THE BLUE RIDGE PARKWAY—A Fall Interlude

Sometimes there are places that just don’t grow old for us.  To the outsider, it might appear that we’re in a rut, stuck in the same routine.  I see it as more like a rejuvenation, a restoration of our spirit.  Call it what you will, the Fall Season was upon us and here we were, for maybe the sixth or seventh time, back on the Blue Ridge Parkway, to make the most of this special time of the year.  And that would be mid-October—when the days are crisp, the nights downright chilly, and the foliage aflame in brilliant colors.  It is the Parkway’s showiest time of the year—IMHO.

We were doing things a little different this time around—a slight change of locations along the parkway.  After hooking up with Airstream friends, Randy and Teresa Cook, we found ourselves near the college town of Boone, NC, a couple hours’ drive north of our usual  North Carolina haunts.  After our paths diverged from them, we were hoping to snag one of the unreserveable sites in the parkway’s largest campground.  At this most popular time of the year, that might be expecting too much.  We did have a fall-back plan, but we REALLY were hoping to kick back and hang out for a few days here, camping along the parkway.

Blessed with unseasonably warm days, bright bluebird skies and soft, gentle breezes, we were experiencing fall days at their best.

The locals were calling it a disappointing fall.  Colors too faded, foliage too bare.  Just before the leaves were to begin turning, the winds of two Florida hurricanes had blown through, taking down a considerable quantity of branches, stripping too many leaves from the trees, we were told.  For a time, it necessitated closing segments of the parkway; the clean-up was such a big deal.

Yet, even under unusually dry conditions and that windy impact, I’ll readily stack the fall colors of this parkway up against any other area of our country notable for autumn color.  Even under these less-than-desirable circumstances, the Blue Ridge Parkway in October can easily hold its own premier place.   Just check out these photos to come—they will exhibit the unvarnished truth.

Julian Price Campground has more available campsites than any of the Parkway’s other seven campgrounds. Yet, just like the others, despite having nearly 300 sites, the campground was laid out decades ago when tent camping was the custom, and RVs weren’t nearly the size they are today.  Having 78 designated RV sites, many of them are merely pull-offs along the camp road; back-ins aren’t generally deep and pull-throughs don’t exist. Nevertheless, most of the back-ins are double-wide and allow for a tow vehicle to park next to your trailer.  In situations like this, Airstreams and other mid-size trailers have a huge edge.  There were several sites that were adequate for us, and if push came to shove, without any slide-outs, we could have just as well taken one of the roadside sites.

But, we lucked out with a nice, totally acceptable non-reserveable site.  Situated in a deep forest of hardwoods, the sunlight through fall foliage was like light through stained glass, while encircled with rhododendrons gave us a private, tucked-away and nestled-in-the-forest feel.

Just hanging out at our campsite might be the best part of this autumn interlude.

We might not have hookups, and would need to conserve our water usage, but ahhhh—this is a true camping experience.

You could say that we were camped right in the thick of things.  Location . . . location . . . location.  With the quaint town of Blowing Rock a couple miles away and the college town of Boone only 20 or so miles, there’s plenty of sightseeing possibilities. Julian Price, with its 4,200 acres of rolling mountain land smack along the Parkway, is a destination in itself.  With several trailheads to choose from, and many more just a handful of miles away, outdoor lovers won’t need to move far afield.  Everything one could enjoy doing on beautiful fall days is right here literally at your doorstep.

The Green Knob Trail was our first hike.  What it lacked in length it more than made up for in its elevation changes.  Just down the road from our campground, we hiked through a diversity of environments, from old growth timber to open pastures.  Our reward was standing on the top of Green Knob, giving distant views of Price Lake far below.

The trail leads where??? Chris has a stand-off
with a stubborn cow.

 

 

Moses Cone Memorial Park is another popular visitor attraction of the Parkway, and it too was just a couple miles away.  If the high quality Craft Center located there isn’t enough of a draw for you (Chris was captivated by the featured craftsman, a woodcarver with his fine handiwork on display), then you’ll surely find some interest in the history of the place.

Moses Cone was a self-made man, making a fortune with his textile mills that produced high quality denim fabric.  Fond of nature and plagued by poor health, he was drawn to the mountainous region around Blowing Rock.  Buying up 3,500 acres, he subsequently designed and built Flat Top Manor, a gleaming white 20-room, 13,000 square foot mansion in the grand Colonial Revival style.  Today, the first floor houses the Craft Center, while the second floor is open for touring on weekends.  You will find it to be a very popular stop on the Parkway.

But that’s not all of the story!  The Cones were “naturalists” before the term became popular, working to preserve and enrich their land.  They planted acres of white pines and hemlocks and transported sugar maples directly from New England.  He built several lakes, stocking them with bass and trout and planted 32,000 apple trees which produced prize-winning apples.

To help him appreciate the fruits of his labors and planning, Moses had 25 miles of carriage roads laid out through his property.  Open for hiking and horseback riding, perhaps this is the feature that visitors find most appealing.  Winding through pastoral settings, many of the pathways are lined with stonewalls or bushes of mountain laurel and rhododendrons.  Spring and early summer here must be a glorious sight to see.

Although we have yet to travel all 469 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway, I’d say we have a more than average familiarity with the stretch from Asheville to its terminus at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  Just a few months ago we spent some perfectly stunning days camped near Mt. Pisgah, catching the early summer bloom.

Two years ago I wrote an extensive post about our fall experience on the southern sections of the parkway where I provided more written information about the parkway than you really needed to know.  When caught up in a captivating experience, I sometimes get overly zealous in my writings and pictorial essays.

Here I am, seven years ago,
taking in the views for the first time.

It has been seven years since we ventured this far north along the parkway.  Back then, we spent more than a few days along this stretch, covering more ground and taking in more sights than we would have time for on this occasion.  Back then, I wasn’t posting these travel blogs, not even recording our experiences in writing.  Only my photos taken at that time illustrate what we saw and did.  But from those pictures I have come to see that we once again walked trails taken those years ago.  A good trail, we came to discover, can be taken more than once or twice.  And Rough Ridge Trail is more than a good trail .  .  . it is one of the parkway’s most outstanding.

When you first see the stepping stone rocks leading steeply up the mountainside at the trailhead you might be somewhat intimidated.  If you’re not a veteran hiker, you might even have some doubts.  But don’t be dissuaded—take your time and you’ll be fine.  Trust me, in a short while the views open up and the boardwalk begins and there’s even benches to rest on.  The panoramic scenery makes you forget all the effort expended.  In any season, under any conditions, the views are amazing.  And at this time of the year . . . it’ll take your breath away–if the hike hasn’t done that already.

Today, with the scenery unchanged, you see the famous Linn Cove Viaduct stretching around the flanks of Grandfather Mountain.

The only downside to this spectacular trail might be the Congo line of hikers.  Yes, during leaf season you’re bound to share it with others.  But take it from me, it’s worth it.

With the Blue Ridge mountains stretching to the horizon, it’s worth the effort to get here.

Another trail you shouldn’t miss is Beacon Heights, only a few more miles south of Rough Ridge.  Another popular trail during the day, this is a sunrise or sunset destination, in my book.  Sure, you’ll still find some intrepid souls up there late or early in the day . . . but no Congo line of hikers to contend with.  As far as this segment of the Parkway goes, Beacon Heights is not to be missed.

Evening light warms the colors and accentuates the flow of undulating mountain ridges.

Another uphill climb over rocks and roots leads to two large rocky shelves—one facing to the west, the other to the east—from which to look out over a pristine setting of the remnants of these ancient mountains. It’s a thought-provoking place you’ll feel privileged to have found.

I knew I had found my sunrise place.  And so, early next morning saw me bundled up in layers, flashlight in hand and headlight illuminated, trudging back up that bouldered trail.  My efforts were not in vain.

And the afterglow wasn’t too shabby either.  Sunrises on mountaintops can be a wondrous experience.

During the leaf season, the Parkway oftentimes is nearly bumper-to-bumper traffic. But shortly after sunrise, you’ll feel you own the road.  So it was as I was heading back, passing by the Rough Ridge pull-off.  What??? No cars parked here???  Incredible!  And definitely not to be ignored.  What credible photographer could pass up this photo op?  Certainly not me.  With gear in hand, I made my second up mountain slog of the day.

Yes, I had the perfect spot all to myself.  A panoramic shot was in order first.

Grandfather Mountain, an icon of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the focal point of this part of the Parkway, stands out prominently in my photo.

Composing a second shot, I was dismayed to see a young couple walk straight into my scene.  On second thought, I saw a kismet moment as they added life and direction to my picture. And so, I took the shot.

And then, I was witnessing a very special moment as unbelievable as it seemed.  In the space of a click of the shutter, I was capturing one of life’s most intimate scenes.

Their names were Thomas and Ashley.  He had his GoPro filming the moment, and as he came to retrieve it, I was able to offer my congratulations.  They were both giddy and still caught up in the moment.  Thomas admitted that he had never been so nervous and still was shaking, while Ashley said after six years of being together, this still came as the shock of her life!  They asked me to take their picture, which of course I was honored to do.  More than just one or two, rest assured.  With hugs all around, I soon left them to bask in a private moment as I packed up and headed back down the trail.

With Grandfather Mountain lording over the landscape, the morning seemed to take on even more of a special glow.  Our time here was closing down, but for Ashley and Thomas this golden morning would be their new beginning.

Chris had things all stowed away and was waiting to hitch up the truck (some things never change).  After a quick breakfast, we were pulling out to make our way down to more familiar parts of the Parkway.  Oh beautiful drive, how many different looks you have!

Until the next time .  .  .

Airstream Travelers,  Melinda & Chris

We’ll be returning.

 

 

 

 

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COLORADO SPRINGS—Was This To Be the End?

We had literally come full circle.  It had been just two months ago that we were pulling through Colorado Springs on our way to our first destination—the town of Manitou Springs.  I had really wanted to stay here in the Springs (as locals refer to the town) at a particular state park that had received outstanding reviews, but as is so often the case with highly rated campgrounds, it was booked up solid.  Thus we ended up nearby, with Manitou Springs having enough attractions to keep us occupied and well-satisfied.  BUT, clever planner of trips that I am, why not tack it on at the end of our travels? Kids would be heading back to school and campgrounds were mostly left to us retirees (except on weekends, that is).  Plenty of good sites to choose from.  Worked out just fine!  Approaching the end of another epic trip is always a bittersweet time, but with this campground waiting up ahead, our anticipations were far outweighing the sadness of the impending end.

Cheyenne Mountain State Park didn’t disappoint, even in view of my high expectations.  One of Colorado’s newest state parks, it is a jewel.  Just on the outskirts of The Springs, the park is positioned on the northern flanks of Cheyenne Mountain (yes, THAT mountain of NORAD fame).

With careful consideration when selecting a campsite, you might be fortunate enough to have the mountain rising behind you while the expanse of the Great Plains spreads out before you.  It’s the very best of both worlds.

The newness of this park really shows up in its campground.  Paved roads and pads, gravel picnic areas and spacious, well-separated sites.  And best of all and a rarity as state parks usually go—full hookup sites!  Yes, we were in a camper’s 7th Heaven!

Added to all this was the bonus (and it was a BIG one)—a field of sunflowers graced our surroundings!  A sight to behold, spreading out below the mountain was a glorious meadow of those yellow beauties!

With everything so good in this most excellent site, we wasted little time making ourselves quite comfortable here.  Even though The Springs was temptingly close with all it had to offer, we rarely went far away. Settling in to smell the sunflowers—something we rarely take the time to do.

Have I mentioned the outstanding trail system this park has?  Well marked, with a wide diversity of topographies covered, you had your choice of flatland prairies or uphill, more strenuous hikes.  A great way to begin the day!  Or spend it, for that matter.

But we did venture out for a little outing, to hobnob with the ‘upper crust’.

When the Broadmoor Hotel was built in 1918, Colorado Springs was instantly put on the map—the map of the rich and famous, that is.  More of a supply and railroad town in the past, the hotel helped to turn the city into a desired tourist destination.  Businessman, entrepreneur and philanthropist Spencer Penrose (who had amassed his considerable wealth from copper mining) bought the property at the base of Cheyenne Mountain in 1916 and began to build the resort two years later.  With the intention of having it be the “Grand Dame of the Rockies”, he expected it to be “the finest hotel in the United States.”  He employed architects who had designed Ritz-Carlton and Biltmore Hotels, as well as Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of landscape architecture (who designed Central Park) to design the landscape for the Broadmoor’s 3,000 acres.   A dismantled English pub was even brought over and reassembled at the resort.  The shooting school was run by Annie Oakley.  Far Eastern and European artwork and antiques were purchased for the hotel.  It cost a total of $2 million to build, which is equivalent to $31,845,133 in 2016.

The architecture and the color is like the grand hotels that would be found on the coast of the Mediterranean, in an Italian Renaissance style The pink stucco of the facade also helps to blend into the Pikes Peak area landscape.

A short drive from the park, we arrived to have a nice morning tea and scrumptious pastry, and then strolled the well-manicured grounds.  Several different buildings plus many smaller units make up the Broadmoor compound.

A nice, paved path nearly a mile around is a great way to stretch your legs while getting a full perspective of this impressive place.  It’s quite the grand old lady that’s been well-cared for and obviously updated.

Colorado Springs was the conclusion of our planned trip .  .  .  but we weren’t ready to call it quits.  With August nearly over, we felt we could drain at least several more days from this summer’s travels.  We thought it sounded reasonable to hang around until Labor Day Weekend–after all, that’s the official end to the summer season.  It made good sense to us!

And so, we began improvising .  .  . something we rarely do.  Where to go from here, we wondered.  Where could we get a site, seemed the more pertinent question.  We got to work with the map spread out.

Just west of the Springs and at a much higher elevation are a handful of forest service campgrounds.  With a few sites still available at South Meadows Campground, we quickly snagged one of the largest.  A typical FS campsite (read: no hookups or amenities), but a place to hang out over a long weekend, and then we’d move on to one last potentially perfect place.

Best of all, we went back into the mountains.  Just west of the Springs, the elevation goes up and the air temperatures go down.  Ahhhh, smell that mountain air!

Yes! Once again Pikes Peak dominated our horizon.

Hang a right hand turn out of the small town of Woodland Park and you’re on the way to a landscape of scenic roads and great Blue Ribbon fishing waters.  It’s an area we know well and have begun many of our Colorado adventures here .  .   .  there’s plenty of outdoor activities to choose from.  And the camping is pretty darn good too.

South Meadows Campground is just one of a whole handful where the camping is primitive but divine (if you’re interested in more natural but less civilized sardine-packed sites).  In a Ponderosa pines forest, the sites are very well spaced and come in a diversity of sizes.  You’ll even find some extremely deep ones—fit for the biggest of RV rigs.

No nearby neighbors in view, it was all about the sweet scents of a pine forest.

And so, we hung out here, just relishing Colorado camping au naturelle.  Chris tried his hand at fishing in the nearby scenic lake, while I attempted to catch up on some much delinquent posts.  All the while just soaking up an environment soon to be sorely missed.  It was among the best three days of our entire trip.

But we did have one last destination remaining ahead–another spontaneous, unscheduled spot.  Very popular on weekends, we had been able to reserve a site on Monday, and a scenic drive would take us there.

Designated in 1918, the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway is Colorado’s oldest Scenic Byway.  Its curvy road winds its way through national forests, past the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area, ending up at Rocky Mountain National Park.  Connecting the western flanks of the Front Range, it leads to the peaks along the Continental Divide, from which its namesake is derived. With high mountains bookcasing the drive, the scenery doesn’t get any better than this.  Truly a Rocky Mountain High.

Views such as this along the drive made it hard to keep one’s attention on the road.

Way back when we were first becoming acquainted with the towns and scenic areas of Colorado, I had heard of the town of Golden.  Who hasn’t? Being the hometown of Coors Beer.  Located just a stone’s throw from I-70, we had passed by its turnoff several times.  Positioned on the cusp of the Front Range, it has the Great Plains stretched out on one side while the town is backddropped by the full splendor of the Rockies to the west.  Sounds pretty ideal to me.  But still, it was one of the few Colorado mountain towns we had yet to set our eyes on.  Until now.

Golden Canyon State Park isn’t exactly on the outskirts of its town, yet only 16 scenic miles away.  Established in 1960, this 12,000-acre state park is another jewel that IMHO makes a good rival to Cheyenne Mountain.  As state parks go, these two easily hold their place near the highest rating.  Reverend Ridge Campground is an excellent place to start.  What it might lack in full hookups—only electricity is offered on 60 of its 100 sites—it more than compensates for with its layout.  Nicely separated and private sites with many being pull-throughs, you’ll feel more a part of the natural setting than you would expect to find in a public campground.  We were absolutely amazed at the privacy of our site.  Another spot where just hanging out in camp can suffice for your whole time here.

For our last taste of Colorado camping, it doesn’t get any better than this!

Of course, we did have to leave and take a day trip once or twice.  Not having ever passed through the town of Golden, we made that our first outing.  And, despite high expectations, it didn’t disappoint.  First off, the drive to get there is one incredibly scenic road.  Stretching through Golden Gate Canyon, the road is 15 miles of curvy driving while the views are non-stop awe-inspiring.

Golden, Colorado is an authentic Rocky Mountain town.  Not duded up or with put-on airs, it’s a genuine pleasant place to visit.  With a downtown that’s been renovated to showcase the glories of its past, you’ll find western shops and galleries, mixed in with cafes and coffeehouses, with lots of al fresco eating to go along.  All-in-all, a very pleasant place to stroll away your afternoon hours, or just hang out and people watch.

For a change of scenery on the outskirts of town, take a drive up to the summit of Lookout Mountain.  Those in better shape or of a different inclination, might choose to bike it up.  Whatever mode you choose, the summit is worth your time and effort.  The views are nothing short of breathtaking.

With the town spread out below you, the far-reaching views are amazing.  The centerpiece of the town is easily seen—Coors Brewery is a massive complex of buildings, the largest single brewery facility in the world.

Before the brewery came along, the views were always there.  Standing on this very   promontory of the Front Range, the scene before you has always been overwhelming.  So much so that when he visited here in his later years, Buffalo Bill Cody declared this was where he wanted to be buried.  And so he was.  Today, his grave is easily visited, with a museum nearby that commemorates his full and varied life.  While it might have some merit to it, after visiting the museum dedicated to him in Cody, Wyoming, it was not all that impressive.  Take it from us, the Buffalo Bill Center of the West is the museum you’ll want to be sure to take in.  Worth your time and money, for sure!

Aside from that one visit to Golden, we relished our remaining time closer to camp.  We spent one day just hiking—over 36 miles of trails spread out on this 12,000-acre park.

Covering a wide diversity of landscapes, you’ll find trails of every length and difficulty.  Whatever your spirit is desiring, you’ll find some trail to please you here.  We soon discovered that despite the rugged rating, the park trails were laid out well and very easy to follow.  You can easily move from the more intimate, closed-in, forest trails to the wide open, long ranging views of mountain peaks.  We never got bored hiking these park trails.  And so we spent our day.

But then, with our last day here in Golden Canyon, we did leave the park for greater glories.  Another asset to this particular park is its proximity to nearby landmark locations.  Following that same Peak-to-Peak Scenic Byway, you’ll soon come to the boundary of the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area.  And that’s a place that can truly get even the most staid and unemotional hiker’s heart beating faster.  Indian Peaks is one supremely glorious place to hike the mountain trails.  Just as many years ago, we had to take it in.

Lying just to the south of Rocky Mountain National Park, this wilderness area might be overlooked by many who are more attracted to the lure of the national park.  But the Indian Peaks can easily hold its own in comparison.  Straddling the Continental Divide, the area contains 7 peaks over 13,000’ in elevation.  Carved by the glaciers, you’ll find high cirques, U-shaped valleys and numerous pristine alpine lakes within its boundaries.  Having the largest glacier remaining today in Colorado, as well as a few other smaller ones, the landscape is pure Colorado beauty.  And a place that called me back.

I couldn’t think of a better place to spend our last full day in Colorado.  We headed out to Brainard Lake Recreation Area where we would find the trailhead for Lake Isabelle, the place where I’d left a piece of my heart.

Near the start of the trail, Saint Vrain Creek leads your eye to the scenery ahead.

Our first full sight of three mountains of the Indian Peaks is a view that’ll give you pause.

First comes the fields of wildflowers, still blooming this late in the summer .  .  .

.   .  .  and then Lake Isabelle comes into view and those incredible peaks are reflected in shimmering water.

This is a place that can hold its own against any Colorado calendar scene. It’s a place to spend some time, peaceful, quiet time, while soaking in the grandeur of nature’s creation.

Chris’ MO on our Departure Day has always been “Get UP and GO!”  I tend more to the dragging-one’s-feet group.  Unless there’s a photo to be had—then it’s a different story.  While he did the final packing, I slipped away for one last shot.

The aptly named Panorama Point offers great views of the Indian Peaks along the Continental Divide, stretching up to take in Long’s Peak rising to the north.  A beautiful spot any time of the day, it was memorable in the first light of dawn.  A sight to take home with me.

And then, we were on our way.

With those peaks now at our backs, our route led straight east.  Dropping down from the high elevations, the Great Plains of eastern Colorado stretched out to the horizon.  Miles and miles of flat, grassy grazing land.

Throw in some hay fields too.

Those mountains would be a memory now, as our trip was nearing its end.

Yes, Colorado is a place we’ll continue to hold dear to our hearts and souls, no matter where else we travel.

Airstream Travelers,

Melinda & Chris

with more good travels to come.

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WESTCLIFFE—A Colorado Gem

–but don’t spread the word

“OFF THE BEATEN PATH” is a common phrase; you might even think it’s overused.  I could be guilty of doing that, every now and then.  Although, In the case of our next destination, it just might be totally appropriate.

Leaving the Great Sand Dunes, we took a circuitous route through Walsenburg to make our way into Westcliffe.

Not that the place is particularly hard to get to, rather more like it’s not on the way to ANYWHERE.  No major highways will take you there, just your average comfortable country roads.  With the Front Range mountains within easy reach to the east, the town isn’t exactly isolated from some of Colorado’s largest cities, and yet Westcliffe is a small town set apart.  Located in a beautiful but remote valley in the southern part of Colorado, perhaps that very seclusion is the reason it’s off the beaten path; remaining unknown to many outside of Colorado.  I suspect the locals like it that way, and truth be told, I find it a big part of my attraction to this place.

“Quite a few people find this valley by accident and end up returning by design” we were told by the personable volunteer at Westcliffe’s Chamber of Commerce.  That summed up our own scenario to a “T”, having passed through here a full 14 years ago.  Crossing over the valley on one of our daily adventures, we had pulled into Westcliffe for a bite of lunch.  You might say it turned out to be love at first sight—for me, at least.  With one last backward, lingering look, I made a mental note to one day return.  Never one to forget a memorable place, I put it on this year’s itinerary.  Better late than never, I always say!

In a setting such as this, who wouldn’t be coming back???

It’s all about mountains when spending time in Westcliffe, with a sweet little valley stretched in between two ranges.  In the early 1870s, ranching drew a small number of settlers to the Wet Mountain Valley, where the prairie grasses provided natural pastureland.  It was the discovery of silver, however, that sparked a population boom.  When high-grade ore yielding 75% silver was unearthed, thousands of people streamed into the valley, establishing the town of Silver Cliff, which rapidly became the third most populous city in Colorado, right behind Denver and Leadville.  Then the railroad moved in, but instead of laying tracks into Silver Cliff, they ended one mile away where the Denver & Rio Grande built its own community (as the company was apt to do, buying up cheap land on which to build their own town).  Silver went bust in the Crash of 1893, and so did the town of Silver Cliff.  Cattle ranching and hay farming held on in the rural valley and Westcliffe survived, even prospered.  Today agriculture and a developing tourist industry are the economic mainstays of Westcliffe—where mercantiles and feed stores share the small downtown with gift shops and galleries.

With a backdrop of high mountain peaks, Westcliffe’s quaint business district has a quiet start to the day.

“The glamour of lost history – dim memories of Indian bands, of French explorers and Spanish troops; they have the spell of the remote, the mystery of recesses that are little known; they are the kind of mountains one’s imagination builds.”   

  – Albert Ellingwood after completing the first ascent of the Crestone Peaks in 1916

So what really gets my blood flowing here?  The mountains, of course.  And here, in this sublime place, we’re not just talking ordinary mountains.  Even by Rocky Mountain standards, these peaks aren’t run-of-the-mill.  We’re talking sharply uplifted blocks .  .  .  jagged ridges .  .  .  and soaring pinnacles.  Real mountains—formidable peaks—with summits to challenge even the most experienced of mountain climbers.  These are the Sangre de Cristos and they create one of the most stunning landscapes in the southern Rocky Mountains.  A superlative statement to match such spectacular peaks.  Moreover, they are right at Westcliffe’s back door.

Just to throw in a little mountain geology here, the Sangres are fault-block mountains, similar to the Tetons in Wyoming and the Wasatch Range in Utah.  There are major fault lines running along both the east and west sides of the range and, in places, cutting through the range.  Due to the fault block geology, the Sangre de Cristo wilderness is crisscrossed east to west by short and narrow drainages that end at impassable ridges and cliffs. Many, if not all, of the hiking trails in the wilderness follow these drainages to high altitude lakes or the several fourteen thousand foot high peaks. Like all fault block mountain ranges, the Sangres lack foothills which means the highest peaks rise straight up from the valleys both to the east and west, abruptly rising 7,000’ feet above the valley in some places.  Another reason they look so formidable. And they take my breath away.

Lying below, homes and ranches are dwarfed by these gargantuan mountains.

One of the longest mountain chains on Earth, it is the youngest and most abrupt range in Colorado.  Presenting a saw-toothed silhouette, it is one continuous succession of jagged peak after another.  Within the range there are 10 peaks over 14,000’ high and 25 more that are over 13,000’.  The Crestone Group—4 prominent fourteeners—were some of the last of the fourteeners to be ascended. Two of North America’s most classic climbs—Crestone Needle and Kit Carson Peak—are among those four.

Opposing these great Sangres, across the valley to the east lie the Wet Mountains.  Diminutive in comparison, their peaks range from 9,000’ to slightly over 12,000’ in elevation.  A southern vestige of the Front Range with only two summits reaching above timberline, their flanks are colored in myriad shades of green vegetation.  After their months-long journey across what was then called “The Great American Desert”, the early Mormon emigrants saw the distant blue-tinged mountains floating in a mist of clouds and called them the Wet Mountains.  Ironically, it was a similar name also given by the Spanish explorers and native Indians.

Sandwiched between these two ranges lies the bucolic Wet Mountain Valley. It seems to be the epitome of a beautiful, unspoiled intermountain valley, where remnants of old homesteads, barns and one-room schoolhouses stand amid some of the state’s most lush country, dominated by more updated ranches and farms.

Considered one of the state’s prime ranch lands, the valley stretches below the Sangres for over 30 miles.  Reaching 15 miles in width, its history goes way back.  The Ute Indians frequented the valley, where they found plentiful game and a mild summer climate.  Zebulon Pike and his expedition traversed the valley in 1806, as did a Spanish expedition nearly a century before.  German immigrants came later, colonizing the valley and farming the land.  With little experience at irrigation or high-altitude farming, most of them eventually moved on.  Those who remained and learned from the land, prospered.

And together, both old and newer, seem to mesh quite nicely together.

It presents many good opportunities for capturing picturesque landscape photos.  I found myself enthralled with the scenery, spending many hours driving along back roads and rutted dirt tracks.

I soon came to see that the predominant (perhaps only) crop was hay.  Acres and acres of hay fields.  All in the process of being harvested.  The farmers were certainly out in force, working from dawn ‘til dark.

With views like this, a farmer’s life in the Valley doesn’t look too bad!

The hallmark of these older ranches has to be found in the history of the Beckwith Ranch.  Still standing today just north of Westcliffe, it’s being preserved and restored to the pinnacle of its prosperous days.

Two brothers from Maine had come west in the later years of the 19th century to seek their fortunes.  One went to Denver to engage in the stock business, while the other came to this area, now Custer County, to homestead 160 acres.  Edwin and Elton Beckwith eventually formed a ranching partnership, which at its peak was one of the largest cattle operations in all of Colorado.

Elton married a wealthy local widow and built this fine Victorian mansion to be their home.  Edwin never married, and died soon after his brother’s home was finished.  While the ranching operation continued, Elton was elected to the state senate, serving for many years as Chairman of the Stock Committee.  He died in 1907, but Elsie would live for another 24 years.  Soon after Elton’s death, she had sold the ranch and its mansion, living out her later years in Denver’s Brown Palace Hotel.

In 1966, the new owners donated the main house and outbuildings, as well as 3.5 acres of land to the non-profit group, Friends of the Beckwith Ranch.  Years were devoted to restoration work, over $700,000 spent.  Today it’s listed on the National Register and while work is being completed on rooms in the mansion, the premises are free for the public to enjoy.

The ranch and its buildings are a prime example of prosperous times in the Wet Mountain Valley.

It didn’t take long for us to realize that we’d settled into one of our favorite campgrounds.  This destination .  .  . and the whole entire setting .  .  . was definitely ringing our bells.  Whether basking in the beauty from under our awning, or exploring the trails in the mountains, we’d relish the time we were here.

And Grape Creek RV Park was the perfect spot to do all of that and more.

Now THIS is a room with a view!!

. . . and the view from my galley window wasn’t too shabby either!!

But it wasn’t until later that evening would we come to realize the full extent of what this campground had to offer.  Just on the outskirts of town, close enough for easy access, but out in the wide open valley, the Sangres spread out in both directions as far as the eye could see.  But the view would take on even more impact as the sun dropped below those mountain peaks.  For a fleeting few moments of time, we would witness a fire in the sky.    –­Yes indeed, I think we’re going to like this place a lot.

That was only the beginning.  Early morning shots were still to come.  With alarm set for early rising—it’s still agony pulling myself out of a warm bed—I dressed in layers to prepare for the shock of predawn cold and took off in an equally cold and sluggish truck (diesels don’t like the cold much either).

I had my shoot already lined up.  The beauty of having opposing mountain ranges is that from the foothills of one you can have a great straight-on, across-the-valley look at the other.  And when the foreground is filled with a field of flowers, it makes the shot all the better.  The rising sun added a golden glow, and painted the mountains in a fuchsia stain.

And that’s full compensation for the travails of an early morning.

It wasn’t all about picture-taking—there were hiking trails around to provide a good workout and those mountains had many to choose from.

Most notable of all is the Rainbow Trail, a real asset to the area.  Whether its name is derived from its arc-like shape as it parallels the Sangres’ eastern flank, or from the colorful variety of wildflowers spreading across the mountain meadows in early summer or the aspens’ golden hues in late September, no one seems to know.  Name origins aside, locals do know it offers easy access to the many alpine lakes and to connecting trails that end on mountain summits.

If longer hikes with hefty elevation gains isn’t on your hiking agenda, a segment of the Rainbow Trail is perfect for an easier time.  Having 10 different access points, you might choose to hike along its route, staying well below treeline while avoiding any steep climbs.

Moving in and out of forested areas, we had glimpses of the Sangre peaks while easily seeing across the valley to the distant Wet Mountain Range.

At an average elevation of 9,000 feet and just over 100 miles long, the trail spans 4 counties.  Initially constructed to create a passage for cattle moving to high mountain meadows for summer grazing, as well as gaining easier access for fishing the high mountain lakes, it was completed by 1930.  With several forest service campgrounds near the trail, today it’s a hiker and mountain biker thoroughfare.

And the views over the Wet Mountain valley are just one of the trail’s perks.

Another activity that we found appealing and something quite out-of-the-ordinary was just a short drive away.  Along a well-traveled highway in the middle of the San Isabel National Forest is one of the strangest attractions a tourist might find.  The large roadside sign reading “Castle Under Construction” is the first clue.

With turrets and towers, spires, winding staircases, flying buttresses and stained glass windows, Bishop’s Castle appears to be right out of a fairytale storybook.  Actually, its origins are more down-to-earth.

In 1969 Jim Bishop started building a simple stone cottage. Caught up in the spontaneity of it all (no blueprints, not even a predrawn design), its construction soon seemed out of control.   He admits to having a flourishing imagination which is still his driving force today.  Yes, he’s still at it—at least during warm seasonal conditions.  Older now for sure, yet he admits he still does the hauling of the tons of rock needed, and then handsets each stone.

The guy had a little setback a few years ago when local zoning officials attempted to halt construction on this dubious building.  As a result of court hearings and cease work orders, it seems that Mr. Bishop came out the winner.  But the ordeal left a bad taste in his mouth for the authorities.

Consequently, as you tour the castle grounds you’ll come across multiple hand-lettered signs complaining about the government..  If you bring up the subject to him personally, he’ll probably give you an earful.  Chris had a firsthand experience.

Chris gets the personal scoops when he catches Mr. Bishop on one of his breaks.

Politics aside, it’s truly a sight to behold.  The castle is huge, extending more than 150 feet high  We started on the ground floor and climbed a circular staircase up to the second floor.  We entered a huge room where arched, stained-glass windows soared two-stories high.  Several small nooks on the sides of this room contained smaller spiral stairways leading up to the third floor.  This floor was even bigger, more open and airy.  Huge leaded glass windows flanked each end of the room, with a large skylight window running down the length of its peak.

Sometimes, all one can do is stand in silent awe when confronted by something nearly too incredible to digest.  “One man built ALL this???” you’ll be thinking.  Bathed in brilliant sunlight cascading through all the windows, it made sense to learn that Mr. Bishop was a welder by vocation.

Wrapped around this floor on the exterior was a wrought-iron balcony, which connected to other towers and spires.  For those who were daring and had little fear of heights (it should go without saying), Mr. Bishop had made it possible to reach the very pinnacles of his creation.  And of course, some people did.  But not us.

Perhaps the dragon’s head was the centerpiece of it all—as if something this fantastic needs one particular standout.  I had read that this was actually a chimney of sorts and when wood was burned in the massive medieval fireplace below, the smoke would be expelled through the dragon’s open mouth.  Very cool, eh?

So if you ever find yourself in the area, give thought to checking it out.  It’s truly a one-of-a-kind, amazing experience.

For those not well-versed in the Spanish language, maybe the translation of Sangre de Cristo isn’t clear.  Originally referred to as La Sierra Nevada, that all changed with the advent of Spanish explorers.  As one story is told, the leader of a Spanish expedition coming through this area in the early 1700s gave a different name to these mountains .  Impressed by the reddish hue of the snowy peaks at sunrise—we call that alpenglow today—he named them Sangre de Cristo (“Blood of Christ”) and it seems to have caught on.  Whether the story is true, it certainly held on and that name has been used ever since.  The Sangres, as seen from the east, would become famous for their red alpenglow as well as their 14,000-foot peaks.  As for the alpenglow part, I was eager to see for myself.  So eager, in fact, that once more I set my faithful alarm to another ungodly early hour.

Even earlier than before, regretfully.  The plain, undeniable fact about alpenglow is you must catch it BEFORE sunrise.  The fleeting glow (blink, and you’ll probably miss it) occurs before sunlight breaks the opposing horizon.  Translated, that means you’ve gotta be THERE,  all set up with camera in hand, waiting for the light to happen.  If it does.  You see, it’s not always a given.

I made it in time and was there at the start.  It begins with a faint tinge in a certain spot–

.  .  .  and then slowly sweeps over the tops of the peaks .  .  .

Ending up in a wash of a reddish glow.

Those Spaniards might have nailed the name right on its head.

Early morning isn’t just the only time of the day to catch a show here in the Sangres.  We had learned early on before we even began this trip, that Westcliffe was a certified Dark Sky Community—the very first in Colorado and the ninth in the entire world.  So impressed we were with that information, we began studying nighttime photography, more specifically how to capture the Milky Way.  With Chris ramroding our endeavors, but having no experience or opportunity to attempt it sooner (the Black Canyon having had consecutive overcast night skies), we headed out into the dark of night outside our campsite full of high hopes and expectations.

Living east of the Mississippi River (that is, when we aren’t out on the road), we don’t really comprehend just how dark a night sky can be.  It’s only when you can distance yourself away from the glow of cities can you begin to see more of the stars.  Being at higher elevations and in a drier climate will accentuate those stars even better.  That’s asking a lot when you live in the Midwest; for sure if you’re in the East.  Four out of five Americans live in places where they can no longer see the Milky Way.

Thanks to the efforts and passion of a local rancher, for more than a decade Westcliffe has been dialing down the dimmer switch. Forming a small group of people with similar interest, their work has been rewarded.  Streetlights replaced, and ordinances passed, requiring outdoor lights point down or be shielded.  They took it even further by providing funds to construct a small community observatory.  Westcliffe is a great example of how a town earns Dark Sky recognition.  You might say they have just the right Altitude and Attitude to pull it off.  This designation has been a proven asset to the town.

Westcliffe’s city park overlooks the Sangres and provide the perfect place to look out over the valley into the night sky. Photo credit: The NY Times

There are 15 Dark Sky communities in the world—10 of which are in our country.  Colorado has two Dark Sky parks—Hovenweep National Monument and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.   That’s 2 out of 39 Dark Sky parks in our country.  There are 55 worldwide.

So, did we see the stars of the Milky Way?  You betcha—and the proof is in the photo.  And what an incredible experience!  Definitely a first for us.  Back in Indiana, sure we see the stars .  .  .  but NOTHING like this, I’m telling you!  It is a rare thing anymore, as statistics will tell you, for people to see the natural night sky.  And it is our sad loss as a people, to realize that it wasn’t so long ago that a pure dark sky was probably taken for granted.  Nowadays, how many of our kids will ever see the Milky Way firsthand—out in the open?  it’s a wondrous sight to see.

Take it from me .  .  . a Dark Sky community is worth tracking down to experience.  Take the kids.  Pack the car.  Find one of these places and see it for yourselves.

It will be a memorable sight for all of you .  .  .  something never to be forgotten.

Dark skies aside, when it comes to all kinds of skies, Westcliffe has got it hands down.  Nestled here in this valley they have mountain views throughout the day.  In just our short time here we had some of the best shows in the sky of the trip.  Enough to impress even the most blasé sky viewers amongst us.  And when I say it’s worth getting out of bed for .  .  .  well, you should know that’s saying a WHOLE lot!

Sunrises over the Wet Mountains in the morning . . .

. . . capped off with sunsets over the Sangres in the evening.

Can it get any better than this?  (But please don’t spread the word).

And that’s the appeal of seeing new places,

Airstream Travelers,

Melinda & Chris

Whether colored by the rising sun or in their own naked beauty, this range is a sight to see.

With one more post to come.

Posted in Colorado, Westcliffe, Westcliffe | 2 Comments

GREAT SAND DUNES NAT’L PARK—A Whooooole Lotta Sand!!

Their appearance was exactly that of the sea in a storm [except as to color] . . . not the least sign of vegetation existing thereon.

–Zebulon Pike, 1807

during his expedition to take possession of the Southwest for the United States government.

It was time we got closer to the great outdoors—and by that I mean primitive camping.  True, in the past several weeks we’ve camped in some pretty nice places, most having their own scenic views.  But FHU campgrounds—usually the privately-owned ones—still mean less privacy, tighter sites and not much natural flora and fauna. We both found ourselves yearning for a campsite where we’d feel actually part of the landscape, where hiking trails were an easy walk away and those night skies would be truly dark and star-studded.  It’s a dichotomy for sure and to be completely honest, we find both types have their selling points.  It was time we had a taste of the other.

Places like this remind us why we camp in the first place.

But first we had to cross the broad San Luis Valley.

At first sight, it looks like a pretty barren place.  “Lots of booooring miles ahead,” one might be thinking as they come upon it.  But sometimes, first sights can be deceiving.  Elevated above 7,000 feet, the San Luis Valley is technically a high intermountain desert that receives only about 7 inches of rainfall each year.  But (and that’s a big BUT), below its surface lies a huge, shallow aquifer (that’s an underground lake of sorts, for those of you not in-the-know), and in places there are even seasonal lakes, marshlands and warm springs.  Early settlers in the mid-1800s soon learned they could make this land flourish with certain crops.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

Back then, they mostly dug canals to bring water to their crops.  Today, more than 6,000 wells pump that aquifer water into irrigation systems, supporting the livelihoods of 46,000 residents.  It’s not all an arid wasteland, by any means.  What’s more—the cold winters and cool summer nights help to eliminate or reduce pests and disease problems that many crops would otherwise face.

The main crops you’ll likely come across include potatoes, head lettuce, spinach and barley (which is used by the Coors Beer Company).  Lately, quinoa was successfully grown here, for the first time outside of South America.  In areas with less access to water rights, the land grows alfalfa or is used for grazing.

But the best sight was yet to come.  Before we had put this valley behind us, there was one more change of scenery to come.  Starting out as a meager border along the road soon became a field of sunflowers.

Correction.  Make that FIELDS of sunflowers.  A whole landscape filled with yellow!  Incredible expanses.  Seemingly unending expanses.  All blooming in their prime.  And that was a totally unexpected treat.

And the flowers led us straight to the boundary of our next destination .  .  .  it had been no boring drive this day.

Welcome to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve!  A first for us (with hopes of getting another park sticker for the Airstream) and our country’s most recent national park.

Originally created as a national monument, the Park and Preserve was established by Congress on September 13, 2004.  The park itself mainly encompasses the sand dunes, while the preserve protects the surrounding areas—ranchlands to the west and the mountains to the east. It takes in a diverse landscape of grasslands, wetlands, conifer and aspen forests, alpine lakes, tundra and 6 peaks over 13,000 feet in elevation.

The Visitors Center is awesome—filled with books, exhibits and a good video of what it’s like out there on the sand.

It’s the dunes that are the centerpiece, the biggest draw to this park—a sandbox of epic proportions.  A 10-mile-long stretch of shifting sands, these dunes are one of the geologic and scenic wonders of our planet—there’s nothing quite like them anywhere else.  The dunes are both the tallest (up to 750’ high) and the highest (8,000’ above sea level) in North America.  That’s a whopping lot of sand and visitors are free to roam over its entire expanse.

So, why here?  In Colorado???  Rather than in some sandier spot—like a desert perhaps. It’s really quite easy to explain if you can just picture the lay of the surrounding land.  Here you have the jagged Sangre de Cristos mountains to the east and the San Juans rising up to the west, in between lies the San Luis Valley, which, eons ago, was once mostly covered by a huge lake.  Over time, accumulating sediment and erosion caused that lake to fill in.  Smaller lakes came and went over the millennia, leaving behind an area of wetlands and a larger area of loose sand called a sand sheet.  Got the picture?

Then we have the prevailing southwesterly winds.  Picking up that loose sand, it was blown into a conveniently-located depressed bend in the Sangres, which obviously would trap it.  Still following?

Now we have the storm winds, gusting down from those high Sangres into the valley.  That caused the deposited sand to blow back on itself, forcing the dunes to grow vertically.

Then comes along these two mountain streams—Medano and Sand creeks—which collect sand from the Sangre side of the dunefield and carry it to the valley side.  That’s where the creek water disappears underground into the sand sheet, leaving the transported sand to dry up and accumulate.

From here, it starts all over again.  Winds from the west re-depositing the sand back up against the Sangres.  “The wind is an artist,” says a former park ranger.  “It renews the dunes every day.”  I’d say it’s a perfect balance of nature’s forces.

Chris contemplates whether or not to attempt a climb.

In the end, he gives it a go!

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s an interesting phenomenon that’s part of Medano Creek and although it’s most prominent in early summer, we lucked out to find it still around for us, despite it being the first week of August.  It’s called surge flow and it happens as the waters roll across the sandy creek bottom in rhythmic waves like those found in the ocean. It exists in only a few places on our planet and this is the best place to experience it.


Only ankle deep, still it was COLD, snowmelt water!

When spring snowmelt gushes down from the Sangres, Medano Creek swells from a thin ribbon to a wide stream that skirts the dune field.  As water flows across the sand, small dams build up in the creek bed, forming temporary reservoirs where water pools. When the water pressure becomes too great, the ‘dams’ fail, sending a gush of water downstream about every 20 seconds more or less (depending on how long it takes for the pressure to build up).  When the water flows faster and stronger—in early summer—these waves can be as high as a foot.  As waterflow diminishes—as it was when we were there—the ‘waves’ were more like ripples.  Nevertheless, it was still quite obvious that there was a ‘tide flow’ to Medano Creek.

Activities galore abound here—good clean (errr, should I say ‘sandy’) fun can be found.  Besides the regular hiking trails and ranger talks you’d find at most national parks, you can also take a scenic backroads drive up into the cool elevations of the Sangres.  Be sure to let some air out of your tires, so as to not get stuck in the lower sandy road.  Having 4WD would also be a requirement, but the views can really be worth it.  And then, there’s everything you can do on the sand, including downhill sledding.  Yes! You read correctly—rent those sleds here at the park, or bring your own boogie board!.  Then climb those dunes and have some fun—after earning it on the trudging, updune hike!

Or how about a day at the beach .  .  . yes, that really brings in the crowds!  Families set up on their personal sandbar, complete with sun umbrellas, beach chairs and coolers.  You might even catch the aroma of hamburgers grilling.

Be sure not to forget those inner tubes, rubber rafts!  and skimboards.  Your kids will have endless hours of fun here—and I haven’t even mentioned the sandcastle constructions!

Needless to say, as the word gets around (as it obviously is doing), park visitation has been steadily rising.  In 2015 a record-breaking 300,000 people pulled in.  With a clear 50% increase in visitation over the Memorial Day weekend alone, park officials project the 2016 attendance will easily go over last year’s.

An undiscovered national park it no longer is.

Which isn’t to say that one can’t possibly find her own private landscape, when I went out searching for the true essence of this place.  It helps to get way back .  .  .  to see the dunes at a distance.  To see how they fit into the landscape.  Timing helps too.  On the fringes of the day is best, but dark skies that portend the coming afternoon storms (yes, they’re still with us, I’m sorry to say) can set the dunes off in a softer light and add a little drama.

In early mornings—I’m talking pre-sunrise time—you’ll own this park.  Wherever you might go, be it the most popular place or not.  Maybe you’ll pass the occasional park ranger, and perhaps another lone camera-toting person, but mainly you’ve got it to yourself.  That’s when I would head out, my destinations having been previously decided.  The field of Rocky Mountain Bee Balm hadn’t escaped my notice on our first day, and it was perfectly situated for the sunrise light. It was just me and the multitude of butterflies that seemed particularly attracted to this unusual wildflower.

The other end of the day can have its own rewards too.  If conditions all come to together and fall into place, that is.  Sometimes, that can be a VERY big ‘if’.

So, did we get our ‘outdoor fix’?  Was the camping all that we had hoped for? Well, for starters we were lucky to snag a site, having reserved one of only 4 remaining.  Crossing fingers and toes that we’d fit in (the larger sites tend to be taken first), we barely made it. But fit we did, and best of all, our ‘window-on-the-world’—our Airstream’s open hatchback—had a view to the dunes beyond.  And, it turned out (dumb luck) that we had great separation on both sides from other campers.  Not bad, all the way around.

Pinion Flats Campground has a total of 88 campsites, only 44 of them that make up Loop B are reserveable.  Loop A, also with 44 sites, are all on a first-come basis.  Despite what you might read to the contrary, this campground does fill up fast in the summer.  We pulled in just after noon on a Sunday expecting some non-reserveable sites to be free with the weekenders leaving.  There were NO available sites.  Reserving our site 3 months ahead only to find 4 available sites during the weekdays.  It’s no kidding you’ve gotta plan ahead for this campground, sad to say.

These great sand dunes are probably Colorado’s most unexpected natural wonder.  With a bounty of outdoor features here, there’s a wide range of activities to choose from.  Our time here surely proved that—we never lacked for things to get out and do or see.  Not even the summer monsoons could dampen our enthusiasm (but they were becoming a bit TIRESOME), although we never did make it to the highest dune (or even come close).  But the views from below and from afar were nothing I would make short shrift of.

From America’s newest national park .  .  .

Airstream Travelers,

Melinda & Chris

Still streamin’ on.

 

Posted in Colorado, Great Sand Dunes Nat'l Park | 1 Comment

AROUND PAGOSA SPRINGS, being chased by summer monsoons

We were dragging our feet as we made our way east.  True, we were still in Colorado, but east meant putting more mountains behind us rather than ahead .  .  .  east meant that much closer to Indiana.  Sooner or later we knew we’d have to bite the bullet and leave this state, but we weren’t at the end of our itinerary yet.  We decided to anticipate what was to come rather than regret what was being left behind. And there was a stop or two ahead that was getting my blood flowing.  Starting with some more great mountain scenery and a pretty little town known for its healing waters.

Pagosa, a Ute word meaning “healing waters”, gets its name from the hot mineral springs that were long coveted by the Indians.  Today, the town uses that geothermal water to heat many of its buildings.  In recent years a local entrepreneur has built a cluster of surrealistic-looking steaming pools at the river’s edge, finally taking full advantage of this natural occurrence for purely recreational purposes.  It seems to be a popular draw, with people congregating there everyday, despite some rather cool and cloudy days.

Photo courtesy of Pagosa Chamber of Commerce

The San Juan River crashes down from the Continental Divide to the northeast, making its way through Pagosa Springs and then down to the Navajo Reservoir on the New Mexico border.  A city park right in the town center features a pleasant riverwalk.  The strongest plus of Pagosa Springs, sandwiched between the San Juan mountains and the great Weminuche Wilderness Area, has to be its exceptional mountain views and easy backcountry access.  Prized fishing waters might have caught our attention too.

We had plans to hang around here for a few days of exploring. Unfortunately, Mother Nature put some crimps into those plans.

We were camping just west of town near the San Juan National Forest boundary, where high peaks to the north caught our attention (and pulled me in their direction, of course).  Passing right by our campground, the Piedra Road soon turns to a graded dirt road and heads to interesting places.  Giving access to the Weminuche Wilderness, it leads to popular trailheads, promising trout waters, the mountain-ringed Williams Creek Reservoir and a handful of great forest service campgrounds.  It is an ideal scenic drive along the entire stretch with outstanding photo ops almost around every curve.  It was no wonder I headed out and up the road shortly after setting up camp.

Soon after the start of the drive, one outstanding peak comes into view, lording over the valley.  Whoa!  I’m sure to have gasped, now that’s one breathtaking sight!  Being not yet familiar with the neighborhood, I would later learn I was looking at 12,600’ Pagosa Peak.

See the somewhat foreboding clouds above that peak?  Experience had taught me what they foreshadowed.  Although I continued ahead on that drive, I learned there was no escaping.  Aaargh!! With so much photographic potential ahead .  .  .  talk about being sorely disappointed!!!  With all hope gone, I gave up the ghost, turned tail and retreated.  By now I had learned to face the reality of those summer monsoons in the mountains.  BUT EVERYDAY???  REALLY???

When you see this coming your way, you learn to turn around or take cover!

The mountains would have to wait for another day.

Another draw to this Pagosa Springs area that warrants a stay is Chimney Rocks National Monument.  A little less than 20 miles from downtown Pagosa Springs, the monument’s namesake is easily seen when driving along the highway.  Rising with the roosters the following day (the better to beat those afternoon storms), we made sure to get an early start taking in this historic site.

Ever heard of the Ancestral Puebloans of Chaco Canyon?  Whether or not, this archaeo-logical site is sure to impress.  Thought to be an isolated outlier of the Chacoan Culture that thrived more than 1,000 years ago, Chimney Rock covers 4,100 acres and preserves 200 ancient ridge houses, guard sites, pit dwellings and ceremonial buildings.

At the base of the mesa are the ruins of the Great Kiva, a large, circular semi-subterranean chamber used for ritualistic and secular activities.Perhaps used as a celestial observatory for these ancient peoples, you can only reach the mesa top as part of a guided ranger tour along a 200-foot elevation gain rocky trail.  Really worth the effort, you’ll have awe-inspiring views of the San Juan Mountain Range and the twin spires.  The ruins of the Great House , several multi-family dwellings and countless unexcavated structures are there for exploring.  It’s a thought-provoking place, as you try to comprehend what went in to constructing this place so many centuries ago.

As expected (but definitely not desired), the afternoon turned cloudy.  Too risky for a hike and too overcast for pictures, what other alternative but to find some falling water (yep, we were still in waterfall country).  Of course, I was at the ready with a list of a few select ones! (PHOTO ALERT:  First came the overload of wildflower pictures, now prepare for the waterfall ones!).

The road in to Silver Falls gets rather rough and rocky, but the scenery along the cascading East Fork River is surely worth it.  And a jewel of a waterfall is waiting like a reward after driving a few (maybe seemingly unending) short miles.  Best of all, the trail leading up to the fall’s base is easy and less than a mile long.

But to get the shot I wanted required considerably more effort.  While Chris found a rocky perch at trail’s end where he would read on his iPhone, I scaled over rocks and precarious ledges to attain the perspective I wanted.  When it comes to waterfall photos, no effort is considered too much for me to handle!

The view from below is a whole different look.

With the time remaining and after returning from that backroads drive, we only had daylight remaining to bag one last waterfall.  I made sure it was a good one.

You must drive nearly to the top of 11,000-foot Wolf Creek Pass.  Having almost an 8% grade, the road is twisty and curvy.  But it’s paved and extremely picturesque, so the drive was part of the reward.  No dirt track leading to this beauty, and the trail to its base is a well-worn ¼-mile dirt path.  Very civilized.  Except for the continually switchbacking, 300-foot elevation gain, that is.  But you will have a VERY up-close and personal view at the base of these falls, albeit a breezy, spray-in-your-face one.  In the end, from a photographic point of view at least, the perspective from the observation deck near the parking lot gives a fuller, more complete and straight-on view, to say nothing about being a bit drier.

Spilling 105-feet from the western base of Wolf Creek Pass, Treasure Falls thunders into Falls Creek which will soon flow into the San Juan River.  Framed with the tallest of pines growing from that same mountain slope, the foliage helps to soften the granite-framed falls and the greens help to warm the scene of bare rocks and cold clear water.  My money is on that view.

Its name comes from accounts suggesting that a chest full of gold was buried in the area after a group of Frenchmen was captured by either Spaniards or Indians.  While there have been some searches made by all sorts of treasure seekers, there has been no rumors of gold discovered (at least none have been recorded).

Our short stay here in the area FINALLY resulted in one clear evening.  More than eager to make every potentially perfect minute count, once more I drove up that same Piedra Road.  I was determined to capture that impressive mountain in the best possible sunset light.  And sometimes .  .  .  good things do come to those who wait.

Occasionally there can be an encore when you might least be expecting it.  As I was returning to camp after that successful shoot, the darkness was almost complete.  I was just coming over a rise in the road when suddenly I was struck head-on by a glorious sight!  The biggest, brightest full moon of this trip was just breaking over the horizon!  OMGosh—what a sight!  It was a scene I knew I HAD to capture!  At nearly breakneck speed while nervously shaking, I desperately searched for some acceptable foreground to complete it (not an easy task when you’re the driver and the landscape is all but blacked out)!  What’s more, that darn moon was rising higher with each passing moment and soon would be above the trees—too high in the composition.  Conserving time was more important than the best location, so I stopped in my tracks and jumped out.  This spot (whatever it was) would have to do!

Considering the circumstances and the flying-by-the-seat-of-my-pants, I can’t say that the shot came out badly.  Kismet sometimes has its rewards.

Next day we were streamin’ on.  Under those ubiquitous overcast skies, we passed over Wolf Creek Pass and beyond.  The devastation of pine beetle kill sure puts a pall over an otherwise wonderful view.

Airstream Travelers,

Melinda & Chris

on the road crossing the wide San Luis Valley.

 

Posted in Colorado, Pagosa Springs | 2 Comments

CREEDE—Holy Moses, thar’s silver in them thar hills!!

Pre-Post Note:  As some of you already know, Chris & I are back home in Indiana now.  Our time in Colorado was everything we had hoped for, but as I’ve written before when our travels conclude—“All good things must come to an end (eventually)”.  After leaving Durango, our route began to head east, but we weren’t finished with Colorado yet.  Along the way, we took in a few more great spots, places that had merit for one good reason or another.  These places deserve to have something written about them, some photos to illustrate their assets.  With that in mind, I’ll be posting a couple (or three) more blogs in the coming days to cover those last few exceptional locations we enjoyed in our remaining weeks.  What might be lost in the spontaneity, I hope will be made up for in the outstanding areas we visited.  Colorado is full of amazing places, a few of which I feel compelled to share.

It’s the change in scenery that gives the first clue to Creede’s dramatic location .  .  .  the 20-mile or so stretch of road that leads into the town goes past some eye-catching views.  The previously rolling, pastoral landscape suddenly becomes more impressive, motivating me to grab my camera and take some on-the-fly, through-the-windshield shots.

Leaving the small town of South Fork, the road into Creede first crosses and then parallels the Rio Grande River, a mere mountain stream here, in the bottom of a deep broad canyon. Designated gold medal waters, in this stretch of the river it’s very common to see wading fly-fishermen.   Above the water, long cliff bands, composed of volcanic tuff, stairstep upwards to form the Rio Grande Palisades.

A few miles further the canyon narrows and its cliffs steepen.  We’ve entered the Rio Grande National Forest. This is prime area for bighorn sheep, but unfortunately, none revealed themselves to us.

After swinging past an abrupt escarpment (alas, no good photo op) of even taller cliff walls with talus slopes cascading down to the highway, the canyon opens into a broad grassy valley with the river winding sinuously through it.  In the distance we see the first signs of outlying town habitation.

Nestled literally at the opening of the rugged Willow Creek Canyon, the historic mining town of Creede had its start in 1889 after prospector Nicholas Creede stumbled onto a rich silver lode at a lunch stop  Supposedly he exclaimed, “Holy Moses, I’ve struck it rich.”  News of his wealthy Holy Moses Mine would soon be drawing in thousands of fortune seekers.

Almost overnight the camp erupted into a tent city.  This boom town grew by often 300 people a day in that frenzied summer of 1890.  By 1892 more than 10,000 people lived in Creede.  Nicknamed “Colorado’s Silver Ribbed Treasure Trove,” its mines were yielding $1,000,000 of silver ore each month.  Soon it was gaining a reputation for being a boisterous, hell-raising kind of town.  Bragging that “there is no night in Creede”, the town was attracting outlaws, gamblers, gunslingers, madams, murderers, and preachers.  But after Congress enacted the Silver Act in 1893, the price of silver plummeted and Creede almost shut down.  Catastrophic fires and floods destroyed the town several times, but despite the small number of remaining  residents, they overcame adversity, and then rebuilt.  Interestingly, the mines, far from being exhausted, continued to work well into the 20th century.

On one of our early Colorado vacations we took a day-trip into Creede, discovering its charms and attractions.  A national historic district, there is much history to be gleaned when one has the time to explore and tour around the area.  The unique setting and natural features that surround the town were an additional  lure for us.  Realizing one short visit was just an introduction, I had every intention of giving Creede a more thorough look at another time.

I’m not sure if the town is deserving to be called the LAST great place, but it does have some nice draws for such a tiny town. With a year-round population of just under 300 people, Creede is isolated in a strikingly picturesque locale.  Tucked into a compact side canyon of the Rio Grande Valley, it doesn’t have the posh atmosphere of a full-service resort area.  Instead, the town takes you back to the wide-open mining history of a century ago.  Its Main Street, lined with galleries, shops, one full-service hardware store that Chris had to check out, and a few restaurants all housed in restored buildings, leads directly into a sharply-cut ravine at the end of town.  Outside of Creede, along the Rio Grande Valley, you’ll find a large number of rental cabins and guest ranches that all cater to visitors.  If you have an interest in trout fishing or good hiking trails, then that’s all the better.  And the photo ops aren’t to shabby either.  We set up our base camp in the very civilized Mountain Views at River’s Edge RV Park & Resort.  Only a short two-mile drive into town with a walking path also leading there, it was a full-service, nicely laid out with spacious sites, accommodating place to stay.  Or, if you prefer the closer-to-nature but primitve feel, there’s several forest service campgrounds scattered around the valley, all within a short drive to Creede.  Something for every camper type.

And then, there’s the arguably strongest draw that this town has going for itself and that’s the Repertory Theatre, which you could say holds center stage here in Creede.  An outstandingly excellent, well-established and polished summer theater puts Creede in an elite caliber of Colorado mountain towns.  “One of the ten great places to see the lights way off Broadway” quotes USA Today.  With many years of accolades under its belt, the CRT was in its fifty-second year of performances when we were there.  Making sure we’d have tickets to one of its productions, I placed our order well before taking off on this trip.

Located in the town’s restored opera house, the theatre plays to packed houses from mid-June through September.  This professional theater company has gained national acclaim for the range and quality of its productions, presenting a rotating series of nine plays each summer—musicals, comedies, classic and contemporary dramas, and children’s shows.

Not meaning to disparage the quaint town or superb theater, but the really cool aspect of Creede is how easy it is to tap into the authentic atmosphere of mining back in the last century.  It’s not like other mining towns in the San Juans where you need to drive into the back country (usually along rough mountain ‘roads’) and often only with 4wd, to see the ruins and remains of what this whole area once was teeming with.  In Creede, the picture is right at their back door—or,  more accurately, right at the end of their Main Street.  Just head out of town, passing their unique Underground Fire Station (converted from an old silver mine), cross over West Willow Creek and you’re suddenly enveloped in mining history. It’s like going back more than 100 years .  .  . minus the mule-drawn ore carts, of course.

Okay, so maybe you’ll need to use a little imagination—the mines and shacks and old cabins are more than a little worn with time and the elements, but for the most part they ARE still standing.  Ruins of the old stamping mills can still be seen on hillsides, and tailings pouring down the mountains give evidence of how many mines there once were.  Use a little imagination and you can envision the hoards of miners hard at work.

The Bachelor Drive starts out with a big scenic bang.

Starting at the mouth of West Willow Creek Canyon, sheer 1,000’ walls loom above as the road follows the course of the creek.

When measured in terms of mining history, mountain scenery, and photographic opportunities, the 17-mile-long Bachelor Historic Driving Loop through Creede’s mining district just might be one of the best in the West.  A narrow, steep drive through a large piece of Colorado’s history, the Loop was established along the major route that tied together the biggest mines and scattered settlements.  Considered doable for passenger cars (take the loop in reverse for an easier drive), the steeper, rougher sections make 4wd a more comfortable option.  You’ll find interpretive signage at several places along the Drive and there is an excellent brochure available at the Visitor Center (for a minimal charge) that gives detailed information on the highlights.

The mining structures backdropped by rugged scenery presents a microcosm of Colorado mining history, coupled with excellent photo possibilities.  If ever you’d make it to Creede, driving this Loop should be put on the top of your list.

As informative and enlightening as the Bachelor Loop turned out to be, it was our next day’s outing that really stole the show for me.  Give me an adventurous drive through awesome scenery, and then throw in a couple incredible waterfalls and you’ve got me on a hook.  If you know me by now through these blogs that I write, then it won’t come as much of a surprise that those are some of the ingredients I search out.  And Chris obligingly follows .  .  .  or should I say, drives the truck.

Leaving Creede, the scenic drive leads into a rolling landscape as the elevation begins to rise. A palette of every nuance of green overwhelms me.

Colorado’s Silver Thread Scenic Byway (aka Hwy.149) runs through mining and ranch lands rich in 19th century history.  The “Silver” comes from the most common mineral mined in the area and the “Thread” weaves through a landscape of rolling hills, volcanic mountains and the valley of one of our country’s major rivers.  The diversity it offers and the landscapes it presents enable this scenic drive to hold its own with any of the other outstanding byways in our country.  Officially the byway is 120 miles long; one day we drove the 50-mile stretch between Creede and Lake City—arguably the most scenic segment of its entire route.  Except for heavy overcast skies moving in, our day was filled with incredible sights.

Industrialists and merchants became road builders and widened the narrow footpaths of the Ute Indians, turning the paths into toll roads for transporting ore, supplies, and people to the remote San Juans. Eventually, the railroad came to Hinsdale County, making travel faster and more efficient. By the 1920s, more and more travelers were using automobiles, creating the need for better roads. Highway 149 remained a dirt road until 1968, when paving began between Lake City and Creede. The last stretch was paved just west of Creede in 1983. In 1990, the road was designated as a state historic and scenic byway.

Just a few miles outside of Creede and it’s all about the gorgeous scenery.  Ranchlands below, rugged rock formations soaring above .  .  .  panoramic views to enthrall the traveler.  And it’s just the first chapter in this bestseller of a book.

For many miles the road stays low, weaving its way through the Rio Grande Valley.  Carved and sculpted back in the glacier days, today it’s verdant and fertile grazing lands.

You’ll have a first view of one of the byway’s most distinguishing landmarks from quite a far distance.  Bristol Head Mountain, nearly 14,000’ high, stands out prominently, its high volcanic cliffs hemming in the northern skyline to form an uplifted border to the valley.  As the story goes, the mountain was named by a prospector from England because of its resemblance to the Bristol Head on the English Channel.  Makes sense to me.

A forest service road actually leads to the top of the Head.  4WD only and be prepared to take it slow, but the view from the top is known to be outstanding.  I bet it is!

Soon you’ll come to the turn-off for a forest service road that eventually leads to the headwaters of the great Rio Grande.  Along the way you’ll pass several reservoirs known to be excellent trout waters.  Those who dare to go on will eventually climb to Stony Pass which then drops steeply to the town of Silverton.  It’s the route that ore wagons once used.

Back on the Byway you’ll come to a scenic overlook on the edge of an aspen-fringed meadow.  A marvelous view to the west looks up the glaciated valley of South Clear Creek. With lakes glimmering on the valley floor, the nearly 14,000’ Rio Grande Pyramid dominates the landscape.  Truly a boundless vista, it’s a place to take time to absorb and let your spirit soar.

To my dismay, our sunny day was taking a nosedive.  Not even close to noon and yet those ubiquitous afternoon summer storms seemed to be pressing in.  Overcast and gray, the skies were leaden.  Bad atmosphere for those landscape shots, but perfect conditions for waterfall photos.  And two reputedly fabulous ones were just up the road.  Talk about silver linings!

North Clear Creek, with its headwaters coming from one of the many mountain-ringed lakes to the west, flows under the Byway as it meanders across a broad valley, through willow-lined banks before plunging almost 100’ over a cliff of hard basalt into a craggy chasm.  North Clear Creek Falls is found less than a mile from the road, but you would never know it unless you knew it was there.  Make the turn and follow the dirt road, you’ll hear the crashing waters before you park your car.  A breathtaking sight to behold, it’s a definite people-pleaser.  You’ll want to exclaim a few ooooh’s and aaaahh’s.  It’s one of the top photographed falls in the state, I’ve read.

But my waterfall quest was not ending yet—I had learned that there was also a South Clear Creek Falls.  Not nearly as well-known, nor as easy to find, it was only mentioned in a couple obscure sources.  Taking up the quest to find it, the trail leading to it led out from a forest service campground.  Finding the trail was just half of the battle.

The trail was steep .  .  . some would say precarious .  .  . and with loose rocky footing it was dicey even with the aid of hiking sticks.  But with the sound of rushing water clearly ahead and the image of this waterfall’s potential in my mind, nothing would keep me from persevering.  One way or another, if I had to scoot and crawl, I’d get my shot! Hopefully, without battle scars.

So, was it worth all the effort?  Without a doubt!  Most certainly, I emphatically state.  Not quite the height of its kindred falls, but my perspective was much more intimate and certainly in-my-face.  The spray was intense, the sound deafening, the perch I was on quite the coup to attain.  Not exactly a mountain goat in my agility, but determination for getting good shots had me clambering over and around slippery rocks. I got my shots from many angles and came away with no serious injuries.  Who could ask for anything more?  It was a good day all around!

At least, in the waterfall department.

Despite the disappointing weather and inclement skies, we persevered on.  Leaving the Rio Grande Valley, the road began to climb.  Steeply.  Winding.  We’re talking quite a few hairpin turns.  Headed up to Spring Creek Pass atop the Continental Divide.  Both the Colorado and Continental Divide Trails cross here.  Not our first mountain pass to tackle, and certainly not our last. Although paved, this one was surprisingly a challenge.  A series of tight curves on a decently steep grade compelled you to keep eyes on the road.  I took in the scenery; Chris tightened his grip on the wheel, glad we weren’t towing the Airstream.

The view on a clear day.
Courtesy of Waymarking.com

At just under 11,000’ we reached the crest and took the turnoff to the scenic overlook.  Such as it was, Windy Point Overlook has a magnificent panoramic view of rugged mountain peaks in the San Juan Range.  Breathtaking, a word often used in Colorado, can be applied here without a doubt.  On a clear day, five fourteener peaks are visible . . . today, not so many.  If any.  But still impressive to see such a distant view.  Just not close to its full potential.  Oh well, another day . . . another time.  So it goes when you travel.

. . . and the view that we got.

From the pass we went down . . . down into the small town of Lake City.  Another quaint little place of less than 300 people with a few shops, galleries and restaurants.  Surrounded by mountain peaks.  Adjacent to the second largest natural lake in the state, Lake San Cristobal.  A place where we had camped many years ago (2001), high on the edge of a cliff overlooking that mountain-rimmed lake.  A spectacular, unforgettable, slightly queasy view from our camper.  Simply breathtaking (there’s that word again)!

The gods (or else the fickle Colorado weather) gave us a break on our travels back to Creede.  Late afternoon light came out, and cast the landscape in that great warm glow of evening.  On the last leg of the trip, the rocky buttresses above the river valley shone in burnished tones of reflected light and Chris knew instinctively to pull over.  Sometimes, one (or two) good shots tends to make up for a whole bunch of lost ones.

And the last rays of sunshine reflecting off the clouds transformed the Rio Grande to molten bronze.

On first glance Creede might appear to be just a small, undistinguished old mining town with its better days behind, but it deserves a longer look.  Encased by towering cliffs, nestled within a nook of the river valley, Creede would be easy to overlook if you were unsuspectingly passing by.  But personally I think this is one little Colorado mountain town that packs quite an awesome punch.  It’s deserving of some time spent here.

Our last day had us on a mountain trail high above and overlooking the whole expanse of Creede.  And beyond to the shimmering ribbon of river winding into mountain scenery.  It was an impressive ending to our stay here.  It was the icing on this very sumptuous cake.

From the rugged landscape of an old mining town,

 

Airstream Travelers,

Melinda & Chris

 

 

.  .  .  streamin’ through the Wagon Wheel Gap.

 

 

 

Posted in Colorado, Creede | Leave a comment

DURANGO, Part 2—All Aboard!

This wasn’t our first time in Durango or even our second.  For at least three times—maybe four—we’ve taken in the attractions of this iconic western town and never been bored.  But one thing we always skipped, talked about but never done, was ironically the biggest draw, the most popular attraction Durango has to offer.  The magnet that actually pulls people into town.  The asset that has made tourism one of the two biggest industries in town.  The Durango Silverton Train has garnered a reputation that far exceeds the boundaries of this town, even the state.  This train ride is one of the top experiences of is kind in the world!

It was time we took it in.  In fact, while planning for this trip Chris had voiced his desire to do it.  He didn’t need to twist my arm to convince me—I gave him free rein to get the tickets.

As it turned out, he did a great job making the arrangements.  When you call or go online to buy your seats, you might be overwhelmed by all the choices.  Plenty of different kinds of cars to choose from—open air benches to totally closed in, fancy parlor plush seating.  With a wide range of prices to match.  After careful consideration and a change of mind three times over, he finally made a decision on the choice and it turned out to be the perfect one.  Dumb luck perhaps.

The Gondola car gives you the best of possible choices, IMHO.  Comfortable seats, complimentary beverages and snacks, an open window coach with glass roof overhead.  Plenty of mountain view possibilities with the advantage of having unrestricted views out the side windows.  Wool blankets provided to all the passengers, but we never felt the need to cuddle up—being too occupied soaking in the scenery.

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad runs on a 45-mile extension of track originally called the Silverton Branch.  The line was constructed by the Denver & Rio Grande Railway, headed by General William Jackson Palmer, in 1881-82.  The mineral riches of Silverton, deep in the San Juan Mountains, had been their goal since 1876.

An exhilarating optimism existed in America at that time.  The Civil War had ended, and settlers and prospectors by the thousands headed to the great Western frontier.  Railroads followed the westerly migration, and they played a prominent role in shaping our regional and national destiny.  Railroad lines brought growth and prosperity wherever they went throughout the West’s wide-open spaces.

Of the major mining centers in Colorado, by 1881 only Silverton lacked the vital rail link.  The D&RG route had gone from Denver, south to Pueblo, then west over 9,242’ La Veta Pass and on to Alamosa.  From there, it would reach the town of Durango (which the rail company actually established) in the summer of 1881.  By then, crews were already busy beginning the line into Silverton.  In just 11 months the tracks would be laid and the first train pulled into Silverton in July of 1882.

The arrival of the railroad into Silverton, as throughout the American West, had a huge impact.  Economic benefits were enormous.  Transporting the mineral ores by wagonload over precarious mountain passes cost $60/ton in the 1870s; by the toll road into Ouray the cost was $30/ton.  Freight rates via the new railroad to smelters in Durango fell to $12/ton.  Moreover, the trains could bring needed supplies, food, and construction materials into Silverton for much less cost.  The mining industry and the railroad flourished for most of the next 30 years.  Silverton’s population boomed.

By the late 1940s mining in the Silverton area was diminishing and the demand for rail service did likewise.  Transporting people became the mainstay of the railway by then, and by 1947 the train carried a respectable 3,444 passengers on its Silverton Branch.  Gradually the train turned into a tourist line instead of a freight-hauler and in 1963 the passenger number topped 50,000.

In the early 1950s Hollywood discovered what a gem this narrow gauge train was, as it chugged through the epitome of a western landscape.  Featured in many movies of the day, including Ticket to Tomahawk, Across the Wide Missouri, Lone Star, Around the World in 80 Days, How the West Was Won, and Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, this turn of events would be more of a boost to ticket sales than marketing could ever afford.

Despite its popularity, by the late 1970s the D&RG wanted to divest of its Silverton Branch and went looking for a buyer.  Charles Bradshaw Jr., Florida citrus grower and businessman, purchased the line and changed the name to the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge.  Under his ownership, improvements were made to the track and equipment following years of neglect.  More trains were added to the schedule to increase passenger capacity, and by the 1990s there were 200,000 tickets being sold annually.  The Sunnyside Mine closed and Silverton became more dependent on tourism than ever before.  Ironically, the train became just as important to the town’s economic survival as when it first arrived in 1882, except now it carried tourists instead of carting away ore.

In 1997, Bradshaw sold the D&SNG to First American Railways, Inc.  Shortly thereafter, in 1998, the current owners, Carol and Al Harper, purchased the line.  The Harpers, founders of American Heritage Railways, have a passion for railroad preservation, and consider themselves guardians of the D&SNG.  American Heritage Railways also owns the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad based in Dillsboro, North Carolina.  It operates in a very scenic part of the Appalachian Mountains near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Coincidentally, we’ll be riding this train come October.

After pulling out of the Durango station, the train heads through the pastoral landscape of the Animas Valley.  A gentle prelude to the dramatic scenery yet to come.  Pleasant and picturesque, it was a good introduction to the whole experience.

Then the scenery takes a drastic change .  .  .  we’re headed into the rugged, mountainous terrain.  We hear the engine working harder, we see it’s slowing down. We’re approaching the steepest climb this train will make, going up an 8% grade.

As the train chugs higher into the vertical landscape, the land gets more radical.   The tracks parallel the Animas River the entire journey, mirroring the water’s curves and gradient. While the water flows effortlessly downhill, the train labors uphill, firebox roaring, smoke billowing into the sky.

One exciting thing about this narrow gauge train is that the sides of the cars hang out far beyond the narrow tracks underneath.  When the train has reached its high point of the route you can lean over the side of the car and look hundreds of feet straight down into the river canyon below.  Here in the steep mountains, the Animas is no longer peaceful and placid, but squeezed tightly between narrow canyon walls, laced with challenging rapids.

The High Line is undoubtedly the most famous and spectacular section of the entire trip.  This rugged segment has the track perched on a ledge carved from solid rock, nearly 400 feet above the Animas River below. The High Line was constructed during the winter of 1881-1882, using workmen lowered over the rim of the canyon on ropes to drill and blast. The cost was reportedly as high as $1000 per foot in some places.

It’s all downhill from here.  Just as precarious, you feel the power of the steam engine taking it slowly down an equally steep grade.  The scenery all around is breathtaking.

For the remainder of the trip the train follows the course of the river at a much more agreeable height.  Winding around and through the canyon at a slow average speed of 18mph, you’ll have an intimate feel of the landscape.

At certain times you might see rafters running the river through here.

A necessary stop—steam locomotives need water to run—we made two stops along the way for 4,500-gallon fill-ups.

Many times we were passing through aspen forest, making it a spectacular trip in late September.

Other times we were overwhelmed with the rocks, the steep canyon walls rising just outside our window.

We would pass by relics and remains of those mining days .  .  .  and mountain peaks draped with their distinguishing red rocks.

Three hours can go by unbelievably fast when you take a journey as unique as this one.  While the ride in a swaying and swinging train car has its own distinctive appeal, it’s without a doubt the scenery that steals the show.  I loved every minute of the trip!

Give a thumbs up to the engineer who appears to really like his job .  .  .

.   .   .  and pose one last time with the great locomotive, we’ll take away some lasting memories.

And so ends the Durango Chapter of our trip.

Streaming on to new destinations, leaving the San Juan Mountains behind.

Airstream Travelers,

Melinda & Chris

Recommending this train ride gets  added to your bucket list!

Posted in Colorado, Durango | Leave a comment

DURANGO—Good Memories Made Here

About halfway between Silverton and Durango, which happened to be our next destination, the highway climbs up to nearly 11,000 feet at Molas Pass.  From a highway overlook travelers will have a wonderful panoramic view of the mountains in the wild Weminuche Wilderness.  It is a place that affords a moment to contemplate the majesty of nature and the wild expanse of a pristine landscape.  Which was exactly what I was doing, standing alone on the viewing platform, when unexpectedly and quite suddenly, I wasn’t alone.  A guy had come up to stand beside me and spontaneously says “Hi!  My name is Kurt and I’ve just come off the Colorado Trail which I’ve been hiking since leaving Denver nearly a month ago! I’m on such a high right now that I’ve just got to share it with someone!”  He was beaming with obvious joy and, just as spontaneously, I found myself caught up in his euphoria.  “Wow!” I exclaimed, searching for words that would adequately match his accomplishment.  “What was that like?” was all that I could think to say. But it turned out to be enough.  His ebullience carried him on a wave of illustrative explanations.

The Colorado Trail extends from the outskirts of Denver to the town of Durango, for a total length of 470 miles.  Traveling through the spectacular Colorado Rockies, it encompasses mountain peaks with their alpine lakes, creeks and streams, and diverse ecosystems.  Hiking the entire distance will include six wilderness areas and eight mountain ranges topping out at more than 13,000 feet.  The trail’s average elevation is over 10,300 feet and it rises and falls dramatically.  If they make it the entire distance, hikers will have climbed 89,354 feet.  To say it is an  accomplishment would be a drastic understatement.

“The stars at night were like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” was Kurt’s first remarks to my simplistic, utterly inadequate question.  He went on to provide other thoughts, still wearing a wide grin while nearly quivering with excitement as he stood there.  He had never done anything like this accomplishment in his 70+ years, and that was undoubtedly a big part of what he was now feeling as he was on the very last leg of his adventure.  I remarked that just the day before I was up on Stony Pass and noticed the Colorado Trail passed over it.  “Hey, that’s where I was too!!” he exclaimed, which raised his effervesence at least a couple notches higher.  “That very morning .  .  .  I was sleeping right up there just below the pass!  What time were you there?”  When I said it was around 11am, he said he had packed up and taken off by then, sounding as if he almost regretted that we didn’t have an encounter then.  I remarked that there was still snow up there, and that it must have gotten pretty cold at night.  (Everything that was coming out of my mouth seemed so trivial in comparison to the feat that he had just accomplished).

In retrospect, one tends to think of all the things that SHOULD have been said, all the questions that SHOULD have been asked, after the fact.  Pertinent questions such as “Did you have any serious wildlife encounters?” Or “What was the best part of the trail?”  Maybe–”Was it more difficult than you thought it would be?” And even better—“Ever think of giving up?”  But instead, caught in the suddenness of the encounter, like a deer trapped in headlights, instead I blurted out “How did your boots hold up?”—Yes! That was the very next thing to come out of my mouth!!  But indeed, I’ve always wondered how hard the long miles must be on a pair of even the sturdiest hiking boots.  “Just fine,” he replied, not acting at all surprised at the obvious mundane and simplistic query, as we both looked down at what he was wearing.  (As a matter of fact, they didn’t seem to be anything special—just your ordinary, everyday hiking shoes).  Okay, so much for the insignificant question.

After that, we both took time to look at the trail map on the board there in front of us, remarking about where the route went.  He was still obviously feeling nearly unconstrained exuberance as he turned to go.  His friend from Durango was there to meet him and take him in to town for more provisions and a well-anticipated cleaning up.  (Actually, I thought he looked to be in pretty decent shape for all the hardship he’d just come through). So, I wished him well on his last segment and ended by saying “You’ve just done something that many might dream of doing, but few actually get it done.  Congratulations seems so meager, but what else can I say?  Thanks for sharing your moment of joyful accomplishment with me!  I feel honored to have shared it with you!”  With a last big grin, he turned to leave.  I called out to him as he was walking away “Live long and prosper, Kurt!”  which just kind of slipped out spontaneously.  But he turned to wave and I’m sure there was mutual happiness in this moment of his personal triumph.

Now it was on to Durango and our next campground.  Continuing south on US-550, a segment of the San Juan Skyway, the scenery continued to amaze.  Tucked between reddish sandstone bluffs, Durango occupies a spectacular position in the wide Animas River Valley close to the sharply uplifted peaks of the San Juan Mountains.  Its location has become an asset as the mining industry dwindled, which had been the mainstay of the town’s economy for decades.  Falling on hard times, Durango languished for years before seeing a growth in the tourism and education industries.  Today, tourism is booming, with local businesses the beneficiaries, as well as the founding of Fort Lewis College in 1956.  Located atop a high mesa near town, the college has had few troubles attracting students to its prime location in the foothills of the San Juan Mountains.

About 10 miles north of the city limits a very distinguishing landmark stretches for nearly a mile.  Towering above the road, the Hermosa Cliffs form a high wall on the western side of the Animas River Valley.  With high mountain peaks to the east, the verdant valley of ranchlands sandwiched between, the landscape approaching Durango is hard to beat.

The Hermosa Formation is a prime photo op in the early morning light.

Just across from these cliffs is the turn-off for the Durango Riverside Resort and RV Park, our home for the next 4 days.  With a great location just outside the city limits but part of great scenery, we loved this place.

Besides having wonderful amenities (including a heated swimming pool), we had opted for a prime site adjacent to the fast-flowing Animas River.  We’d enjoy a peaceful and hopefully leisurely time here enjoying this ideal spot.

But we couldn’t spend ALL our time settled in .  .  .  this area was too full of outdoor potentials.  One afternoon was all the time I gave him for lounging before we headed out.

There happened to be a rather perfect fishing spot just a short drive away (in fact, we had passed by it further north just off US-550).  Known to be prime trout waters, it also had a reputation for being one outstandingly scenic location.  With late afternoon being prime time for both fishing and photography,  Andrews Lake seemed to be the perfect match.

Great photo op (check!); great fishing hole (double-check!!)

(Ask him about the ones that got away!)

Early the following morning we were heading out once more.  (You didn’t think I’d let him do more riverside lounging?)  There was a hiking trail I’d had my eye on ever since researching this trip.  With afternoon monsoons still being the rule rather than the exception, we were pulling in to the trailhead at the unheard of (for me) early hour—8am.

But the early bird photographer catches the best light!

Our destination in sight as we headed up to 10,600-foot Coal Bank Pass, the trail we’d be taking led to the base of Engineer Mountain (or on up to the summit, if legs were willing).

The trail to the base of Engineer Mountain is known as the Pass Creek Trail. Access it directly from US-550. From there, the trail climbs through a steep open field before entering the forest. Follow the switchbacks up, up and ever up until you reach tree line. This is where the magic happens: wide and open vistas with the sheer cliff walls of Engineer looming large in the foreground. Toward the top, the trail breaks out into beautiful alpine meadows at the base of the peak, offering sweeping views of the Needles Mountains and Animas Valley.

The start of Pass Creek Trail is a real winner!  The path leads through a stunning array of masses of colorful wildflowers.  To see it is even hard to believe what you’re seeing!

Engineer Mountain Trail brings the best of both worlds into one amazing day-hike – a pleasant, albeit uphill, climb through Colorado’s finest terrain and an adrenaline-pumping scramble to the top of the mountain. With easy access from US 550, this trail is popular with hikers and mountain bikers alike who enjoy a climb through cool conifer forests before reaching an open meadow, blossoming with Colorado’s classic wildflowers.

Leaving the wildflower meadow, the trail begins to gain in elevation.  Hard-packed dirt makes for easy footing, the forest shade keeps us pleasantly cool.  I couldn’t imagine a better trek!

When the trail comes out of the dim forest, we have our first sight of what’s waiting ahead.

Tired legs forgotten .  .  .  I felt my heart beat faster (not due to the high elevation, to be sure).  Fields of flowers will continue to lead the way to Engineer Mountain.

At 11,600′ the path emerges from the woods onto a broad swath of land, the Engineer Plateau. And now, for the first time, we felt the pulling force of the mountain, first sight is seen through the trees.

We have arrived at the Engineer Plateau—a magnificent peak soars above a flamboyant floral tapestry at its base.  I am transfixed.  Chris is somewhat taken back too (just not quite to my degree).

He’ll continue on down the trail .  .  .  not attempting to climb to the summit, but at least to get a feel for its climb.  I am transfixed where I am .  .  .  content to remain in the meadow and bask in the wonder of it all.  Perhaps take a photo or two (or maybe considerably more).

About 12,000 years ago, the most recent episodes of repeated glaciations took place along the Animas River Valley. The glaciers began their formation from Silverton all the way through Durango and they were the driving force behind the geography we see here today. The ice was more than two thousand feet thick in places but Engineer Mountain was high enough to stick out and become what geologist call a “nunatak’. As the glacier slowly plowed its way to the south it smashed into the mountain carving out the tall cliffs and shaping the sides as it went along. What we see today is the aftermath of what the ice and water did ages ago.

Sometime later, he returns.  Blue skies have turned overcast and ominous.  It signals what I know is moving in, reminding us we must be returning.   Back down the trail, we turn to retrace our route.  My breath stops once again at the sight that’s been behind us, unseen until now.  Another heart-rending, unbearably beautiful scene.

Lest you begin to think from the photos I’ve been posting that the Colorado Rockies are awash in a wildflower splendor, let me assure you that isn’t quite the case.  True, we timed our visit in hopes of hitting Colorado’s wildflower peak season, but even in the best of years you won’t find this flowery carpet in every field and meadow you chance to pass.  Colorado has its special places—usually remote, hidden away, often well-kept secrets, not passed on every road and highway.  Places that require some knowledge beforehand, research often pays off with high rewards.  So when you come across these glorious locales where wildflowers carpet the landscape, the rewards are felt many times over.  They are treasures that will enrich whatever time you have in Colorado.

Doing what we do best

in Colorado

Airstream Travelers,  Melinda & Chris

Posted in Colorado, Durango | Leave a comment

SILVERTON—And the Adventure Continues . . .

The town of Silverton is not a refined town.  Unlike the other San Juan mountain towns, it is by no means gussied up.  What you see it what you get—only its main street is paved, restaurants are local cafes and they’re all very casual, and you won’t have a hassle finding a parking spot close to where you want to be.  The two big draws to bring you into Silverton—outdoor activities and the Silverton train—keep the town thriving.  If it weren’t for those two assets I’m sure the town (what still remains of it) would have disappeared long ago.  But that is not the case today—in this their prime season (measured in weeks rather than months), you could accurately say it’s a bustling town.

Chris sets up for taking time lapse photos of the fast-moving cumulus clouds above our trailer

The few campgrounds around—a couple in town and a few more forest service ones in close proximity—are pretty filled up in the short summer season.  The ones in town do have hookups (the forest service ones being primitive), but otherwise, with dirt or gravel roads and pads, they’re pretty basic.  But, the surrounding scenery is picturesque and they do provide extra space for bringing your OHVs along (which the majority of campers seem to have).  Without one of our own, we not only had mountain views, but also plenty of space to spread out.  Silverton Lakes RV Resort worked fine for us.

I had lots of plans for our time here around Silverton and they all involved heading into the high country.  Unfortunately, I learned early on that our ¾-ton Dodge truck was a little too hefty, a little too wide and a little too tightly sprung to tackle those 4wd ‘roads’ that would take us there.  But fortunately, Silverton has a solution to that predicament and most fortunately, Chris was game to follow through.

A Jeep Wrangler seemed to be the perfect option—so we took one for a 2-day rental.  Having owned a Wrangler for several years, we were well-acquainted with its operations and performance.  Being fixed up with some extra features for coping with the rough conditions we would find, we headed out confident that it would get us through.  The weather conditions couldn’t have been better for a day in the mountains—at least until the predictable afternoon monsoons blew through.

Like any smart wife would do, I had the easiest, less precarious route planned for our first day’s foray. Heading north out of town, we’d cross over a couple of mountain passes, see a picture-postcard alpine tarn, then wind our way over a couple steep gulches before returning to Silverton on the rocky (no getting around it) Animas Forks Road.  Hardly a white-knuckler drive. First stop—Hurricane Pass!

The scenery promised to be exhilarating.

Views of Red Mountain rose up behind us, outstanding in the warm light of early morning.

Just one short stretch of shelf road (okay, maybe a little muddy too) to navigate, and then we’re home-free and high on the alpine tundra.

Where views open up and we’re enveloped in spectacular scenery.

Taking a blind turn we encountered an unexpected but totally breath-taking scene.  This surely deserved a quick (?) photo op stop.  When flowers are involved Chris just tacks on more than just a quick minute or two stop, I suspect.

Oh sweet day, my heart is singing!

Indian Paintbrush in colors like this deserve more than a passing glance.

 

Turning to go revealed another sight—Don’t put the camera away too soon!!

Back in the car and on our way, we came first to 13,000+feet Hurricane Pass (piece of cake).  California Gulch was just up ahead when the alpine landscape took on a more rugged and rocky appearance.  That’s what can happen when one reaches these elevations.

But the views around California Pass soon made up for the bleakness we passed through.  And yes, it was a mite chilly this high up (breezy too).

 

It was like standing on the top of a mountain summit, where the views stretch on forever. (Without the effort of the climb–some would call that cheating).

And down below spreads out another scene—pretty little Lake Como in a glacial cirque, with mountaintops stretching to the horizon.  We can easily see the track we’ll be taking, crossing over the alpine tundra.

Make a right turn off of California Gulch  and you’re entering Placer Gulch.  A dramatic gulch above timberline, it takes you off the more popular road.

Heading up through the gulch, this route promises to pay off with many scenic dividends.  And boy, did it ever!

Yes, Placer Gulch is noted for being a wildflower hotspot (being the motivation behind selecting this drive) as well as many mining remains.  After connecting back up with the road to Animas Forks (CR-2), we followed it back to town.  And so ended one good day of off-roading in the high mountain country.

Tomorrow we’d bump it up a notch or two, adding more challenge to the driving (but don’t tell Chris).

The highlight of our second day’s outing would be American Basin.  Many years ago on one of our earliest trips we climbed our first Fourteener.  Handies Peak can be accessed from Silverton or Lake City by taking the 4wd Alpine Loop Road, from which you turn south to drive through a beautiful alpine basin to the start of the Handies Peak Trail.  That basin, I soon discovered, is a treasure-trove of Colorado wildflowers.  American Basin in mid-summer is spectacular, ranking right up with the most memorable places seen in all of our travels.  It can be a lush garden of amazing wildflowers.  I was hard-put to leave it behind that day we began our hike up to Handies Peak.  But I never forgot what was seen there, determined to someday return.

That day had finally arrived.  But first, we must once again drive that same rocky road leading up to Animas Forks.  From there, we’d connect with the Alpine Loop, taking it over Cinnamon Pass.  Coming off the pass to negotiate a narrow, twisting, rocky shelf above timberline, we’d cross a landscape of fragile alpine tundra.  A few miles later we’d come to the turn-off to American Basin.  And that’s the drive in a nutshell.

Before things got too dicey, while the road was just rocky and rough, we had a couple of stops along the way for me to snag two waterfall shots.  Chris didn’t seem to mind the driving reprieve and the waterfalls were undeniably awesome.

 

 

 

After that, it was down to serious driving.

But the scenery more than made up for the driving effort (or did it?).

One of Colorado’s most scenic off road drives, Cinnamon Pass is a  part of the Alpine Loop.  After enduring the steep and jarring drive to the summit, your reward is in what you see.  Sweeping views take in seven of the San Juans’ thirteen 14,000-foot peaks.

We took a breather on Cinnamon Pass .  .  .

.  .  . and then tackled yet another rough road waiting beyond.

Not the least of which was the track leading into American Basin.

Ensconced below towering peaks, at a first distant glance you would never guess what jewels are to be found here.  Having many drawing cards, American Basin has been a popular destination for many people—those looking for a good hike up to a mountain peak, those who are enticed by a full palate of photo ops, and those who simply want to soak up some of the best scenery this planet has to offer.  There is a price to pay for these rewards .  .  .  it’s much more than a mere drive in a park.  You’ll earn the price of admission coming here.  But once you do .  .  .  you’ll soon realize it was worth the wear, the tear and the effort, I suspect.

This is just the prelude .  .  .

And I thought this was off the charts!

Until I found the fields of Blue Columbine .  .  .  and that’s when I realized that miracles really can happen.

And it wasn’t just the Columbines .  .  .  there was no end to the wildflower displays here

And so ended a glorious second day in Silverton.

For Day 3 we tried something different–and a little more daring, should I say?

Some people call this a Side-by-Side.  Chris describes it as a dune buggy of sorts.   Much smaller than a Jeep, it has 4-wheel independent suspension and can handle the rough, rutted roads much easier and definitely much smoother.  It can handle the worst road conditions and actually, it’s a ton of fun to ride in.  Or drive, as Chris soon learned.  It was the only way I’d get to bag  my third hoped-for destination.  Stony Pass had been on my bucket list all these many decades ago.

Today, I just might make it there.

“The scenery is nothing short of spectacular along this old wagon road over Stony Pass.”  Reading words such as those surely sealed the deal for me, but I almost didn’t convince Chris.  Rated as a moderate drive, I think he was reaching his saturation point for more rough driving.  Until we got an acceptable deal on renting a side-by-side for the morning, and then his perspective took a more positive turn.  We geared up, got the scoops on its operation and took off for another adventure!

You might say Stony Pass comes by its name honestly.

And yes, there was a method to my madness (in having this goal set so firmly in mind).  I did know ahead of time that this ‘adventure’ could include more wildflower landscapes.

Can a girl have too much of a good thing? (I think not).  But, can a wife over-extend her passion for photo opportunities?  (Maybe she can push a little too much—the trick is in knowing what’s too much).

Nevertheless, the scenery didn’t disappoint and even others not so attuned to a flowery field could derive enjoyment in this kind of ride.

We did get to that mountain pass .  .  .  and the views seemed to make it worth the effort.

Chris bagged his third mountain pass in as many days .  .  .

.  .  .  and I got my fill of flowers

(well, then again .  .  .  )

Having a blast on those high country drives,

Airstream Travelers,

Melinda & Chris

Posted in Colorado, Silverton | 1 Comment

SILVERTON—The Heart and Soul of the San Juans

Good bye Ridgway—it’s been a great stay.

It was time to be streamin’ on.  Ridgway had been a great base camp for tasting the San Juans.  But that was just the appetizer .  .  . now we would get onto the main course.  Today we were headed into the heart of this spectacular mountain range .  .  .  to a town as rugged and unrefined as the mountains it was located in.  But first we had an exciting drive ahead of us—the most stunning segment of the San Juan Skyway (aka, The Million Dollar Highway) stood between Ridgway and our destination.  We’d driven it before and Chris had decided it wasn’t as bad as first appearances warranted, but that didn’t involve towing our near 30-foot Airstream.  Maybe that would be a whole different experience.  One of us was slightly apprehensive, while the other was camera-ready, anxious to confront it head-on.

With one last lingering look at the impressive Sneffels Range, we were on our way.

Headed south, the road led through a pastoral valley of ranches.  With Abrams Mountain looming behind the town, it’s no wonder Ouray, Colorado is often referred to as the Little Switzerland of America.

Leaving Ouray behind, the highway switchbacks up the mountainside and then, with one sharp curve taken, that dastardly road is before us.  Camera ready, steering wheel firmly gripped .  .  . we bravely set forth.

A truly magnificent drive to take (easier for some to say when it’s behind us)!

It would be a short drive to the town of Silverton, but what a magnificent drive it was!  Having driven this stretch only days before (more as a dry, albeit scenic, run), this is one highway you could never be bored taking.  Unfortunately, the conditions were less than perfect and by the time we reached Red Mountain Pass, it was totally socked in.  Bummer!

Unlike the other towns in this region claiming to be in the heart of the San Juans, but actually sitting more along the perimeter, Silverton actually lives up to this label. It is truly dead center in the San Juans. It is the only town in the state that you have to go over a mountain pass to get in and to get out.  Red Mountain to the north, Molas and Coal Bank Passes to the south.  At an elevation of almost 10,000 feet, it is situated along the Animas River in Baker’s Park, a flat 2,000 acre glacial valley encircled by a wall of mountains.  Sultan Mountain to the south, Kendall Mountain on the east, and Storm Peak to the north are all over 13,000 feet high.

Winters can be tough here. The year-round average temperature is 35.6° and it receives usually over 300 inches of annual snowfall.  That’s the main reason there’s only about 500 year-round residents. It’s more laid back than Telluride or Ouray being that it is a little less touristy (except for when the trains comes in—more about that in a coming post).

The treaty of 1868 that gave all of San Juan County to the Utes wasn’t worth the paper it was written on after the discovery of gold and silver soon thereafter.  Realizing the futility of keeping prospectors and miners out of their territory, the native Utes were compelled to negotiate another treaty in 1874.  Shortly thereafter, mining activity reached a fevered pitch.  It would be more than 100 years before things in Silverton really cooled down.

Mining is the story of Silverton in a nutshell–how it got its start, how it saw its glory days, how it all but disappeared and how it was reborn.  People came in hoards in the 1870s .  .  . by 1875 the 100 “sturdy souls” who lived in Silverton proper worked in the post office, sawmills, blacksmith shop, mercantile, newspaper, liquor stores, smelters or assay office.  The town’s population grew to 500 by 1876.  Life was not easy for any of them.  Statistics from Silverton’s cemetery note causes of death in early Silverton as 117 from snowslides, 143 from miner’s consumption, 161 from pneumonia, 138 from influenza (most in the 1918 epidemic) and 202 from mine accidents.

People came to the Silverton area on foot and astride mules.  In 1879, the wagon road over Stony Pass (12,590 feet) opened. Three years later the railroad reached Silverton, coming north from Durango, relieving Silverton’s isolation.  In 1884 Otto Mears operated his toll road between Silverton and Red Mountain town, and then, on into Ouray.  By 1887 the railroad had reached Ouray from the north, but it never connected to Silverton from the north due to the rugged Uncompahgre Canyon.

Mining reached its peak between 1900 and 1912, and the population of San Juan County peaked at 5,000.  The area boasted four railroads, three smelters, and over thirty mills serving myriad gold and silver mines high in the mountains. Men worked at these remote locations year-round, living in boarding houses, coming off the mountains via tram bucket over long cable tram lines designed to carry the ore from the mine to the mill several thousand feet below. On the rare occasions miners came to town, many of them spent their money in Blair Street’s saloons and houses of ill repute. 

Locals just sit back, take in the view and let the world pass by.

In the years since that glittering decade, San Juan County saw several of the boom and bust cycles typical of the mining industry. The boom cycles saw an influx of people from practically every ethnic group on earth and yielded millions of dollars worth of precious metals, and the bust cycles saw the settlements of the county turn into ghostly reminders of themselves. Financial and environmental setbacks, such as Lake Emma’s flooding of the Sunnyside Mine in 1978, sounded an eventual death knell to Silverton’s mining era. The Sunnyside, the last big mine in the region, closed in the early 1990s.

After hanging around here in town for several days, we found Silverton to be a sleepy, laid-back kind of town—except when the Silverton trains pull in.  Then things come alive, business is popping, the streets are bustling and the few cafes fill up.  Silverton is once again experiencing boom times.

But it you take time to look closely at what’s going on, you’ll soon see lots of OHVs buzzing around town.  “What’s it all about?” you might ask.  Well, take a look at the most thriving businesses in town and you’ll soon figure it out.

It’s ALL about 4WDriving in the mountains around Silverton.  Renting them is big business, or bring your own and hit the trails.  You’ll never see a place with more Off Highway Vehicles around, I’ll venture.  The reason is simple—these backroads are rich with scenic potential, the ‘trails’ go everywhere and you’re only limited by your own abilities to negotiate and your sense of adventure.  And let me tell you truly—the experience is a HOOT!!!

And it’s all on account of the mining.  Yep, thanks to all the old trails first laid by mule trains and wagons, this mountainous terrain is honey-combed with tracks and narrow, rocky ‘roads’.  Too rough for passenger cars, a little too narrow for oversized trucks like ours, the ideal vehicle you need is a small 4WD Jeep or else what they call two-by-twos.  And then, the world will be yours for exploring.  At least, in the Silverton area.  And it’s the thing you’ll want to do.  Trust me.  I know from personal experience!

The evidence of mining is everywhere.  It’s not just the ‘roads’ that were built.  Structures still remain on the mountainsides.  Old mines with their tailings pouring out of the openings pock-mark the land.  In all of the San Juan Mountains you won’t find such a proliferation of old buildings and structures.  These photos tell the story.  Of a hard life and endless struggles.  Of enduring harsh winters and extreme loneliness.  Old mills still stand—some just remnants of their former selves.  Miners’ cabins and towns now disintegrating.  All giving interest to a landscape that hardly needs enhancing.  It’s a tribute to a way of life that will never be seen quite like this again.

Perhaps the biggest draw to this area at a junction where several backcountry roads come together is the old mining town, now turned deserted ghost town, of Animas Forks.  Although a mere shadow of its former self, it still stands as one of the more restored mining towns in the state.  But you’ll need some fortitude and willing endurance if you want to see this site in person.  The ‘main’ road leading to it is what you might call a “Wimp Filter”.  Built on the former rail bed out of Silverton, today it’s a teeth rattling, bone-jarring ride.

First established in 1875, by its heyday Animas Forks had a population of nearly 500 people with miners scattered in the nearby mountains.  Sitting at an elevation of 11,200 feet, winters were so brutal that many townspeople evacuated to Silverton for several months.  For those who stayed, they had to endure many cold months and plenty of snow.  One 23-day blizzard in 1884 dropped 25 feet of snow, necessitating the residents to dig tunnels from building to building.

Nevertheless, it became a full-fledged town, complete with a water-powered sawmill, 3 general stores, a butcher and a short-order restaurant, a saloon, a post office, 2 boardinghouses and a very fine hotel, as well as 30-some cabins.  The nicest house in town was built by William Duncan in 1879 for his wife and two daughters.  It boasted a fancy bay window and has managed to survive (with help from some restoration work) to this day, along with only 8 other structures.

Primitive cabins to live in, but with million dollar views.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As was not uncommon to many old towns from days gone by, devastating fires spelled the beginning of the end of their existence.  Animas Forks experienced two—in 1891 and again in 1913.  By the 1920s only a handful of residents were still living here.  Today, the BLM has ownership of the site which is now listed on the National Register. The nine buildings have been stabilized and restored, representing a particularly hard way of life in these mountains.  Access to them is free and unrestricted.  Interpretive panels help to give a sense of what it was like living here.

The site seems to evoke a sense of time long past.  Moving around the townsite conjures up images of a totally unfamiliar way of living.  The few remaining buildings help to envision a way people coped with hardships and lived an isolated life.  Definitely a place for thoughtful contemplation.

The remains of Animas Forks today .  .  .  high and alone in the San Juan Mountains.

So this is a taste of what Silverton has to offer.  With a sense of history scattered in the mountains and a wild and magnificent setting in the landscape, to see it is an adventure in itself.  Waiting for those willing to head out and follow those rough tracks of a ‘road’.  Provided you have the proper vehicle, and perhaps a little fortitude to brave the elements of fickle summer weather.  We were enticed and excited to give it a try.  Anxious to see where the roads led.  That is what brought us here to Silverton.  This is what the essence of Silverton can be. The roads branch out from town and lead to what I suspect can be the best of a Colorado portfolio.

Follow where those roads take us .  .  .  coming soon in my next post.

Airstream Travelers, Melinda & Chris

caught up in the rugged mountain scene.

Posted in Colorado, Silverton | Leave a comment