ESTES PARK — The last major parcel of private commercial land within Rocky Mountain National Park has been purchased and eventually will be added to the park, two nonprofit organizations announced Wednesday.
The 42-acre property at 4140 Fall River Road, along U.S. Highway 34 west of Estes Park, was acquired in late March for $3.4 million by the Trust for Public Land and the Rocky Mountain Conservancy. The tract includes family-owned Cascade Cottages, a group of rustic summer cabins that have been rented to hundreds of thousands of visitors since 1941.
“Rocky Mountain National Park is one of America’s greatest parks and we are glad we can help protect this place for the future generations of visitors,” said James Petterson, Colorado director of the San Francisco-based Trust for Public Land, in a media statement.
The two organizations eventually plan to donate the tract to the national park. Half the price, $1.75 million, was raised privately by the conservancy with help from its own reserves. Other financing came from the Larimer County Open Lands Program, the Estes Valley Land Trust and the town of Estes Park.
“Our friends, donors and local communities once again demonstrated their love for Rocky Mountain National Park and the need to protect it by supporting the Cascade Cottages campaign,” said Charles Money, the Estes Park-based conservancy’s executive director. “The conservancy received over 600 individual gifts to ensure that this critically important parcel would become part of the park. We continue to be inspired by their generosity.”
Kyle Patterson, Rocky Mountain National Park’s public information officer, noted that the acquisition occurred the year after the park celebrated its centennial. “When you’ve been around 100 years, these opportunities don’t present themselves often in these modern times,” she said.
The property, which never was part of the park, straddles U.S. 34 about a mile west of the park’s Fall River entrance. The 14 cottages are on the south side of the road, along and near Fall River, and the north side is undeveloped land that park officials describe as prime habitat for bighorn sheep that they plan to keep in its wild state.
Teachers LaVere and Hazel Davis bought the land in 1941 and managed the cottages along with their family members — but also pledged in a handshake agreement that they’d sell it to the park when the family could no longer care for the land. Their daughter, Grace, died in 2014, leaving her husband, Richard Sipe, as one of the last family members involved with running the cottages. Sipe retired last year at age 86, and in August the Rocky Mountain Conservancy announced the fund drive to buy the parcel and donate it to the park.
“When my grandparents first began operating these cottages, they always said they hoped that someday this land would eventually be added to the park because this is such a special place,” said Brent Johnson, a member of the family who owned the cottages and is one of the co-managers. “Today, it feels good to honor their wishes.”
Brooke Burnham, director of marketing and communications for Visit Estes Park, told BizWest that Sipe had informed her that the cottages will be open to overnight visitors for one final season this summer, from May 27 to Aug. 28. They’re taking reservations by phone at 970-586-4748, she said.
The cottages escaped damage during the September 2013 deluge and flood. They also had emerged unscathed in July 1982 when the Lawn Lake Dam broke, sending a wall of water, mud and debris down the Fall River into downtown Estes Park. The flood surge took out a small dam on the property and cut a gully that still is visible.
The future of the cottages is “a decision that will be made with the input of the park, and it remains to be determined,” said Julie Klett, the conservancy’s director of donor relations. Transfer of the land to the national park will take place “hopefully within a year,” she said, after “mostly legal things are resolved and the park getting its ducks in a row to accept it.”
Patterson said park staff will evaluate possible uses of the cabins “and then go through a public planning process to determine what that use might look like — if they have a future use.”
The conservancy still is raising the remaining $40,000 needed to cap off the project at www.RMConservancy.org.
“Our partner, the Trust for Public Land, worked to acquire the property while we raised the funds,” said Klett. “We took money out of our own coffers to complete the closing” on March 25, she said, “and so there’s some backfill that has to happen. The $40,000 is to repay us.”
In the past 30 years, the conservancy — known until recently as the Rocky Mountain Nature Association — has raised more than $35 million to enhance and protect the park’s trails, lands, youth education, historic structures and interpretive resources.