Park County covers 2,211 square miles of the Rocky Mountains in central Colorado. Park County’s elevation rages from 7,000 to 14,000 feet. The county’s namesake and dominant geographic feature is South Park, a large, high-altitude basin containing the headwaters of the South Platte River. Park County is bordered by Clear Creek County to the north, Jefferson and Teller Counties to the east, Fremont County to the south, Chaffee and Lake Counties to the west, and Summit County to the northwest.
Park County has a population of 16,510 and features just two incorporated towns. Alma, the highest incorporated town in the United States, lies along State Highway 9 in northwestern Park County, while Fairplay, the county seat, lies just to the southeast at the junction of Highway 9 and US Highway 285. Also located off Route 285 in northern Park County are the unincorporated communities of Bailey, Shawnee, Grant, Jefferson, and Como. Nearly 65 percent of Park County’s population lives in subdivisions around Bailey. Lake George, another unincorporated community, lies along US Highway 24 in the hills west of South Park, while Hartsel is in the center of the basin. The small community of Guffey lies just off Highway 9 in southern Park County. The county is also home to ghost towns, including Antero Junction, Garo, and Tarryall.
Clovis points found in the South Park Basin provide the earliest evidence of human habitation in the Park County area, dating to around 12,000 years ago. The climate during this time was colder and wetter than the present and supported a larger amount of flora and fauna than currently live in the area. Early occupants would have been hunter-gatherers who hunted mammoth and bison. Evidence for subsequent occupations is provided in regionally and culturally specific projectile points found throughout the area, which date until about 5,700 years ago.
The earliest modern Indigenous group, the Nuche (Ute), began to occupy the area in the fourteenth or fifteenth century. A Ute band known as the Tabeguache—the “people of Sun Mountain”—seasonally inhabited the area surrounding the Mosquito Range on the western side of South Park. This area proved to be a fertile hunting ground and held rich mineral resources, including chert, a stone used for arrowheads and points, and mica, which was used for signal mirrors. Plains peoples—including the Arapaho, Comanche, Kiowa, and Cheyenne—also ranged into the basin to hunt.
Around 1630, the Spanish became the first Europeans to enter the area and the first to contact the Utes in South Park. The Utes acquired horses from the Spanish, and the animals became an important status symbol in Ute culture and allowed the Nuche to expand their hunting territory. The Spanish called the basin Valle Salido, or Salt Valley, due to the salt springs in the area.
French fur trappers began arriving in the area in the early 1700s. They called the area Bayou Salade, “salt marshes.” American trappers arrived a century later. Trapping peaked in Park County between the 1820s and 1840s. Kit Carson was among the trappers who worked in the area. The first mention of gold in Park County supposedly came during this time as well. The explorer Zebulon Pike reported that beaver trapper Jim Pursley told him of a gold find near the headwaters of the South Platte in 1806, though neither man pursued it.
Mining and Ranching
The Colorado Gold Rush brought the first permanent white settlements to the Park County area in 1858–59. The discovery of gold along Tarryall Creek northwest of Como in 1859, along with subsequent discoveries in the area, enticed some 10,000 people to present-day Park County, including prospectors, merchants, laborers, and a host of other people hoping to cash in on mining and related activities. Miners and mining companies established camps throughout South Park, including the Mosquito Mining District near present-day Alma, and the present town of Fairplay on Beaver Creek. Park County was one of the original seventeen counties established with the Colorado Territory in 1861. Initially, the county seat was the mining camp of Tarryall, but two months later it was moved to Buckskin Joe, another mining community named for its founder, Joseph Higginbotham. Finally, in 1867 the county seat was again moved to Fairplay, where it remains today.
Gold, and later silver, made Park County prosperous. Between 1859 and 1867, miners produced nearly $2.5 million in gold, the majority of which was placer gold, or surface gold that was accessible in streambeds. After 1867, those deposits were panned out, and mining companies began using more expensive, machine-driven techniques such as hydraulic mining and hard-rock drilling to extract gold from mountainsides and underground veins. This ended the era of the individual prospector, since only capital-rich companies could afford the machinery and infrastructure necessary for lode mining (hard rock mining). Using these new techniques, mining companies in Park County extracted more than $850,000 of additional gold between 1868 and 1880.
Silver, copper, and lead production began in the early 1870s and totaled about $3.7 million by 1880. In 1871 silver was discovered on Mt. Bross, and the Moose Mine became a highly lucrative enterprise. By 1881, it had churned out nearly $3 million in silver. Smelters were built in the town of Alma, near Mt. Bross, to extract silver from ore. Over time, other minerals—including zinc, molybdenum, and uranium—along with oil, gas, and some coal were all mined in the region. Mining began to decline drastically in the region by the early 1890s.
Farming was difficult in Park County due to the high altitude, short growing season, and harsh winters, so ranching became the dominant form of food production in the area. Samuel Hartsel, Adolphe and Marie Guiraud, and Charles Hall were among the first ranchers to move into South Park in the early 1860s. Ranchers primarily raised cattle and sheep, as they were generally hearty enough to survive the long winters. One agricultural product that became popular in Park County was native hay, which became known around the world for its rich nutrient content—some European royalty ordered Park County hay for their horses.
Ranchers capitalized on the region in other ways as well. Hartsel built baths in the mid-1870s around the hot springs on his land and offered accommodations to travelers. He first housed tourists in his home and later built a small hotel close to the baths. Hall, meanwhile, founded the Colorado Salt Works and sold the important preservative to other residents in the area. Salt proved a lucrative product for Hall until the railroad arrived in Park County and decreased the need for long-term food preservation.
The growth of population and industry in South Park led to tension and conflict with the Tabeguache Utes, who used the area as a summer hunting ground. In 1859, for example, Tabeguaches killed a handful of prospectors near Tarryall, and several other white men were killed in South Park. In the 1860s the area was also the site of clashes between the Utes and the Arapaho. As white occupation of the area increased, the US government brokered treaties to remove South Park’s indigenous people. The Treaty of Fort Wise in 1861 removed the Arapaho and their plains neighbors, the Cheyenne, to eastern Colorado. In 1864 Congress approved a treaty with the Utes that granted the United States rights to all land in Colorado east of the Continental Divide (and Middle Park). To hasten the Indians’ removal, the government encouraged the hunting of bison. In 1897 the last wild bison in Colorado were killed in South Park.
Railroads and Growth
The growth of Park County brought the railroad. The Denver South Park & Pacific (DSP&P) first reached the town of Como in 1879. This narrow-gauge line was the first to reach central Colorado’s mining districts, running from Denver over the Platte Canyon into South Park, and eventually into Leadville. The railroad meant ease of travel for residents, businesspeople, and visitors and brought the regular arrival of newspapers and mail. Telegraph lines also came into South Park alongside the railroad tracks, providing a faster communication link to Denver and the rest of the nation. The DSP&P carried building materials and other goods into South Park and freighted ore, cattle, and hay back to Denver. The Como Depot was the primary stop in Park County. In 1880 another depot opened in the town of Jefferson. The line expanded again the following year, adding stops in Fairplay and Garo. It reached Alma in 1882 and continued into Summit County.
The arrival of the DSP&P encouraged the development and expansion of South Park’s towns. Rancher William Head, for instance, platted and expanded Jefferson in 1883, and the town became an important supply town for the county. The town of Garo also expanded at this time, becoming an important depot for the cattle and hay industry. In 1881 a hotel opened in Como, and in 1885 the Union Pacific Railroad bought and expanded the business and named it the Pacific Hotel. It primarily served rail passengers and crew. In 1896 the Pacific burned down and was replaced by the Como Hotel. Throughout this period, Como prospered as a railroad town for the DSP&P, as workers moved there with their families.
In 1887 the standard-gauge Colorado Midland Railroad (CM) arrived in Park County. This line ran west from Colorado Springs, through South Park, and on to Grand Junction. It brought building materials, processed foods, furnishings, and other goods to South Park and carried cattle and hay back to the Front Range. The ranching town of Hartsel became the primary CM stop in Park County.
George Frost completed construction on the Lake George Dam in 1890, which ran across the South Platte River at Eleven Mile Canyon. On the reservoir, named Lake George, Frost began an ice production facility that supplied the Colorado Midland Railroad with ice for produce railway cars.
The increase in ranching and population created the need for water and land management programs in South Park. Following a series of dry summers, the state created Water District 23 in 1888. Meanwhile, the 1891 Forest Reserve Act led to the establishment of the Pikes Peak Timberland Reserve, the Plum Creek Timberland Reserve, and the South Platte Reserve in 1892. The reserves protected forests from the timber industry, which in turn helped protect the land from flooding and erosion. In 1907 President Theodore Roosevelt’s administration consolidated the three reserves into the Pike National Forest.
The Silver Panic of 1893 severely affected Park County’s silver mines. Silver production declined sharply as prices fell, dropping from 62,350 ounces in 1893 to 43,817 ounces in 1894. Mines closed, jobs evaporated, and rail traffic decreased due to lack of freight. County gold and silver mines rebounded in the early twentieth century, however, hitting a peak production value of more than $600,000 in 1909.
That year, a fire destroyed the DSP&P offices in Como. Rather than rebuild, the railroad moved those offices to Denver, leading to a severe decline in the town’s population from which it never recovered. The following year, the railroad also decreased the number of trains and routes, again causing a decline in jobs and population. In 1926, the railroad again reduced routes, which left the town nearly abandoned.
In 1905 a fire tore through the town of Alma and destroyed many businesses. Other fires in 1915 and 1917 burned the Alma hotel, Catholic church, town offices, and much of the business district. Alma recovered and was rebuilt. During the Great Depression, a small gold rush drew many unemployed city workers to Alma and other mountain mining areas to search for their fortune. During this boom, two more fires, one in 1935 and another in 1937, destroyed most of the business district. While Alma was rebuilt again, it did not recover financially, as mining went into decline after the 1930s.
The Colorado Midland Railroad ceased operation in 1918, bringing an end to the Lake George ice works. In 1923 a flood destroyed the dam and the lake. The discontinuation of the CM line led to a major decline in population and commerce in Hartsel. In 1937, the Colorado & Southern (formerly DSP&P) discontinued service, bringing an end to all rail service in South Park.
Tourism and Culture
After the decline of mining in Park County, tourism and ranching were the major industries. The Hartsel Ranch’s hot springs was a tourist destination until 1972, when the hotel burned down and the hot springs closed. In 1938 Lake George Dam was rebuilt and became a tourist destination and resort community.
In 1948 the first World Championship Pack Burro Race was held in Fairplay. As a part of Burro Days, an annual festival held the last weekend of July, the race sends runners twenty-nine miles to the top of Mosquito Pass and back with a burro. The South Park City Museum opened in 1959 and manages forty-two historic buildings, seven on their original site and the rest relocated from Park County’s early towns. Visitors can explore buildings furnished c. 1880, as well as other exhibits showcasing the area’s mining history. In the 1990s the South Park area inspired Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s popular animated television series South Park.
In 1998 the Park County Land and Water Trust was established to help protect and preserve the county’s water resources and their associated land. This trust was created in reaction to Aurora’s proposed Conjunctive Use Project, which planned to divert groundwater from the South Park Aquifer to Strontia Springs Reservoir for use by Aurora residents. The Park County Land and Water Trust fought and defeated this proposal, preserving the county’s water resources for residents. Funded by a 1 percent county sales tax, the organization continues to work for Park County water rights through the creation of educational signage and conservation easements on some of the county’s most scenic properties.
Today, tourism and outdoor recreation form the backbone of the Park County economy. The entertainment and recreation sector employs 334 people, second only to the 400 jobs in public administration. The county is home to many federal recreation areas, including Pike National Forest, the Mt. Evans, Lost Park, and Buffalo Peaks Wilderness Areas; Eleven Mile Canyon Recreation Area; and part of the Colorado Trail, among others. Bristlecone Pine Scenic Area allows hikers or skiers to see 2,000-year-old bristlecone pine trees that have been warped by the wind. Pike National Forest is also home to many popular fishing and camping areas.
Popular outdoor activities for tourists include hiking, mountain biking, snow shoeing, ice climbing, cross-country skiing, and mountaineering. Park County is home to four Fourteeners, mountains that rise over 14,000 feet: Mt. Lincoln, Mt. Democrat, Mt. Cameron, and Mt. Bross—all of which are accessible via a single trailhead at Kite Lake—and Mt. Sherman, accessible via County Road 18. Park County also features a variety of wildlife, including elk, bighorn sheep, bobcats, and other animals.
Farming and ranching also continue in Park County today. As of 2012, county ranchers raise a combined herd of 6,565 cattle and calves, and hay remains the top crop.