When Congress established the national park system in 1916, it had two objectives: to conserve and to entertain.The conservation part was pretty easy to interpret. The entertainment part was more difficult. Grand Teton had a huge outdoor swimming pool. Yosemite had a cheesy talking bridge. Rocky Mountain National Park sponsored a winter sports festival, and by the 1930s, was well-versed in the entertainment of its visitors.
Poised to become what officials called a “winter sports playground,” the park in northern Colorado had ponds for ice skating and hockey and plans for a bobsled run and ice boating.
By the 1950s, that playground included a ski resort called Hidden Valley, complete with two lifts that could move 1,200 people per hour; a sprawling 500-car parking lot and a full-service lodge.
Rocky Mountain National Park became a park because of its natural attributes — a stash of more than 100 peaks higher than 10,000 feet and 18 that surpass 12,000 feet; its wind-scoured arctic tundra and its spanning of the Continental Divide; its distinction as the home of the Colorado River headwaters. Park officials were determined to establish it as a ski area as well, and by the 1960s, they were well on the way to achieving that goal. In the 1964-65 season, 60,000 people visited the area and its three narrow, dangerous trails including one aptly named Suicide.
But the weather on the east side of the Divide is fickle. Snow can pile up — at Bear Lake, it can cover signs that are more than 4 feet off the ground — but Hidden Valley has always been plagued by winds that caused drifting, and eventually, the ski concessionaire wanted permission to install snow-making equipment. Ski resorts were popping up throughout Colorado in areas that were more economically and environmentally feasible, and visitor numbers had begun to fall for Hidden Valley’s difficult terrain.
By the 1990s, park officials and environmentalists began looking seriously at their options.
“We decided to see what was really appropriate there,” says park spokeswoman Kyle Patterson. “We were not willing to have snow-making equipment and impact water resources in that area to make it work.”
So the Hidden Valley ski area was closed in 1992.
“We decided to restore the area, but we also had to stay true to our establishing legislation,” Patterson says.
That legislation called for free recreation use within the park. The plan that was devised was a compromise — the original wetlands and stream would be restored, the parking lot reduced, and a sledding area established for recreation. Concrete supports that held ski lifts were removed, the old ski lodge demolished, and bridges built across the rediscovered creek.
Hidden Valley officially reopened as a snowplay area in the winter of 2004-05 with a new warming house, ranger station and restrooms. The stream has been uncovered and park officials plan to restore greenback cutthroat trout there. Four acres are designated for sledding and family use, Patterson says.
“We’ve had people who remember the ski area and come here looking for a steep toboggan run. That’s not what this is. It’s not an extreme sledding area.”
Those seeking thrills often use Hidden Valley as a staging area for backcountry skiing or snowshoeing, and hard-core sledders can climb to a steep area above Bear Lake. In keeping with the park’s mission, Hidden Valley was redesigned for year-round use, Patterson says.
“There are some new trails, picnic areas, and a picnic pavilion — the first in the park.”
But the winter months are when Rocky Mountain National Park really comes alive. In the winter, the ratio of animals to people changes drastically.
Last July, 650,000 people visited the park. Last January, 72,000 people came.
In the winter, elk that are part of the vast herd of 3,000 that lives here gather in early mornings and late afternoons in the Mill Creek Basin and the willows of Moraine Park. Bighorn sheep that often are impossible to see in the summer are easy to spot on snow-frosted rock ledges. Mountain lions roam the wild edges of the park, and lucky visitors can spot the snow-white winter coats of the snowshoe hare, ptarmigan and ermine.
Hikers, skiers, rock and ice climbers and winter backpackers have their run of the park, and it’s unusual to walk on any trail without meeting up with snowshoers. And the park becomes a winter playground for locals, Patterson says. On a recent weekday morning, the parking lot at Bear Lake held about 50 cars, most with Colorado license plates.
“The diversity of this park is amazing. I don’t think a lot of people know about it. When they do, they keep coming back,” Patterson says.