Lathrop State Park and Bent’s Old Fort

My snorkel gear had just arrived at the front door as the news of COVID began seeping into every newscast. As I walked my son home from what we would later learn was his last day of in-person elementary school (March 12, 2020), I couldn’t imagine pulling the camper out of storage in one week. But that is exactly what we did after we cancelled our Hawaii trip and exchanged our snorkels for down jackets and a campfire.

Camper at site
Campsite 102, Lathrop State Park

We headed somewhere more local and definitely familiar, Lathrop State Park. We didn’t know what to expect, nor how long we would be camping. I was grateful to have a cozy spot to get away from the news. We arrived at one of our favorite sites at this park, 102, and set up with only a handful of other guests camping at the campground. The spacious sites afforded grand views and excellent social distancing while continuing to provide several recreational opportunities.

Spanish Peaks from one of the lakes at Lathrop State Park. Trails circle each lake, one paved and the other dirt. Both are excellent for bike riding or walking. 
Hiking Lathrop
Rocks on the hiking trails in Lathrop State Park offer beautiful views.

I have written about Lathrop in the past, with its swim beach, bike trails, golf course and hiking opportunities. Boaters can choose a motorized lake or the non-motorized lake and fishing is available throughout the park with a Colorado Fishing License. A kid’s pond is stocked each year as well. The park’s proximity to Great Sand Dunes National Park is definitely a draw for several, though this trip felt much more reserved. The ranger programs are usually abundant, but were all cancelled when we were there this time. What this location did provide was the beauty to collect our thoughts without panic and sunsets that inspired hope to see what the next day might bring.

Sunset from campsite 102.

We hiked the usual trails and walked around the lakes (there are trails both paved and dirt). March is a volatile time in Colorado, and though the sun was shining most days we were there, it was windy during the days. We spent a lot of time playing games, working from the camper, and hiking the mostly desolate park. It was an extraordinary experience to be in a peaceful bubble as the world seemed to implode with COVID.

Walkway leading from Bent’s Fort to the parking lot.

When the wind was finally too much, we made a day trip to Bent’s Old Fort in La Junta, Colorado, about 1 ½ hours from the park. It was surprisingly not windy there and much warmer than Walsenburg. We arrived at this national historic site to find an open-air reproduction of the original fort that was burned to the ground. The original fort had been a trading post for several tribes, trappers, housed the army for a time, and was an oasis in the wild west. The current fort is a reproduction based on drawings and exact measurements taken from a long-time guest who also documented several happenings there. It is built using the same architectural building supplies (mud, wood and reeds) that the original building would have contained from the location next to the river.

Arkansas River along the hiking trail at Bent’s Old Fort.
Bent’s Old Fort from the trail.

The fort is surrounded by the river and sweeping fields that now neighbor agricultural land and farm houses. The land surrounding the fort has an easy, flat walking trail that most would enjoy. It weaves through the fields, wetlands, groves of trees, and finally arrives at the fort’s grand entrance. When we arrived, we were ready for lunch (we brought a picnic) and were greeted by a docent in a golf cart who shuttles people from the parking lot to the front entrance, a great feature for anyone who cannot or is not interested in walking (it is a fair distance from the front parking area).

Entrance to the Fort.
Inside the square. Before COVID, they had living history exhibits and docents using the equipment and providing tours.
Kitchen at Bent’s Old Fort. Most rooms are open to view and walk through. 


View from the upstairs tower at Bent’s Old Fort.

The costumed docents were very helpful, though they were not giving tours due to COVID. They did, however, answer questions, let us watch a movie about the location, and told us about the various inhabitants and rooms we would see on our self-guided tour. The open-air fort was two-stories with look-out towers and several animals onsite.

Across the quad
Very few visitors were there, though pre-COVID it was busy with tourists and student groups.

I recommend this side trip for anyone in the region who is interested in the history of the area or the United States. It’s a great day trip from Lathrop State Park, though Lathrop has plenty to occupy your time.