It’s October in Colorado’s Front Range and the animals are on the move. Elk, bighorn sheep, and others are making their annual migrations eastward to lower elevations. One such game path goes through stunning Rollins Pass. High and lonesome at 11,677 feet, Rollins sits smack-dab on the Continental Divide between the tributaries of the Colorado River and the South Platte.
Getting to Rollins is no small feat, but if you continue walking southeast and uphill from the pass, you’ll come to an expanse of tundra good for grazing. Then you’ll spot it: a line of interspersed rocks that looks a little too organized to have occurred naturally. This dotted line encourages you onward, and becomes a continuous line of rocks, then multiple layers of rock comprising a low wall. You see another wall in the distance, converging with yours to form a ‘V’ shape. But there is a gap between where the two would meet, and when you pass through it you find a dispersal of rock-lined pits which don’t look like they occurred naturally at all. In fact they appear ideal for concealing a few humans along with their bows and arrows, or in earlier eons, their atlatls and darts. And they were ideal. You are now standing at the “intercept point,” a spot where big mountain game met its doom for thousands of years.
This is the Olson Game Drive, one of the largest ancient communal hunting complexes on the Front Range. All told it involves about 1.3 kilometers of rock walls of varying heights, and 45 blinds, also known as shooting pits, to which animals would be hazed and funneled—uphill and downwind—to waiting hunters. Above the intercept point, near the ridge’s high point, is the “pinnacle area” and the largest of the pits. Here hunters could ready their tools while taking shelter from the wind, warming themselves with small fires while watching for signals from their scouts to the west. Near the pinnacle is the “ground stone area,” a place where other task groups processed plant foods for sustenance.
How old is Olson? The oldest projectile points found suggest an initial occupation as far back as 8,000 BC. Other points and radiocarbon dates indicate more activity from around 3,000 to 1,000 BC. The peak use appears to have begun in the Early Ceramic era, around AD 150, and continued into the Late Prehistoric period up into the centuries before white arrival. This was a time of increasing cultural complexity, semi-sedentism, and the introduction of pottery and bows. Lichenometry, a very cool technique that estimates dates by measuring lichen diameters, indicates many of the structures we now see were built around AD 600 and significantly modified around AD 1100. It’s clear that Olson was not a one-time deal, but rather a palimpsest, a successful hunting complex that underwent many iterations over thousands of years.
What did they hunt? Elk, deer, pronghorns, bison? It’s easy to let your imagination run wild and imagine a stampede of hundreds of animals, charging uphill to an intercept point and cliff in the style of the large bison kills on the Plains. In reality bighorn sheep were probably the prey of choice, and Olson hunts were slow and controlled, and only a few animals were taken at a time. Mountain game doesn’t aggregate in large groups, and the size of the intercept gap allowed only a few animals to pass. Many more animals would have overwhelmed the hunters. Regardless, Olson hunts were communal in nature, prepared activities that were coordinated among groups of people taking on different roles.
Animals were probably not processed up here. They were likely field dressed or quartered, and moved to post kill camps down at the many gorgeous alpine lakes in the area, where the meat was processed and the hides worked. Every lake in the area has archaeological evidence of such camps. Choice treats of freshly killed meat could have been taken to the nearby ground stone area, however, and mixed with abundant alpine berries to make pemmican.
You might ask why hunters came all the way up here to get game, when there was an abundance of it on the foothills and plains. But it’s important to recognize that situations shifted over the millennia, as did climate and population pressures. One thing about Olson is that, unlike the Egyptian pyramids, the structures were pretty easy to build and—just like the pyramids— once they were there they stayed there. So perhaps the kilocalories received from a few bighorns versus the effort required to develop and use the site made the whole thing worth it. And remember, this went on over a long period of time.
It’s a wonderful feeling to crouch in an ancient hunting blind and imagine everyone and everything that came before you. And then there is the extraordinary scenery! As well as the fantastic journey you undertook to reach this high, lonesome place. To get to Rollins Pass you have two choices. For one, you can drive an hour and a half from the western Winter Park side, crawling up an excruciating 4WD road that rattles your bones. This is the option I presented in my upcoming book, Base Camp Denver, 101 Hikes in Colorado’s Front Range.
Much preferred for me is to take the long and beautiful hike up from Eldora on the eastern side. This delectable trek begins in forest and moose flats, and ascends 3,000 feet past twinkling Jasper and King Lakes to reach Rollins and the Olson Site. I’d have included it in my book if not for the fact that it’s a 17 mile round trip, which is not a day hike for many people, and means that Denver wouldn’t then be their base camp!