Already I’m missing winter. Although I love that the pasqueflowers are brightening the landscape and that the aspens have produced garlands of seedheads, I miss having the place to myself. By summer standards, Estes Park is still relatively quiet, but already I’m encountering tourists driving 20 miles under the speed limit, lines at my favorite bakery and downtown parking lots quickly filling up.
But summer visitors have been coming to Estes Park for 10,000 years—not for T-shirts and fudge but to follow game herds of elk and mountain bison.* Archeologists know this because they’ve found projectile points that they can date to Folsom man, a Paleo-Indian culture that occupied much of central North America since around 9000 to 8000 BC. More recent were the Utes, who journeyed from what is now North Park, and then later the Arapahoe, climbing up from the eastern plains to spend their summers in what is now Estes and Rocky Mountain National Park.
I like to imagine what a paradise this must have been—before the days of Dairy Queen, souvenir shops, pizza parlors and endless hotels: deep green valleys, thick woods, clear mountain streams (that you could drink from), high mountain tundras. No traffic noise or radios blaring.
For the first humans here, life was serious business. There were tribal conflicts, which we know about because tributes to fallen warriors—in the form of rock cairns—are found throughout the park. A good number have been found in Tuxedo Park, now a picnic site, that tell of a ferocious battle. On top of the tundra are the remains of rock walls used to herd elk into narrow spaces so the tribesmen could more easily kill them (with hatchets they made). On the mountain above what is now the Elkhorn Lodge on the west side of town, archeologists found what was likely a vision quest site, where young warriors brought boulders up from the creek below, as a test of their strength.
Yet beyond all the matters of survival, surely these ancient tribes must have appreciated the beauty of these mountains. I like to think of them, at the end of long winters on the plains and food getting scarce, looking forward to their summer sojourns in the cool valleys and mountains that offered plentiful sources of food. They would have traveled the same routes we do now to reach the park, following game trails from Allenspark to Estes and over Trail Ridge Road.
It was the deer and elk that originally found the easiest paths through forests and canyons. The first whites followed the Native Americans’ trails, first by foot, then by horse, then by wagon. Today we rush by in our cars, speeding unknowingly over these ancient trails.
There are still of a lot of questions about the early visitors but most intriguing to me is that, though bison skulls have been found in the Mummy Range, none of the early settlers reported seeing these large animals. Even more strangely, none of the first whites ever saw the Utes or Arapahoes. Were the bison wiped out before the whites appeared? Did the Native Americans quietly disappear when they saw the first white settlers?
Likely, they knew trouble when they saw it. I think the first residents must have sensed that their paradise was ending.
(From talk by Derek Fortini of the Estes Park Museum. Photos were taken on Trail Ridge Road in past summers.)