Early days of Rifle Mountain Park | PostIndependent.com

Early days of Rifle Mountain Park

Early Rifle citizens enjoy a picnic in Box Canyon about 1900. Box Canyon was so special to early Rifle residents that 5 years after their incorporation in 1905 the fledgling Town of Rifle purchased the property from the Federal Government and named it Rifle Mountain Park. A condition of the sale is that it will always be used for public recreational purposes.
Photo provided by Rifle Creek Museum |

Colorado is unique in that it has mountains in close proximity to its major population centers and offers multiple recreational opportunities and a needed escape from the summer heat. Many early communities recognized this and began purchasing mountain property to better enhance the lives of their residents.

The City of Denver purchased the land around the large, red boulders to its west which became the famous Red Rocks Amphitheater and the mountain property at the west end of the Moffat Tunnel which became the Winter Park Resort.The founders of Rifle were no less in their wisdom.

From its very start, Rifle residents found the towering granite walls along the upper end of Rifle Creek an inviting place to picnic and escape the summer heat In those days, there was no such thing as “air conditioning” and the closest thing to a “swamp cooler” was hanging a wet sheet over an open window so when the summer temperature was nearing 100 degrees in Rifle, it was an inviting 80 degrees in the canyon. With church out and picnic baskets packed, this is where the buggies headed for some Sunday R & R.

One early pioneer family recognized the resort quality of this area and in 1903 Allen Zerbe opened Zerbe’s Hotel and Resort at the base of Box Canyon where the Rifle Fish Hatchery is now located. This resort and the nearby canyon and falls were a favorite subject of early photographer Fred Garrison and his work was used on postcards and travel literature to entice early tourists to the Rifle area.

The city of Rifle was incorporated in 1905, with the intention of bringing clean drinking water, sewage disposal and police and fire protection to its residents. Fortunately for us, our founders recognized that quality recreation was also important to the equation of a healthy community and began negotiating with the U.S. government to acquire Box Canyon and Rifle Falls. Following some inquiries, the federal government sent word outlining a plan Rifle could follow to obtain permanent title to Box Canyon, Rifle Falls and “territory tributary” which meant anywhere from 40 to 320 acres for the price of $1.25 per acre.

In June of 1910, Rifle secured title to 320 acres of government land for its own use and management. The government did have one mandate with the sale and that was the property must be for “public recreational use” or it would revert back to the government. In the years since, several additional purchases of privately held land were made to bring the total to 454.35 acres now held by the city. This is what became known as Rifle Mountain Park.

By the 1930’s, the country was in the Great Depression and the Franklin Roosevelt Administration formed the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1933 to provide jobs for young men ages 17 to 28, while improving public lands owned by federal, state and local governments. In the nine years of its existence, over 3 million young men participated in the program. Back then, the U.S. government required that you work for the money it gave you. With the work, the men received food, shelter and clothing and a small wage of $30 a month, $25 of which was sent home to their families.

Following an effort by the mayor and city council, Rifle became one of the early recipients of this program. On May 17, 1934, 180 CCC workers arrived and set up a large camp of tents and wooden administration and dining buildings in Huffman Gulch at the center of Rifle Mountain Park. Their purpose was to make improvements to the park, however, their crowning achievement was the construction of the Rifle Creek Community House. The beautiful timber and brick structure that still provides a popular gathering spot today was not built without controversy. It seems the CCC may have neglected the employment of a reputable surveyor before building the Community House!

According to Frances Coulter of Rifle, part of the Rifle Creek Community House was partially built on land owned by Ora Coulter who was an aunt of her husband, Elwyn, and a member of one of Rifle’s prominent early pioneer families. Ora, said Frances, wasn’t happy about this and sought compensation from the Town of Rifle for its mistake, but the town wasn’t interested in paying for the encroachment, so she took Rifle to court and won. The judge that ruled on the case also set the value of the land that was taken, “which wasn’t much.”

The Coulter family did come away with something of value from the CCC. In 1903, O.V. Coulter, the family patriarch, entered a 99 year lease with the Bureau of Reclamation to build a lake on what is now known as Coulter Mesa above the west side of Rifle Mountain Park to augment the irrigation water to operate his farm and orchard on the north side of Rifle. In 1925, the lake was enlarged and by 1936 the Coulters started the Coulter Lake Guest Ranch. An old Cow Camp on the property became the basis for the lodge and the very first guest cabin was one of the wooden buildings constructed by the CCC for their camp in Huffman Gulch. When the CCC was finished in Rifle Mountain Park, O.V.’s son Claude Coulter, purchased the building and moved it up to the lake. It is now the Brookview cabin and sits on the hill behind the lodge. This is the cabin where Frances and his girlfriend stayed during a visit to Colorado from their home in Chicago during the 1940’s. She liked it so much, she came back the following year and worked for the ranch, eventually marrying Elwyn Coulter.

Over the years, the soaring granite walls of Box Canyon have become world renowned as a Mecca for rock climbing. Write ups in trade and tourism magazines have praised the many routs, various skill levels and beauty of the park. On any given day this activity is quite evident!

Besides camping, hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, fishing, picnicking, rock climbing and sightseeing, Rifle Mountain Park has become a popular winter gateway to the Flattops for the sport of snowmobiling. With a local club providing many miles of groomed trails, starting from Huffman Gulch, there are experiences available for everyone from the first time rider to the most extreme sport enthusiast.

Rifle Mountain Park is indeed a gem held dear by those who live here. There was a time in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s that the Rifle City Council and staff discussed turning over management of Rifle Mountain Park to Colorado State Parks. The thinking was the state had more funds available to maintain the park’s infrastructure and properly patrol the property. It would also have meant the park’s user fees would be raised to the level charged at other state parks. Needless to say, the public outcry was such that the idea was quickly dropped and hasn’t been raised since!

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