Jackson County, named after former US President Andrew Jackson, covers 1,621 square miles in northern Colorado. It encompasses North Park, a large intermountain basin that holds the headwaters of the North Platte River. The North Platte flows north out of Jackson County into Wyoming. The county’s southern and western boundaries follow the Continental Divide along the Rabbit Ears and Park Ranges, separating it from Grand County to the south and Routt County to the west. To the east, the Medicine Bow Mountains separate Jackson County from Larimer County.
With a population of just over 1,350, Jackson County is one of the most sparsely populated counties in the state. The area was the summer hunting ground of Ute people for centuries before white ranchers and prospectors arrived in the 1870s. Since its establishment in 1909, the county has featured a largely pastoral economy, with its scenic landscapes and large wildlife populations drawing hundreds of visitors each year. Today, the county remains one of the best areas in the state to hunt, fish, and see moose and other wildlife. It also contains a number of mining ghost towns.
The county seat and only incorporated town is Walden, surrounded by pasture in the heart of North Park. With a population of 608, Walden lies along the Illinois River, one of many tributaries to the North Platte. State Highway 14 traverses the county westward from Cameron Pass through Walden, and runs toward its southwestern corner, where it meets US Route 40. The unincorporated community of Cowdrey lies north of Walden along State Highway 125, which runs from the Wyoming border south to the tiny community of Rand and into the Rabbit Ears Range.
North Park has a long history of human occupation, owing to its historically large populations of elk, mule deer, antelope, bison, waterfowl, and other game. The animals could be hunted fairly easily due to the natural pen of mountains ringing the park. Evidence of occupation by Paleo-Indian and Folsom people dates to at least 9,000 years ago. At one North Park site archaeologists uncovered obsidian tools that matched obsidian found in an ancient quarry site in what is now Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP). It is believed that Paleo-Indian and Folsom people established seasonal migration patterns between North Park and RMNP, traveling to the high mountains during the summer.
By AD 1400, Ute people began occupying North Park. A band of Utes called the Yamparika, or “root-eaters,” were the primary occupants of the area, although other Ute bands occasionally hunted and traveled throughout the park. The Yamparika—or Yampa Utes as they have come to be known—ranged widely, hunting in Middle Park to the south, the Flattop Mountains to the southwest, and as far north as the Little Snake River in Wyoming. Like other native people in Colorado, Utes lived in mobile dwellings called tipis, following the same seasonal migration routes as the Paleo-Indian people before them. Later, in the nineteenth century, Arapaho people also hunted in North Park, arriving via what is now known as Arapaho Pass between the Rabbit Ears and Park Ranges.
Arrival of Europeans
The present area of Jackson County was officially transferred to the United States via the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Possibly the first European to enter North Park was the French fur trapper Jacques LaRamée (La Ramie, Laramie), who explored the headwaters of the North Platte River in 1815. More French trappers began arriving around 1820, noting the abundance of beaver in the park’s many riparian areas. They were followed by American trappers such as Jim Bridger, Kit Carson, Jim Baker, and William “Old Bill” Williams. The American explorer John C. Frémont traversed North Park in 1844 on his way back from the present Salt Lake City area. By then the nineteenth-century fur trade in Colorado was in decline, largely due to over-trapping and a change in fashion tastes abroad.
Early American Era
The Colorado Gold Rush of 1858–59 brought thousands of prospectors to the Rocky Mountains in search of fortune and prompted the organization of the Colorado Territory in 1861. The Homestead Act of 1862 opened the supposedly unoccupied lands of North Park to white settlement, and homesteaders began setting up seasonal ranches. Prospecting parties also arrived, hoping to find the next big strike.
Native Americans resisted any white claims to their land. In August 1865, for instance, Utes drove a party of prospectors out of North Park. One week later, the Rocky Mountain News blamed several “Indian depredations” on a “large party of Lakota, Cheyennes, and Arapahoes” that “doubtless have their headquarters in the North Park.” Most of the Cheyenne and Arapaho were soon removed from Colorado after the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867. The Treaty of 1868 supposedly guaranteed the United States rights to all Ute land east of the Continental Divide and created a large Ute reservation on the Western Slope. Neither of these treaties, however, prevented Native Americans from returning to their traditional hunting grounds in North Park. In August 1869 Utes again demanded that a prospecting party leave the park. According to a report in the Laramie (WY) Sentinel, the prospectors had spent all summer building mine infrastructure and cabins, but they were told “they must vacate or hostilities would follow.”
Beyond their confrontations with Native Americans, the North Park prospectors of the 1860s had only limited success locating gold. By By July 1870, however, the gold diggings on Independence Mountain, in what is now northern Jackson County, were apparently extensive enough to sustain a lucrative mining operation. On July 8 that operation was dealt a severe blow when, after a nearby battle with Utes, a group of Cheyenne turned on the Independence Mountain miners, killing several of them. Mining at Independence Mountain would eventually resume and continue into the twentieth century.
Even though the prospect of gold held the interest and attention of many, North Park was already showing potential for other enterprises besides mining. The area’s tourism potential was apparent as early as 1869, when the English adventurer Frederick Townshend traveled to Laramie on the transcontinental railroad and had a successful hunt in North Park.
While the occasional traveler like Townshend could get away with a hunt, in the 1870s the threat of Native American attacks kept most whites away from North Park for at least part of the year. In 1874 James O. Pinkham was one of the first white prospectors to spend the winter in the park. When gold profits failed to materialize, he turned to ranching. In 1876 Pinkham brought cattle into the park, grazing them in the lush hay meadows. He built a home near what is today known as Pinkham Mountain and was the first person to sell North Park hay to other Colorado ranchers; today, hay is Jackson County’s largest and most distinctive crop.
In 1878 the Fordyce family became the first white family to spend an entire winter in North Park, setting up a ranch near Pinkham’s. The Fordyces had a herd of milk cows and sold milk and butter in Laramie. More ranchers arrived in 1879, including C. B. Mendenhall and Ted G. Hoston.
As the area’s first permanent ranches were being established, silver discoveries in 1879 sustained interest in North Park’s mineral resources. In June the Colorado Transcript reported that prospector John Harris of Berthoud located “plenty of rich silver-bearing quartz leads” on the west side of the park, and that “a town had been laid out” along the Michigan River, a tributary of the North Platte. Meanwhile, Teller City, another silver mining camp, was established in the Medicine Bow Mountains southeast of present-day Rand. By 1880 it had more than 1,000 residents. A toll road was built from Fort Collins to North Park in 1880, but transportation of ore from the park still proved costly. As a result, Harris’s town never quite developed into the boomtown he envisioned, and Teller City was abandoned by 1885.
When Colorado became a state in 1876, North Park was part of a larger Larimer County that stretched from the Cache la Poudre River in the east to the Continental Divide in the west. Conflict with Native Americans did not cease until the mid-1880s, when most of Colorado’s Ute population had either been removed to Utah or to a small reservation in southwest Colorado.
The town of Walden was established in 1890 as a commercial hub for North Park’s ranchers. The town was named after Mark S. Walden, the postmaster of the nearby settlement of Sage Hen Springs. In 1899 local ranchers organized the North Park Stockgrowers Association, and by 1910 North Park had 165 farms and ranches that collectively owned more than 31,000 cattle and nearly 2,000 sheep.
In addition to ranching, mining continued in North Park through the early twentieth century, although it never reached the production levels that many in the region had hoped. Between 1895 and 1917, mines in Larimer/Jackson Counties produced $66,435 in gold, silver, copper, and zinc, a paltry amount compared to the millions being pulled out of Colorado’s other metal-producing counties. However, in the early twentieth century a large deposit of coal was found in southwest Jackson County, and large-scale mining operations began after the railroad arrived in 1911. The town of Coalmont was established to service these mines.
As North Park’s ranching and mining operations continued into the early twentieth century, it became clear that the area would need its own jurisdiction. The state legislature created Jackson County, with its current boundaries, in 1909. Walden, the only incorporated town, became the county seat. In 1911 the Laramie, Hahn’s Peak & Pacific Railroad (LHP&P) arrived in Walden from Laramie, Wyoming, finally allowing efficient transportation of North Park’s butter, hay, minerals, and other products. In 1926 North Park got another economic boost when work was completed on what is now State Highway 14, connecting Fort Collins to Walden.
President Theodore Roosevelt established the Medicine Bow Forest Reserve (now the Medicine Bow National Forest) in 1902 and the Park Range Forest Reserve (now Routt National Forest) in 1905. The establishment of these two reserves protected the forests on the east and west sides of North Park from overdevelopment and overgrazing, but it also led to tension between cattle and sheep ranchers and to skepticism of federal land management.
At its meeting on November 13, 1909, the North Park Stockgrowers Association declared that “this is not a sheep country” and that members “protest against the grazing of sheep within the North Park country, either upon the national forests or upon the public domain.” But by 1926 Jackson County still had thousands of sheep, and according to Arthur C. Johnson of the Denver Daily Record Stockmen, “North [P]ark on the whole . . . has been given its o.k. as a sheep section. Flocks can be wintered as successfully as can the cattle.” Later, in 1945, the Stockgrowers Association protested new federal grazing rules, arguing in the Steamboat Pilot that US Forest Service officials “have made cuts in numbers and in time of grazing permits without consulting permittees.”
To further guarantee the success of its industry, the Stockgrowers Association also encouraged eradication of predators. In 1910, for instance, the association offered bounties of twenty-five dollars for each gray wolf killed. That year, nine wolves were killed in North Park; by 1945, because of similar bounty programs and other eradication efforts across the state, the entire Colorado wolf population was eliminated.
Tourism and Wildlife
As ranchers dealt with the range of issues that came with federal land management, Jackson County’s public lands began drawing larger tourist crowds. North Park received its first major influx of tourists in 1926, after the completion of Highway 14 over Cameron Pass.
Federal and state wildlife management has made possible a thriving outdoor tourism industry in North Park. The Colorado State Forest, now State Forest State Park, was established in 1938 on 70,980 acres southwest of Walden. Planned and developed as a multi-use forest, Colorado State Forest has accommodated ranchers, timber companies, and tourists since its founding. In 1967 the US Fish and Wildlife Service established Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge, which draws hundreds of hunters and anglers each year. Many come to hunt moose, which were rare in Colorado before Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) introduced a breeding herd of twenty-four male and female moose into North Park in 1978.
While ranching and tourism formed the backbone of the Jackson County economy, the twentieth century also saw the rise of extractive industries such as oil and timber.
In 1925 the Continental Oil Company struck oil northeast of Walden, and in 1926 a well was completed on what became the North McCallum Oil Field. Soon this first well was only operating on a limited basis due to difficulties in handling its carbon dioxide output. Later, in 1935, gas wells were drilled into the same rock formation to the south, creating the South McCallum Field. Drilling in the North McCallum field resumed during World War II, when nine additional wells were completed by 1945. By 1960 the North McCallum Field was producing an annual $2.5 million in oil. Both fields currently host limited drilling operations today.
The first timber sale in North Park occurred in 1906, after the creation of what is now the Routt National Forest. In 1936 the federal government sold 16,830 acres southeast of Walden to the Nebraska Bridge & Lumber Supply Company, which organized the Michigan River Timber Company and built a sawmill on the Michigan River. The camp held German prisoners of war during World War II. Timber contracts continued to be awarded throughout the twentieth century; in 1950, for instance, the J. C. Johnson Timber Products Company received permission to log 1,433 acres of the Routt National Forest. Large-scale timber harvesting continued until the 1980s, when the Michigan River Timber Company shut down operations.
Today, as it has been in the past, Jackson County is one of the state’s top producers of hay and forage crops, with 51,885 acres. Its cumulative livestock herd includes more than 24,500 cattle, 859 horses, and 297 sheep. The North Park Stockgrowers Association remains active, hosting annual meetings and banquets and awarding academic and vocational scholarships to students at North Park High School. The association continues to advance and protect the interests of ranchers, especially in regards to federal land management policy.
Jackson County also continues to draw many tourists and outdoor recreation enthusiasts. Fishing and hunting are two of the area’s most prominent activities. Ample spawning grounds for brown trout, such as the Delaney Buttes Lakes on the western end of North Park, make Jackson County one of the state’s hottest fishing destinations in the fall. The North Park Anglers, a large fishing outfitter business based in Walden, allows hunting and fishing on more than fifty square miles of land. For hunters, North Park features large herds of elk as well as more than 600 moose. The park is also the second-largest producer of waterfowl in Colorado and the second-largest migratory waterfowl area in the nation.
After a long absence, a different species of hunter may soon be returning to Jackson County. In 2007 a gray wolf was spotted in North Park, the first sign of the predator in the area in sixty years. The wolf was a wandering member of the Yellowstone gray wolf population, reintroduced to the Wyoming park in 1995. It was the second sighting of a gray wolf in Colorado since the species’ reintroduction to Yellowstone. In 2015 another gray wolf was killed near Kremmling, just south of Jackson County. Faced with the possible return of wolves to Colorado’s high country, Colorado Parks and Wildlife adopted a wolf management plan in 2004. In the event of natural wolf reintroduction, places like North Park and other parts of the state with dense livestock populations would be primary stakeholders in the implementation of the CPW strategy.