Relief From The Heat; Colorado Style
by Ken Womack (Pics By Ken and Steve Weinberg)

I love Texas, but in August, it’s just too darn hot!  That’s why we dream of Colorado in the summer.  The last time we went to the San Juan Mountains it was 1997 and it was time for a return visit.  There are three towns in the area, Telluride, Ouray and Silverton.   Over the years, we have stayed in all three, but this time we chose Silverton as our base camp. 

Silverton is a pretty little town with an elevation of approx. 9300 ft.  It is a town steeped in mining history and has a personality all its own.  With the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad and mining remnants all around, it has a distinctive Old West flavor about it.  Silverton also has the most 4-wheel drive roads nearby and the most camping choices.  Since we were camping, it made complete sense to us. 

We arrived in Silverton Sunday night, Aug. 17th, meeting good friend and fellow SHR member, Steve Weinberg on Greene Street.  He showed us to the campground and we set up.  Later we met for dinner at Handlebars Restaurant and Bar.  It sure was nice to finally be in Colorado again. 

Over the next 2 ½ days the 3 of us (Arlene Weinberg was unable to come due to work schedule) and our dog Blaze would cover many miles of roads and trails, explore old mines and mills and some ghost towns, too.

A Little History… 

The Silverton area was inhabited by an Indian Tribe named The Utes.  They lived in The San Juans from about the year 1300 after being forced there by stronger plains Indian tribes.  Although the area was claimed by Spain since the 1500’s, the area wasn’t explored much until the late 1700’s.  Trappers and traders passed through the area in the early 1800’s.  Gold was discovered near Silverton in 1860 by Captain Charles Baker.

Later expeditions found gold and silver in Arrastra Gulch in 1869.  The Utes weren’t too happy about the miners being there and there were tense times indeed. 

Later a treaty was signed with Chief Ouray and the land was purchased.  The Utes moved away to become farmers and ranchers.  This allowed the geologists and miners to explore the area to a greater degree.  Mining the Little Giant mine high in Arrastra Gulch led to tremendous wealth.  Other silver and gold veins were found and mines sprang up all over. 

Although most people think of gold, silver was the standard by which the monetary system was backed until 1893, when a  depression set in.  After that, gold became the standard.  Other minerals were mined as well, including copper, lead, zinc and many more.  Many of the mines were set up to mine for silver and when the Silver Panic of 1892 set in, some mines closed, while other switched to gold.  There were hundreds of mines in the Silverton, Ouray and Telluride area and several ore processing mills as well.

Some people travel the area in Jeeps and other SUV’s and admire the awesome beauty of the San Juans and say “Look there’s another old mine”, thinking most of them all look the same.  It’s the history and the stories of the people who built the mines, worked them and supported the effort with supplies, transport, processing and more that make the trip more interesting and fulfilling.  Having some books to read helps with the history.  I used 3 books along with stories from other Jeepers and another I used to have to help me learn of the area.  The books are: Mountain Mysteries- by Marvin Gregory and P.  David Smith, Lies, Legends and Lore (and a few true tales) by Roger Henn and Colorado Backroads & 4-wheel Drive Trails by Charles A. Wells.   

Another fine Jeeper who has passed was also an inspiration for my several trips to Colorado, his spirit and character made me want to go there the first time.  We watched his videos and listened to his stories and his incredible laugh.  Bob Stowe was quite a guy, a long time 4-wheeler who loved Jeepin’ and help pioneer many of the trails in Oklahoma, Moab and many others.  He is missed by all who knew him. 

This will be the first in a series of probably three articles.  I will tell of our trip in “Red Rocker”, with Steve Weinberg in “Colorado Blue”.  Our digital camera wasn’t working so Steve saved the day by using his.  Most of the pictures are from the fine collection that he took on the first 3 days.  Many thanks to Steve Weinberg who joined us on the trip after a business trip to Boulder, CO.  We camped at the A& B campground in Silverton, a fine little campground with grassy sites, a picnic table, electric, water and cable TV connection.  The owners were very hospitable and the rates were reasonable.  There were several Jeepers there, some from the Family Motor Coach 4-Wheelers Association, several of them were from Texas.  We rode with these fine folks on Friday when we joined them on Black Bear.  Monday, Tuesday and half the day Wednesday, Steve ran with us until he had to leave to get packed up for his return trip home.

First Day Out

 The first day out, we left Silverton for Minnie Gulch, a little side trip up the road that goes to Animas Forks.  It’s about 3 miles to the end and it has some interesting little log cabins on them.  We drove by the first one (posted) and visited the other two.  They are in great shape considering their age, we took some pictures and moved on to the top, which is a dead end with a couple of mines there.  It was a pretty neat little side trip.  There is a reconstruction of a boardinghouse at the museum in Silverton used some of the original timbers and items found in the area.

After Minnie Gulch we returned to the main road to the entrance to Picayune Gulch.  Here we made a left turn and drove up the very steep trail.  The trail climbs up sharply with many switchbacks.  It’s supremely beautiful as most all of these roads take you to breathtaking vistas and to historic mines, some in really good condition.

On the way up the gulch, we saw a few cabin remnants and knew we were close to our first stop.  It was a good sized boardinghouse and mine that I believe is the Sunnyside Extension.  It is in pretty good shape and was probably used in the 1910’s and 1920’s and possibly later.  The boardinghouse had steam heat, hot and cold running water, wash basins for the miners and a full kitchen with the stove still there.  A covered walkway with handrails led down to the mine.  We didn’t explore the rail dump and lower workings because the hill was way too steep on foot.  It was a pretty well preserved mine area and a good place to walk around and explore.

We got back into our Jeeps are drove on up, climbing past the tree line and into the tundra area.  On top we rested again and took in the scenery.  There is a trail that leads to Lake Emma (drained), but we didn’t run it.  The Sunnyside Mine was located there, but is now all gone.  Lake Emma was accidentally drained when miners got too close to the bottom of the lake.  The shaft collapsed in 1978 and the lake and all in the mine shafts were washed away and drained into Cement Creek in Gladstone.  No one was injured because no one was in the mine at the time.

The road changes to Placer Gulch at the pass and goes down through some desolate looking country side before getting back in the valley.  Here lies The Sound Democrat Mine and Mill.  Also present were hundreds of sheep and a very protective sheep dog.  This area must be leased to a sheep herd owner, as every time I have been there, there has been hundreds of sheep.  Evelyn had to stay with Blaze in the Jeep, while Steve and I explored the mine.  An interpretive brochure had been put out by the area Historical Society and the BLM.  It shows how the mill worked.  The mill is being stabilized with similar matching boards and a new roof.  Much of the equipment including the stamps and the gears and shafts are still in place.  It shows a great deal of how the mill crushed the ore and was made into concentrates that were rolled up and shipped to smelters where the precious metals could be separated from the lead, then made into bullion.  The Sound Democrat was never very successful at making money, so the area was abandoned for more lucrative sites.

After exploring the area, we continued down the road to the intersection at California Gulch.  The left goes to California Pass, Hurricane Pass, the Corkscrew Trail one way, and Poughkeepsie Gulch the other.  We chose a right turn to go to The Frisco Mines for a lunch stop.  The Frisco Mines area has a huge ore processing mill that is still standing, the stamping equipment removed, but the structure still in place.  This mill was a kit with all of its structural beams with letter and numbers etched into the wood.  It was probably built back east and then transported up to the site in pieces hauled by freighters, known as teamsters. 

Before the railroad was built in the area, equipment, timbers and supplies were hauled up the roads by horse and mule teams.  Prospectors use burros to pack supplies in and ore out, while the larger operations used teams of mules, usually six, to run equipment up and ore back.  Even before that, when there were no roads, prospectors used Ute foot trails and game paths or made their own trail. 

Otto Mears, who was known as “Pathfinder of the West” was the main roadbuilder and designer.  He also assisted in the creation of the railroad routes in the area.  Roads were blasted out of solid rock and ran precariously along the side of mountain cliffs.  These roads made it easier to transport everything needed in the mines.  These roads are the ones that connect into a network of about 700 miles of 4-wheel drive trails.  These roads are maintained by the counties and are generally very easy for average folks to drive in 4-wheel drive SUV’s. 

After lunch, we left The Frisco Mines area to the turn-off to Engineer Pass at Animas Forks.  Since we planned to explore Animas Forks another day, we turned left to go to past the Cinnamon Pass Road and through the canyon.  We hadn’t been through Engineer Pass since ’94, so up we drove to the summit.  Engineer Pass is at elevation 12,800 ft. and gives you a remarkable view of the area. 

You can tell that Engineer Pass and the mountain next to it have a tremendous amount of iron ore because it is very red and even looks a little rusty.  On top is a sign noting the  elevation and an interpretive sign about the Utes.  It tells some about them and shows a poster of a sign from the early 1880’s proclaiming, “The Utes Must Go!” Although most of them left with Chief Ouray many years earlier, some stayed and were completely run out of the area by the mid to late 1880’s.  It was rainy and cold on the summit, so we didn’t stay long.   

We drove down the mountain, negotiating tight switchbacks along the way.  We took a break at “Oh! Point”, where there is a composting toilet and took in the tremendous view of the valley below.  Mineral Point lay there, and it was out next stop.  We arrived at Mineral Point with light rain and explored the area.  The local Historical Society had visited this site as well, as the boardinghouse had a new roof on it as well as some new boards on the walls.  This is Evelyn’s favorite place in the San Juans and in July this place has some of the prettiest wildflowers anywhere, but there were only yellow flowers because the flower season is earlier in the summer, June and July.

I was truly impressed by the local efforts to stabilize some of the buildings in various areas.  The volunteers and the BLM are trying to preserve our history without commercializing it.  If you see an interpretive site with a steel pole with a donations slot, please pitch in, the money is used to buy supplies like boards and tin for the roofs.  The work closely resembles the building as it looked.  We donated and I believe it is money well spent.  

We returned to Silverton going back past Engineer and  Cinnamon Passes and through Animas Forks.  We got back in time to eat dinner and socialize before a good night’s rest.

It was a good, long day of ‘wheeling, fulfilling and exhilarating.


- Ken Womack

 Watch for the next chapter; Poughkeepsie Gulch, Cinnamon Pass, Sherman, Wager Gulch, and Lake City