Colorado, “the Centennial State,” was the thirty-eighth state to enter the Union on August 1, 1876. Its diverse geography encompasses 104,094 square miles of the American West and includes swathes of the Great Plains, southern Rocky Mountains, and the Colorado Plateau. Colorado has an average elevation of 6,800 feet, the highest in the nation. As of 2016 the state has a population of 5,456,574. The metropolitan area of Denver, the state capitol and largest city, has a population of 2,754,258. Other large cities include Colorado Springs (population 445,830), Fort Collins (156,480), and Grand Junction (59,899). The name “Colorado”—a Spanish word meaning “to go red”—comes from an early Spanish description of the reddish sediments carried by the Colorado River. Residents of the state are referred to as “Coloradans.”
Weather and Climate
Colorado generally features a dry, sunny climate. Most areas of the state see about 300 days of sunshine each year. The state’s high altitude and lack of humidity produce fairly large daily and seasonal temperature swings, resulting in cooler summer nights and warmer winter days. In many parts of the state, varied topography produces a multitude of microclimates, some subject to rapid shifts, blizzards, droughts, flash floods, and thunderstorms.
Humans have occupied Colorado’s diverse environments for about 13,000 years, leaving traces of their early presence in such places as Mesa Verde and Chimney Rock in the southwest, the Lindenmeier Folsom site in the north, the San Luis Valley in the south, and the Arkansas River valley in the southeast. Among the early Native American inhabitants were the Ancestral Puebloans in the southwest (c. 350 BC–AD 1300) and the Nuche, or Utes, of the Rocky Mountains (c. AD 1300–present). Later indigenous groups include the Jicarilla Apache, Kiowa, Comanche, Arapaho, and Cheyenne of the Great Plains (c. 1600–1869).
Politically, all or parts of Colorado have belonged to the Spanish Empire (1598–1821), Mexico (1821–48), the Republic of Texas (1836–45), and the United States of America (1803–present). Multiple Spanish expeditions explored the eastern and western parts of the state from 1540 to 1777, and expeditions led by Zebulon Pike (1806–7), Stephen H. Long (1820), John C. Frémont (1843, 1845, 1848, and 1853), and John Gunnison (1853) plied rivers, scaled peaks, and surveyed potential railroad routes on behalf of the United States. Hispano settlement officially began in 1851 with the founding of the town of San Luis, and large-scale Anglo-American settlement began in 1858 after the discovery of gold near present-day Denver. Colorado became a US territory in 1861.
The Colorado economy has a long history of boom-and-bust cycles, often tied to fluctuations in the broader US and global economies. For instance, demand for fur clothing in the eastern United States, England, and elsewhere led to a booming fur trade in Colorado during the 1830s and 1840s. But overhunting of beaver and bison, combined with a global change in fashion tastes, sank the industry by 1850. Similarly, the US government’s repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1893 put an end to a prosperous period of silver mining in the 1870s and 1880s.
When gold and silver reserves were depleted in the twentieth century, towns such as Aspen, Breckenridge, and Telluride converted defunct mining economies into booming tourist economies based on skiing and the arts. Bolstered by a thriving sugar beet industry, agriculture along the Front Range of the Rockies and in eastern Colorado boomed in the early twentieth century, only to be devastated in the 1930s by the Dust Bowl and Great Depression.
While the state has seen many industries come and go, there are also those that have endured to the present. Visionary capitalists such as William Jackson Palmer recognized the strong tourism potential of Colorado’s climate and scenery as early as 1870; after nearly a century and a half of tourism-related development, the state remains among the most visited in the nation. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, white settlers of Colorado’s sunny Western Slope set up a fruit industry that remains an important part of the regional economy. Ranching began during the Colorado Gold Rush and remains the lifeblood of many rural Coloradans, as demonstrated at local rodeos, county fairs, and national events such as the National Western Stock Show.
Colorado’s various economic endeavors have laid the foundation for the state we know today, but they have also left troubling social and environmental legacies. Racism, for instance, has often cast a shadow over Colorado’s economic prosperity. The mining booms of the nineteenth century hinged on the dispossession of the state’s indigenous people; the Ku Klux Klan infiltrated state and local governments during the prosperous 1920s; Mexican beet workers were forced to live in decrepit shacks while their labor supported the profitable sugar industry; and World War II munitions factories hummed just hours away from a Japanese internment camp.
Colorado also faces a range of environmental issues related to economic development. Nineteenth-century mining has left a toxic legacy of acid mine drainage in the mountains, while residents across the state continue to debate and deal with the effects of pollution related to coal, oil, and natural gas extraction. Along the Front Range, agricultural and urban development made possible by large water diversion projects, such as the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, has now outpaced available water supplies, raising the specter of water crisis. Meanwhile, the environmental effects of highway construction and tourism in the high country are cause for concern among local governments that rely on tourist dollars.
Over time, Colorado’s diverse geography and populations have produced a rich cultural mosaic, reflected in everything from architecture to cuisine. The southern part of the state draws on Puebloan, Spanish, and Mexican influences, while the traditions of Anglo- and European American farmers and ranchers prevail on the eastern plains. The area along the Front Range of the Rockies has a long history of extensive cultural contact, assimilating elements of Native American, Anglo- and European American, African American, Asian American, and Mexican American cultures, just to name a few. The 1960s counterculture, the Chicano Movement, the movement for LGBT rights, and other social movements have left their mark in places such as Denver, Nederland, and Crestone. As of 2012, 58 percent of Coloradans hailed from another state or country, reflecting the state’s long history of immigration and cultural amalgamation.
Statewide, Colorado culture is marked by a strong sense of appreciation for and stewardship of the natural environment, owing to the state’s vast amount of public land. The state is home to four national parks, eight national monuments, and eleven national forests, all of which include some of the nation’s most picturesque landscapes. Indeed, it was the view of the Colorado landscape from the top of Pikes Peak in 1893 that inspired poet Katharine Lee Bates to write the song “America the Beautiful.” Colorado culture has also been heavily influenced by ranching, farming, mining, skiing, hiking, biking, and hunting, as well as more recent industries such as oil and gas extraction, craft beer, and cannabis.