The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak by Albert Bierstadt

When most people think of the history of Rocky Mountain National Park and its surrounding areas, they automatically think of the Gold Rush and the legendary names of Enos Mills and Joel Estes. But long before the first eastern explorers arrived, Native Americans were traversing the area’s mountainous terrain and subsisting off the local flora and fauna. Unfortunately not much is known in terms of details about the period of time before the arrival of the first explorers to the Estes Valley, but historians and archeologists have pieced together some knowledge from artifacts and stories passed down from Native elders. In general, it is widely believed that the history of occupation of the area was dominated by two tribes, the Arapaho and the Ute.

Tale of Two Tribes

While the neighboring Shoshoni and Comanche peoples may have had a minor presence in the area, scholars believe that the Ute held a stronghold on the Western slope of the Rockies for a considerable amount of time. The Ute were historically hunter-gatherers, nomads that roamed vast regions in search of food and resources. The reasons behind their first arrival in Colorado, as well as their origins, are still unknown. Some scholars believe them to have migrated from the Great Basin or Mexico, while a few suggest that they are simply descendants of the Paleo-Indians who once hunted mammoths and mastodons in the area. Whatever the reason, the Ute found their way to the Rockies and spent their seasons migrating around the region. Using a range of trails, they traversed high mountain terrain to travel between their summer and winter hunting grounds. Historic accounts from early settlers, such as the reports of Abner Sprague from the 1870s, suggest “That the Indians made Estes Park a summer resort, there is no question, as evidence of their summer camps were everywhere throughout the Park when the white pioneer came.” Discoveries of pottery shards, projectile points and traces of summer encampments throughout the Park gave further credence to this theory. 

Chief Ouray of the Western Colorado Ute Tribe, for whom the town of Ouray, CO is named

Consistent written records of Utes in the region first appeared when Spanish explorers began permeating the mountains of Colorado in the early 1600s. The Spaniards and Utes established a business relationship, trading goods between each other. In return for the Utes’ meat and hides, the Spanish offered horses and agricultural products. The introduction of horses revolutionized the Utes’ methods of travel granting them increased mobility throughout the territory. Expedited travel allowed the Utes to branch out from the Western slope, where aided by the neighboring Comanche tribes they began infiltrating Apache encampments on the eastern plains of Colorado. Eventually the amicable relationship between the Comanche and their allies turned aggressive, and the Utes were ultimately forced back to the Western Slope. There they lived in relative peace for the remainder of the mid 1700s, until the arrival of the Arapaho in 1790.

The Arapaho originated from Manitoba and likely migrated south to the Great Plains due to consistent conflict with the neighboring Assiniboine and Cree tribes throughout the 1600s. Forced out of their territory, they adapted to the Great Plains lifestyle and over time became skilled bison hunters and excellent horsemen. Like the Utes they were nomadic hunters, regularly moving their encampments in pursuit of herds of bison. Eventually, due to tensions with the western expanding Sioux, the Arapaho were forced off the plains and subsequently took up residence in the Front Range region. Because of their nomadic lifestyle, the Arapaho followed game further and further into the mountains, where their first encounters with the Ute began. 

In the Foothills of the Rockies by Henry F. Farny

Rocky Mountain Battleground

For reasons still disputed, the history of relations between the two tribes in the region was consistently hostile. Many believe it was likely due to the Utes being threatened by the Arapaho intrusions into their traditional hunting grounds. During this time the Rocky Mountains themselves served as a natural barrier between the western Utes and the eastern Arapaho. Legends of battles between the two aggressive tribes dot the records of settlers and stories from tribal elders. One famous tale tells of a surprise Arapaho attack on a Ute camp at Grand Lake. The Arapaho entered the area through Forest Canyon, avoiding detection by Ute scouts. In a last ditch effort to protect the women and children from the assault, the Ute placed them on a makeshift raft which was sent out onto the lake. Suddenly a strong wind whipped over the lake, sinking the raft and drowning its occupants. The Ute ultimately won the battle and drove the Arapaho back over the Continental Divide, but the events cemented Grand Lake as a place of tragedy and bad hoodoo in Ute legend. Other accounts tell of battles taking place on the eastern side of the Park. Abner Sprague noted “One battle ground being located without question, Beaver Park and the Moraine between there and Moraine Park. There is the ruins of a fortified mound at the west end of Beaver Park, where the weaker party made their last stand.”

Moraine Park Valley by Frank Schulenburg


Conflicts continued between the Ute and the Arapaho until the spark of Colorado’s Gold Rush in 1858. The population of white explorers and settlers in the area exploded, and pressures on the neighboring Native American dwellings escalated. The Arapaho were the first to feel the effects of the rapid colonization and numerous treaties were concocted over time that continually decreased the size of the Arapaho’s territory. The Arapaho’s land rapidly shrank over the span of a decade, until they were completely removed from Colorado by 1878 and moved to reservations in Wyoming and Oklahoma. The Utes faced a similar fate, albeit a bit later than the Arapaho. Treaties drafted in the 1860s granted the Ute the western one-third of Colorado until gold was discovered in the San Juan Mountains and the Ute were pushed further south. By the 1880s, the Ute were left with only a small corner of southwestern Colorado.


While archeologists, ethnologists and historians are still compiling a comprehensive history of the Native peoples’ presence in the Park, their legacy is unmistakably present in the area. Many of Colorado’s well known landmarks have names originating from or paying homage to the rich Native American history of the state. Lumpy Ridge, for example, was a name coined by the Arapaho tribes that frequented the area. Chief’s Head Peak, visible from the Wild Basin area of Rocky Mountain National Park, was based on the Arapaho word for “peak” which roughly translated to “heads”. Some of the trails the Ute used to travel in and out of the Park are also still present to this day. One such trail, which climbs up to around 11,000 ft in elevation, is the Ute Trail. Today, visitors can hike sections of this ancient trail, located off of Trail Ridge Road in the center of the Park. Flattop Mountain, Forest Canyon and Old Fall River Road are other modern routes likely to have been used by the Utes’ during their years of war with the Apache. 

Hiking the Ute Trail by NPS

In 1914, an effort was made by the Colorado Mountain Club to document the Native history of the area via a two week long pack trip. Trip host Oliver Toll, joined by wrangler Shep Husted and interpreter Tom Crispin, invited Arapaho elders Sherman Sage and Gun Griswold to recount what they could remember about the area. Griswold and Sage recounted landmarks, names and stories of local battles. Forty-eight years after the trip, Toll published his report of the trip in 1962 under the title “Arapaho Names and Trails.” More recently in 2017, Rocky Mountain National Park announced a plan to expand Native American representation in the Park. The project consists of indigenous-focused University of Colorado groups and tribal representatives with the goal of allowing the Native peoples to have control over how their history is interpreted and shared. Hopefully, this project and others like it will help bring more awareness to the legacy of this incredible area’s first inhabitants.


Reference Links

Oral Tradition and the Archaeological Record: An Integral Partnership in Understand Human Past of the Rocky Mountain National Park Region

Rocky Mountain National Park: A History


  • Written by Hayley Moser. Adventurer and Fly Fishing, Backpacking, and Hiking Guide for Colorado Wilderness Rides and Guides.

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