Editor’s note: This is part of The Know’s series, Staff Favorites. Each week, we offer our opinions on the best that Colorado has to offer for dining, shopping, entertainment, outdoor activities and more. (We’ll also let you in on some hidden gems).
There’s an unusual piece of Colorado history tucked away next to a gentle creek in the Wet Mountains southwest of Pueblo – one that’s worth exploring. To find it, wind your way from Interstate 25 south of Pueblo along rural Colorado Highway 165, then take a right at Forest Road 382. Bump down the dirt road for 2 miles to the Davenport Campground in the San Isabel National Forest.
Built on both sides of Squirrel Creek and with a handful of log cabin-style Adirondack picnic shelters, rough-hewn tables and stone cooking in a large community shelter, Davenport, which is tent-only, was created to reproduce the feel and atmosphere of what was probably the oldest modern-style campground on forest service land in the country.
That older facility, which was called Squirrel Creek Campground, was located a few miles from Davenport. It was created around 1920 before being destroyed by a flood in 1947.
The scenery here, at about 8,500 feet, is idyllic, full of aspen, oak and spruce trees, abundant birds and wildlife and the creek, which runs through a peaceful meadow, But it has a complicated past that ties together the rise of car culture, the beginnings of wildland stewardship, health concerns and the violent clash between workers and industrialists.
According to the forest service, Squirrel Creek Campground’s beginnings took root in the aftermath of the Ludlow Massacre, during which the Colorado National Guard and security guards with the Colorado Fuel and Iron Co. – partially owned by industrialist John D. Rockefeller Jr. – responded to a group of 1,200 striking coal miners by slaughtering 21 people, including miners, their wives and children, all of whom were living in a tent camp in the town of Ludlow.
The massacre eventually became a catalyst for labor reforms, the forest service says, leading to improved working conditions and a better lifestyle for laborers by 1919 – a lifestyle that included leisure time and recreational activities in nature. And some of the closest nature to the coal and iron workers was in the Wet Mountains, which are part of the Sangre de Cristo range.
But the influx of people camping, fishing and driving in Squirrel Creek Canyon was making a mess; an inspection found “raw sewage, abundant trash, stream pollution, denuded slopes and the ever-present risk of escaped campfires,” the agency says in a display located at Davenport. In response, the forest service hired landscape architect Arthur Carhart, who had been a sanitation specialist during World War I, to come up with some solutions,
The plan that he presented in 1919-20 was an integrated network of designated recreational sites, scenic roads, wilderness areas and developed campgrounds – the first of which was Squirrel Creek Campground, which had wooden shelters, picnic tables, stone fire rings or cooking structures, outhouses, a water source and trash receptacles. That network became the model for how public agencies manage recreation today, the forest service says.
Today, Davenport Campground is a special place. It’s one of a rare few with a creek cutting through the middle of it, and it has those old-school structures, which you’ll find almost nowhere else these days. We camped there in early June — Davenport is open May through October and requires reservations — and had the place almost all to ourselves.
And when we packed up our tent, we made sure to douse the fire with plenty of water, to pick up our trash and throw it in the dumpster and to salute the campers who came before us.