Coming soon: a new state park in southern Colorado

By Trust for Public Land
Published September 12, 2019

Coming soon: a new state park in southern Colorado

Juan De La Roca was ready to leave Colorado behind. For 25 years, he’d lived, worked, and played in the mountains around Denver and Boulder. But the state’s booming growth was driving up housing prices and snarling traffic, and the once-lonesome trails where De La Roca rode his bike were getting crowded.

So he started looking around for a place that still had what he loved about Colorado, but where he could afford to live. And in a town called Trinidad, 200 miles south of Denver, he found it: the Rocky Mountains on the horizon, the Purgatoire River flowing through a charming downtown, where he could walk or ride his bike everywhere he needed to be. And towering over it all, the distinctive shape of Fishers Peak, a 9,600-foot mesa that’s a familiar landmark for everyone crossing into Colorado from New Mexico on Interstate 25.

Aerial view of downtown Trinidad and Fisher's Peak RanchFishers Peak dominates the skyline in Trinidad, Colorado. But for generations, all the land between the town and the summit has been private and off-limits.Photo credit: Flickr user scrubhiker

“I never thought I’d settle in Trinidad,” he admits. Like a lot of his friends in the Denver metro, he’d mostly known Trinidad by its hardscrabble reputation: a ranching and mining community down near the New Mexico border, undeniably beautiful but with little in the way of public land. Even Fishers Peak, visible from pretty much everywhere in town, was off-limits: all the land between town and the summit was part of a private ranch.

That is, until recently, when the ranch’s owners decided to sell. Located where the Rocky Mountains meet the Great Plains, spanning 3,000 feet of elevation, this 30-square-mile ranch is home to an incredible diversity of plants and animals. With nearly 70 miles of dirt roads and four exits off Interstate 25, this is prime territory for exploring on foot and by bike. And if it were open to the public, Trinidad residents would finally be able to reach the summit that forms the backdrop of their daily lives.

“That mountain is the symbol of our town,” says Cy Michaels, who’s president of the local tourism board. She got permission to climb Fishers Peak a while back, and said the view from the top was so beautiful it made her cry. “Imagine what it could do for this community if this land were open to the public, so anyone who wanted to could share that experience,” she says.

Meanwhile, generations of Trinidad residents have endured cycles of boom and bust so typical of small communities around the West, leaving many local families in dire financial straits. “Trinidad has been wanting for something sustainable to power its economy,” says Christine Louden, a fourth-generation Las Animas County resident and cattle rancher. “We lead an idyllic lifestyle out here and we want to share that with people, but for too many of us, it is harder and harder to eke out a living.” 

With a background in marketing and the outdoor industry (he spends part of the year in Guatemala, where his family is from, and where he runs a mountain bike tour company), De La Roca believes Trinidad could be a mountain biking destination to rival places like Moab, Crested Butte, and Grand Junction, where coordinated investments in trail networks and outdoor recreation opportunities have paid off in economic growth and revitalization.

Juan De La Roca rides a mountain bike with Fisher's Peak in the background“Bikes play a big role in community revitalization,” says De La Roca. “They get people out on the street and on trail, exploring, and imagining what life could be like. Any town you’ve seen turn itself around, bikes are a part of that.”Photo credit: Henry Monroe: @henry.m

“Trinidad has all the raw ingredients of a great mountain town,” says De La Roca, who’s written grants for trail planning, launched a bike tourism marketing campaign, and coordinated with Louden to host a race on her family’s ranch this summer. But he says the efforts to stitch together trail networks that make the most of the area’s landscape are hampered by a lack of access. “There’s just a lot of private land out there, so it’s been slow-going,” he says.

So two years ago, Trinidad’s city leaders approached us and The Nature Conservancy for help securing public access to Fishers Peak. Earlier this year, the two organizations partnered to purchase the entire 19,000-acre ranch and protected it from private development, and began working closely with Trinidad residents on a master plan for the property.

It’ll take a few years to raise funds and cement a plan for the land’s future, and at this early stage there are more questions than answers about the future. But in a press conference today, Colorado Governor Jared Polis announced that Fishers Peak Ranch will eventually become a new state park.

De La Roca says it’s exactly what Trinidad needs. “This community has so much history and heritage and beauty. It’s just been waiting for a chance to tell its story,” he says. And with a huge, stunning, wild state park with a famous mountain at its heart, “People will come here, and they’ll begin to appreciate all this place has to offer,” he says.

“It’s a wonderful thing for Trinidad and for people all over Las Animas County,” says Christine Louden. “We need to build a sustainable economic engine here, and outdoor recreation can do that, and set us on a path to growth.”

You can help us protect important places like Fishers Peak. Join us.  

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