Department

Nature Boy

Celebrating the prescient, eccentric genius of Enos Mills, the man responsible for Rocky Mountain National Park.

June 2011

I have fallen in love with one Enos A. Mills. He died nearly a hundred years ago, but it doesn’t matter: I’m completely smitten. It’s hard not to have a huge crush on the visionary guy who left us Rocky Mountain National Park—and did so with the intensity and energy of a nonconforming, inspired eccentric.

I’m standing outside his cabin at the base of Longs Peak now, with Enos’ great-granddaughter, Eryn Mills. We’ve just made our way up to the Enos Mills Cabin, the only museum I’ve ever had to hike to—another reason for adoration. Right before we walk into his home, I admit, “Eryn? I hope you don’t think I’m crazy, but I’m in love with Enos.”

She sighs and nods, as if she’s heard this a million times before. “Many people are. I hear that a lot.” And then she adds, “Well, there was something completely special about him.”

To which I can only agree.

With that, we walk inside. It’s a small, simple structure, perhaps 12 feet by 13 feet. It’s got one window, one door, one stove, one table. Mills was 14 years old when he came to Colorado, 15 when he built the cabin, and 28 when he earned the homestead. With this cabin as his home base, he hiked and snowshoed great distances, wrote about Colorado’s geology and wildlife; later, he would work to create a national park. He dedicated his life, in fact, to helping our state. So I look down at the wood floor, up at the log walls and timbered roof, and out the window at the perfectly placed view of Longs Peak, with two pines framing the view—and then I thank Enos Mills for being a nut.

Enos Mills has been called the John Muir of the Rockies and the father of Rocky Mountain National Park. He was a self-educated, self-made man who started doing big things early and lived strong before that phrase was imprinted on yellow rubber bracelets. He was a speaker, a naturalist, an innkeeper, a conservationist, a writer, and a fierce advocate for what later became RMNP. And above all else—and perhaps this is the reason I’m so enamored—he seemed to live outside every conceivable box of turn-of-the-century thinking. While Theodore Roosevelt was hunting in Colorado, Mills refused to carry a gun and instead wandered around watching wildlife. (Raised a Quaker, Mills “was against blood sport,” Eryn says.) While others were pushing forward to extract resources from the West, Mills was busy pushing back, hoping to leave some areas untrammeled. He seems to have been so very strong in so many ways.

It strikes me as surprising, then, that he seemed on the verge of death his entire childhood. Mills was born in Kansas in 1870 and was often too sick with an unspecified illness to work at the family farm. At the age of 13, in fact, a doctor told him that he didn’t know what was wrong, but that Mills wouldn’t live long (it’s been hypothesized that he had a wheat allergy, and thus growing up in the wheatland of Kansas didn’t help him any).

With his parents’ blessing—and probably a sense of impending doom—he left home and built this cabin at the foot of Longs Peak, near the small town of Estes Park, where his health dramatically improved. “After that, he was on the move all the time,” Eryn tells me. “I’m guessing he didn’t really spend much time at this cabin. There was too much to see.” She waves her arm at the view outside, as if that explains it all, which, in essence, it does.

When Mills wasn’t leading groups up the 14,256-foot Longs Peak—he climbed it more than 300 times, the first time when he was 15—he was also running Longs Peak Inn, which is close to his cabin, and conducting tours from there. Unlike every other inn I’ve heard of, Mills didn’t allow drinking, smoking, or card-playing in the lobby. People were there to learn, and he expected them to attend evening nature lectures and daytime hikes. Indeed, thousands of tourists came to the area before the national park was even officially created.

Mills also served the federal government as a consultant on forestry, took snow measurements in the high country for the state of Colorado, and did mail runs. It seems to me that he mainly worked so he could be outside, in the mountains, or advocating for their preservation.

Back at his cabin, I glance around one last time, my heart thrumming with love-joy. On the walls are various newspapers, old letters, maps. There’s a note typed in braille and signed by Helen Keller; there’s a letter from Theodore Roosevelt. I close my eyes and picture Mills here, surrounded by books, sitting at his desk writing. I rejoice in the fact that before his sudden death in 1922 when he was 52 (most likely from an infection from an abscessed tooth), he witnessed his goal: Rocky Mountain National Park was created by an act of Congress in January 1915. Mills Lake—a popular destination with breathtaking views of Longs Peak—is named in his honor.

Before we depart Mills’ cabin for good, I ask Eryn to leave me with one final image of this man I’m so taken with. He had a “crazy, windblown look, with blue eyes,” she says. “He would get on stage for lectures in his suit—people would hike in suits back then—with a high, starched collar and knickerbockers with thick wool socks and hobnail hiking boots.”

With that in mind, we wander away through the forest, toward Longs Peak. As I look across the exquisite expanse of Rocky Mountain National Park, I am reminded of my favorite Mills quote: “The forests are the flags of nature. They appeal to all and awaken inspiring universal feelings. Enter the forest and the boundaries of nations are forgotten. It may be that sometime an immortal pine will be the flag of a united peaceful world.”

Laura Pritchett, whose most recent book is Going Green: True Tales from Gleaners, Scavengers, and Dumpster Divers, is a 5280 contributing editor and writes the Notes from the Front Range column for the magazine. Email her at [email protected].