Wilderness Playground: Image and Reception, Rocky Mountain National Park

Ann Komara
University of Colorado Denver, Denver, USA



Visitor experiences of Rocky Mountain National Park have been recorded through a plethora of images created and distributed over the last 150 years. Ranging from engravings and paintings to family photographs and postcards, they exemplify diverse modes of production and distribution. This paper examines images and their interpretation with the assumption that images “re-present” place; that they register intentions and frame or shape impressions about place for others to “receive”-- to apprehend and consume.

Images for this paper have been culled from various places, with an emphasis on those that were publicly distributed such as in magazines or newspapers or through tourism agencies and venues, as well as materials available to the viewing public and visitors such as park literature, brochures, and ephemera. They forward political and economic agendas and goals of the National Park Service, national railroads, state tourism boosters, and local businesses. The images examined highlight three thematic genres -- scenic beauty, natural and environmental history, and recreational activities – shown through mountain vistas, water features, and forest groves; native flora and fauna, glacial till and beetle kill; and people picnicking, mountaineering, skiing and fly-fishing.

The images reveal, inform, and establish the horizons of expectation that frame cultural attitudes and experiences about this place. Singly, each image reveals specific authorial intentions and bears witness to the aesthetic and cultural milieu that informed its production. Collectively the images offer insights into the life of the park over time and record the evolving additions to the natural terrain: roads like the “Peak to Peak” automobile route, extensive trails, rustic shelters and lodges designed to define and enhance the visitor’s experience. Through their cumulative legacy they constitute and locate our reception of this landscape straddling the Continental Divide between Estes Park and Grand Lake, the “wilderness playground of the Colorado Rockies”.