Located just west of Denver near the town of Morrison, Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre combines awe-inspiring natural scenery with natural acoustic splendor. The 868-acre park stands 6,450 feet above sea level between the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. The park’s amphitheater opened to the public in June 1941 and has hosted concerts, graduations, festivals, and other events ever since. Part of the extensive Denver Mountain Parks system, Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre has a rich history filled with many important figures and events that contributed to its rise as one of the Denver area’s most iconic cultural and natural landmarks.
Geology and Early Discoveries
The monolithic, 300-foot sandstone walls of Red Rocks rose up from a prehistoric ocean floor millions of years ago. The two largest walls, “Ship Rock” and “Creation Rock,” lie on the north and south sides of the amphitheater, towering over the rest of Red Rocks Park. Similar formations surfaced across Colorado, including Garden of the Gods near Colorado Springs and the Flatirons near Boulder. These three land structures are part of what geologists call the Fountain Formation. For about 15 million years at the end of the Cretaceous Period (145–65 million years ago), the Fountain Formation underwent a major tectonic event called the Laramide Orogeny, which also created the Rocky Mountains. This event lifted and tilted the Fountain Formation, exposing the rocks to erosion, producing the iconic slabs of Red Rocks. Weathering released oxidizing minerals such as iron, giving the rocks its reddish hue. In the late nineteenth century, bones of dinosaurs that roamed the area in the Cretaceous period were found at Dinosaur Ridge, just northeast of Red Rocks.
Human occupation of the Red Rocks site dates back thousands of years, to the Paleo-Indian period. Euro-Americans who moved to the Front Range during the Colorado Gold Rush of 1858–59 found that Ute Indians used Red Rocks as a sacred site and a gathering spot for music.
In 1872 Marion Burts became the first recorded owner of Red Rocks, which he named “Garden of the Angels.” He sold it to Leonard H. Eicholtz, a railroad construction engineer from Pennsylvania who developed Red Rocks into a park in 1878. Eicholtz added roads, trails, picnic grounds, steps, and ladders so visitors could explore the park. He later sold Red Rocks to John Brisben Walker in 1905 for $5,000. Walker renamed the park “Garden of the Titans” and began further developing the park and amphitheater to attract tourists. He constructed a wooden stage at the base of the naturally acoustic bowl framed by Creation and Ship Rocks.
Walker had to sell off portions of his land due to financial problems. He sold the central portion to the park of the Red Rocks Corporation, an enterprise run by John Ross. Ross donated 530 acres of Red Rocks to the City and County of Denver in 1927, and the city acquired 110 additional acres in 1928. By 1932, the Denver Department of Parks and Recreation had purchased nearly 690 acres in Red Rocks Park and along Bear Creek for $50,000. In 1941 the Denver Mountain Park system included 13,000 acres, most of which was outside the city limits.
In 1933 President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Congress created a set of programs designed to lift the nation out of the Great Depression. Known as the New Deal, the federal programs provided work relief, mainly to young, unemployed men. One of these programs, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), enlisted young men to help conserve the nation’s natural resources. George Cranmer, the manager for Denver Parks, saw an opportunity to use the CCC to implement his grand plan to convert the Red Rocks Park into a formal outdoor theater. In 1935, after the project was approved for federal funding, 200 men arrived from Durango and began working on roadways and bank side sloping.
Part of George Cranmer’s vision required an architect skilled enough to incorporate the natural acoustics of Red Rocks within formal theater elements. Once the amphitheater project was approved, the city and county of Denver appointed Burnham F. Hoyt as the head architect. Hoyt, a native of Denver, had already attained national recognition prior to designing the Red Rocks Amphitheatre. He designed continental seating, in which no center aisle exists; instead, there is enough space between each row to allow audience members easy access to their seats. During the same year CCC enrollees materialized, Hoyt gained an assistant, Stanley Morse.
Construction of the Red Rocks Amphitheatre did not commence until 1936, when US secretary of the interior Harold Ickes approved the project. The Red Rocks Amphitheatre proved to be one of the most complex structures the CCC built. Work began with leveling the floor between Ship Rock and Creation Rock. Because the floor sloped away from the stage, Hoyt had to create a grading plan. Work crews would use a considerable amount of dynamite to reverse the angled slope, and Denver’s city council and newspapers criticized George Cranmer for proposing such a noisy undertaking. Cranmer decided to have the CCC do all the detonations in one day to accommodate the sound concerns. The rock formations’ natural acoustics worked well with musical performances, but not with the booming sounds of construction and demolition.
Opening and Musical Performances
On the afternoon of June 8, 1941, Red Rocks held a soft opening for local officials, including Chief John F. Healy of the Fire Department, who enjoyed the Junior Orchestra of the Denver Symphony Society. On June 15, 1941, Red Rocks’ new amphitheater officially opened to the public with a performance featuring Helen Jepson of New York’s Metropolitan Opera singing “Ave Maria.”
Since the grand opening, Red Rocks has become a premiere concert venue. Great performers have stood on the Red Rocks stage such as Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, Harry Belafonte, Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, the Eagles, Santana, Willie Nelson, Journey, Grateful Dead, Tears for Fears, Kiss, Bon Jovi, Sting, Stevie Nicks, B. B. King, Nora Jones, Duran Duran, and DeVotchKa. Perhaps the most famous musicians to grace the stage were the Beatles, who played there on August 26, 1964. Besides concerts, Red Rocks hosts movie nights, yoga, and the annual Easter sunrise service as well as special events including weddings and graduations.
Thanks to the efforts of Friends of Red Rocks (FoRR), Red Rocks Park obtained National Historic Landmark status on July 21, 2015. Starting in 1999, the nonprofit organization spent fourteen years working with Denver to implement preservation recommendations that would prevent the commercialization of Red Rocks. FoRR continues to preserve the park’s natural beauty by conducting regular cleanups and contributing to the Open Space initiative, a joint effort by the city of Denver and Jefferson County to acquire private land around Red Rocks in order to preserve the natural setting.
Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre has a way of bringing people together. Generations old and new gather to make memories, further adding to the legacy of the park. Dinosaurs, ancient tribes, settlers, industrial businessmen, government officials, nonprofit organizations, architects, preservationists, historians, and music enthusiasts have all come to experience the wondrous venue and explore the breathtaking landscape around it. It took millions of years of geologic forces, a labor force from the Civilian Conservation Corps, the vision of Burnham Hoyt and Stanley Morse, the city and county of Denver, and the driving force of George Cranmer to complete the beautiful amphitheater. With the continued support of the park’s Denver-area stewards and visitors from around the world, Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre will likely remain a local and national landmark well into the future.