Willoughby: Peaks reveal Colorado history and the character of those who named them
Legends & Legacies
If you attended school outside Colorado, you may not know much about the state’s early explorers. But you can make up the difference by studying the state’s peaks. Masters as well as amateurs of Colorado history associate peak names with the stories of those who named them. And that association sparks conversations in the lift line and on the trail.
Zebulon Pike, one of Colorado’s earliest explorers, never achieved the fame of Lewis and Clark. But he worked on the same mission. After the Louisiana Purchase, in 1806, President Thomas Jefferson sent Pike to explore and report on the southern half of the territory.
During the expedition, Pike scaled part way up a peak called El Capitan. He changed the name to English: Highest Peak.
Pike may have become more widely known had he not crossed over the southern Rockies into Spanish land near Santa Fe. Although the territory offered new adventures for the Americans, Santa Fe had existed for 200 years. The Spanish halted Pike’s military expedition and took him into custody. After his release from captivity, Pike continued to serve his country and died in action during the war of 1812.
The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers tasked Stephen Long with exploring the Platte and Arkansas rivers during 1820. As they mapped their journey, the Corp named geological features they encountered. Long named the Rocky Mountains, and — with explorer’s prerogative — named Longs Peak after himself.
Long’s party climbed Highest Peak, and renamed it James Peak after the man in the party who summitted first. Decades later, Highest Peak became Pike’s Peak. During 1890, the U.S. Geological Survey, the ultimate authority, removed the apostrophe.
During the 1870s, Ferdinand Hayden, John Wesley Powell and others further mapped and inventoried the West. The Hayden party explored the area that is now Yellowstone National Park, and brought artists and photographers to document their discoveries. Hayden’s team mapped Colorado geology. Published in 1877, it guided the prospectors who flocked to Aspen.
Ute territory spread over a large area of the state. In areas of the Southern Rockies, where the Utes lived, they supplied Hayden with feature names. But no Utes lived in the Aspen area when Hayden mapped it, so he used his own names of features. According to his maps, the river we know as the Colorado was called the Grand River. The name was changed in 1921.
When it came to naming peaks and bodies of water, Hayden exhibited a curious economy of imagination. Castle Creek flows from Castle Peak. On the same ridge, he named Cathedral Lake and Cathedral Peak. Maroon Creek flows from the Maroon Bells. And Snowmass Creek flows from guess-which-peak. Hayden also named the Roaring Fork.
A plethora of peaks vied for Hayden’s name. Although Long named one of the highest after himself, Hayden gave our highest local point a more vivid name, Castle Peak. And he attached a more colorful name than his own to our world-class stunners, the Maroon Bells.
I think Hayden’s choice of a peak that would bear his moniker related to his work: geology and mapping. He may have rejected the Bells for his name due to their boring geology. Also, those peaks underwhelm from a mapping perspective. Mapping required that Hayden choose triangulation points, and no one would lug a transit up the Bells.
However, during Hayden’s climb up Aspen Mountain to triangulate, the geology would have captivated him. And when he reached Richmond Hill at the top, I suspect a certain peak in the grand vistas won his heart. Skiers know the grandest peak viewed from the top of Aspen Mountain. We call it Hayden.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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