A Look at Rocky Mountain National Park Today -- Like all of America's national parks, Rocky is in a period of transition, as the National Park Service attempts to deal with millions of visitors each year; the growth of nearby cities; the challenge of financing; and, probably most importantly, the changes in philosophy in its role as a steward of America's best natural lands.
It's important to realize that when the National Park Service was young, in the early 20th century, it took its role of protecting national parks a bit too literally, at least when compared with today's understanding of the workings of nature. Back then, park managers sincerely believed that they should, in fact, manage every aspect of the parks, and they began fighting all fires, regardless of origin, and eliminating certain native animals so that others could flourish. Park service worker Jack Moomaw wrote about the errors 1920s park employees made in Recollections of a Rocky Mountain Ranger (YMCA of the Rockies, 2001): "In those days, part of a ranger's winter work was trapping all the so-called predatory animals. Later we decided that all of the animals have their rightful place in the scheme of things, and we protect them all alike."
Today, the park service focuses most of its efforts on managing the people who visit the parks, and, as much as possible, on letting nature take care of the park itself. If the park service is playing God, it is doing so in its attempt to undo some of the damage done to the park in the past. It is replacing native grasses where they were destroyed by domestic grazing by cattle and sheep, and planting native tree species in areas where they had been eliminated by grazing, man-made fires, or other actions directly attributable to human beings.
Although many of the environmental problems caused by people take a while to become obvious, others can demand attention very quickly. Such was the case on July 15, 1982, when, at 5:30am, the Lawn Lake Dam failed. One of five dams built prior to the establishment of the park, the Lawn Lake Dam had doubled the size of the natural Lawn Lake, in the Mummy Range located in the northern section of the park.
When the privately owned 26-foot earthen dam was breached, more than 200 million gallons of water -- a 30-foot-high wall -- crashed down the Roaring River into the Fall River drainage, ripping out trees, picking up boulders, and digging into the mountainsides, before depositing debris in Horseshoe Park and beyond. As the flood waters continued their journey, they caused a smaller dam to fail, and eventually made their way to downtown Estes Park, covering the community in water measuring up to 6 feet deep, plus mud, rocks, sand, and trees. The water had traveled 12 1/2 miles in 3 1/2 hours, killed three people in the park, and caused over $40 million in damage to the town of Estes Park. After the flood, all the remaining private dams within the park were removed.
The park service also functions as the security force at Rocky. Rangers at the park carry guns, and it's not for protection from mountain lions and bears. No, park rangers are a lot more concerned with human predators.
As Colorado grows, and people everywhere become more mobile, Rocky Mountain National Park is finding that it has more and more of what are considered urban problems: thefts, vandalism, drug use, and assaults. Graffiti has marred rocks at Many Parks Curve, Moraine Park Campground, and other locations, and campers and sightseers are being warned to lock their vehicles and to refrain from leaving valuables at campsites.
In addition, it seems that some of the less-desirable residents of Colorado's Front Range, which contains more than half of the state's population and is within a few hours' drive of the park, have discovered that the remoteness of the park makes it a good hideout. Park rangers say that of the three dozen or so arrests made each year, about half are on warrants from Front Range communities.
This is not to say that the park is not safe. Statistically, it is still safer to visit a national park than to go most other places; but times change, and no matter how much we would like it to be otherwise, we cannot escape the problems of so-called civilization.
Numbers, Numbers, Numbers
Size of the park: 265,828 acres or 415 1/3 sq. miles
Designated wilderness: 2,917 acres
Highest recorded visitation: 3,379,644 (in 2000)
Number of lakes: 147
Number of lakes containing fish: 50
Average annual precipitation: 14.79 inches on the east side, 20.36 inches on the west side
Roads: 63 miles paved, 20 miles unpaved
Trails: 353 1/2 miles
Buildings: 1 museum, 5 visitor centers, 5 amphitheaters, 33 restrooms, 144 employee residences
Average annual budget: $10,000,000
Park employees: 140 permanent, 290 temporary
Volunteers: 1,600 people donating 85,000 hours
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.