Tourism in South Park is deeply connected to recreation, which in turn is driven by the existence of healthy resources. The beginning of modern recreational use of South Park is said to have begun in 1868 when Colorado Territorial Governor A.C. Hunt invited a group of dignitaries to recreate in Colorado, including South Park. Today, recreation-based tourism plays a major role in South Park’s economy and continues a nearly 150 year tradition of recreation.
Outdoor recreation, commonly thought of as fishing, camping, hunting, and target shooting, has been a form of recreation in South Park for generations. As the West was settled and communities developed, these skills, which often had been a matter of survival, became a form of occasional free-time pleasure and relaxation. Early stagecoaches brought fishermen and hunters from Denver and Colorado Springs to South Park, and later the railroads also catered to the recreationist. The Colorado Midland railroad was well known for tacking on a hunter’s or fishermen’s caboose to its freight trains. At Hartsel, the railroad dropped the caboose, which provided a base camp and limited shelter for the outdoorsmen. Today, outdoor recreation is a major part of the tourism segment of the local economy and brings substantial income to the communities of South Park. South Park continues to provide excellent hunting, particularly for elk. With more than 50 miles of gold medal trout water, South Park is also an excellent place for anglers.
Many early miners of South Park were also avid mountaineers who, as a pastime, summited the peaks of Mounts Bross, Lincoln, Democrat, and Sherman. Mount Lincoln, which offers from its summit a view of more than 50 peaks over 13,000 feet in elevation, was a favorite. After the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1864, the summit of Mount Lincoln became a popular pilgrimage destination for those wanting to pay homage to the slain president. In 1868, Colorado Territorial Governor A.C. Hunt invited several prominent people to recreate in the mountains of South Park. Among them were journalist Samuel Bowles, future Vice President Schuyler Colfax, and Lt. Governor William Bross of Illinois, who was so moved by the view atop Mount Lincoln that he began singing the Doxology. The party was so impressed by his devotion and quality of song that they named an adjoining 14,000-foot mountain after him. Today, the Mosquito Range and the two Wilderness areas (Buffalo Peaks and Lost Creek) are popular mountaineering destinations. Hiking, ice climbing, snowshoeing, and cross country skiing are also popular in the mountains that surround South Park.
The abundance of rare plants and wildlife has brought many naturalists to South Park. Idlewild, located in Eleven Mile Canyon, was a popular stop on the Colorado Midland railroad for wildflower excursions. Today, South Park has a high density of rare plants; abundant wildlife, including herds of elk that number into the hundreds; many migratory birds; diverse and concentrated minerals; and unique areas for ecological study such as the Bristlecone pine forests. The natural landscape, historic locations, wildlife, and colorful people who make South Park their home are magnets for artists, film makers, and photographers.
Horses have long been a part of life in South Park—as tools of the cattle trade, for transportation and cartage, for exploration, and for sheer enjoyment. Rodeo has been a part of South Park since the early ranch days, giving a platform for cowboys to compete using their practical skills. Guest ranches have been popular as retreats and recreation since the early 1900s, and trail riding is ever popular. Horseback riding opportunities abound in the South Park.
Bicycle touring and camping in South Park continues to grow in popularity and often connects South Park with neighboring communities. Mountain biking attracts many riders because of the high quality of trails in South Park. Off-highway vehicles and four-wheeling, snowmobiling, and hot air ballooning have found avid followings in South Park. There is a need to reduce the negative impact of these activities on South Park’s natural resources while also providing for more recreational opportunities and improved maintenance of existing roads and trails.