One of my favorite places to explore in Colorado is South Park. It is a vast and often inhospitable landscape surrounded by mountains on all sides, filled with wildlife and unique topography. A “park” is essentially a high mountain Valley, and South Park sits in the middle of the state. It is primarily a ranching community dotted with a few small hardscrabble towns like Jefferson, Fairplay and Hartsel.
To enter from any direction, you have to go over a mountain pass to what seems like a high-altitude bowl. Despite it’s reasonable proximity to Denver and Colorado Springs, the harsh winters and windy conditions even on the most beautiful summer days discourage too much resort or vacation development, although cabins and country homes dot the landscape. To get a taste of South Park in an easy day trip from Denver, I often use this route:
Starting in the Denver metro area, take Route 285 southwest from the city up through the foothill towns of Conifer and Bailey. As you come into the small town of Grant, keep an eye out for big horn sheep along the roadside and up into the rocky outcrops. The Shaggy Sheep café near Grant is a good place to stop for breakfast.
Continue past Grant on 285 up to the top of Kenosha Pass. Moose frequent the boggy areas near the top. The Colorado Trail crosses the highway at the top of the pass and offers nice hiking in either direction. A mile-long walk along the trail as it goes north (on the right-hand side of the highway) leads to a terrific overlook of South Park. In mid-September at peak foliage, this place can be a zoo but the golden aspen leaves put on a show worth dealing with the crowds. Before the decent over Kenosha take advantage of the overlook parking lot on the left to get a sweeping view of the valley below.
Continue down the backside of Kenosha Pass into South Park. The highway cuts across a vast, expansive landscape of irrigated cattle ranches and high sage brush meadows. Keep an eye out for pronghorn antelope, elk and coyotes. Black bear and mountain lions are also residents but remain more elusive.
As you come into the small town of Jefferson (visible from the top of Kenosha), make a left onto Route 77 / Tarryall Road. Follow this road along Tarryall Creek for about 16 miles to Tarryall Reservoir. The reservoir is a good place to check out birds including summer populations of white pelicans. Park at the South end of the reservoir and hike around the waterfall spill way, or hike the shoreline of the reservoir itself.
Continue South on 77 to the very small town of Tarryall, stopping along the way to check out the road-side signs and a few historic homesteads. In Tarryall, make a right onto County Road 31 (CR31), a dirt road that cuts across a maze of back roads and ATV trails.
CR31 will end at State Highway 24. Make a right onto Route 24 and follow up over Wilkerson Pass. Stop here to take in a sweeping view of southern South Park with the Collegiate Peaks and Eleven Mile Canyon Reservoir in the distance. A side trip to either Eleven Mile or nearby Spinney Mountain State Park give you additional chances to fish, see wildlife or hike along the water.
Continue on Route 24 over Wilkerson Pass toward the town of Hartsel, the geographic center of Colorado. Keep an eye out for herds of Antelope. Once in Hartsel, make a right onto Route 9 toward Fairplay. As soon as you turn onto Route 9 keep an eye out for a herd of Bison on the left. If they are around, there is a small state wildlife area pull off on the left that allows you a closer (and safely fenced) view.
Take Route 9 into the town of Fairplay, making a right back on to Highway 285. The town has a historic Mainstreet (take a left onto Route 9 in town). The town plays off of the South Park TV series with a few shops and signs, and also celebrates its mining history with a block of historic buildings and a visitor’s center.
For a scenic side trip, continue a few miles on Route 9 north through the town of Alma (highest incorporated town in North America) up to the top of Hoosier Pass. This is the top of the continental divide and offers great views and some very scenic hikes from the parking area.
Backtrack down Route 9 into Fairplay and make a left onto 285. For a great lunch or dinner, stop in at the very casual Mason’s High Country Barbeque. Take 285 back towards Jefferson and back over Kenosha Pass. At this point you will have completed a loop through the eastern half of South Park.
As you continue back up 285 toward Denver, Brooks Place Tavern and Madwell’s Italian Restaurant offer 2 good casual dinner options in Conifer.