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South Park seen from the Colorado Trail near Fairplay

Joshua Hardin


Life will always have its challenges, but when you live in Colorado, every day is like a walk in the park. Literally. The more you travel the state, the more it seems like every other place name includes the word “park” – and that can get pretty confusing.

Yesterday, I left my Allenspark mailing address and parked at the Meeker Park Lodge to buy juice to drink while driving down to Bond Park, a typical municipal park in the Town of Estes Park, which sits in the geographic locality of Estes Park, which is adjacent to Rocky Mountain National Park, which most residents of Estes Park call The Park. In 1864, Denver newspaper editor William Byers named Estes Park for the first European-American settlers there. He used the term park, which had been the word for naming a valley surrounded by mountains since French-Canadian fur trappers began the practice in the 1820s and ’30s. The early trappers spelled it French-style: parc.

South of Rocky Mountain National Park, the town of Winter Park is adjacent to Winter Park ski area in Roosevelt National Forest. Rocky Mountain National Park is east of North Park, one of several very large parks (mountain-surrounded valleys) in central Colorado. To the south are Middle Park; South Park; Huerfano Park, west of Walsenburg; and Taylor Park, on the opposite side of many 14,000-foot peaks from Park County. The Park Range runs north and south, defining the west edge of North, Middle and South parks. South of South Park is Colorado's largest park, the San Luis Valley.

As you struggle to keep track of all the parks, consider how park names have changed to make things even more confusing. For instance, Rocky Mountain National Park contains various parks such as Horseshoe and Moraine parks. Between these two geographic localities is another park, Beaver Meadows. Although beavers are scarce there, meadows is an accurate name, because parks are dominated by meadow grasses and shrubs rather than the trees of surrounding forests. But early settler Abner Sprague, who named various national park features, didn’t call it Beaver Meadows – he called it Beaver Park. 

On the other side of the glacial ridge for which Moraine Park is named is Tuxedo Park, which does not look much like a park. It was named by F. O. Stanley, pioneer builder of the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, who was copying the name of a New York resort. Instead of meadow plants, Tuxedo Park is dominated by by trees growing in what foresters call a park-like stand, meaning that the forest is made up of even-aged pines reminiscent of trees planted to make municipal parks in the East.

Changing names from something else to parks also has been confusing. In the northwest corner of Colorado, Browns Park was famous as Brown's Hole in the 1890s, when outlaws grazed stolen cattle there. Today, Browns Park National Wildlife Refuge shelters wildlife.

A few Colorado park names are not confusing. The town of Woodland Park reminds us that the local economy once depended on making wooden supports for nearby mines. West of Colorado Springs, Mushroom  Park contains eroded rock formations that look like mushrooms. The rocks in Denver's Red Rocks Park are indisputably red. In Dinosaur National Monument, the spectacular cliffs above Echo Park certainly should bounce sound waves.

Four federal parcels in Colorado are designated as national parks, tracts of land kept in their natural conditions to protect naturalness and to benefit the public. This purpose is the only thing that these national parks have in common. Rocky Mountain National Park protects a stretch of mountains. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park goes in the opposite direction, protecting a very deep hole in the ground. Great Sand Dunes National Park wanders around a bit, pushed by the wind. Mesa Verde National Park is a dramatic outdoor museum, protecting ancestral Puebloan structures.

When Estes Park residents refer to Rocky Mountain National Park simply as The Park, they show a familiar affection which likely is duplicated thousands of times a day all over Colorado when people talk about those confusing and beloved parks.

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