Fairplay Beach: Panning, but no swimming

Brief by Central Staff

Recreation – August 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

Fairplay is nearly two miles above the tides, so it’s not an obvious spot for a beach — but there’s the FAIRPLAY BEACH sign on U.S. 285, and if you turn off there, more signs will lead you a couple of miles to some sand and water tucked into a big ravine behind Front Street.

It’s a small lake, along with trails, picnic tables and fishing sites, along the Middle Fork of the South Platte River.

[Fairplay Beach]

It became a recreation site a decade ago, although “development” started in 1922, when huge bucket dredges began chewing up miles of the river bed to extract placer gold from the gravel. This made the water very turbid, to the annoyance of downstream users, and so the dredging company erected a small dam to create a pond so the silt could settle.

The dam had been breached for years before Gary Nichols examined it in 1990. He’s the director of tourism and community development for Park County, and he has a background in mined-land reclamation.

“Here we had this old mining site next to town,” he recalled, “and we wondered what we could make of it. Fairplay didn’t have many recreational facilities, so that looked like the way to go.”

With some grants and other coöperation from the town, county, state Division of Wildlife, Denver Water Board, US West, and the Upper South Platte Water Conservancy District, the dredging spoil zone became a fishing hole with some restrooms, paved trails, and picnic tables, connected to town with a bridge and trail. After they got it built, they turned it over to the town, which administers it now.

Nichols estimated that it gets about 100 visitors a day in the summer. “Out-of-state tourists like it as a place to stop and stretch their legs,” Nichols said, “and locals use it a lot, too — you often see people walking over with their brown-bag lunches.”

As for the beach name, Nichols isn’t sure where it came from. “Somebody probably suggested it as a joke, and we all liked it so much that it caught on,” he said. “You have to admit, it’s memorable.”

It is a “beach” that forbids swimming, but on the other hand, it does allow gold-panning if you buy a $5 annual permit from the town clerk and promise not to dig on the dam in the pursuit of flakes and nuggets.

A panning area open to the public may have been first offered in Tarryall, a one-time mining camp about 10 miles north of Fairplay. Although the greed of its first arrivals gave it the nickname of “Graball” in 1859 (which inspired later arrivals to establish their own town with “fair play,”) Tarryall’s residents later set aside one placer claim, known as Whiskey Hole, where any prospector down on his luck could pan enough gold to buy a drink.