Vail Daily Travel: Traversing Kenosha Pass |

Vail Daily Travel: Traversing Kenosha Pass

Rick SpitzerVail Daily CorrespondentVail, CO Colorado
Special to the Vail Daily/Rick SpitzerVail Daily Travel: South Park as seen from Kenosha Pass. The small town of Jefferson is on the far left.

Even though 10,000-foot Kenosha Pass on the north side of South Park doesn’t offer much in the way of scenic views, there are exceptional viewpoints nearby. Views from the meadow just north of the pass are spectacular. The view from a parking lot 0.25 mile south of the pass stretches for more than 50 miles and probably inspires travelers as much today as it did in the late 1800s.Located 20 miles north of Fairplay on U.S. 285, the pass is between the towns of Jefferson and Grant. The Colorado Trail crosses the highway here. Additionally, the forest service has re-layed a section of the Denver, South Park and Pacific Railroad track and wye in the meadow near the Kenosha Campground and Picnic Area. An interpretive center discusses the history of this railroad line, which once crossed Kenosha Pass. When you are heading east from the pass, a great deal of the abandoned railroad grade is visible above the highway on the left (north) side of the road.

The name “South Park” is most frequently associated with the animated television comedy series about four third- and fourth-grade boys who live in the fictional town of South Park, Colo. There is also a South Park City, located in the town of Fairplay, Colo., that is an outdoor living-history museum. The South Park referred to in this book is neither the fictional town nor the museum. It is a high grassland basin located in central Colorado.The term “park,” as it applies to the high country of Colorado, refers to a large open valley surrounded by mountains. Native Americans were the first people to explore South Park. In 1806, American soldier and explorer Zebulon Pike entered the south edge of South Park, and the reports of his explorations drew the attention of hunters and trappers. John C. Frmont’s party also passed through the area in 1844.Miners discovered gold near Kenosha pass in 1859, and a wagon road was built over the pass soon after. Lured by the profits of the mines and the prospect of extending their line to California, the Denver, South Park and Pacific Railroad reached Kenosha Pass in 1879. A town named Kenosha thrived briefly atop the pass, serving as a convenient stopping place for the trains. From Kenosha, the line continued on to Como, then to the profitable mining towns of Fairplay, Gunnison, Breckenridge, Frisco and Leadville. The Denver, South Park and Pacific Railroad could not compete with the Denver & Rio Grande Western, however, and eventually fell into bankruptcy. The tracks for the railroad were removed in 1937, and now no railroads traverse South Park.

The Denver, South Park and Pacific Railroad used a special locomotive, called the Mason Bogie, to cope with the steep grade and tight turns that their lines through the Rockies presented. The Mason Bogie was an articulated or “flexible” locomotive; its frame pivoted to provide greater power for the sharp curves and uneven track found on narrow gauge lines such as the one that crossed Kenosha Pass.

Companies producing charcoal sprang up throughout the South Park area in the 1880s. Charcoal is created by cooking wood in an oxygen-deprived environment. These companies employed over 300 people in chopping down trees and tending the kilns where the wood was cooked. They produced tons of charcoal and, in the process, decimated nearly all the trees on and around Kenosha pass. The trees seen today have grown back since the kilns shut down in 1893.

Thousands of bison once grazed South Park. The area was an important hunting ground for the Ute. When white settlers came into the West, they almost hunted the bison to extinction. In 1897, hunters in Lost Park-an isolated valley in South Park’s northeast corner-shot Colorado’s last four bison.Local ranchers have reintroduced the plains bison. You may see them grazing along Colorado roadsides. Many area restaurants offer buffalo burgers and steaks. Bison meat contains 2 grams of fat per 100 grams of cooked lean meat, compared to 9 grams for beef. Because of its low fat content, bison cooks faster than beef.E-mail comments about this article to or visit

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