Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Marathon Southwest Colorado Trip - Part 3

Part 3
My truck was already packed up, so I loaded up my camera and gear, and got on the road.

I knew that time was going to be the issue for what I wanted to do to finish out my day and my marathon 2 day trip, but I forged on.

I headed west on Highway 160 following the same route that I had taken in the morning. This time instead of stopping in Monte Vista, I continued on and I soon arrived at Del Norte. This was now officially uncharted territory for me. This was a part of the state that I had never been in. The skies had been overcast all day with some rain in the morning, but in the distance underneath the clouds were rain shafts partially obscuring the mountains behind.

Along either side of the highway were sections of land where hay had been recently cut and the large round bales were scattered throughout the golden colored fields. There were also areas where active irrigation was taking place to water the future harvests of local ranchers and farmers. The mountains were beginning to close in on the valley in as I continued west.

South Fork was the next town that I came upon. As I approached the eastern side of town, I immediately noticed a large historic wooden water tower that had once been used by the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad. The tower was obviously well taken care of, and appeared to have a stable structure and fairly fresh paint job. I had to stop and grab a few shots of it. Just across the road were some old passenger rail cars from the Sante Fe Railroad and the Seaboard Coast Line as well as some other old rail cars. This area too has quite a bit of railroad history. The Denver & Rio Grande Western bought Southern Pacific Railroad in 1988 and the new company continued to use the better known name of Southern Pacific. In 1996, Union Pacific Railroad took over that railroad following years of financial trouble. Following the UP takeover, this section of rail from South Fork to Creede was taken out of service and was subsequently sold to the Denver & Rio Grande Historical Foundation. The rails here have been silent ever since.

I made the turn in South Fork onto Highway 149 and headed northwest. I could see the tracks paralleling the highway as I made my way towards Creede. I had traveled just a few miles before I seen a beautiful steel truss bridge where the old railroad had crossed the Rio Grande River. I made the time to stop and grab a few shots. I had passed the bridge and drove about a quarter of a mile before I pulled over. The rain had again made an appearance and the drops were lightly falling. I had to walk down an embankment and through 100 feet or so of tall wet grass to get to a decent vantage point. I set up my tripod and camera and snapped off a few shots. From my location I was not able to get a shot of the full bridge, but I loved the perspective and view from where I was at. I was on the road again after I broke down my camera gear and waded back through the tall wet grass. I was pretty well soaked from the knees down. The lengths that a photographer will go to…

The San Luis Valley, now a distant memory, gave way to beautiful mountain ranges of the San Juan Mountains. It was now obvious that the rain and cloudy skies were going to be accompanying me for the duration of the day. Every bend in the road provided for a new and beautiful landscape. I always hate being on a timeline, especially when it comes to visiting an area for the first time while having so many photographic opportunities. I tried to take advantage of both.

I had encountered quite a bit of traffic ever since I left Alamosa. Being a Friday afternoon people were getting off work and getting their weekends started. I continued on up the twisty Highway 149 also known as the Silver Thread Scenic Byway into Mineral County and further into the Wilderness and National Forest areas of the San Juan Moutains. 96 percent of the lands in Mineral and Hinsdale Counties are federally owned. The beauty of the area was enhanced due to the remoteness and the sparse population. The mountains continued to close in as Creede came into view. Creede sits at the very end of the canyon and is completely surrounded by mountains, one way in and one way out. Given time, I would have actually gone into town, but daylight was running short. As I progressed, I made the transition from Mineral to Hinsdale County.

This route from South Fork to Lake City was once the route of the Barlow & Sanderson Stage Line. The stage line was established in the mid 1800’s when this area was first settled. I could have imagined myself making that trip by horseback or stage over the rough and rocky trails. The combination of the wilderness and the newfound discoveries would have been very exciting. Although the winters could be very brutal as you will soon see.

In 1858, San Juan City was established west of Creede and was the gateway to Stony Pass which provided the best access to Howardsville and Silverton for all of the gold miners of the day. The pass was not easily traveled and was often traveled by mule trains carrying people and goods. Wagons choosing to make the voyage had to be disassembled and lowered down steep areas of the pass. San Juan City was a hub for those people and goods coming into the area and for those traveling Stony Pass to Silverton until 1882 when the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad completed the line from Durango to Silverton. The post office that was established here in 1874 gave way for the city to become the first County seat of Hinsdale County. The only part of San Juan City remaining today is the courthouse, and it is now part of the privately owned San Juan Ranch. The site of San Juan City and access to Stony Pass lie west of 149 just inside Hinsdale County.

The rain had once again passed over the area as I stopped to get behind the camera and take in the view once again. The area west of 149 is dominated by the largest designated wilderness in Colorado, Weminuche. It is named after the Weminuche tribe of Ute Indians that inhabited the southern areas of Colorado and northern New Mexico. The Weminuche Wilderness and Rio Grande National Forest are also home to the headwaters of the Rio Grande River, the third longest river in the United States. You can also see the continental divide from here.

It was 4:30 in the afternoon as I went over Spring Creek Pass, and out of the corner of my eye I caught a National Forest sign pointing out North Clear Creek Falls to passersby’s. I anxiously followed the signs to the parking area. I quickly and excitedly grabbed my camera and tripod and walked to the 30 yards to the observation platform. The clouds had turned off the spigot for the time being, and the lighting was perfect for what I was about to capture. I could hear the rushing water as I approached the edge of the observation deck. From the parking area, one could not tell that a waterfall would even be present here. I was pleasantly surprised to see the picturesque waterfall descending into the crevice below. I just had to take a couple of minutes to take it all in. It was absolutely beautiful!!

I set up my camera and tripod and got started. As I was there taking care of business, there were 4 groups of people that had parked in the parking lot, walked down to the falls, spent a few seconds looking and left. All I could think was “what are you doing”? Are you in that big of a hurry that you cannot even take a few minutes to admire the beauty of Mother Nature? I was running on borrowed time, and I could even take a few minutes to stop, take a few breaths and give thanks for this beautiful sight. Not to mention getting a few shots. 

The water cascaded down the multi layered rock into an entirely different eco system below with the sheer rock faces of the canyon to frame it all in. I was able to catch the water symphony in my images. This was just an awesome surprise that I stumbled upon.

The sun had made a short appearance, but it was short lived as the clouds once again filled in the sky. It was time for me to move on.

I continued on my trek northwest on Highway 149 enjoying the incredible terrain as I went over Slumgullion Pass. I descended the 9% grade on the north side of the pass, which is the steepest continuously paved road in Colorado, on my way to my last planned stop of the trip.

I had taken a Colorado History class in College, so I of course knew the history behind Alferd Packer. But it did not come to mind until I seen the sign denoting the site just south of Lake City. As I alluded to earlier, winters in this part of the state can be very dangerous. In February 1874, Packer and 5 others headed east into the San Juan Mountains. In April only one emerged. Alferd Packer was subsequently charged and found guilty of cannibalism.

As I pulled into Lake City, Colorado, I noticed all of the Jeep and ATV rental companies lined up along the highway. I knew the area was a big off-roading area, but I was surprised to see just how much of one it was.

With the clouds and rain still present, I drove through the historic town. It was like stepping back into the late 1800’s. The downtown area had all of the old buildings with the large storefronts indicative of the old west.

I turned onto Hinsdale County Road 20 and began my trek up the canyon. The dirt road was wet and muddy from the rain that had been present all day. The sheer canyon walls were close in to the road and Henson Creek before widening as I drove up. It wasn’t long before I started to see the remnants of gold and silver mining of years past. I had begun to pass tunnels that had once been used and now have been gated off to prevent access. Mining equipment and associated out buildings also began to appear as I slowly made my way up the canyon. I would say that some of these buildings had been used until sometime until the mid twentieth century. As the road gained in elevation it rose above the canyon walls below where Henson Creek was flowing. There was a large mining and processing operation located here. The creek was at one time dammed in order to support the mine operations and possibly as a water supply for the area. The lower center of the dam had been destroyed, but the dam was still mostly intact. It was here that I noticed the clear water had an ice blue color to it. I took time to stop here and grab some shots of the out buildings and the dam.

I continued to make my way up the canyon, and the canyon walls had again begun to close in and the dirt road narrowed. The rain was falling steadily now and the canyon was quite beautiful. Equipped with my rain gear, I stopped along the creek and snapped the shutter button to obtain some shots of the cold ice blue water against the moss covered rock face of the canyon. I could not believe how fast the time was passing. It was already 5:45, but the canyon was calling me to go farther. So I ventured on.

Capitol City, founded in 1877 lies further up County Road 20 on the way to Engineer Pass. At one time the founder of Capitol City thought that it would replace Denver as the Capitol of Colorado. That obviously never came to be. There is just a couple of buildings left standing at the old site. They have obviously been restored to some extent, but still provide for some nice photos.

I was feeling adventurous this late afternoon so I forged on. As I climbed closer to the beginning of Engineer Pass, I spotted a sign that pointed out the scenic overlook for Whitmore Falls. I had really wanted to check the falls out, but the rain was still falling and in order to get to the overlook you had to climb down some slick wooden stairs and probably some fairly steep slopes. I chose not to make the attempt. I did not feel like taking a trip that I was not planning on. I will have to make a point to check the falls out on another trip.

My travels continued on until I reached the beginning of Engineer Pass. As much as I wanted to continue on, I decided that I had better start making my way home.

This final part of my trip was the part that I had, in a way anticipated the most, and thought through the least. I knew from the time that I left Alamosa earlier in the day that I was going to be venturing into territories that I had not been before. Although my time was limited, I was able to get a taste of Colorado that wetted my curiosity, adventurous spirit and not to mention, my camera. I had seen glorious landscapes, water features, and a lot of Colorado railroad and mining history.

This will not be the last time that I will travel to this part of the state. I know that my next time here will require multiple days, and I already have plenty to add to the itinerary for when that time comes.

Thanks for coming along!

Until my next adventure….


  1. What a great three-part series, Rod! Thanks so much for sharing your adventures. I like this last post the best, I think. It made me want to get out on the road & go to these places, too. Plus, that massacre sign is priceless :-)


  2. Hi Rod,

    I've really enjoyed your series here. You have a great photographic and journalistic sense that's plainly evident. Please come back and go further next time, weather permitting.

    Alferd Packer (that spelling is his legal name) and the lost expedition is quite a story that takes sensationalism to a new level. Even restaurants have played off the legend, with mixed success. It seems it's distasteful today as it was back then.

    Thanks again for the beautiful pictures and story!

    Colorado Railroads blog