Denver’s mountain parks offer an escape from the city’s concrete jungle. The parks dot the Front Range and some extend deep into the mountains. They offer hiking trails, campgrounds, and learning opportunities. One of the most popular park features over the years has been Echo Lake Lodge.
Located near the base of Mount Evans, the lodge has served as a popular summer stop for tourists hiking or visiting one of Colorado’s tallest 14s. And for 57 years, Bill Carle’s family has run a restaurant and gift shop.
That is, until now.
The city declined to renew Carle’s contract earlier this year and closed the concession store and restaurant. Although Carle hasn’t been heavily involved in the day-to-day running of the store in the past, he took over after his sister passed away last year.
“I tried to meet up with Denver for months before the lease expired,” he said. “They brought me over in December and said, ‘Well,[your sister]did a great job at Echo Lake, but we want to go in a different direction.'”
This other direction includes a return to what Shannon Dennison, director of Denver’s Mountain Parks, calls “mission-based” use. Exactly what that looks like is still being planned by the city, but some early plans include overnight use, the reopening of the upper floor to the public, and repairs to the septic tank.
Dennison has worked for the City of Denver for five years and last year became Mountain Parks Director. She became a park ranger in 2004 and has worked in many national parks.
“I look forward to bringing more mission-oriented use back to the lodge,” she said. “To use it as a visitor center, to give people the opportunity to program overnight, to be able to use the rooms upstairs again and to be able to sleep in the building.”
The process will take three years and during that time the lodge will be partially open. While heritage architects and construction workers come and go, tourists continue to be treated to food and drink via a food truck. Dennison hoped the lobby could reopen as a visitor center as early as next year.
Restoring a historic building is not as easy as renovating a home or office. Out on the park grounds, Dennison says Denver’s outdoor adventures and alternative sports master plan should be a big help for Echo Lake Park.
“One of the focuses will be Echo Lake Park and try to bring back some of the winter recreational activities,” she said. “We used to skate up there in the 1970s, so we’d like to bring that back.”
Dennison also said Denver is evaluating how the lodge, which is not open in the winter, could be upgraded to support snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. The lodge is not winterized which means it does not support running water in winter. Research into winter use is one of the tasks of monument protection.
Dennison said Denver hopes to reopen the building for its 100th anniversary in 2026.
All of these plans left a sour taste in Carle’s mouth. His family has been in this business for 130 years, starting at Pikes Peak and slowly but surely expanding outward and upward.
“My sister made cakes for 40 years. Someone in my family made the donuts bake at Pikes Peak for 99 years,” he said. “It takes someone to get up every morning and do this to make these things legends, make them icons and make them a part of the culture. You can’t come in and invent this stuff.”
Carle recalled a number of stories told to him during his final days at the lodge. Some used it to celebrate anniversaries, others birthdays and some just came for the restaurant. One person, a 99-year-old, came into the restaurant for a final meal. She had come many of those years and shared a picture of her sister at age 3 eating at the restaurant.
Memories like this make Carle think Denver didn’t think his move through.
“It’s almost like it’s a whim,” he said.
Four years before the national park system, Denver Mountain Parks were established to bring people to the mountains. Denver’s image as a mountain town was shattered 100 years ago, as it often is today.
Denver leaders realized that the city was missing out on two important things as more people moved west: tourism funds and a good trail to the mountains.
“People would travel to Denver expecting it to be the gateway to the mountains, and as we know Denver is the Queen City of the Plains,” Dennison said. “There are no mountains in Denver, so people either went to Estes Park or Manitou Springs.”
Enter the Denver Mountain Parks. Prior to its inception, much land in the mountains was privately owned. Names like Gates and Boetcher graced the sides of mountain mansions that were off-limits to the public.
With limited space, Denver set about developing what Dennison called an automotive travel system. People could drive to Denver and take a day trip into the mountains where they would picnic, visit historical sites like Buffalo Bill’s grave, and experience mountain adventures before returning to the hustle and bustle of the developing city.
However, the advent of the freeway system has transformed much of the tourism landscape.
“It brought deeper mountains closer … so people started bypassing the mountain parks a little bit more,” she said. “Much of the Denver community grew in the foothills and many of the parks were surrounded by suburbs.”
Echo Lake Park was an exception. Built on US Forest Service land, the park has managed to retain the pristine feel of what the mountain park system was originally designed for, Dennison said.
The lodge was originally built in 1926 for $28,106. Adjusted for inflation, the lodge would have required an investment of $473,216 in today’s dollars.
Aside from the family history that connects Carle to the lodge, there is also a practical element: food and water for hikers and tourists.
“It’s the only thing there is: 14 miles to Idaho Springs, 19 miles to Bergen Park, 14 miles to the top of Mount Evans, and it’s the only place you can get a bottle of water,” Carle said.
Carle admitted that he is in the souvenir business.
“People like to buy souvenirs,” he said. “It’s been good to my family for five generations and they just ignore that.”
But the heavy commercial use is what worries Dennison. This was an important factor in allowing the contract to expire, especially considering the building is almost 100 years old and essential systems are starting to fail.
“We’re not promoting the same services again,” Dennison said. “The concessionaire has made many suggestions over the years about different types of commercial activities in which it would like to be involved. Those weren’t always things that we could support for one reason or another.”
Carle said one of those proposals was to build a 5,000-square-foot expansion of the gift shop. This would allow the lobby to be opened up as so many stock images show.
“You all see this picture of some people in front of the fireplace in a rocking chair,” he said. “I had a proposal with them and thought I’d talk about it. We didn’t even discuss anything, I was just told, ‘We’re moving in a different direction.’”
Although the experience was bittersweet and Carle didn’t want things to end at the lodge, he said he was able to process it. On Wednesday night, he mopped the floor as he had done countless nights before. He thought about all the time he had spent at the lodge and he said it was a way to clear everything in his head.
But on his last day, Carle got a bad cherry on top. A friend and business associate came to help him clear out his last remaining items. The 72-year-old had just finished his 13th course of chemotherapy when he slipped in the parking lot and broke his arm.
“This is how it ends at Mount Evans: A friend who gets injured tries to come and help me,” he said. “So I had a good time on the way out, sorted it out in my head, and then this happened. I was like, ‘Son of a gun, this didn’t have to end like this.'”
Though the ending is far from what Carle wanted, the self-proclaimed “rock ‘n’ roll” businessman has other ventures to pursue. He recently purchased and restored an amphitheater in Missouri, and his family continues to operate the concession stand at Buffalo Bill’s gravesite.
He left Denver the door open should the city decide to reopen the lodge to concessionaires.
“It wouldn’t be me. It will be my nephew,” he said. “He’s 36, I’m 68, and I think the amphitheater is the last project I want to take on.”