A National Park away from Colorado’s flashy chondolas, six-packs and cabriolets lies one of the world’s oldest operating tramways that is also one of the coolest. A ride on the Estes Park Aerial Tramway takes you back to August 1955 when Robert Heron opened America’s first scenic tramway on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. The Heron Family still owns the operation which stands much the same as it did 61 years ago. The tram whisks eight tourists at a time up Prospect Mountain from Memorial Day through Labor Day for $12 apiece and shows no signs of modernizing any time soon. General Manager Steve Barker leads a team of dedicated mechanics, operators, attendants and support staff who return to the tram year after year.
The Estes Park Tramway ascends Prospect Mountain’s 1,060 feet in one free span, reaching 200 feet in the air at times. Two cherry red cars manufactured at a shipyard in 1955 were designed for 12 passengers but now hold up to eight modern Americans. A brisk trip at 1,400 feet per minute lasts two minutes and twenty seconds yielding a capacity of 280 passengers per hour in each direction. At the top, guests are treated to panoramic views of Estes Park Village, Rocky Mountain National Park and the surrounding mountain peaks.
Robert Heron got his start in 1937 with Kennicott Copper designing material tramways after graduating from the Colorado School of Mines. Stearns Roger Manufacturing later hired him to design portable tramways for use by the 10th Mountain Division during World War II. After testing at Fort Hale, Mr. Heron’s design debuted in Italy at the Battle of Riva Ridge carrying food, ammunition and water up and American casualties down a 1,500 foot mountainside. In 1945, Robert and his brother Webb founded Heron Engineering which built its first lift – a single chair – at Aspen Mountain. The Heron brothers went on to build the world’s first double, triple and quad chairs at Berthoud Pass and Boyne Mountain. Heron merged with Poma in 1970 and the rest is history. Robert Heron was inducted into the Colorado Ski Hall of Fame in 1985 and passed away in 1999 but his legacy lives on at Estes Park and the 33 other sites that still operate his lifts.