Turning left from Highway 24 on the drive to Cripple Creek, there’s a brief dip around the corner into a small valley just before you make the uphill climb into the Gold Camp District. On the right is the welcoming gate into Mueller State Park. From the outside it may not look like much. But upon entering the park, the nearby presence of civilization melts away as the wilderness opens up before you.
It’s taken me a year to visit Mueller State Park since living in Cripple Creek. Each time I pass the gates on Highway 67, I rarely see cars entering the park. But I’ve always made a note of the towering treelines standing guard of the front gate. At the beginning of October after a rainy summer, you’ll be lucky to see the sweeping end of a golden fall foliage transition.
Mueller State Park isn’t comparable to Rocky Mountain National Park in the sense that it doesn’t necessarily allow for long drives leading through the mountains interrupted by herds of elk on the side of the road. At Mueller the narrow paved roads are lined with RVs and pitched tents. I will say that of most parks and campgrounds I have visited, this is one of the most well-kept.
If your intention is to soak up the Colorado outdoors by seeing some wildlife at Mueller State Park, it’s not as easy as pulling off of the road. Hiking, mountain biking, or horseback riding along the over 44 miles of trail is the better option to be at one with nature.
All 37 trails are easily accessible from the road driving into the park, ranging anywhere from beginner day hikes to intermediate full-day hikes depending on your mood. In any case, the scenery does not disappoint: the distant mountains peeking through the openings between the dense trees.
An eerie quiet falls over the thick forests the farther you get from the trailhead. It’s as if Mother Earth purposely designed this place to remind visitors they are too caught up in the hustle and bustle of city life. It’s initially unsettling wandering the dirt trails deeper beneath the canopies with no other sound but the fresh mountain air whispering between the pines. After some time, though, the solitude starts to feel comfortable and normal.
There are many opportunities to spot hidden gems along the trails. You might spy rolling meadows with tall grass fading as winter approaches, or discover a pond where the Brook, Rainbow, and Cutthroat trout shy away from your approaching shadow. You may even spot a lone cabin sitting on a mountain across the valley through holes in the tightly weaved Aspens and Douglas firs.
Mueller State Park covers over 5,000 acres of land – a mass not easily explored in just one day or even one weekend. But its accessibility means anyone could give it a fair shot. Guests are welcomed warmly by rangers at the park’s visitor center, where they can find interactive information on the park, its wildlife and its history.
Before Mueller State Park was a state park, more than 140 years ago, its lands were frequented by native Ute tribes for the purpose of hunting and gathering. Around the 1850s, pioneers journeyed through the area during the “Pikes Peak or Bust” gold rush. It would take another 40 years before settlers noticed the value of the land less than 20 miles from Cripple Creek during another gold rush in the 1890s. Mining boomed in the region and resources were necessary for survival and growth.
Over the next several decades, Mueller State Park’s lands were used to harvest crops and lumber to support the growing community surrounding it. However it also earned a darker reputation during this time as a location known for bootlegging and thievery.
Fast forward to the 1950s, the Mueller Family started purchasing land and other local ranches for their cattle operation. After more than a decade, they had acquired over 12,000 acres of land, which came to be known as the Mueller Ranch. By the 1970s, they recognized the value of their acreage and took steps to make the Mueller Ranch accessible to the public for many generations to come. Mr. Mueller contacted the Nature Conservancy about purchasing the property as a preserve to get the ball rolling.
In 1980, the Mueller Ranch was purchased by the Nature Conservancy and the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Division and opened on a limited basis. More than a decade later, 1991 became an important year for the park and for people eager for outdoor recreation in the Upper Ark, as Mueller State Park was at last officially opened to the public for everyone to enjoy.
To date, Colorado Parks and Wildlife emphasizes the support of wildlife and plant life in Mueller State Park to make for the best visitor experience possible. Over time, the park has developed campgrounds, cabins, trails, picnic areas, hunting and fishing areas, and monthly nature programs and activities for its visitors. The rangers are impressively active and kind within the park and helpful when providing information on how to safely enjoy your time there. The park is open all year round and accommodates activities in warm and cold climates.
People venture from around the nation annually to spend their summers at Mueller State Park. It’s a wonder that many in the Pikes Peak Region still don’t know about this beautiful and simple escape.