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On Walkabout In: South Park City, Colorado

Basic Information

  • Start Point: Colorado Springs
  • End Point: Fairplay, Colorado
  • Distance: 167 miles round trip
  • Time: Full Day Trip
  • More Info: South Park City website

Google Map of the Drive:

Narrative

Last month, my wife and I took a nice drive into the mountains to the west of Colorado Springs to go and see the fall colors before winter set in.  Besides seeing the leaves change color we also decided to make a drive to the small village of Fairplay in order to check out the infamous South Park.  Highway 24 is the main road from Colorado Springs that accesses the mountains to the west.  The highway gains over 2,000 feet in altitude as it traverses up Ute Pass to Woodland Park.


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From Woodland Park the highway passes through some nice hill country that is interspersed with grassy meadows, impressive rock formations, and of course colorful trees:

As the highway continues to travel to the west the views looking back to the east of the 14,115 foot Pikes Peak become quite impressive:

From this vantage point it really becomes quite obvious how unusual Pikes Peak is to other mountains in Colorado.  Unlike the other 14,000 foot mountains in the state that are part of a mountain range, Pikes Peak sits off to the east bordering the Great Plains all by itself.  Really the only other mountain that rivals Pikes Peak in regards to how it just sits off by itself to the east would by the twin Spanish Peaks located just south of Colorado Springs.  The fact that Pikes Peak and the Spanish Peaks stuck so far out to the east made them usually the first mountains that the early pioneers spotted as they traveled towards Colorado from the east.

As Highway 24 travels through the hill country to the west of Pikes Peak it eventually enters into a large bowl like high country grassland called South Park:

Pictures really do not do justice to how large South Park is.  This basin is approximately 640,000 acres in size and sits at an average altitude of 10,000 feet (3,000 meters).  Here is a panorama image of South Park that I took using my iPhone:

The bowl shape of this basin causes it to collect water which makes it the headwaters of the South Platte River.  South Park is one of three similar basins in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains with the other two named appropriately Middle Park and North Park. The largest town in South Park is Fairplay, Colorado which has a population of approximately 610 people.  Fairplay is reached by turning off of Highway 24 and on to Highway 9 and traveling northwest for about 30 minutes.  Fairplay is actually a nice little town with many old buildings in it.  For example one of the first buildings we saw when we drove into Fairplay was the historic Park County Library:

However, checking out the library is not the main reason people come to Fairplay.  The village’s biggest tourist attraction is actually the fixed up ghost town buildings that were reconstructed on the city’s northern outskirts and turned into an open air museum called South Park City:

South Park City was opened in 1959 and has no connection to the television series of the same name, but that doesn’t stop people from traveling here to claim they have been to South Park, Colorado.  To access this open air museum there is a visitor center where people have to pay an entry fee to be able to walk into South Park City:

Before going to check out the city it is definitely worth a few minutes to go and read the various displays about life in the high country many years ago:

After checking out the visitor center the first building to see is this large brick building where inside there are more informative historical displays to check out:

What I like best about the historical displays are all the old pictures of life in the area many decades ago:

It was also good to see that some of the display space was used to educate people about the original inhabitants of the area, the Native-Americans:

Just up a small hill from the brick building was this wooden chapel:

According to a marker outside the church, this building was shipped piece by piece from Montgomery, Alabama where it was formerly a hotel by Reverend John L. Dyer.  After reassembling the building in Colorado, Dyer had it converted into a church:

From Dyer’s church we next walked down the small hill and into the downtown area of South Park:

The above picture shows how beautifully clear the weather was the day we visited South Park.  However, what the picture doesn’t show is how cold it was.  The temperature was in the low 40’s which actually is pretty warm for a late fall day this high up in the mountains, but the blowing wind made the temperature feel like it was in the 20’s.  So due to how cold it was outside my family and I hustled through the old ghost town to see all the sites before we got too cold.

Checking out the inside of the town’s various buildings was a welcome relief from the cold wind outside.  Just about every building in South Park has its interior decorated the way it would have looked over 100 years ago.  For example here is how the inside of a building used for laundry service would have looked:

Here is how the inside of the local courthouse would have looked:

Besides the buildings the museum has also recreated what an old mine would have looked like:

Wagons would have been how the first settlers to South Park would have traveled here, as well as being the primary transport for miners working in the mountains.  While in town they would need a place to park their wagons so this what this building was, an early parking garage:

Stagecoach wagons would also have been running into town and the place they would have stopped is at the Stagecoach Station:

Walking inside the Stagecoach Station I found it to be very similar to one I visited in the remote desert ghost town of Shakespeare, New Mexico due to its long communal dining room table and rooms upstairs for guests:

Eventually steam technology would reach this remote part of the country and some of the mines would have used this technology to move carts of ore and rock with early steam engines such as the one pictured below:

Eventually steam technology advanced to where it became the dominant technology to transport goods and people with the invention of the locomotive.  Eventually tracks were laid to South Park and the city’s train station would have been a busy hub of people coming and going from the small town:

Here is the closer look at the train that was on display next to the station:

After checking out the train we then walked into the station.  Inside the station was actually quite small and there was not a whole lot of room for passengers to sit down at:

I did think it was interesting to see how big the wood fire stoves were back then that were used for heating all the buildings to include the train station:

Like most of the other buildings back then the schools were quite small as well:

The classroom inside was one room and had the basics for teaching back then which was books, chalkboard, and maps:

Pictured below are the final buildings we checked out in South Park City:

Here is the inside of a general store:

Here is the inside of a bank:

Here is the looking up the main streetodd South Park City looking towards the west:

Finally here is one last view looking from the South Park City museum area back into the main shopping area of Fairplay:

As can be seen above, at least one business owner has tried to cash in on the town’s connection to the South Park television series, but I was actually quite impressed with how the city of Fairplay has not sold out and tried to cash in on its South Park connection.  There was absolutely nothing posted at South Park City that tried to tie it into the television series of the same name.  I really liked how the people who upkeep the ghost town have kept it as a historical attraction to educate people about life in the Old West instead of making it a cheap pop culture location by putting up Cartman and Kenny images everywhere.

 Conclusion

Overall, a visit to South Park City is not a must see for anyone traveling to Colorado, but it really is a place worth checking out if you have time to spare while traveling through Fairplay and heading to one of the ski resorts for example.  By the way for anyone looking for discounts this ski season check out the supertravel.co.uk website for all the latest deals.  The open air museum may disappoint South Park series fans, but for those looking for an interesting look back into Colorado’s historical past will not be disappointed.

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