How Remote Hinsdale County Rallied To Buy Itself A Hometown Archipelago

December 11, 2020
A visually splendid look at the southern tip of the peninsula in Lake San Cristobal that connects to two islands via a suspension bridge. Hinsdale County will soon close on the sale of the land and add to the lake's public land access.A visually splendid look at the southern tip of the peninsula in Lake San Cristobal that connects to two islands via a suspension bridge. Hinsdale County will soon close on the sale of the land and add to the lake's public land access.Courtesy Kate Hopson
A visually splendid look at the southern tip of the peninsula in Lake San Cristobal that connects to two islands via a suspension bridge. Hinsdale County will soon close on the sale of the land and add to the lake's public land access.

Tiny Hinsdale County is the most remote and one of the least populated counties in Colorado. Besides being the infamous place where Alferd Packer ate his traveling companions in 1874, it has something else that not many other counties can claim – an archipelago.

You’ll find it on the waters of Lake San Cristobal, due south of Lake City.

Head to the west shore where there are a peninsula and two islands connected by a scenic suspension bridge. It has been in private hands for more than a century. Hinsdale County plans to turn it into a public park once it completes the purchase of the property from a Texan who had once planned to build a home there.

This county of only 800 year-round residents has secured $1.3 million from Great Outdoors Colorado for the purchase and is well on its way to raising $200,000 in matching funds with the help of the Trust for Public Land.

“We are a struggling county, but we felt like the value of this made it important,” said Hinsdale County commissioner Kristie Borchers.

Lake San Cristobal is the second-largest natural lake in Colorado and an important piece of the growing outdoor recreation economy here. What Hinsdale lacks in population, it makes up for in natural attractions.

The U.S. Geological Survey lists the county as the most remote in the lower 48 states. Around 96 percent of its lands are public. Only the single 400-person town of Lake City is located in its boundaries.

The county’s rugged landscape lays claim to five 14ers and seven 13ers and is a way station on the Continental Divide Trail. It also sits along two scenic byways.

Courtesy Kate Hopson
A winter view of the second section of the suspension bridge connecting to the outmost island.

In the middle of all that, Lake San Cristobal is a 2.1-mile-long gem. It holds 11,000-acre-feet of water and is 89 feet deep in places. It’s a popular fishing, boating and recreating spot, but all that has been hampered by a lack of access.

Seven hundred years ago, a natural event known as the Slumgullion Slide dammed up the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River with earth and orange-tinged rocks that reminded the miners of a stew they called slumgullion. The natural dam created a lake with very steep banks in most places.

For many years, the main access has been a county-owned boat dock area near the archipelago that’s now become overcrowded. Motorized boaters jostle with standup paddleboarders for the chance to get into the water. There are few places for families who want to wade or picnic.

With the COVID-19 pandemic sending more visitors to out-of-the-way outdoor spots, this past summer was the busiest in Hinsdale County’s history, Borchers said. Tourism jumped 60 percent and Lake San Cristobal was overrun like other parts of the county. Restrooms were overused, trash overflowed and every camping spot was taken.

Adding the archipelago to the county’s public access lands will open up new recreational opportunities. Borchers envisions a bay along the archipelago with a family-friendly play area, and the largest of the islands turned into a park-like setting with picnic areas, boat slips, a small amphitheater, restrooms and hiking trails.  

It was once a historic mining claim but was never mined as far as Borchers knows. An A-frame cabin that once stood on the land was razed years ago in a training exercise for the local fire department. Borchers doesn’t think anyone ever lived on the island.

The striking suspension bridge that connects the islands to the peninsula was built about eight years ago to replace an old wooden bridge. The bridge has always been chained off with a “no trespassing” sign that has occasionally been ignored by visitors lured by the beauty of the islands.

The Trust for Public Land did much of the heavy lifting to help raise the money and to complete the purchase of the land. Patrick Gardner, the Trust’s Colorado and Utah project manager, said protecting an island for public use was a first for him and a very worthy first.

“When you look at the peninsula and the islands, it just takes your breath away,” he said.

Chris Castilian, executive director of Great Outdoors Colorado, said his organization decided to help fund the Lake San Cristobal purchase to protect it from development. He appreciated how hard the county was willing to work to acquire the land.

“I think Hinsdale County is very scrappy,” Castilian said. “They have a lot of impacts down there from all of us coming to recreate there whether it’s winter or summer. And you know that county has really struck together and focused on its outdoor recreation economy.” 

The sale is slated to close on Dec. 15.

Visitors shouldn’t rush to Lake San Cristobal to try to visit the amazing spot just yet. The county and the Friends of Lake San Cristobal, a local group that formed to promote the project and help raise funds for it, plan to have meetings to get local input on what exactly to do with the land.

They promise to let the outside world know when the “No Trespassing” signs come down and visitors will be welcome on the island.

“We want to be very mindful of how it is managed,” Borchers said. “We don’t want to acquire this spectacular piece of property and have it overrun.”

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Great Outdoors Coloado and the surname of its executive director, Chris Castilian.