Then and now in Park County
PARK COUNTY – Long before thousands of gold hungry prospectors showed up in Colorado, rugged mountain men joined the Utes, Arapahos and other bands of Indians in the lush High Country they called Bayou Salado – or South Park.
They followed the trails over the rangeland and high mountains as they hunted buffalo, elk, deer, bear, foxes and beavers for food and furs.
Now, hikers, bikers, four-wheelers and ATV riders have some of the same encounters in the largely unspoiled areas of Park County.
On a given late-summer day here, there may be dozens of vehicles retracing the same path traveled by buckskin-clothed men and raw-boned freight haulers over the highest continuous road in North America – the famous Mosquito Pass Road that links Leadville to Alma and Fairplay.
That road and others like it provided the transportation for burro pack trains, steam locomotives and the thousands of settlers who came to Park County to find their fortunes in gold, silver and other less tangible treasures.
Settling the county
Only a few short months after the Denver gold rush of 1859 began, gold prospectors found their way up the South Platte River and over Kenosha Pass to flood the High Country of Park County. By 1860, Park could boast of having more than one-third of the total population of the state!
While the first towns of Tarryall, Hamilton and Buckskin Joe are now gone, the historic county seat of Fairplay, founded about the same time, is alive and well. So are Alma, site of one of the first and richest silver strikes in Colorado, and numerous other towns that haven’t traded in their pioneer spirit and charm for urban ways.
The first push of settlers from the eastern states into the High Country of Park County was in search of gold. But many quickly turned from the hope for a sparkle of gold in a pan to gazing across the high grasses of South Park and upon the 14,000-foot peaks and had a different vision of success.
They began to settle on the open rangeland and brought cattle to feed on the rich grass. They first fed the hungry miners and then expanded their markets for quality beef and mutton when the railroads appeared to crisscross the county.
Ranchers began to use the abundant water to irrigate their fields and began to grow and ship some of the finest quality hay in the country.
Remnants of the past
Today, drivers traveling across Highway 285 from Denver, south from beyond Hoosier Pass on Highway 9 and on Highway 24 toward Lake George and on to Colorado Springs can enjoy vistas that still include herds of cattle with occasional glimpses of cowboys cutting out strays.
If they ignore the power lines, sometimes travelers get a sense of time travel as they cruise the roads of Park County and view large herds of buffalos on Highway 24, the bouncing antics of antelope on Highway 285 or the occasional group of elk grazing near the Warm Springs subdivision.
In Park County, many visitors get to live out their dreams of fishing the wild streams for giant trout, snap a photo of some of the oldest trees in the world at Windy Ridge on Mount Bross or laze along in a boat on Eleven Mile Reservoir, watching the white pelicans compete for fish in graceful dives into the cold water.
Others, fresh from climbs on the four Fourteeners in Park County, plan their next hike as they enjoy coffee and lunch at one of the many small, family owned cafes or old-time bars in the county.
Some get a taste of the excitement the prospectors felt as they pan for gold at Fairplay beach and see that first trace of color in the pan, then stroll along the street of the South Park City Museum and imagine the life of folks in a mining town in the 1880s.
Lucky summer visitors might arrive in Park County in time to attend a rendezvous of mountain men in Como or wonder at the heartiness of runners who run a 30-mile race to the top of 13,186-foot Mosquito Pass and back to 10,000 feet at Fairplay, all the while convincing a pack burro to accompany the racer the whole way.
The town comes alive with booths, food and llama races to charm even the toughest critic. Nearly every Park County town has a summer festival ranging from Bailey Days in the northeastern part of the county, to Guffey’s Chicken Flying Contests in the far southern region, to Alma’s music-filled Festival in the Clouds.
For a taste of wild-riding cowboy life, a visitor might want to catch the rodeo at the Park County Fairgrounds, or for a look at modern riding, stroll along the streets of Fairplay during the Ladies Run Motorcycle Days, when hundreds of women ride their modern day steel steeds for a weekend of High Country relaxation.
Folks visiting Hartsel can reminisce about the days when trainloads of tourists arrived at the bustling Hartsel Hot Springs Resort as they munch on buffalo burgers at one of the eateries in town.
At Jefferson, drivers can turn off Highway 285 onto Tarryall Road and see the land still very much like it was in the old days of the ranching country.
A drive down Elkhorn Road almost makes one expect to see a wagon train coming the other way, ready to settle the high prairies.
Those choosing a more challenging way to travel from Breckenridge to Park County may want to drive along the old railway bed over Boreas Pass and follow the line on which steam trains struggled against steep elevations and deep snows to bring rich ores, supplies and trading goods to the two communities.
Park County and the U.S. Forest Service have restored the old section house near the top to its new use as a backcountry ski hut.
Those driving through the Platte Canyon portion of Highway 285, on the east side of Kenosha Pass, might envision the old road with wagonloads, and later, trainloads of potatoes, logs, hay, ice and other goods as they rolled out of Park County toward the markets in Denver.
They might imagine the early automobiles chugging along the highway to take families to the camps and tourist lodges, like historic Glen Isle Resort. Now, the area of Bailey, Shawnee and Grant, once a veritable marketplace for goods going to the city, has developed its own economy based on the many new residents who commute to the Denver metropolitan area but still want to enjoy the beauty of the canyon.
One of the first things one notices about the folks who choose to live in Park County is that they are here because they love the land. Many people choose to retire to the thin air of Park County to enjoy the hearty life of small-town and mountain living.
Many residents are highly accomplished craftsmen or artists, and shoppers can find a paradise of little-known works of art in the shops and stores in Park County.
Residents enjoy long hikes in the many national and state parks and wilderness areas, including opportunities to wander through the extreme high fens and view rare plants seldom found anywhere else in the world.
Many hikers have found examples of gemstones and other minerals, such as topaz, turquoise and rhodochrosite while exploring the area’s many hiking and mountain biking trails.
While some people believe the days of mining are over, many would be surprised to know that, in Park County, most of the former mining claims are still privately owned and often operated on a small scale. Those exploring in the mountains should be mindful of the dangers of approaching both the abandoned and current mines and respect private land.
While much of Colorado has experienced dramatic changes, Park County has retained the flavor, personality and beauty of the past, while preserving the easygoing lifestyle and love of nature that continues to attract people to the area.
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