What's in a name?
The story behind the Never Summers (and other curious Colorado place names)

What's in a name?

Never Summer Mountains

Eden Lane/Colorado Public Radio - 04/13/2023

Colorado has many mountain ranges, and they were all named somehow. In north-central Colorado, in the western part of Rocky Mountain National Park, the Never Summer Mountains rise to nearly 13,000 feet. So how did this range get its name? 

Kerry Pettis, who has lived in Colorado for more than 50 years, wrote into CPR’s Colorado Wonders about several of Colorado’s intriguing place names. 

“I wonder about Cripple Creek, which is west of Colorado Springs. And I wonder who broke their leg … or whatever happened. And I wonder about the Cache La Poudre River out of Fort Collins: Who was hiding gunpowder, and why?” 

But one place, in particular, prompted her to submit a question to CPR. Pettis said one of her favorite place names in Colorado is the “Never Summer” Mountains. She wonders how that name originated and what mountains it includes. 

Pettis said she assumes it was so named, because it’s always cold and wintry there, and snow never goes completely away, even in the middle of summer.

Pettis has the right idea for how the range of 17 named peaks in north-central Colorado got its name. The Never Summers do get their name from the extreme amounts of snow and rain that frequently fall there. But there’s more.

Dave Lively is a tour guide and speaker who presents the history of the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park, which includes parts of the Never Summers. He says the name has its roots in the Arapaho people originally living in the area. 

“In 1914, just before Rocky Mountain National Park was established, we invited – and when I say we, the Colorado Mountain Club, a hiking club that still exists today – two elders and their interpreter from the Arapaho Tribe at the Wind River Indian Reservation to come down and go on a two-week pack trip,” Lively said.

Lively said the Arapaho spent many years traveling and living in and out of the Kawuneeche Valley, much like another tribe did, the Ute. They had names for all the things they saw: the places, the wildlife and the beauty that surrounded them.

“They pointed out different sites in different locations, and one of those sites they called the Kawuneeche or the Coyote,” Lively said.  “And above that they pointed to the mountains that they called ‘never no summer.’” So the group adopted that name. “

To further illustrate how apt the name  is, Lively shared that the area did in fact have snow last August, and one can find pockets of snow year-round on the range. 

Lively said some of the mountains can be accessed with a simple day hike. 

“There are a number of trailheads, on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park as you drive on U.S. Highway 34 through the Kawuneeche Valley, for instance,” he said. “The Bowen and Baker Trailhead is a very popular trail.”

Lively said visitors can start there, and within a matter of four to five hours one way, they could be on the side of Baker Mountain “with a gorgeous view down the Kawuneeche and looking south all the way down toward Mount Baker, which is more than 65 miles away at that point.”

The National Park Service says the Never Summer Mountains have the only volcanic rock in Rocky Mountain National Park, deposited there millions of years ago. Today, it’s home to 20 miles of hiking trails, and tourism officials say the mountains have some of the oldest trees in Colorado – some up to 600 years old.

(FYI – Cripple Creek got its name, because livestock were frequently injured crossing the creek, and the Cache La Poudre River was named after a group of French trappers in the 1800s were forced to lighten their wagons to cross the river, requiring them to hide supplies – including gunpowder – in a pit.

For more from Colorado Public Radio, visit cpr.org