Thanks to a certain television show, the term South Park is familiar to many.
What most comedy fans don’t realize is that South Park is an actual location that encompasses close to 1,000 square miles of mountainous terrain along with the towns of Fairplay and Alma, Colorado. Another surprise? There’s a North Park and Middle Park too.
So, what’s with all the parks? These parks are actually broad, large valleys located between 7,000 to 10,000 feet above sea level and are surrounded by mountains. The three largest in Colorado are North, Middle and South, but there’s also Estes Park, Winter Park and Woodland Park.
Early trappers and explorers, like John Fremont and John Wesley Powell, referred to these high, treeless mountain meadows as parks. Ringed by snowcapped peaks and containing the headwaters of many major rivers, these areas supported a wide variety of animals, plant life, and even geothermal springs.
The first settlers in the mountain parks were the Ute and Arapahoe Indians. They would retreat to these areas during summer months due to the mild climate and vast amount of wildlife that grazed there. Many of these tribes’ well worn trails from years of seasonal migration became roads that brought trappers, miners and eventually the ranchers and settlers to these mountain refuges.
North Park is near the Colorado and Wyoming border. It contains the headwaters of the North Platte River. Middle Park, while not as wide of a valley as North Park and South Park, offers more forested, rugged terrain than its meadow-filled cousins. It also contains the headwaters of the Colorado River. South Park, which contains the headwaters of the South Platte River, is the largest and southernmost of three high altitude parks. With a population of 610, the old mining town of Fairplay is South Park’s most populous community (and also the town which the television show South Park is based on).
Visitors to any of these parks must still travel over high mountain passes before entering these oases hidden in the folds of the rugged Rocky Mountains. Their breathtaking vistas still have the power to inspire awe as they must have hundreds of years ago to the Ute and Arapahoe inhabitants.