Donkey Dreaming At Fairplay Burro Days


Two of the stars of “Burro Days”

On Sunday, I drove through Fairplay, Colorado, which I imagine is normally a pretty quiet mountain town. Not last weekend. A banner along the main drag declared it “Burro Days”  and the place was a madhouse! Traffic, people, vendors, re-enactors shooting off guns in the streets! And donkeys! Yes, Burro Days does involve actual burros!

We were on our way up the road to Alma to hike three 14’ers in one day, but I’m a big believer in road trip serendipity: when I stumble upon something interesting, I pull over and check it out! So we parked and wandered around, trying to figure out what Burro Days were all about.

The town definitely capitalizes on its namesake cartoon.

Fairplay is home to South park City, a restored 1800’s era town. The place definitely capitalizes on its namesake cartoon, which is set in South Park, Colorado.

Then we heard an announcement over some speakers coming from the upper deck of the Historic Hand Hotel: the leaders of the long race would be coming down the homestretch soon! Apparently there was a race! And then, through the gates at the end of the main street came one of the more bizarre sights I’ve ever seen: two tall, lanky men, clearly ultra-type runners, were sprinting down the street, neck and neck, both leading long-eared donkeys. They crossed the finish line, one edging out in front of the other. I had just witnessed the very end of the World Championship Pack-Burro Race!

The front runners heading for home down Main Street in Fairplay

The front runners heading for home down Main Street in Fairplay

This only-in-Colorado-tradition dates back to the late 1800’s, when donkeys were used by miners to transport gear and rocks throughout the mineral-rich Rocky mountains. Since the donkeys were laden with packs, the miners couldn’t ride, they had to walk alongside. Legend has it the burro racing tradition started when two miners found gold in the same location and raced each other to the nearest town to stake their claims.

Ultra-racing legend Karen Thorpe crosses the finish line in third place. Karen was the first woman to win the Fairplay burro race in 2011.

Burro-racing legend Karen Thorpe crosses the finish line. In 2011, Karen became the first woman to win the Fairplay burro race.

Today there are five burro races every summer in Colorado, including three “Triple Crown” events: the 29-mile race in Fairplay, a 22-mile run in Leadville and a 12-miler in Buena Vista, which take place on three consecutive weekends in late July and August. The other races are earlier in the summer in Georgetown and Idaho Springs.

Donkeys are laden with 33-pound packs of traditional mining gear, including a pick, gold pan and shovel. Runners lead their donkeys, or run behind them, and can even carry their donkeys across streams or other obstacles, but the donkeys may not at any point carry the runners.

The Burro Master.

The Burro Master.

I’ve long fantasized about getting into donkey backpacking, Everett Ruess-style. Stumbling onto the World Championship Burro-Race definitely inspired me to think more about someday traveling with a donkey by my side. Donkeys are amazing creatures: smart, sensitive, brimming with personality. Plus they’re strong and hardy as hell: after trotting more than 29-mountain miles at elevation, none of the donkeys was even winded at the finish line and few had broken a sweat. Sounds like a great travel partner to me!

Karen thanks Kokamoe at the finish line. Most serious runners own and train with their donkeys regularly, though some participants rent burros just for the race.

Karen thanks Kokamoe at the finish line. Most serious runners own and train with their donkeys regularly, though some participants rent burros just for the race.

For more info on burro racing, check out the Western Pack-Burro Association website. A schedule of this summer’s races can be found here.

About theblondecoyote

Mary Caperton Morton is a freelance science and travel writer with degrees in biology and geology and a master’s in science writing. A regular contributor to EARTH magazine, where her favorite beat is the Travels in Geology column, she has also written for the anthologies Best Women's Travel Writing 2010 and Best Travel Writing 2011. Mary is currently based in western Colorado. When she’s not at the computer she can usually be found outside -- hiking, skiing, climbing mountains and taking photographs. Visit her website at
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15 Responses to Donkey Dreaming At Fairplay Burro Days

  1. sundog says:

    My blood pressure went up when I started reading, but, thank goodness, the burro event did not involve burro roping (which constitutes cruelty, abuse). This kind of burro racing? Yes, *that* I would enjoy witnessing. 🙂 And I think that you, with your instinct+heart for animals and nature, would probably travel stupendously with a burro…
    P.S. Belated congrats on your new companion (is it Rover & Rattler now, or will the LR be earning its own “warrior name”?) – it suits you so very well! Very cool. Safe and fun travels always!

    • Thank you! For now, it’s the Rover, but I’m sure it will earn a more unique moniker at some point! I’ll be sure to let you all know when it does!

      • sundog says:

        Thanks! 🙂
        Since I love to follow every link you offer in your posts, look to where I’ve meandered, enjoying this post again!
        Re. hiking with a pack burro: Perhaps it would interest you to check out – woman+donkey walking the perimeter of Wales. They are still en route; usually there’s a new blog post once a week. (I don’t think you’d have similar problems with the burro as she did in the beginning, though, as you are a natural at understanding and speaking Animalese.)

      • Oh wow, I love this! Thanks for posting the link. I’ve subscribed to her blog and I’ll be living my donkey travel dreams through her, for now. Cheers, M

      • sundog says:

        And I look forward to living my donkey travel dreams through *you*, one of these days!!

  2. One of the things I most appreciate about your life style is that every day when you get up, you have the possibility of some new and interesting experience.

    Here in Appalachia, a lot of people own donkeys that came from somewhere out west. There is a program to save wild burros and horses by moving them to farms and ranches. I don’t think anyone uses the donkeys for anything, but it’s nice to see them grazing in the meadows and pastures.

  3. Awesome! I missed the one in Bishop, CA by 2 weeks! Looks fun and funny 🙂

  4. Amy Schoch says:

    Hi Anna, I know you will love this story too of the Colorado donkey races. The Wenks had three donkeys–one was named Elf and I’ve forgotten the other names now–and Burt used to always say of his donkeys, “They’re good people.” Like that National Geographic documentary we watched of unusual animal friendships, one of the Wenks’ donkeys was very close to one of their rabbits and they would sit side by side everyday.

    Where are you now? Of course I wish you were here. I made a wonderful beef-bone soup with baby lima beans, garlic, onion and fresh basil and rosemary. The bones had a good bit of meat on them too. Pretty awesome.

    much love to you and Elijah. mom

    Blessings on your day.

  5. Dave Sands says:

    My brother and I have stayed in Fairplay many times. It’s a great base for hiking and mountain-climbing, not as busy as Breckinridge or Buena Vista. We did Democrat and Cameron but baled on Lincoln because the wind was blowing so hard. Mt Silverheels is also in that area. Not a 14ter but close, with a great view and lots of ptarmigan.

    • Yeah the ridge over to Lincoln is super narrow and exposed. Not somewhere you’d want to be if it’s blowing! Excellent judgement, Dave. I’ll have to check out Fairplay sometime when it’s not hosting Burro Days. Seems like a nice quiet mountain town!

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