June 21, 2012
On Thursday, Day 8 of Operation Junebug, it was time for me to leave Gunnison and head south for a couple of days before returning home. The Hendersons had packed up at Taylor Park Reservoir and drove down to meet me at Gunnison, as they had never been to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and my vehicle pass was still valid. We had breakfast at the busy W Cafe downtown, which had been closed the previous two days for its annual cleaning. Then I drove us all west along US 50 to the national park.
With the Hendersons at Black Canyon
This time we stopped at the visitor center at Gunnison Point, something I had omitted on my visit almost a week earlier. I peeked in at part of the video they were showing, but its pace was too slow for me and I’d already seen some photos and heard the story of some of the expeditions that first explored the canyon.
I snapped a photo of the Hendersons out on Gunnison Point and the river far below. We visited Pulpit Rock and The Chasm and the Painted Wall, where I caught a shot of it on this cloudless day, compared to the overcast late afternoon shot from my earlier visit.
We saw Sunset View and then hiked the Warner Nature Trail, passing a fallen tree with its exposed twisted trunk. It was a hot and tiring, albeit short, hike over to the view of the canyon at Warner Point. In the bright light the extrusions of rock were quite visible. Betty, who doesn’t like heights, posed as close to the edge as she would go.
The Hendersons were glad to have seen the Black Canyon, but it was time for them to drive to Salida and for me to make my way south to Pagosa Springs for the night. I drove us back to Gunnison and we parted, with them heading east on US 50 while I drove south on scenic highway 149.
Scenic Highway 149
I’d passed the turnoff for this highway repeatedly over the past week without realizing I’d be taking it south through two mountain passes to reach US 160, which is my usual route through Wolf Creek Pass to drop way down into Pagosa Springs, where I vacationed in July 2010 and July 2011. The last 75 miles of the route, from Lake City to South Fork, is called the Silver Thread Scenic Byway because of the silver mining towns lining the route across the San Juan Mountains. The famous Million Dollar Highway, which I drove in 2011 as part of the San Juan Skyway, runs between Silverton and Durango to the west of this route. The views were less dramatic along 149, but the road had much less traffic and was far less terrifying!
Lake San Cristobal & the Slumgullion Earthflow
At first the mountains were distant backdrops. I drove through Lake City, population 375, which developed in the 1870s when gold was discovered near the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River. I pulled over south of town for the view looking south down the broad valley, with a subpeak of Red Mountain looming on the western slope.
There was an overlook of Lake San Cristobal, which formed 700 years ago when the first of a series of huge landslides, the Slumgullion Earthflow, dammed the Lake Fork of the Gunnison. The beauty here contrasts to the grisly tale of Alfred Packer, who dined upon some of his fellow prospectors when they became lost in the mountains somewhere around here in the winter of 1873-1874. A sketch appeared in Harper’s Weekly of the horrific remains which were discovered. The mountains here have unforgiving winters: John C. Frémont’s ill-fated fourth expedition had tried to pass through these mountains in 1848. He lost all 120 of his mules and 10 of the 35 men died, with some of the party also resorting to cannibalism to survive.
The road wound upwards past the current phase of the earthflow, with its own overlook. The crumbling earth was visible both above and beside the highway. The earth continues to slip about twenty feet per year on parts of the flow.
At the Windy Point Overlook the view of the San Juan peaks to the west was marred by the evening sun and heavy haze from a forest fire to the south, but there was another great vantage point of the Slumgullion Earthflow from there. I crossed the Slumgullion Pass at 11,530 feet.
Mount Baldy Cinco, Bristol Head, and the Rio Grande Pyramid
I drove past Mount Baldy Cinco which, as you might guess, has five summits with the tallest at 13,838 feet. Clouds made huge shadows across its slopes. I drove across Spring Creek Pass at 10,901 feet and then descended past Bristol Head, jutting up above the plain at 12,713 feet. I noticed a number of trailheads around this area, so that’s good news for future hiking trips.
The north face of the 13,821 foot Rio Grande Pyramid forms the headwaters of the Rio Grande, which flows 1,885 miles from here to the Gulf of Mexico, making it the third longest river in the United States of America. The haze above the forest from the fire to the southwest was becoming noticeable.
I pulled in at one trailhead to see a high mesa to the northeast which culminated in Bristol Head. Not much farther along was Stony Pass, used from 1871 and 1882 to reach the mining town of Silverton until the Durango-Silverton railroad line was completed.
Creede in the Golden Hour
I rounded the mountains and passed sunlit bluffs above the Rio Grande to arrive in Creede, the only incorporated town in Mineral county, home to 290 of the 712 people living in all of the county’s 878 square miles. 96% of the county, which is surrounded by the Rio Grande National Forest, is under the control of the federal government. Named after the discoverer of the Holy Moses mine, Creede produced much silver and copper, surviving the silver panic of 1893 by relying on the mining of lead and zinc. Its population declined by almost 25% in the past decade. There is a great mining loop north of town which I hope to walk some day.
The town is nestled at the foot of Mammoth Mountain, which rises over 2,000 feet above it. The clouds and setting sun gave a painterly look to the mountain ridge, and I shot a panorama during the golden hour.
All along this stretch the highway turnouts were blocked for some sort of event, but I was still able to capture golden hour snapshots of the cliffs at the base of Pool Table Mountain as the Silver Thread Scenic Byway came to an end at South Fork.
Beetles and Smoke
I remembered from last year how spruce beetles had been eating away at Wolf Creek Pass and was sad to see entire slopes of Engelmann spruces devastated by them as I descended to Pagosa Springs. I could also see heavy haze from the Little Sand fire hanging in the sky. The sun set as I drove to my hotel, and I could see the smoke hanging over the forest, reflecting off a pond in the pink twilight.
The south fire line is the Piedra River Trail I had hoped to enjoy again on this trip, so the next morning I would vacate Pagosa Springs, heading south to Ghost Ranch.