The backbone of Rocky Mountain National Park includes some of the highest mountains in the continental United States. The top third of the park encompasses the alpine tundra, a windswept land above the trees. Landscapes on either side of the Continental Divide feature alpine lakes, forested valleys and a wide range of plants and animals. Iconic summer thunderstorms and persistent winter winds are among the forces that continue to shape this majestic landscape.
With the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, the U.S. government acquired the land now known as Rocky Mountain National Park. Spanish explorers and French fur trappers skirted the area during their wilderness forays. Even Major Stephen H. Long, the explorer for whom the peak is named, avoided these rugged barricades in his famous 1820 expedition. In 1843, Rufus Sage wrote the first account of Rocky's wonders, called Scenes in the Rocky Mountains. The Pikes Peak gold rush of 1859 drew hopeful miners and speculators. Their settlements at places like Lulu City, in what is now the northwest part of the park, were ephemeral. The rousing boom times yielded to an industrious homesteading period starting in the 1860s. Harsh winters proved inhospitable to grazing, but the abundant bears, deer, wolves, and elk howled through the trees and the mountains continued to draw Easterners impressed by the sublime landscape. Mountain water proved more precious than gold. The Grand Ditch in the Never Summer Range intercepted the stream source of the Colorado River and diverted it for cattle and crops in towns such as Greeley and Fort Collins.
With the ranchers and hunters and miners and homesteaders came tourists. By 1900, the growing national conservation and preservation movement, led by Theodore Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, and John Muir, advocated an appreciation for nature. The Estes Park Protective and Improvement Association fostered local conservation efforts. "Those who pull flowers up by the roots will be condemned by all worthy people," they warned. In 1909, Enos Mills, a naturalist, nature guide, and lodge owner, championed the creation of the nation's tenth national park. He hoped that: "In years to come when I am asleep beneath the pines, thousands of families will find rest and hope in this park." Unleashing his diverse talents and inexhaustible energy, he spent several years lecturing across the nation, writing thousands of letters and articles, and lobbying Congress to create a new national park. Most civic leaders supported the idea, as did the Denver Chamber of Commerce and the Colorado Mountain Club. In general, mining, logging, and agricultural interests opposed it. On January 26, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Rocky Mountain National Park Act.