Fishers Peak

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Fishers Peak: A Brief History of Colorado's Newest State Park

In the far south of Colorado, near the border with New Mexico, there is a distinctive range of tall, flat-topped mesas that stretch from northwest to southeast like the reaching arm of the Sangre de Cristo range. The highest of these mesas is striking against the sky—at 9,633 feet, it is higher than any point in North America east of it. It rises from the surrounding forest like a castle, steep-walled and prominent, and for millions of years it has loomed large over the valley below.

Fishers Peak is one of the most recognizable landmarks in southern Colorado, and has been for centuries.

The peak overlooks Raton Pass, a key mountain pass along the Santa Fe Trail leading to the town of Raton, New Mexico. It was a key landmark, helping to mark the location of the pass for travelers making the long 900-mile journey from trade centers on the Missouri River. This pass has been in regular use for overland travel and shipping since the late 1700s when the trail was a major economic artery between the United States and the northern provinces of New Spain and later Mexico. It is still in use today as the route taken by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway and Interstate 25.

The area around the pass was only lightly settled for many decades. The valley of the Purgatoire River was home to a few homesteads, and the pass itself became the residence of Richens “Uncle Dick” Wootton, who built the first road through the pass and set up a waystation about halfway through—all in the shadow of the peak.

Santa Fe Trail map

The Santa Fe Trail crossed the great plains, connecting Santa Fe with St. Louis. The original path of the trail went south of the Sangre de Cristo mountains along the "Cimarron route", but in the early 1800s this path became closed due to poor relations with the Native Americans of the region. For decades, the trail detoured through Colorado, making the Raton Pass vital to overland trade.

According to some, the name of the peak comes from this time, and can be attributed to a specific but surprisingly mundane occurrence: a US Army Major who got lost. During either the Mexican-American War or the US Civil War, Major Waldemar Fischer was traversing Raton Pass, but was uncertain of the way forward. Maybe he mistrusted his guide, the aforementioned Uncle Dick Wootton, or maybe he just wanted to see it for himself. So he led a small scouting group to the top of the highest mesa around to get the lay of the land. 

Until this time, that highpoint was simply referred to on maps as “Ratón Peak,” but from at least the 1860s onward some local residents would begin calling it Fischer’s Peak. 

The two names were interchangeable for decades, and it’s unclear when one won out over the other, or when Fischer became Fisher. In fact, the entire story is fuzzy and uncertain—our main source is Wootton himself, who like all mountain men had a taste for tall tales and who later stated he didn’t accompany Fischer to the peak at all on account of unpleasant weather.

Whatever the reason for it, the name change eventually stuck. By the 1880s and 1890s, the mesa was almost exclusively called Fisher’s Peak. At the same time mining towns were erupting all around its base, like spring flowers bursting from the snow.

Mine near Trinidad

This coal mine near Trinidad (photographed c. 1900) was one of dozens. The vast coalfields of the area made the population of Trinidad and nearby settlements boom.

In 1862, around the same time that Uncle Dick was setting up his waystation and Waldemar Fischer was leading his men across the pass, great seams of coal were discovered beneath the Raton Basin. Coal mining quickly became the lifeblood of the region, more than cattle ranching or the Santa Fe Trail had been. Massive companies made huge profits from the coalfields, and greatest among them was the Rockefeller-owned Colorado Fuel & Iron Company. 

Coal mining left a huge mark on the region, which went beyond the local economy and culture. It also created a lasting environmental impact.

The coalfields of course disturbed the local ecosystem in the way that all mining does. The booming towns, largest among them being Trinidad, created an increased demand for farmland, ranchland, and construction material. And one of the places where this was most noticeable was the mesas and the area around Fishers Peak.

The mines and the great company-owned mining camps that supported them relied on wood for so many everyday things. The rails that transported the coal into town and across the country needed wood for rail ties, the miners and their families needed cabins and cookfires, the mines needed crossbeams to keep the roof up. The miners’ demand for wood grew and grew with every year, and the companies took what they needed from the nearest forests. 

By the 1920s, the area around Fishers Peak was almost completely barren.

Deforested Fishers Peak

This photograph of the peak from around 1900 shows it mostly deforested. Contrast the modern photographs of the mountainside covered in green pine forest.

Courtesy Denver Public Library.

After this period, the mining days of Trinidad slowly faded. Coal mining had boomed in the late 1800s, but after around 1910 it steadily slowed. Many of the old mines were closed, the company camps abandoned, and land exchanged hands. Colorado Fuel & Iron sold off the last of its mines in the area in the early 1980s.

The land around Fishers Peak was sold off in parcels, piece by piece, to ranchers and real estate moguls. What was once miles and miles of open land became privately owned and closed to the public. However, it was never truly developed.

The area made for poor ranchland, and wasn’t easily irrigated for farms. There was no mining interest, and no housing developments were ever made. Instead, the land was left almost exactly as it was, with parcels occasionally changing hands, until the region caught the eye of an unexpected party.

Marc Jung was a French millionaire, the inheritor of his father’s grocery business. He purchased a large parcel of land, including Fishers Peak, in the 1970s, and he soon set about acquiring the ranches around it.

He bought the land from his neighbors piece by piece, until he owned one of the largest ranches in Colorado. Crazy French Ranch, as it was called, was over 19,000 acres in size and stretched from the New Mexico border all the way to the south of Trinidad. But Jung seemed to have little use for the massive property. Only a few modest buildings were constructed on it, very near the highway—an office, a residence for Jung and his wife, and little else. Not much ranching happened on the Crazy French Ranch, and when Jung passed away in the late 1990s his widow soon put the land up for sale. No buyer could be found, until 2018 when the City of Trinidad, along with The Nature Conservancy, the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, and Great Outdoors Colorado, approached her to purchase a parcel surrounding Fishers Peak, with the hope of turning it into public land.

“Why don’t you buy the whole ranch?” she reportedly asked.

So, after some negotiations between Mme. Jung and the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, they did. In 2019, the State of Colorado purchased the entirety of Crazy French Ranch at a generous price, and work began almost immediately on incorporating it as a new state park.

In the intervening years since the land became privately owned, it had been left mostly undisturbed. The people of Trinidad and the surrounding townships lost access to their iconic mountain, but this allowed for almost a century of regrowth. The forest has recovered magnificently from the coalfield days, and wildlife has returned to the region in great numbers. Elk, mountain lions, and black bears can all be found living on the former ranch, and once the area opens up to the public as Colorado’s newest and largest state park, it promises to be a sight to behold.