Lathrop: Colorado’s First State Park

A hiker enjoys the views at Lathrop State Park. Photo by Linda Pohle.

A hiker enjoys the views at Lathrop State Park. Photo by Linda Pohle.

Highway 160 is my road often traveled on the way from Denver to La Veta, Alamosa, Great Sand Dunes and Taos. Just three miles west of Walsenburg on 160 is my favorite stop: Lathrop State Park.

Lathrop has the distinction of being Colorado’s first state park.* Opened in June 1962, it bears the name of the state’s first director of the Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation, Harold W. Lathrop. He would be proud of the diverse recreation opportunities this park offers, which include archery, birdwatching, boating, camping, fishing, geocaching, hiking, horseback riding, hunting, swimming and even a 9-hole golf course operated in the park by the City of Walsenburg.

In addition, there are several delightful hiking trails in the park: Cuerno Verde, a multi-use asphalt trail of just under three miles that circles Martin Lake; Hogback, a two-mile, rocky ridge top trail; and 3.4 miles of equestrian trails.

Prickly pear cactus can be found along the park's hiking trails. Photo by Linda Pohle.

Prickly pear cactus can be found along the park’s hiking trails. Photo by Linda Pohle.

The Hogback Trail is a beautiful hike. It’s an easy climb up the flanks of the hogback formation to the ridge and the far views include piñon and juniper-dotted grasslands, imposing profiles of the 12,669- and 13,610-foot Spanish Peaks to the south and 12,352-foot Greenhorn (Cuerno Verde) Mountain to the north. The story is told that this mountain was named for a Comanche war chief called Cuerno Verde by the Spanish. He was killed near this mountain in 1779 by the Spanish and their Native American allies from other tribes.

Closer in, hikers on the hogback ridge can see the waters of the park’s two lakes, Martin and Horseshoe, sparkling in the sun (some maps list the lake names as Oehm and Meriam respectively). You can just make out the white wakes of power boats and jet skis on Martin Lake. Horseshoe Lake is reserved for “wakeless” recreation such as kayaking, windsurfing and canoeing. The 83-site electric Piñon Campground and 21-site non-electric Yucca Campground are just visible east of the lakes.

Both lakes are magnets for anglers of all ages.“Lathrop is one of the best fisheries in southeast Colorado,” notes Park Manager Stacey Lewis. “Our lakes are stocked with almost every warm-water species, including trout, walleye, pike and catfish. We’re also among the few area lakes with tiger muskies.”

A variety of plants find homes on the Hogback Trail and vary by time of year. A year-round favorite of mine is not actually a plant but a combination of algae and fungi. It’s the brilliantly colored lichen that paint the sides of the rocks in neon greens, oranges and yellows. In the spring and early summer, especially after consistent rainfall, prickly pear cactus blooms in profusion, in colors ranging from a delicate lime green to golden petals growing from a burnt orange-ringed inner cup.

At the west side of the Hogback Trail is a 500-foot detour that takes you to the William Henry Jackson Overlook and back in time to 1885 when the famed photographer took a photo from this site. That photo is displayed on an interpretive sign at the overlook.

After the hike, enjoy lunch or just take a break at one of the picnic sites that dot the lake shores. In fact, every picnic site at Lathrop is on a lake, so you’re guaranteed a great view with your sandwich and potato salad.

The visitor center courtyard at Lathrop. Photo by Linda Pohle.

The visitor center courtyard at Lathrop. Photo by Linda Pohle.

If you haven’t stopped at the visitor center for a parks pass, camping permit, bait, firewood or ice, be sure you stop before leaving the park. There you will find a list of animal and bird sightings within the park, which may include pronghorn, bobcat, wild turkeys, white pelicans, loons and road runners. Don’t miss the historical mural that rims the multi-purpose room walls. The mural portrays 10,000 years of area history in 12 beautifully rendered murals that begin with Folsom Man roaming the American southwest and move through the main tribes of Colorado in the early 19th century, life in a Spanish community that once stood where Walsenburg now stands, the coming of the railroads, and, finally, scenes of coal mines and then-contemporary Walsenburg.

The murals were painted by Paul Busch, beginning in 1972 when he was 63 years old. Busch is an interesting story himself, having worked as a Disney animator. An Internet search revealed that Busch contributed animation to such groundbreaking Disney productions as “Snow White” (1937), “Pinocchio” (1938) and “Fantasia” (1940).

Access to all of Lathrop’s high-plains beauty, recreation  and history is available for only $7, the cost of a one-day parks pass. Camping fees are additional. For more information, visit the park’s website or call (719)738-2376.

* Note: Cherry Creek was Colorado’s first state recreation area formed in 1959. Lathrop was the first area in Colorado to be called a state park. The distinction was removed in the 1990s when all locations became state parks.
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Story Written by Linda Pohle. Pohle is a Castlewood Canyon State Park volunteer and freelance writer.

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