Expedition to Rocky Mountain National Park enlarge

e-mailed June 22, 1998, 7:32 PM

Moraine Park

by D. Ferrel Atkins

This is a view of Moraine Park, one of the most beautiful valleys in Rocky Mountain National Park, with the parallel ridges of snow-covered Stone's Peak in the upper right.

The spectacular scenery is glacially carved. The glacier moved down from the skyline into the foreground where -- a bit to the left of this view -- it was in balance with the climate and began to melt depositing a terminal moraine. This terminal moraine acted like a dam so the valley -- perhaps 25,000 years ago -- was filled with a lake. Eventually the terminal moraine was eroded away, the lake drained -- so the meadow which we see today is really formed by sediment that collected at the bottom of this lake.

Moraine Park was probably visited by unknown fur trappers in the early 19th century, but the first documented view of the valley was by Rufus Sage in November of 1843.

One of Estes Park's earliest pioneers, Abner Sprague, moved into the upper end of this valley in 1875 and his family homesteaded almost the entire valley. Ranching at this high elevation was not entirely successful so they soon went into the business of entertaining tourists. One story told by a member of the family was that a group of tourists from the Earl of Dunraven's English Hotel were hiking upstream along the Thompson River and, chancing upon Sprague's cabin, said that they would be glad to pay for a chicken dinner when they returned in the afternoon. Abner and his mother wrung the necks of a couple of chickens, prepared a chicken dinner for which they were well-paid -- at which point Abner discovered a great truth: It was easier to milk tourists than to milk cows, so they went into the tourist business.

The business was so successful that by 1895 Sprague's hotel, a 3 story log structure, was written up in guide books. The hotel was operated by various relatives of the Sprague family, ending up finally in the possession of Ed Stopher, Abner's wife's nephew. The dude ranch was sold to the U. S. Government in 1962, and the buildings removed in 1964.

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