July 2023 – We’d been hanging out in Buena Vista, Colorado, during our summer RV tour, and one afternoon we took a drive north to check out the town of Fairplay. As we came into town, we spotted a big sign that said, “Burro Days – Last Full Weekend in July”
Huh? What on earth was Burro Days? Whatever it was, we were intrigued! We checked the calendar, and the festival started the very next day. Perfect!
When we got back to our RV, we poked around on the internet and discovered that Burro Days is an annual festival — and burro race! — that has taken place in Fairplay, Colorado, every summer since 1949.
Officially known as the World Championship Pack-Burro Race, there were just 21 entrants back in 1949, and they ran from Leadville, Colorado, up and over towering Mosquito Pass (13,185’ elevation!) and down the other side of the mountain into the town of Fairplay for a $500 cash prize. Not surprisingly, only 8 participants finished that race!
Today, there’s 3-day festival that features not only burro races starting and ending in Fairplay (with one race still taking contestants on mountain trails to the top of Mosquito Pass and back!), but also a “Llama Rama” (a what??), a dog race, a llama race, a parade down Front Street and an outhouse race!
We just HAD to check this out!
Fairplay got its name back in 1859 when gold rush latecomers found themselves unable to get into one of the bigger mining camps in the area called Tarryall. Frustrated, they nicknamed that camp “Grab-all” and set up a new camp which they called “Fair Play.”
Still fond of playing with words, Fairplay welcomes visitors to town today with a big blue silhouette of Sasquatch bearing the Colorado logo and the letters “WTF” — “Welcome to FairPlay!”
While Highway 9 runs right through the middle of town, the historic part of town is on Front Street, and that was where the Burro Days races and parade took place. Much of the rest of town was filled with artisan tents and food tents throughout the weekend.
The buildings along Front Street are really appealing, and crowds grew quickly in front of each establishment in anticipation of the races.
Unfortunately, we missed the first race of the day — the Dog Race — by 5 minutes. The contestants in that race are all kids, and they run alongside their leashed dogs. The course is short, so arriving a few minutes late meant we missed it all together. Rats! Next time!!
However, the llamas had begun to arrive in their trailers, and we saw a few peeking out at the growing crowd.
Buddy was especially disappointed that we missed the dog race, so when we saw the llamas hanging out with their owners in the middle of Front Street — the “Llama Rama” — he wanted to make sure he saw one up close.
He was very intrigued by their smell — and vice versa!
If you haven’t seen a llama up close, they are really big! When you look at them they look back at you at eye level!
As proud owners showed off their beautiful llamas, we realized that the llama race involves a lot of whimsy. The entrants were teams of four people and one llama, and the idea was that all five would run together, the llama tethered on a leash and the four people running alongside.
But the runners weren’t wearing typical running race garb. They were dressed up in all kinds of crazy costumes!
One group of gals paid homage to the brown furry coat of their llama with brown tutu skirts. They wore little llama ears too.
Most of the llamas came dressed in regular llama attire, but one had been to the groomer and wore fluffy knickers and a thick llama fur stole around her neck. Her black two-toed feet looked like she was wearing party shoes!
Suddenly, Mark said, “Hey, there’s a guy over there in pajamas!” I turned and grabbed a quick pic, but it was only later that I remembered the Ogden Nash poem (and explanatory footnote):
The one-l lama, he’s a priest.
The two-l llama, he’s a beast.
And I will bet a silk pajama
There isn’t any three-l lllama*
*The author’s attention has been called to a type of conflagration known as a three-alarmer. Pooh.
I’m not sure if this guy’s pink, llama-covered PJs were made of silk, but his outfit definitely was a three-alarmer!
Mark also remembered a song that his daughter loved when she was a little girl: “Me and my llama are going to the dentist today.”
He’d sung it to me before, and it’s cute, but I’d never gotten the joke until I took a few portrait shots of these wonderful llama faces.
We roamed among the llamas and their people at the Llama Rama for a while, and then suddenly they all lined up behind the start line and took off running on the count of three.
As soon as the llamas had raced down Front Street, the crowd ran to the far side of the street to a ridge overlooking a dirt trail in the distance. Before long, the llamas and their people appeared on that trail, racing away.
Some of them were bunched together and others had gotten a little separated, leaving the person holding the llama’s tether to run on his or her own.
In some cases the llama bounded happily ahead.
And in some cases the person was towing the llama behind!
There was lots of confusion in the crowd about where the course would go from there and how long it would be until the llamas came back to the finish line, but suddenly the announcer said the leaders were coming in. It was the team of Game Wardens — all very fit looking runners — and they soon crossed the line for the win.
Not far behind, the Search and Rescue team came running in for second place with four guys looking equally fit and serious.
Although the first two teams duked it out for the win, most of the teams and their llamas seemed to be happy just to be out running together on such a beautiful day.
As the llama teams went past, a gal standing next to me named Amanda was keeping a close eye out for her team. She and her husband have 9 llamas on their 35 acre ranch, Shining Mountain Llamas, and they had selected two for the Burro Days events.
She explained that they raise their llamas for high altitude hikers who want to have help carrying their gear. Llamas are good natured animals, are native to mountains that are 17,000′ high, can make their way over difficult terrain like fallen trees, and contentedly eat pine cones and other things found on the trail so there’s no need to carry special feed for them. Hunters and mountaineers love having a llama or two along on their high altitude expeditions!
Of course, a few llamas were not very enthusiastic about the running aspect of the race. A few put their foot down and said, “No more!” and had to be coaxed over the finish line — to lots of laughter and cheers from the crowd!
The dog race, llama race and Llama Rama were all held on Saturday, while the headline event — the burro races — were reserved for Sunday. We could feel the excitement as we pulled into town for the first of the two burro races the next day.
The announcer was standing on a second floor balcony, entertaining the crowd and keeping all the events running smoothly.
We’d done a little homework overnight and learned that “burro” is simply the Spanish word for “donkey,” a particular species of equine animal.
Mules, on the other hand, like the ones we had seen at the Grand Canyon a few weeks prior, are not a species but are a hybrid animal that is the offspring of a female horse and a male donkey. The resulting animal is infertile. Cross-breeding the other way — a male horse and female donkey — isn’t done because of the large size of the baby and the small size of the mother donkey.
It turns out that burros come in three sizes, small, medium and large (“miniature,” “standard” and “mammoth”). When the burros lined up at the starting line, you could see the size differences between them!
The first burro race was the “long course” race — 29+ miles round trip from Fairplay, which is at 9,953’ elevation, to the top of Mosquito Pass at 13,185’ elevation, and then back down again. Longer than a marathon (which is 26.2 miles) and raced at insanely high elevations, this is one heck of a race!!
Each racing team consists of just one runner and one burro, and it is very grueling for both. Unlike a traditional marathon, there are no water stations along the way, although there are checkpoints, and fans can watch from public property.
The burros were carrying packs which held whatever the racers might need: water bottles, energy food, clothing for the high elevation at the top and/or other survival necessities. The runners carried the burro’s tether and more water and food and other goodies.
We found out later that the long race at Burro Days in Fairplay is actually the first race in the “Triple Crown” of burro races each summer. The other two races are held in nearby Leadville and Buena Vista in August.
At the far end of Front Street there is a reconstructed living history museum mining camp called South Park City, and when the runners and burros passed under the South Park City gate around 10:20 in the morning to begin their trek to Mosquito Pass and back, they weren’t expected to be seen again until late afternoon at the very earliest. Some wouldn’t come in until sunset or after dark or even as late as midnight!
But for the crowd on Front Street, attention quickly turned to the second burro race of the day, the “short course” race which is a mere 15 miles of similar outback terrain!
The burros, large and small, soon lined up with their owners. Again, the burros wore packs and the runners were prepared for anything and everything the mountains might throw at them.
We watched a burro named Ivy go by with her owner. We’d met them before the race, and she’d told us that Ivy was a rescue burro. Her mother had been kept in very poor conditions and fed candy bars, so she was diabetic. Fortunately, Ivy was thriving now, and both owner and burro were eager to do the race.
Soon, the “short course” racers passed under the South Park City gate and headed into the mountains beyond. Although their race wouldn’t take all day, the fastest racers still weren’t expected back for about two and a half hours!
With nothing else to do while we waited for the burros and their companion runners to chase each other back to us, the crowd settled in for a really fun parade. Burro Days is non-stop action!
The parade began with the rumble of motorcycles in the distance. Soon, the color guard marched past followed by a group of roaring bikes.
Humorous costumes are a big theme at Burro Days, and there were several fun floats and groups in the parade. The “pothole patrol” went by followed by a clever rendition of the Titanic, complete with an iceberg.
The Rodeo Queen and Princess looked very regal as they went by in full regalia on their horses.
The sky had been growing darker and darker during the parade, and then all of a sudden the heavens opened up and let loose, drenching everything and everyone in a massive torrent. The crowd scattered to shelter under any kind of overhang we could find, and umbrellas popped up here and there.
Luckily, the parade was almost over, and in no time the downpour ended and people wandered back out onto Front Street, no worse for wear.
A banjo player strolled around entertaining everyone.
And then news of the returning “short course” burros filtered through the crowd and the emcee announced their arrival.
The gates to South Park City swung wide, and two runners and their burros appeared, flying towards us at top speed, racing neck and neck.
A roar went up in the crowd as they sprinted down Front Street. It was going to be a photo finish! And it was going to be a little burro against a big burro and younger runner against an older runner to boot!
The crowd went wild as we watched the fast footfalls of these four racers. They were racing their hearts out!
It was impossible to tell which pair might win until suddenly, at the last second, the little burro surged ahead and stretched out his feet and nose across the line for the win.
What a fantastic race!
We found out the little burro’s name was Ben and his 15 year old companion runner was Aidan Malherbe. Aidan’s family raises burros and he’s been racing them his whole life! He runs track and cross country and trains about 50 miles a week.
Edged out by inches, the second burro over the line was Tito with companion runner Brian Rawlings. Brian also runs about 50 miles a week and has raced burros for years. He hadn’t planned to run in this race, but a friend called him the night before asking if he could run with Tito because a runner had pulled out. Tito is a wild BLM burro that Brian’s friend had rescued and trained.
What a great story!
The winning time for these four outstanding athletes was 2 hours and 24 minutes, similar to fast marathon times. Even though the distance wasn’t a marathon distance (15 miles vs. 26.2), the race was held at extremely high altitude and the runners were managing a running burro the whole way.
What a fabulous athletic accomplishment for all of them, and what a thrill these fine athletes gave the crowd!
Of course, the front of the race was very intense, but further down the line it was sometimes a different story. One burro took a very casual attitude and decided it would be more fun to walk rather than run down the finishing stretch. And who could blame him after running 15 miles through the mountains?!
He took his time and stepped delicately over the finish line.
Another burro crossed under the South Park City sign — still two blocks from the finish line — and decided to take a break. His companion runner tried to coax him down Front Street, but this burro had other ideas.
The burro took matters into his own hands (hooves?) and headed off the race course straight into the crowd.
Eventually, all the burros made it across the finish line, and after a round of well earned congratulations and photos, the burros and their owners made their way back to their trailers. Meanwhile, the Outhouse Race participants were getting ready to roll!
There were only two entries in the Outhouse Race, but each team had been huddling at the starting line for a while, discussing their race strategies. Maneuvering an outhouse down a race course isn’t so easy!
Suddenly, they were off and running/rolling with a pair of runners on either side of the outhouse and a third guy sitting on the throne inside. Talk about laughter and hoots and hollers from the crowd!
The long course burro racers were still a few hours out at this point, but we were pooped even though we hadn’t raced a step! So, we decided to leave all the festivities and head back to our trailer.
I’m not sure how the race went for the long course burro race contestants or when the winners finally arrived back in town, but their names will appear on the World Championship Pack-Burro Race Winners monument that stands near the finish line.
If your travels take you anywhere near Fairplay, Colorado, at the end of July, don’t miss the very special Burro Days festival.
Meet a llama, pet a burro, and laugh as the outhouses careen down the road. It’s a total blast!
Never miss a post — it’s free!
- Burro Days – Official Website
- Other burro races – Western Pack-Burro ASS-ociation
- Shining Mountain Llamas – The llama ranch whose owner I met
- Map of the town of FairPlay – The action was on Front Street
- Where is FairPlay, Colorado? – Southwest of Denver
- RV Parks and Campgrounds near Fairplay – RV Life
- Ogden Nash llama poem – The footnote is key
- “Me and My Llama” song – From Sesame Street
Other races we’ve seen in our travels:
- Acapulco – A Faded Lady + Sailboat races
- Drag Boat Races in AZ – Top Speed FUN on the Colorado River!
- Ensenada Races – For Bicycles and Sailboats
- Lake Huron MI – Hydroplane Races and the Joseph S. Fay Shipwreck
- Nevada Open Road Challenge – A NEED for SPEED!
- PV: 2013 Kiteboard World Cup – Here on the beach!
- Soap Box Derby & Barrel Races – A Labor Day to Remember!
- Sun Valley Road Rally – Go Granny Go!
More articles from Colorado:
- Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, CO – Steep and Deep!
- Brilliant Fall Foliage + Snow in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado
- Buena Vista Colorado – What a Place for an RV Breakdown!
- Colorado GOLD – A Fall Foliage Photography Workshop
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- Colorado’s Stunning Scenic Drives…by Porsche!
- Cowboy Poetry Gatherings in Durango, Colorado, and Alpine, Texas!
- Creede, CO – Mining History & Championships + 4th of July!
- Crested Butte – Wildflower Capital of Colorado!
- Hartman Rocks – A Different View of Colorado near Gunnison
- Lake Granby Colorado RV Trip – A Summer Beach Vacation!
- Lakes and Light in Wyoming and Colorado
- Mesa Verde National Park, CO – Life on the Edge with the Ancients
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- Remote RV Camping: Antero Reservoir & Blue River Colorado
- Ridgway, CO – Peak fall foliage on the Dallas Divide – WOW!!
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- Rocky Mountain National Park & Trail Ridge Road: RV? Dog??
- Romance at Maroon Bells Colorado!
- RV Trip on Colorado’s Million Dollar Highway – Ouray to Silverton
- San Juan Mountains Colorado – And then it Snowed!
- Silver Thread Scenic Byway in Colorado – Fire in the Sky!
- Telluride Gondola Ride in Colorado – FREE and Dog Friendly!
- Where All News is Good News – At the Saguache Crescent in CO
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