountain area was tourists.  


By 1900, a group of local people, or people who lived in the Rocky Mountain area, started to organize together to try to turn part of the Rocky Mountain range into a protected park.  This was part of a conservation effort, which means an effort to protect an area of land.  This effort was supported by president Teddy Roosevelt.

In 1909, a nature guide and lodge owner in the Rockies named Enos Mills started to work for the creation of a national Rocky Mountain park.  Enos believed that a big part of the Rocky Mountain range should be saved as parkland so that families in the future could continue to enjoy its beauty.  He was afraid that if it was not made into a protected park, then eventually people would buy the land in the Rocky Mountain area and log it as a source of wood and turn the forests there into farmland and the mountains into mines for silver. 

Enos set out on a mission to gain support for this idea.  He spent several years traveling across the United States teaching people about the Rocky Mountains and writing thousands of letters to convince other people to support the plan for a federal park in the area.  A federal park means an area of land that would be owned and protected by the US government and could not be damaged by logging and mining or other human activities. Most government leaders that Enos spoke to liked the idea, but many people that worked in mining, logging, and farming opposed it.  To oppose means to stand in the way of doing something and try to stop it.  In 1915, however, Enos was successful in his efforts when President Woodrow Wilson signed the Rocky Mountain National Park Act. The Rocky Mountain area of Colorado was now a protected area!

In 1915, there were a few private lands throughout the park.  Private lands mean that they were owned by individual people or families and not the government.  These private lands often had lodges, or basic houses, on them and the owners of these lodges would host guests for sightseeing. The lodge keepers maintained the roads, built trails, and guided visitors on which routes to take in their adventures. 

With the new park status in place, the government appointed a park “Superintendent” to oversee the park and its uses.  When the first Superintendent arrived, he started building things to support visitors.   This included buildings and roads and trails.  The earliest managers of the park were not given a lot of money to work with, so they had to be very careful about not spending too much. They just built a few buildings and improved roads and trails. 


By the 1920s however, there was a big increase in the number of tourists who were coming to visit the park.  This was because World War I had ended and people had more time and money to travel and sightsee again. The park facilities and private lodges in Rocky Mountain park were not enough to support the increased number of tourists.  So throughout the 1920s, there was a big increase in building lodges in the park. Rangers built comfort stations, museums, and better trails.  The park also saw the construction of new roads to make it easier for tourists to visit.  The biggest road project during that time was the construction of the Trail Ridge Road to Fall River Pass, which was completed from 1929 to 1932.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, millions of Americans did not have jobs.  Because there were a lot of men out of work and looking for jobs, Rocky Mountain park hired additional men to help build more roads, trails and buildings.  They were set up into six camps throughout the Rockies to do this work.  They also helped put out wildfires, planted trees, and managed predators, or dangerous animals. It was with the help of these additional men that the Trail Ridge Road was completed. 

Road building was a high priority for the park because, unlike other western national parks, most tourists came to Rocky Mountain National Park by car.  A railroad never was built to serve the mountain area, like it did in Yellowstone, Glacier and Grand Canyon parks.  So road building was important for the Rockies to be successful.

During World War II, tourism to all national parks dropped significantly.  People did not have time or money to travel and sightsee in the Rockies, so there was less development and care taken in the area and many of the buildings and trails stopped being maintained. However, after WWII, there were many new young families in the United States.  This time in America was called a “baby boom” because families were reunited and had a lot of wealth again and so the number and size of families grew quickly. 

The government launched a new program around this time called the “Mission 66” program.  The aim of Mission 66 was to improve the facilities in the national parks by 1966, which was the date of the 50th anniversary of the National Park Service. There were three large new buildings were a visitor center in the Rocky Mountain park.  At these new facilities, tourists could watch a movie about animals and nature in the area, they could talk to a ranger, and get oriented to the park.  Oriented means getting directed and knowing where you are and where you’re going. During Mission 66, the National Park Service bought many of the old guest lodges within the park boundaries, removed old buildings that were falling apart, and built new campgrounds and parking lots. 

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, many tourists were visiting Rocky Mountain park and other federal parks each year.  Because so many people were now visiting, there was damage done to the local plants and animals in the area.  Some campers would drive off-road into the back-country, or out-of-bounds areas.  Hikers crushed wildflowers and with the predators in the area all gone, the elk population grew too big.  There were also a lot of forest fires that caused damage to the area.  

In the 1970s, Park Superintendents started to try to manage the area better to help preserve it for future generations. To preserve means to keep something in good condition.  Park rangers started to teach tourists to be good to the parks and take better care of them.  And More signs started to be put up to help direct tourists. 

Today, many people visit Rocky Mountain National Park every year.  In fact, the park is one of the most visited parks in the National Park System, ranking as the third most visited national park in 2015.  Wouldn’t that be an amazing place to visit?  If you get a chance to go there, you will see beautiful nature, including mountains, tundra, and wildlife.  And you can learn from education rangers about the animals, plants, and landscapes in the area and how the park is maintained. We hope you get the chance to go one day!