Rocky Mountain High—In Colorado
By Dan Messersmith
Leaders: Bob Martin, John Page
Photos by Dan Messersmith, John Page, and Paul Ferry
The trip began in Ouray at 9AM. Our leaders, Bob & Marilyn Martin were joined by Dan & Matt Messersmith, Doug & Nancy Nunn, John & Lucy Perko, George Gilster, Bob & Shirley Bolin, and John Page with Paul Ferry. We all fell in line with Dan and Matt in the "sweep" position.
The first objective was to enjoy the falls of Box Canyon on the outskirts of Ouray. A very refreshing way to start the day.
After the falls, we were driving up a nearby canyon, towards Yankee Boy Basin. We viewed the Camp Bird Mine operations, Sneffels townsite (AKA Porter) and the Revenue Mine and Mill ruins.
Moving further up the canyon, we visited the area of the Yankee Boy mine and the lovely basin that bears its name. While there were some flowers to be seen, we were a week or two late for the magnificence flowering the basin can produce. It was still quite lovely and well worth the trip.
We returned down the canyon, back to Ouray and south on 550 to the turn-off to Engineer Pass. As we made our way along the Uncompahgre River we rose quickly in elevation. Our first stop was at the Mickey Breene Mine. As the day was waning, we looked for a campsite and found on just past Diamond Creek.
Our first "problem" for the trip was that when Dan routinely checked his oil level and found it to need 2.5 quarts to bring it up to the normal full line. It appears his Jeep is blowing oil out of the dip stick tube. (Monitored daily for the rest of the trip, only half a quart had to be added.)
After dinner, as we all visited together just prior to dusk, a deer came in around the fringe of the camp. It appears we may have been blocking her traditional route to the creek. As there was numerous places for her to get to water around us, we did not take any actions to move. The other thought was that she was just looking for a handout.
Darkness came and we all headed for our sleeping quarters, looking forward to tomorrow’s adventures.
Everyone was up as soon as it became light enough to see. As we got ready to leave, Dan’s Jeep would not start. A quick look under the hood found a battery terminal with too much corrosion. A quick cleaning and the Jeep started with no problems. (Thus ended problem #2.)
We got underway and continued our way up the climbing road. Passing the Poughkeepsie Gulch Junction, we changed our route to follow Mineral Creek. Coming to the remains of the Des Ouray Mine, we stopped to take pictures. Continuing on, we came to a Park Service toilet that had a great overlook of the San Juan Chief mill and the historic site of Mineral Point. We stopped for a comfort break and more photos. Once more in our vehicles, we soon came to the intersection that would take us up and to Engineer Pass. We drove up the steep inclines, negotiated some tight switchbacks and soon arrived at the leader’s first real surprise. Oh Point. This point gave us nearly a 360° view of the mountain peaks. The narrow trail out to it had mellowed a bit since the leader’s last visit, but still provided some great views.
We moved on to Engineer Pass and stopped to take pictures of the site which crossed the mountains at 12,800 feet of elevation
Moving on, we quickly descended past the Frank Hough Mine, Palmetto Gulch Powderhouse and Palmetto Gulch Mill. Just past the mill site, we searched out and found a great little spot for lunch along Henson Creek.
After lunch, our plan was to camp near Lake City. We passed Rose’s Cabin site, the Empire Chief Mill site and further down, the Smelter Smokestack of the Lee Mining and Smelter Company.
Our next stop was the trail and overlook to Whitmore Falls. After photos were taken, we continued our trip along Henson’s Creek through the site of Capitol City and on down through Henson and the site of the Ute-Ulay Mine.
We arrived in Lake City. Our leader went off to check out some camping sites while the rest of us got some gas and replenished some supplies. We all met back at the city park. Bob had found a possible site on the North end of Lake San Cristobal. John and Paul headed out to put a claim on the site while we waited for all of our folks to arrive at the park. We were soon on the road and arrived at the camp site. After setting up camp, which we found to be a haven for mosquitoes, we had to head for our shelters as the afternoon sprinkle hit. We had set up to celebrate Bob Martin’s birthday, but had to run for cover for awhile. Doug and Nancy found out that they had forgotten the rain fly for their new flip-top camper. It turned out that the rain did not come back. After the short rain, we re-gathered to try the celebration again. Cards and "gifts" were presented and a birthday pie of raspberries was enjoyed by all except Marilyn who felt like she needed to stay in the camper.
That evening, John & Paul and Dan & Matt went into town for dinner. Again, by nightfall, everyone had gone to bed.
Camp was again up at first light about 6AM. Bob let us know that Marilyn was still feeling ill and his plan was for the rest of us to explore around Lake City for the morning and be back at camp about 12:30PM to see if Marilyn felt better.
We also found that Doug and Nancy had a low tire on their truck. Doug got the truck out into the open and a search was made for the leak. We found a nail, but had to remove the wheel from the truck to get to the site. A Safety-Seal plug was inserted and the leak was fixed. Lots of supervision from the group insured that the job was well done.
Some of our group went straight in to Lake City for breakfast and some of us went out to see the Alfred Packer Monument and the Windy Point overlook. After that, we went into town and saw the sites.
Returning to camp, we were informed that Marilyn was still too ill to proceed and Bob would be taking her home. Bob asked John Page to take over the leadership role and they spent some time going over some maps and materials. Dan & Matt would continue their sweep duties.
We bid our farewells, wished Bob & Marilyn a safe journey home and our smaller and somewhat more somber group headed out toward Cinnamon Pass. Bob, ever the good leader had chosen well for his replacement and John Page, with the ever-present help of his navigator Paul Ferry, would serve the group well.
We drove along the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River observing the first of many beaver dams and lodges. We drove past the Castle Lakes and eventually across Bent Creek. Sightings of Marmots were had and they would seem to be everywhere along our trip.
Passing the turnoff for the old Sherman townsite we continued our way up along the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River coming to Burrows Park site where Silver Creek joined the river. Burrows Park was mostly a parking area for a trailhead with a couple of historic buildings still standing from its early days. We continued upward, reaching the turnoff to American Basin. We took the short road in to its end and enjoyed the sites of the basin. Again we were too late for the maximum flower viewing, but it was great views and spectacular vistas.
Returning to the main trail, we continued our climb up to Cinnamon Pass. Just past some significant switch-backs we found the remains of the Tobasco Mill. The mill and the Tobasco Mine workings at the summit of Cinnamon Pass were named for the Tobasco Hot Sauce Company that owned them.
Cinnamon Pass was reached and crossed at the elevation of 12,640 feet. As we were experiencing some lightning, we did not get out for photos, but pushed on down the slope. A short distance down the narrow trail, we encountered a tractor doing road work that delayed our descent for a short time.
Continuing on we arrived at Animas Forks (Elevation 11,200) and were greeted with a large number of vehicles, people and a remarkable number of old buildings. The community had began in the early 1870’s and had a busy history for forty plus years. A 1879 home, two stories tall and with a wonderful bay window were the centerpiece of the remaining buildings. The foundations of the huge Gold Prince Mill were impressive from a distant view and more impressive up close. The mill was constructed in 1904 and was the largest concentrating mill in Colorado. Another unique building was the jailhouse that was made from 2x6 boards laid flat to create strong walls.
We left Animas Forks and headed south toward Eureka. The town is long gone, but the remains of the Sunnyside Mill are spectacular. References indicate that the Sunnyside Mill was built from the dismantled Gold Prince Mill of Animas Forks.
We looked for campsite and our leaders found us a great one just below Eureka and we all settled in for the day. We did quickly find that part of the old railroad grade seemed to curve through our campsite area. Upon investigation, we found that we were camped within a large circle of railroad grade which appeared to be some sort of turn-around.
As it looked like rain again and Doug and Nancy did not have their rain fly for their flip-top, they headed into Silverton to find lodging for the night. Sure enough our afternoon shower came in and gave our area a good soaking. Doug and Nancy unexpectedly returned to our fold with tales of expensive motels and with a couple of tarps and bungee cords with which to fashion a rain fly. Talk about an engineering feat and maximum supervision.
Dinner was made and all were retired to their sleeping areas by dark.
Today would take us to Creede via Stoney Pass. We were up and on the road by 8:30 or so and headed south past Maggie Gulch and to Howardsville. (The community had been founded in 1871 and was once the first county seat of San Juan County. There are several modern buildings in the area and mining had continued there off and on through 1980.)
Turning up Cunningham Gulch we passed by parts of the Old Hundred Mine and Mill operations. This is a truly impressive mine with buildings, tram lines and operations thousands of feet up the mountainside. One view of a building 2000 feet above the mine looks a little like a mill, but a reference we had indicated that it was a boarding house for the miners. The mine offers a formal tour nowadays and comments were made that we might try and fit the tour into our schedule when we returned to this area.
A little farther up the gulch we turned up a road that would take us up Stony Gulch to Stoney Pass. The route was a continuous climb until we reached the summit at an elevation of 12,588. The views were spectacular as usual as we overlooked the headwater drainage of the Rio Grande River.
We started our descent and were treated to more glorious views along the way. This route is known as the Rio Grande Reservoir Road and parallels the river all the way to Creede. After some clear running we came to Timber Hill which was thickly wooded and a real "rock & roll" road, not hard, just slow going.
Along our way, we passed such features as Lost Trail, Horse Thief Pasture, Silver Hill and Sawmill Canyon as well as the reservoirs for which the road gets it name. Just before reaching the more open areas, Dan had an attack of the "screaming somethings" and had to have Matt stop the Jeep and wait while he hightailed it into the woods as fast as he could. He survived and caught up with the group in due time.
We got into Creede in the early afternoon and headed to the visitor’s center to see if we could find accommodations. The lady (Mary) at the center was very helpful and found places for all of us. Since we would be splitting up for the evening, an appointed meeting place and time was set and we were on our way.
Camping is great, but a hot shower can make a world of difference. We all ran errands to restock supplies, do laundry and visited the Forest Service center for information. Dinner at a wonderful restaurant rounded out a full day and we retired to our respective accommodations.
Our leaders planned an easy morning for us as we met and got on the road about 9:30AM.
We would do the scenic and historical Bachelor Loop north of Creede. We first visited the cemetery to see the grave of Bob Ford (the man who killed Jessie James). From there we headed up a forest road the followed Rat Creek. At one point, our leaders took us on one very scenic, but directionally challenged trail, until they got some better bearings. We quickly recovered and got back on the loop. We drove through this lovely basin of rolling hills as we worked our way toward the Continental Divide. We found a rough bit of rocky road that required some directional help to work our vehicles through. John Perko and Dan put their vehicles through an alternate, steep, slick and muddy route rather than fight the rocks.
As we approached the Divide, an early afternoon thunderstorm was threatening and we decided not to ascend up to the divide, but rather to make the turn and head back down toward Creede. The early trail down was very steep and we descended very rapidly. As John Perko called out on the radio, "Hey guys, you better use LOW EVERYTHING on this hill!"
We stopped in Creede for a late lunch and some last minute shopping. Our intent was to get to the Wheeler Geological Area and camp for the night.
As we gathered about 3:30PM, the rain came. We headed down the highway toward the Wheeler turnoff. As the rain continued, we made the decision not to try and get into the Wheeler area as we had been warned of mud bogs in wet weather. To our leader’s credit, he relented to the desires of the majority even though he was confident we could make it to the Wheeler area based on his conversations with the Forest Service staff.
So, off we went in search of a place to stay. As it had continued to rain and was still very wet. the group decided to "camp in" again. We could not find lodging at the first place we stopped but were encouraged to go on to South Fork as there was a larger selection of places there.
Upon our arrival at South Fork, we went to the visitors center and once more found good assistance from the volunteer on duty. She was able to find us a place with rooms for all of us. A hot shower and soft bed two nights in a row, boy did our leader know how to lead. We also found that our Cell Phones would work at South Fork and calls were made by several people to loved ones at home. Calls were also made to Bob and Marilyn to see how they were doing.
Dinner that night was at the Hungry Logger and eight of us attended the get-together while three elected to stay in their rooms and relax.
Our leader asked us all to be in the visitor center parking lot at 8:30AM. We were all there and ready to roll at the appointed time. Our day would be spent on some site-seeing trails will no real 4x4 roads in our plans.
We headed south out of South Fork until we reached the Park Creek access road. We followed the good road along Park Creek for awhile and then our leaders took us off on a short loop through the woods. The little loop was indeed fun and interesting and was much more attune to our travels then the smoother road.
Getting back on the smooth road, we continued in a southerly direction until we reached a turn to the east to take us to Summitville. Summitville is an old mining town with lots of wood buildings still standing which had a later life as an open pit mining operation. There is extensive rehabilitation going on at the site. We stopped and had lunch at the site of numerous old houses. Most were identical in construction but void of inhabitants unless you count the marmots.
Backtracking to the good road, we again headed south. We traversed through Elwood Pass and just before Stunner Campground we were delayed by some road construction.
After we were able to proceed, we toured the little campground and then continued on over Stunner Pass toward Platoro. When we reached the community of Platoro along the Conejos River, we drove through the town but did not stop at the small resort.
Continuing to follow the river we looked for camping sites. We toured one campground that was mostly filled so continued on. Few opportunities were being found, but the leader said he wanted to go as far as a point on the map called "The Pinnacles" before turning around.
We found "The Pinnacles" to be pretty unimpressive and we turned around with the thought of going back to the Stunner Campground. A question was asked of the leaders about finding an alternate route rather than retrace our steps. The reply was that the navigator had already found one and we went in search of Robinson Gulch.
Finding our turn, we went a short distance (1 or 2 miles) before finding a great campsite in a wonderful open area in the forest. Camp was set up with people finding spots on the extreme edges of the clearing. Just as we got the tents and such up, the afternoon rains came in and this time with some small hail. It was, as usual, a short lived shower. It did produce a double rainbow for our delight and although some additional clouds threatened us, no more rain came down.
After dinner, we enjoyed the first campfire of the trip which allowed some of us to stay up to the late hour of 9PM.
A good day, a good fire and a great night of camping ended this day.
Up at day-break the group had been asked by the leader to get an earlier start today.
Packed and ready to go by 8AM, the group continued up Cunningham Gulch to a point where we paralleled California Rough Canyon, down Rhodes Gulch, across Beaver Creek, past Silver Lakes, across the Alamosa River to a T road intersection where we turned left and paralleled the Alamosa River until we reached the old town of Jasper. Jasper is experiencing an explosion of building. What appears to have been a ghost town, is now becoming an area of summer homes.
Just past Jasper proper, we turned to ascend a 4x4 road along Spring Creek that would take us through Blow Out Pass. The trail passed through an impressive Aspen forest and was very rocky and steep in areas and certainly deserved the name it carried. No one in the group vocalized those thoughts until we were safely through the pass, although I suspect we all felt the same.
The summit of this pass opened into a high country grass lands with lots of scenic views. We began our descent and soon passed private fishing resort at Fuch Lake. We worked our way down the twisting road across Toll Gate Creek and eventually passed Crystal Lakes. Just past the lakes we began to parallel Beaver Creek and the road became smoother, straighter and broader. Numerous campgrounds surrounded Beaver Creek Reservoir. We continued on and made our way back to the hard road and South Fork.
At South Fork, we stopped for gas, lunch and supplies. Re-gathering at the visitor center, we again headed out for Wheeler Geological Area. Shirley Bolin had been given some option routes by the Forest Service people in Creede and the leader and his navigator were willing to give them a try.
Turning on a trail along Alder Creek we worked our way slowly up some great 4x4 trails. Lots of rocks and driving challenges. Nothing too hard, but rough, slow trail. We followed this backway into the Wheeler area and we saw some great back country in the process.
Arriving at the Wheeler area, we all found campsites and set about getting camps ready for the evening. Some of the group went into the site to see the formations that evening and some went in the following morning. Dan and Matt set up their camp to have a small fire for the evening. Several of the group gathered at the fire until about 9PM and then retired for the evening.
Another great day in the backcountry as John and Paul map out some great routes for us to follow.
We were up, packed and on the road by 8:30AM. We made our way back to the road we came in on but turned at that point to take the more used road back out to the highway. We passed the infamous mud bog areas and saw that they would indeed be a problem in wet weather. They were not an issue after several years of mostly dry weather.
When we reached the Hansons Mill site, we found a pack llama group setting up for some hikers to meet them at the site. Hansons Mill is gone but a large low pile of sawdust remains as well as hundreds of old whiskey bottles. It is said the operators of the mill would fly into Creede to stock up the whiskey supply.
After a nice visit with the llama drivers, we were back on the very good gravel road that would connect us with the hard road and Creede.
We again stopped in Creede and resupplied our vehicles and ourselves, had lunch and then headed out for Beartown. We retraced our steps that followed the paved Silver Thread Trail and then onto gravel near Spring Creek along the Rio Grande River, this time on a westerly direction. We once more climbed Timber Hill observing the wonderful workings of the beavers along the way.
We reached the Bear Creek turn and crossed the Rio Grande River and headed up the trail looking for a campsite. Again, our leaders found us a great spot and we set up camp. We all got set up and explored our campsite area as well as set up for another campfire later on.
John Perko had a small problem with his vehicle’s rear window, but with some WD40 and some help from Dan, he soon had it repaired and replaced.
We had a few sprinkles, but not the normal afternoon shower. Dinner was had by all, and the campfire rounded out another great day.
The camp was up and on the road by 8AM. We drove up the road looking for the site of Beartown but did not find anything, even with the help of a GPS bearing. We continued our climb up to Kite Lake at an elevation of 12,100. At the lake were a couple of researchers collecting water samples for examination.
The lake was very clear and appeared to be sterile. At the far end was the collapsed remains of a mine adit. On the near end was the shell of a building.
A pair of hikers came into the area with their dog and we visited with them for awhile. The couple was hiking over the mountains at this point and were going to hike down into Silverton and catch the train back to Durango.
Returning down to the area of Beartown, we stopped and searched for remains that would indicate we had found the old site. We fanned out and covered a large area, but to no avail. Returning to our vehicles, we started back down Beartown Road.
About a half mile from where we had searched, some rock formations were spotted that seemed to be man made. Everyone else had passed the spot so Dan and Matt checked it out and found that yes there were remnants of some buildings and other artifacts that indicated that this was probably the site we had been seeking. It was announced to the others over the radio, but as there was little to be seen, the group did not turn around, but rather continued on.
We again crossed the Rio Grande River and headed westerly to once more ascend Stony Pass. As we crossed the pass, we encountered a large number of sheep moving up the broad gulch on our left. We spotted the sheepherder’s camp and saw the herders on a trail high above the herd.
We continued down the west side of Stony Pass until we again reached Cunningham Gulch at the bottom. We turned to go up the gulch and found a place to have lunch not too far from the ruins of a large mining operation.
During lunch, our leader discussed options for the remainder of our trip. Doug and Nancy decided that they would take their leave of us in Silverton and return to Delta to pick up their motorhome before continuing their journeys elsewhere.
We continued by good road to Silverton. Doug and Nancy bid their farewells and the rest of us dropped by the visitors center for information.
After a brief stop, we began our highway journey toward the Durango area. As we were splitting up for accommodations in Durango, John set a time and meeting site for the next day. John and Paul and the Bolins camped at a KOA on the outskirts of town while the rest of us went into town for rooms.
Just five vehicles now, we all met at the appointed time and place and John and Paul took us toward the Purgatory Ski area. Turning off on Forest Service Route 578, we were headed up to Bolam Pass.
We traveled along a very good road and quickly climbed into the forest. Along the way we came to the remains of the Graysill Mine. This mine was fairly modern being in operation from 1943 to 1963. It produced Vanadium and Uranium and provided some of the materials that were used in the Manhattan Project during WWII.
Just before reaching Bolam Pass (elevation 11,500), we came to a beautiful lake and camping area. At the pass, we got out to see the views. A lone guitar player was seated on the edge of the overlook, content with his solitude — until five dust throwing, gas guzzling, engine whining vehicles pulled up and nine noisy tourists piled out. Again the views were spectacular and the very distinctive Lizard Head mountain was observed in the distance.
We continued on and began our descent that would take us alongside Barlow Creek and eventually to Barlow Reservoir which we found to be dry.
Not too much further, we crossed the Delores River and got on the hard road (Colorado 145) to Telluride.
We stopped at the visitors center to check on the route out of town, broke up for lunch and agreed to meet at a designated side street at about 1:30PM to continue or trip.
At the appointed time we gathered and were once again on our way. The trail out of town was narrow and a fair amount of traffic both directions kept us on our toes. The route was very spectacular with breathtaking views of the Telluride valley below. We also got a good look, and a few pictures of, the switchbacks on the Black Bear Trail the goes by Bridal Falls on its rapid descent into Telluride.
We stopped at some lower workings of the Tom Boy Mine and were duly impressed. Further up the trail, we came to the main workings of the Tom Boy Mine and Mill and impressed seemed like such an inappropriate word. We encountered numerous travelers and tour Jeeps at this point that became more a distraction than anything else.
Leaving the Tom Boy workings, we made our way up the final ascent to Imogene Pass. This was another narrow and spectacular trail. Imogene Pass was 13,114 feet in elevation and again gave us wonderful views in most directions. At the summit of the pass sets a small wood building called Fort Peabody. It was so named by the State Militia force that was stationed there to keep the striking miners at bay and out of Telluride.
Descending out of Imogene Pass we came to the upper workings of the Camp Bird Mine.
Continuing down we eventually came to the Yankee Boy Basin Road, connecting with that road at about the Sneffels site.
We drove quickly in to Ouray and 3 of our vehicles went to the JJJJ campground and found some space to share. George went in search of a cabin and John & Lucy Perko decided to call it a trip and headed north to find lodging for the night.
Our now smaller group of 4 vehicles and seven people met on the north side of Ouray with the intent of doing an easy run back to Telluride via Last Dollar Road. We stopped in Ridgway for gas and had to compete with a large motor pool of support vans for a French bicycle group.
We drove west on Colorado 62, trying our best not to run down any French citizens along the way, across Dallas Divide and finally turning south on Last Dollar Road.
As expected, this was more a country lane than a 4x4 trail but is was still a very pretty drive through some great ranch country. When we crossed Alder Creek we seemed to be in the middle of a large ranch called the Heath Ranch. Each ranch gate we passed carried both the name of Heath Ranch and then in smaller lettering what appeared to be perhaps the historical name of a smaller ranch that had be absorbed by the larger one. One such gate sign indicated that the buildings we could see in the distance were the remains of the 1895 Coker Ranch. This was the area in which the movie "True Grit" was filmed.
We continued on stopping at a wonderful overlook, then on past the Whipple Mountain Trail and Summit Creek. We stopped at the remains of an old log building and speculated on what it might have been.While at this site, we observed a sheep herd high above us with one guard llama on duty.
Once again we found ourselves in Telluride for lunch.
After lunch, Dan and Matt bid farewell to the group an headed for home.
The last days (by John Page)
When Dan and Matt left us in Telluride after lunch, George decided to try Ophir Pass, while the Bolins and Paul and I opted to return to Ouray by way of Ridgway. We were to form up again at the Eureka campsite.
We had been told of an interesting drive from Red Mountain Pass which we attempted in a light rain. The road climbed quite steeply to about 12,200 feet; we encountered some slippery mud on the way up and which got worse at what appeared to be the crest of the trail. Not knowing what lay ahead, I chickened out and decided to abort the run; we turned around and returned to the highway and Eureka. As planned, we met George who said that the Ophir Pass crossing had been fun, but uneventful.
The Bolins left us Friday morning.
George, Paul and John spent the day learning about hard rock mining in Colorado by taking the Old One Hundred mine tour, and the self-guided tour of the Sunnyside Mill. We drove the short distance to the end of the road at Highland Mary's Mine for lunch between the two tours.
Since we had time before the Hard Rockers' Holidays started in Silverton, George, Paul and I went to the Gladstone Mine, north of Silverton, and a little further into the Minnehaha Basin. We were back at the festivities shortly after they started. The competitions for the first day included a wheelbarrow race, powered drilling, hand mucking, single-bit single-jack drilling, and, of course, the tug-o-war eliminations. Great fun!
George could not handle the excitement, so he split during the daily afternoon rainstorm.
Paul and John, the dregs of the happy group that had formed up two weeks earlier, hung around Sunday to see the completion of Hard Rocker's Holiday which included multiple-bit single-jack drilling, the tug-o-war finals, 2-man drilling, machine mucking, and a demonstration of laying and pulling up three lengths of mine car rails.
Thus ended a superb vacation in Southwest Colorado.