Ready to uncover two of Colorado’s best-kept secrets? Point your wheels towards Highway 285 and Park County, Colo. Immune from the winter ski traffic and summer weekend warrior traffic of its northern counterpart, Interstate 70, Highway 285 is Colorado at its best. Think evergreen forests, pristine rivers and abundant wildlife all opening up to miles upon miles of a beautiful high alpine valley, guarded by breathtaking peaks.
You’ll experience the best Colorado has to offer with fewer crowds in Park County. Stretching from Bailey to the north (which is less than an hour from Denver), to Alma to the west and Eleven Mile State Park to the south, there’s so much to explore from mining and railroad history, to outdoor recreation, to true Americana stops.
To get a taste of Park County, take a road trip down Highway 285, starting in Denver and heading west to Bailey, Colo.
Just west of Bailey, you’ll come upon the Coney Island Boardwalk. The 42-foot hot dog-shaped restaurant is nearly impossible to miss. What was supposed to have been the beginning of a chain of hot-dog shaped diners in the 60s has become a Colorado historical icon. The building is now in its third location. Contrary to the image of a traditional, greasy hot dog stand, Coney Island Boardwalk steps it up a notch. You’ll find gourmet, antibiotic-free hot dogs, condiments and beverages from local producers and even locally sourced potatoes in the fries. While you can still order your typical foot-long, chili-cheese coney, menu options include inventions like the Durango, an elk bratwurst with poblano corn relish and chipotle cream, or the Vegetarian Carrot Dog.
If you’re looking for a sit-down meal, head a little farther down the highway to the Shaggy Sheep (the-shaggy-sheep.com), outside of Grant. Located in a green cabin on the side of the road, you’ll find breakfast and lunch fare with a truly Colorado flair. Make sure to order the house-made green chile: in soup form or smothered over French fries with carnitas and cheese.
From Grant, take the first of two beautiful scenic detours: Guanella Pass Scenic Byway. Guanella Pass is also a great way to get between Interstate 70 and Highway 285. It provides opportunities to see autumn colors and beautiful views of Colorado’s high alpine tundra. Mt. Bierstadt takes center-focus, which is what locals call a “14er” – a mountain 14,000 feet or taller. Turnaround at the summit of the pass to continue your Highway 285 road trip or continue over to Georgetown for the day. Guanella Pass is closed to vehicles in the winter.
After all that eating and driving, you’ll be ready to get out and go for a hike by the time you reach Kenosha Pass (www.alltrails.com/explore/recording/kenosha-pass-amp-the-colorado-trail). Make sure to keep your eyes peeled for moose in the marshy area on the left of the road before you get to the parking lot. The Colorado Trail, a 567-mile through-hike, passes through Kenosha Pass. Park on the left side of the highway and take the West Kenosha Trail to experience an aspen-lined wonderland. This trail is particularly stunning in the fall and offers views of South Park below. Because this is a through-hike, go as far as you like and come back the way you came.
As you drive west from Kenosha Pass, you’ll come down into the alpine valley known as South Park. Images of an irreverent adult-focused cartoon by the same name are probably coming to mind, but the view is something a little different. Nine hundred miles of beautiful prairie stretches as far as the eye can see dotted with the occasional ranch and herds of cattle or horses here or there. The whole valley is guarded by the surrounding peaks. It’s one of the most stunning vistas in the state.
The first town you’ll come to in South Park is Jefferson. Grab gas and a sweet treat at either the South Park Fudge Factory, or a milkshake at the Hungry Moose Caboose. Jefferson was once a railroad town but now serves as a stopping point for road trippers and through-hikers.
Your next opportunity for a scenic drive is at the turn-off for Como. Drive Boreas Pass between Como, Colo. and Breckenridge, Colo. for more stunning views. Lined with aspens, this route is also good for leaf-peepers. The pass was once the highest narrow-gauge railroad in the U.S., topping out at 11,481 feet but was converted into a road in the 50s. One of the buildings from the railroad town at the top of the pass still stands and is known today as the Section House Hut, available for winter rental by backcountry skiers. The pass is unpaved but does not require high clearance or 4WD. Boreas Pass is closed to vehicles in the winter.
Your final destination is the heart of Park County, Fairplay, Colo. Fairplay is the town that the TV-show South Park was modeled after. While the creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, never lived in Fairplay, they grew up in Littleton, Colo. and attended the University of Colorado Boulder.
Shops, restaurants and galleries line the streets of Fairplay, but one of the most interesting aspects of the town is South Park City. A restoration of the gold-rush towns that once dotted the valley, South Park City is now an outdoor museum that contains 44 authentic buildings, some on their original sites and some moved from other areas of the valley. Over 60,000 artifacts help portray what life was like during the gold-craze of the late 1800’s.
If you’re visiting Park County in July, make sure to add Burro Days (www.exploreparkcounty.com/events-festivals) to your itinerary. The festival is a hilarious celebration of the area’s mining heritage and occurs the last full weekend in July, The headlining event of the weekend is the World Championship Pack Burro Race, a 30 mile course beginning and ending in the streets of Fairplay and summiting the 13,185 foot Mosquito Pass. Other events include llama races, gold panning, a parade, barbeque fare, a barn dance and more.
For more information:
Park County Colorado Visitors Center
418 Main St., PO Box 1373, Fairplay, CO 80440