In the heart of Colorado, there is a place where cowboys roam and an endless wind whistles through high prairies. It’s a place where the past is always present and a quiet way of life is cherished by locals.

It feels remote, but the boundary of Park County is less than an hour west of Denver and about a 30-minute drive from Breckenridge, one of the world’s most popular ski towns. Yet Lost Creek Wilderness, located entirely within Park County, has a reputation for being one of the least visited wilderness areas in Colorado.

The county ranges from 7,000 to 14,000 feet above sea level, and as U.S. Hwy. 285 dips down from Kenosha Pass, the area looks like a large, high-mountain plain. 

Fishermen long have been drawn to Park County, and some big fish have been pulled out of Spinney Mountain, Eleven Mile and Antero Reservoirs. Fishing is a popular pastime in the region, and the most prized areas are known only to those who fish the waters of places such as Tarryall Creek, where access is limited because of private property.

Fairplay is the county seat and the biggest town in the region. With a population of about 700, it’s obvious that Fairplay isn’t overly crowded, but there’s a surprising array of things to do, including eating and drinking.

Seven of the 40 buildings in South Park City are original to the site, located in the northwest part of downtown Fairplay.

Open to the public from May to October, South Park City is a historic reconstruction of a mining town from the late
1850s through the 1880s during the Colorado Gold Rush and the Colorado Silver Boom. 

Among restaurants serving fare ranging from burgers to tapas is a tamale shop that has appeared on the Food Network’s “The Best Thing I Ever Ate.” It’s called Dorothy’s Tamales and is conveniently located next to Continental Divide Winery.

There is no shortage of places to grab a drink in Fairplay, and with two distilleries – the Snitching Lady Distillery and South Park Distilling – local craft spirits are easy to find, as well.

The main draw to Fairplay in the summer is South Park City, a museum that is a living representation of a thriving mining town circa the late 1800s. Long before a bunch of wacky, irreverent cartoon characters made South Park famous, mining reigned supreme in the region.

One of the best times to visit South Park City is during Living History Days. Held the second weekend of August, Living History Days paints a living picture of the Old West, with volunteers in period dress role-playing as 19th-century townspeople.

South Park City is not Disneyland, and these buildings are not replicas – they are authentic structures that have been moved from abandoned ghost camps and towns around the 900-square-mile South Park basin. The site’s 40 buildings include an assay office, a newspaper building and a boarding house. Seven are original to the location, which occupies the northwest part of downtown.

A visit here can take several hours, especially for those interested in Colorado’s rich and colorful history. South Park City Museum is open May 15 through October 15, and one of

the best times to stroll through is on one of the museum’s Living History Days or during Burro Days.

Burro Days is Fairplay’s largest festival and has been taking place since 1949. Occurring on the last weekend of July, the highlight of this three-day event is the burro race. The runners and their burros reenact the sequence of events that occurred whenever a prospector made a find.

The prospector and his trusted burro would run back to the nearest assay office to stake a claim to the plot of land where they discovered the gold.

At nearly 30 miles round-trip, this race is no joke, and the route, which runs to the top of Mosquito Pass and back, is the longest of any burro race in Colorado.

The 71st annual Burro Days and World Championship Pack Burro Race will be held July 26-28 in Fairplay.

Everyone from doctors to writers takes part in the race with their own burro or a borrowed burro. With the brays of the burros ricocheting off the historic buildings that line Fairplay’s Main Street, the start of the burro race is a memorable experience.

For those who want to get the lay of the land and see stunning scenery, a two-hour driving loop starts and ends in Fairplay. The first section of the route goes by the Rocky Mountain Land Library, an internationally known organization.

For more than 20 years, the library existed only in the minds of Jeff Lee and Ann Martin. Inspired by St. Deiniol’s Residential Library in Wales, the two longtime Tattered Cover employees from Denver finally saw their vision begin to take shape in 2013, at an abandoned, historic ranch that was leased to the land library for 95 years.

Buffalo Peaks Ranch, just outside of Fairplay, was a dream come true for Lee and Martin. Now the home of the Rocky Mountain Land Library, the ranch is not just a physical place but also a way to connect people to the land through books. The

Park County property, still undergoing renovations, also serves as a gathering place for workshops that host writers, naturalists and artists.

Park County is one of the last bastions of peace within an hour and a half of Denver.

Open by appointment only, the library is home to around 40,000 fiction and nonfiction books about the natural world. To support and keep tabs on this incredible addition to Park County, visit www.landlibrary.wordpress.com.

From the library, the driving route heads south on CO Hwy. 9 through Hartsel, a tiny town where cows outnumber humans. This section of the drive affords vistas of distant, soaring mountains and rolling ranchland. 

Hartsel is in the geographic center of the state and has the apt nickname, “The Heart of Colorado.” The town was founded in 1880 by rancher Samuel Hartsel. In Hartsel, the route turns east on U.S. Hwy. 24 to Lake George. 

The Burro Days race route to the top of Mosquito Pass
and back is the longest burro race in Colorado.

Instead of continuing on U.S. Hwy. 24 toward Manitou Springs and Colorado Springs, go north from Lake George on Tarryall Road. This road winds its way through scenery that looks like something straight out of an old Western.

It passes many weathered wood buildings leaning precariously one way or the other as it follows Tarryall Creek. The land here is lush in the summer, and the creek is a black ribbon in winter, surrounded by crusty snow.

Past Tarryall Reservoir, the Stagestop Store & Saloon is a pit stop for many who travel this way. The wood-clad building acts

as a year-round watering hole and community gathering spot. Drive for about 10 minutes, and Tarryall Road meets U.S. Hwy. 285 at Jefferson, a blink-and-you-miss-it kind of town.

Located on the southwest corner of Tarryall Road and U.S. Hwy. 285, Jefferson Market serves up some of the best breakfast burritos in the state.

With an 18-minute drive southwest over Red Mountain Pass, the loop is complete back in Fairplay.

For a tranquil getaway, Park County is one of the last bastions of peace within an hour and a half of Denver. If nature, history and quiet are the goal, Park County is the answer.

All photos by Heidi Kerr-Schlaefer