Founded in 1888, Walden is located in the high basin of North Park in Jackson County, at an elevation of 8,099 feet. Considered the “Moose Viewing Capital of Colorado,” Walden has an estimated population of 600. Despite its small population, the town stays busy with seasonal influxes of hunters, anglers, and other outdoor enthusiasts. Since its founding, Walden has been the economic and political center of North Park, serving as the county seat and only incorporated town in Jackson County.
Walden is in North Park, a high-elevation basin comprising miles of wetlands, rich grass, and rolling hills near the Wyoming border. Numerous rivers and streams run through the basin, most notably three tributaries of the North Platte River: the Canadian, Illinois, and Michigan Rivers. Enclosing North Park are the Medicine Bow Mountains to the west and the Park Range to the east. North Park’s grasses and streams have long attracted a variety of wildlife, from elk and deer to numerous bird species that frequent the Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge south of Walden. These natural resources have also made North Park an attractive place for cattle ranching, logging, hunting, and tourism.
The area’s indigenous people included Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Ute people who came to North Park in the summer to hunt buffalo and other game. Following the Meeker Incident of 1879, the Northern Ute bands were forced out of Colorado. By that time, a number of white ranching and mining settlements had cropped up in the park.
Walden’s history is closely tied to the natural resource and agricultural economies in North Park. European Americans first established ranches and homesteads throughout North Park at the end of the 1870s. In the mountains around North Park, prospectors set up mining camps such as Teller City. These people living dispersed across North Park needed a central place where they could buy and sell supplies and goods. To meet that need, North Park residents founded a centrally located town in 1888 and named it after Mark S. Walden, a postmaster living in the nearby settlement of Sage Hen Springs.
Walden started small, but over the next decade it grew into North Park’s commercial and social hub. The first edition of the North Park Union newspaper on July 31, 1896, noted that the town had two general stores, three saloons, three doctors, two blacksmiths, a market, a school, a shoemaker, and a veterinarian. In addition, ranchers who lived nearby formed the North Park Stockgrowers Association in 1899. As the cattle industry in North Park began to boom at the turn of the century, farmers also experienced success growing crops in the region, with hay being the most successful. With ranching and farming, a strong agricultural sector began to take hold in North Park.
With growth came the need for a more structured local government. In 1909 the state legislature created Jackson County, and state officials dedicated Walden as the county seat.
Walden and North Park continued to grow during the 1910s, built primarily on the natural resource economy that has remained foundational to its existence. By 1910 ranchers in North Park collectively owned more than 31,000 cattle and 2,000 sheep, and there were 165 farms. As these livestock and agricultural operations grew, so did the town of Walden. The region also boasted mineral extraction in the southwestern part of the county, near Coalmont. The US Forest Service had also been extracting timber from forests outside of Walden.
Two major events in 1911 and 1913 solidified Walden’s place as North Park’s most prominent town. Walden’s central location made it an ideal place for a rail hub, and in 1911 the Laramie, Hahn’s Peak & Pacific Railroad (LHP&P) laid tracks to the town. The railroad meant goods could be shipped to and from Walden faster and cheaper than before. With a railroad in Walden, local cattle ranchers, hay farmers, and coal miners could now spend more time working and producing, while not having to worry about making a long trip to sell their goods. For those living in Walden, the LHP&P made traveling out of North Park easier. Despite this development, Walden’s population remained fairly small because of its isolated location.
As the railroad reinforced Walden’s role as the commercial center of North Park, the Jackson County Courthouse, built in 1913, solidified its place as the political center. The state hired architect William N. Bowman to design the courthouse. The Jackson County Courthouse was built of stone from local quarries northeast of Walden at Mendenhall Creek, in part because locally available materials cost less to ship and were more readily available. Today, the courthouse is listed on the Colorado State Register of Historic Places.
Two more industries took hold in North Park during the 1920s: oil and tourism. That decade, the Continental Oil Company struck oil northeast of Walden. This sparked an oil and gas operation in North Park that stayed constant through the 1960s, when the industry brought in $2.5 million per year. Oil interest waned for the next few decades until the late 2010s, when the Trump Administration relaxed drilling restrictions on public lands.
The second industry, tourism, took hold in 1926, when workers finished construction on State Highway 14 over Cameron Pass. This connected Walden with the Front Range by automobile. The Routt County Sentinel celebrated the new highway on June 4, 1926, stating that Walden should expect “a surprising flood of tourists” and that the road would “put Walden on the tourist map.” The tourism and natural resource industries persist in North Park today.
North Park’s tourism industry got a boost from moose in the 1970s. Before then, moose had strayed from Wyoming into North Park from time to time. To help the moose expand their territory, Colorado wildlife managers transplanted twenty-four moose to North Park from Utah and Wyoming in 1978–79. The populations boomed, and by the 1990s, wildlife managers began transplanting North Park moose to other parts of Colorado. Local populations were so successful that Walden branded itself as the “Moose Viewing Capital of Colorado” in 1995.
Today, Walden remains the economic center of North Park. Natural resource extraction, agriculture, ranching, and tourism keep its economy going. Walden is located between Fort Collins and Steamboat Springs, serving as a midway point for tourists driving to and from each town. Yet Walden is not merely a stopping point, as it also has its own recreational attractions. The town is surrounded by public land, including State Forest State Park and the Roosevelt National Forest to the east, the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest to the west, and the Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge to the south. Each area offers numerous opportunities for fishing, hiking, biking, cross-country skiing, and camping. North Park even features two groups of sand dunes on its northeastern edge, with visitor facilities maintained at the North Sand Hills Recreation Area.
Wildlife viewing and hunting are some of the largest draws to Walden. After their introduction in the 1970s, moose populations have become so successful that limited moose hunting is offered in North Park and the surrounding areas. In addition to moose, many come to North Park to hunt other animals. The Arapaho Wildlife Refuge, for example, offers hunting for a variety of birds, elk, and rabbits. Hunting is also permitted in the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest and in game management areas of the Roosevelt National Forest.
According to the 2010 census, 608 people live in Walden, making up almost half of Jackson County’s population. The town also boasts many small businesses, a school, and a small airport.