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The History of Hiking Sticks

April 14, 2020

At Snow Mountain Ranch, it’s a rite of passage to create your own hiking stick.

At Snow Mountain Ranch, it’s a rite of passage to create your own hiking stick. From small to large, we can help you create hiking sticks of all sizes! But why are hiking sticks such a big deal? Let’s explore the history of hiking sticks!


Before we talk about hiking sticks, let’s talk about the history of wood in Grand County. In Middle Park, home to YMCA of the Rockies, Snow Mountain Ranch, pine and aspen trees can be found cloaking the mountainsides surrounding the wide flat valley floor.

Today, skiers and snowboarders can be seen weaving between the stands during winter and early spring, while hikers and mountain bikers test their stamina as they climb and explore the vast forested area during the summer and fall months. Our forests, however, also have a story to tell us about this place we live in and love to visit.

Throughout the centuries, trees have been an important part of this area’s history. They have provided fire wood and shelter for some of our nation’s first people, the Ute and Cheyenne, and for the first white settlers who moved here in the 1800s. Intensive tree logging began when miners and the railroad moved to the Park in the 1870s.

Wood provided support in underground mines, and engineers used logs for railroad tracks and bridges as well as for fuel for wood-burning steam engines. As more settlers moved into the area, sawmills sprung up to cope with the demand for boards and planks to build the towns and more elaborate homes. We have relied upon our forests and trees to sustain us and our communities either as a source for fuel and shelter, or for enjoyment.

Logging is an important part of maintaining the forest’s health, but too much can bring environmental changes that effect the health of the forest and the animals that rely upon it for their survival. Forests provide shade for undergrowth and shelter for smaller animals. They shade the ground from the sun, creating patches of snow that endure through late May. But with the loss of stands, snow melts at a faster rate creating quicker run-off, soil erosion, and drier conditions. This knock-on effect, along with a warmer climate, has created optimum conditions for forest fires and pine beetle infestations. Between 1996 and 2016, Grand County lost 581,000 acres of lodge pole pine as well as dealing with major fires. At Snow Mountain Ranch, we have endured both.


Snow Mountain Ranches encompasses over 5,000 acres of land, including old logging areas such as Blue Ridge Mountain. When YMCA of the Rockies purchased Just Ranch in 1967, the area was heavily wooded. While some clearing was done, we kept many of the trees, but when the devastating pine beetle arrived in the area, our trees were also affected and that lead to large swaths of dead trees around our property.

In 2007, a wildfire burned 50 acres, and in 2008, the decision was made to clear out the dead trees and to build fire breaks around our buildings. This decision, while changing the aesthetics of the landscape, was an important one. In 2010, another major wildfire threatened our property, but because of the foresight to build fire breaks and remove dead trees, our buildings were saved: there was little fuel available for the wildfire.

Today, we continue to manage the forests on our property and re-use the wood where we can – from trail building, constructing fences, and historical preservation of our buildings, to programming, such as making hiking sticks at the Rowley Homestead.


YMCA of the Rockies Institutional Archives, Lula W. Dorsey Museum, Estes Park

Thomas G. Andrews, Coyote Valley: Deep History in the High Rockies (Harvard Press, Cambridge, MA: 2015)

Robert C. Black, III, Island in the Rockies: The History of Grand County, Colorado to 1930 (Pruett, Boulder, CO: 1969)

Watch the video to learn how to make hiking sticks at home. In the meantime, here are some facts about hiking sticks!


  • Walking sticks are made from a variety of materials including ivory, whalebone, ebony and other types of wood.
  • They have had many uses over the centuries.
    • Early humans used them for support while walking or defense against animals or rivals.
    • In Africa, Egyptian kings and priests used walking sticks, usually about 3-6 feet in length. In Egyptian culture a person’s walking stick would remain with them until death, and would be placed in their sarcophagus or coffin to aid them in their travels during the afterlife.
    • In North America, Native Americans have a long association with sticks. Here are some of the ways Native Americans have used or still use sticks today. The planting stick, sharply tipped for sowing seeds, was used by women working in the fields, where the shaman’s staff, frequently carved with a totem, is a symbol of magical power. There are prayer sticks, medicine sticks, story sticks (with carvings that told a history), “talking” sticks (passed around at council meetings), a conversational device because only the person holding the stick could talk, and a coup stick, which a warrior used to touch an enemy before killing him, then carve a notch on the shaft to represent the kill.
    • In Europe, kings carried canes or sticks which acted as symbols of authority and social prestige. A scepter or ornate stick carried in the right-hand symbolized royalty and a stick or scepter in the left-hand represented justice.
    • Bishops carry curved shepherds’ staffs that symbolize how church leaders lead flocks of people, like shepherds have to lead their sheep, to safety.
    • American Presidents used canes for ceremonial purposes and still often receive them as gifts.
    • Many homesteaders, like Carl Just and Fred Rowley, would have used walking, or hiking sticks to navigate their way up the mountainsides, herd their animals (sheep and cattle), or as use them as weapons to scare or fight off wild animals.
Assigned Categories: Snow Mountain Ranch, Activities & Programming, Hiking

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