One hundred years ago, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Rocky Mountain National Park Act, creating the nation's tenth national park and designating 415 square miles of Colorado's Rocky Mountains a federally protected area. At the time, the land had been part of the country for a little more than 100 years, bought as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Frequented by fur trappers and traders, the mountain area drew national attention in 1859, when gold diggers hoping to strike it rich arrived en masse during the Colorado gold rush, one of the nation's biggest. As miners, ranchers and settlers began creating permanent homesteads in the area, the natural beauty of the Rockies also began to draw a different crowd—tourists. Worried about the effect the sudden popularity was having on the area's natural resources, conservationists—led by naturalist and local homesteader Enos Mills—began to lobby for federal protection in the form of a national park. On January 26, 1915, their wish was granted.
Today, Rocky Mountain National Park is as popular as ever, breaking the record for all-time annual attendance in 2014. That record might be broken yet again in 2015: the park is planning a year of special events to celebrate its centenary.
The park is marking its 100th birthday with free cake for visitors, who can also check out an exhibit on the history of local climbers, or catch a screening of the film Rocky Mountain National Park: Wilderness, Wildlife, Wonder, which offers a look back at the site's history through the last 100 years. Starting January 31 and continuing Saturday nights throughout the year, visitors can also take advantage of Saturday night family ranger programs; early events cover the "secret pasts" of wildflowers; and the story of 19th century English adventurer Isabella Bird.
In February, spend Valentine's Day at the park with a showing of The Living Dream: 100 Years of Rocky Mountain National Park, a 90-minute documentary on the park’s past that covers everything from its relationship with local indigenous people to its connection to the town of Estes Park. March brings a cadre of researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder, who will discuss how their work relates to the park's history, ecology and environment. At the end of May, visitors can get a culinary taste of 1915 when cowboy enthusiasts from across the country congregate at the Rocky Mountain Chuckwagon Cookoff to make traditional recipes such as beef stew and sourdough biscuits.
When summer rolls around, visitors will be able to learn why aspens turn red and sunsets color the sky orange, at the June 6 seminar "Rocky Mountain Molecules: Chemical Storylines of Wonder." On June 13, the Oratorio Society of Estes Park will put on a centennial concert complete with the premier of two original works commissioned for the anniversary. The park will host several special events to celebrate the 4th of July, including a centennial parade and evening party. In September, visitors can take a spooky tour of the park at night, "visiting" the spirits of six important figures that helped shape the site's history.
The park will also host several year-long events, including the Rocky Mountain Conservancy Field Institute program's Centennial Celebration Series, with classes on everything from primitive survival skills to sketchbook journaling. Those interested in hiking can also head out with the Colorado Mountain Club, a century-old group that was crucial to the formation of the park (in 1914, members participated in an expedition to name area peaks, which helped convince Congress to designate the area a national park the following year). In the spring, the club will lead hikes through the park to examine the beautiful local wildflowers.
And for those hoping to experience the wonder of the park without committing to a multi-day survival course or miles of hiking, the park's Grand Lake Chamber and Visitor Center is offering special anniversary-themed exhibits through September 2015. Visitors can take a walking tour of the Grand Lake Chamber and Visitor Center, complete with a photographic exploration of how tourism has changed throughout the Grand Lake's 100-year history. Elsewhere, the Estes Park Museum is hosting the exhibit "Climb On!", dedicated to the history of Estes Park—known as home to some of the country's most amazing rock climbing.
Can't make it to Colorado to honor the park in person? Check out the slideshow above, which shows historical and contemporary examples of the park's lasting beauty.