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An Indigenous Legacy in Rocky Mountain National Park

Discovering a Sense of Place

07.30.18

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An Indigenous Legacy in Rocky Mountain National Park

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  • Flat Top Mountain summit.- An Indigenous Legacy in Rocky Mountain National Park
  • Looking at Hallett Peak.- An Indigenous Legacy in Rocky Mountain National Park
  • Looking down valley.- An Indigenous Legacy in Rocky Mountain National Park
  • Trail sign.- An Indigenous Legacy in Rocky Mountain National Park
  • Rocky Mountain National Park.- An Indigenous Legacy in Rocky Mountain National Park
  • View south to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park including Longs Peak (14,259 ft) from Lumpy Ridge.- An Indigenous Legacy in Rocky Mountain National Park
  • Rocky Mountain elk (Cervus elaphus) grazing in Moraine Park.- An Indigenous Legacy in Rocky Mountain National Park
  • Hiking back along the ridge via the Ute Trail, off of Trail Ridge Road.- An Indigenous Legacy in Rocky Mountain National Park
  • One of the iconic views of Trail Ridge Road with Longs Peak looming in the distance.- An Indigenous Legacy in Rocky Mountain National Park
  • Giant bull elk grazing together are most common at higher elevations of the Trail Ridge Road.- An Indigenous Legacy in Rocky Mountain National Park
  • View south from Bear Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park.- An Indigenous Legacy in Rocky Mountain National Park
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The sun was shining brightly in the deep blue sky, and the day was turning out to be truly perfect. This was more than just a trail rising up from the valley floor, though. I was making swift progress toward the summit, and with each step forward I was thinking about those who came before me. After four hours of hiking over dirt, rocks, snow, and ice, I stood alone on the 12,324-foot summit of Flat Top Mountain in what the ancients called the Bald Mountains. Hallett Peak (known as Thunder Peak to the Arapaho) rose almost 400 feet above me, with Tyndall Glacier sprawled out below. It was spring, and the surrounding peaks were shedding their snow. Bear Lake, which was completely frozen just a few weeks prior, was now a glistening pool of crystal clear water. I was standing atop the Continental Divide, and there were sweeping views for miles in every direction. This was a perfect day in every way.

Rocky Mountain National Park is more than just the fourth busiest national park in the U.S. The park has given me a sense of place that has grown out of my need to understand the human cultural experience within this stunning park; not only my experience, but the experiences of those who came before me long ago. This gorgeous, harsh landscape was also a vast battlefield. This area was an Arapaho hunting ground long before Joel Estes stumbled upon it. It was a proving ground for Arapaho men. It was also the location of an epic battle between the Arapaho and Apache.

This was my second trip to Rocky Mountain National Park in just a few weeks. I had attempted to summit Flat Top Mountain but had to turn back because I started too late in the morning. As I laid in my tent that night before my first summit attempt, I read an incredible story by Oliver W. Toll detailing a pack trip that was outfitted and led by veteran guide Shep Husted in 1914. The Colorado Mountain Club had raised the money to bring two elderly Arapaho men and their interpreter to the park in an effort to document the Arapaho history and their names for places in the area.

I soon discovered that the very trail I was planning to hike the next day was deeply rooted in Arapaho history, and that for centuries it had served as an ancient route crossing the Continental Divide. The location of my camp in Moraine Park was a site used as camp by the Arapaho. The valley where I was camping was where the oldest brother of Arapaho elder Sherman Sage was taken to recover from his wounds during their battle with the Apache in Beaver Park just to the north. The Apache had crossed over the Divide from the southwest. Evidently they came down the east side on the Flat Top Mountain Trail (known as the Big Trail to the Arapaho). As the battle began, the Apache were slowly pushed back up the same trail to the top of Flat Top Mountain. The Apache were eventually pushed north along the Continental Divide to the valley where Trail Ridge Road is today, and eventually they retreated back over the mountains.

I had now returned to follow the ancients. This was no longer just a summit attempt, this was a re-tracing of footprints left long before me. This was a journey to listen to their voices, their pain, their celebration. This was a journey to see with my own eyes the 12,324-foot high battlefield that straddles Rocky Mountain National Park. As I quickly ascended the trail, I could almost hear the whizzing of arrows racing by me. I could almost see the Apache and Arapaho camouflaging themselves in the thick forests as they climbed toward the summit. I could almost hear the cries of pain as each was struck with a horrific blow.

I stood in awe on the summit, having covered just over 4.5 miles and gained almost 3,000 feet in four hours. Hundreds of acres were spread out all around me, and there were views extending for hundreds of miles. Flat Top Mountain is a sacred place, and it deserves to be honored and remembered. It is a place with a story that deserves to be told and continued, with each of us adding our own chapter. 

I was fortunate to have a very insightful conversation with a Native American recently about the tension that exists over the loss of their lands, and the current language the rest of us use regarding it. In an advertising campaign meant to stir opposition to the Trump administration's sizable reduction of both Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Patagonia recently advertised that "The President Stole Your Land." I believe Patagonia is trying to do good things, but the Native American's point was this; it's not yours. These beautiful places were taken from Native Americans. It's theirs. Language plays an important part in building respect, and that was his point. So, as you venture out to these places, I encourage you to remember those who came long before you. Learn about the Native American history behind these sacred places, and treat them as hallowed ground. Only then can we begin to create a sense of place.

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