Sometimes the unplanned happenings become some of the best adventures. We discovered a small town deep in the San Juan Mountains that quickly became one of our favorites. It is an experience that we would not have had without good friends.
After spending some time with family in North Carolina, I flew back to Montrose, Colorado where David was awaiting my return. While I was away, some friends of ours, Mark and Judie, traveled to Montrose to visit with us. We had met last summer in Alaska and had kept up with each other over the past year. It was so good to see them again.
Judie and Mark tow a Jeep behind their rig and they like to go off-roading when they can. The Western Slope of Colorado has many four-wheeling routes that lead to some spectacular vistas in the San Juan Mountains. One of the most popular ones is the Alpine Loop which is a 75-mile jeep trail through the mountains. Much of this backcountry roadway is above treeline. They were planning on driving the Alpine Loop and invited us to go with them. We made a trip to the Visitor Center in Ouray to get some updated information since you can access the Alpine Loop from Ouray, Silverton, or Lake City. We also learned that part of the road was closed due to a landslide. After spending some time studying the various routes that we could take, we decided to travel to Lake City, which was on the east side of the San Juan Mountains, because it was closer to the Alpine Loop and farther away from the landslide.
Before leaving the western side of the San Juans, the four of us drove up the Brooklyn Mine Road trail which is a moderately difficult (Class 2) road. Located several miles south of Ouray, this route starts at Red Mountain Pass.
As we traveled along a ridge line, we saw some breath-taking views of Black Bear Pass and the surrounding mountains as well as fields of wildflowers in full bloom.
We also spotted a pair of young weasels in some rocks beside the trail. We also passed remnants of old mining areas, including the Brooklyn Mine. After completing our off road adventure, we ate a picnic lunch along a river where we spotted a large moose. It was such a fun day!
The following morning we packed up our campers and moved to Lake City, Colorado. On the way there we drove along Blue Mesa Lake Reservoir. Formed by the construction of the Blue Mesa Dam on the Gunnison River in 1960, it is the largest lake in the state (20 miles long). We saw many fishermen out on the lake fishing for lake trout and kokanee salmon. If fishing isn’t for you, there are boat tours available that will take you out on the lake and up into the Gunnison Canyon. In addition, we saw a number of campgrounds in the area. It was a beautiful spot so maybe next time we will plan to stay a few days at Blue Mesa Lake.
Lake City is south of Gunnison but is not near any other Colorado town. It is only accessible by Road 149 which follows the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River most of the way. We were advised to “bring all the supplies you will need.”
After a couple of hours, we arrived in Lake City. It is a small, quaint town with only 400 year around residents. We found the residents to be very congenial and welcoming. Lake City is the only town in Hinsdale County. Naturally it is also the county seat of what has been called “the most remote county in the lower 48” because it is surrounded by 96% public lands such as Wilderness Areas and BLM lands. With over 1000 square miles of undeveloped land, it is a great place to go and enjoy outdoor activities like boating, fishing, hiking, snowshoeing, ice fishing, and off-roading. The amazing landscapes and wildlife offer inspiration and draw many visitors to the area.
The Ute Indians inhabited this valley originally but they were displaced once prospectors and miners discovered silver deposits nearby. The government negotiated a treaty with the Utes requiring them to surrender their rights to their lands in the San Juan Mountains. By 1873, Lake City was a hub of activity as it supplied the needs of the miners that converged on the area. The town prospered and grew to be a large city of 3,000-5,000 inhabitants. They enjoyed good economic times until 1905 when the mining industry faltered. The population declined until the 1920’s when tourism lured visitors back to this scenic part of the mountains. Today Lake City still has a lot to offer from its waterfalls and lakes to its “fourteeners.” We enjoyed seeing Lake San Cristobal, the second largest natural lake in Colorado. In addition, there are 5 alpine mountains that are over 14,000 feet high near the town. To get a closer look at some of these alpine beauties, many people bring their 4×4 vehicles. If you do not have an off road vehicle, you can rent one in Lake City.
Judie, Mark, David, and I left early one morning and drove part of the Alpine Loop. It was a magnificent drive through meadows, alpine tundra, and forested areas. We saw numerous waterfalls, the Henson River, and fields of wildflowers. We also spotted the remnants of a brick smelter and abandoned mines and equipment. Visible too along the road was avalanche debris from some of the winter storms. The Alpine Loop is only open a few months during the year and is subject to closures when the weather is bad. Fortunately, we had a sunny and clear day and the road conditions were very good the day we went. We continued to climb higher and drove through the alpine tundra. Once we reached Engineer Pass at 12,800 feet we could see an entire mountain range and the valley below. It was a fabulous view and we stayed there for a while taking it in. We watched the landscape change as the light moved across the mountains. Reluctantly, we headed back down the Alpine Loop to Lake City. It had been a marvelous experience to be able to be in such a remote and beautiful place.
Lake City proved to be a remote “hidden gem.” We really enjoyed the area and the people. It is definitely a place that we would like to visit again and next time we will stay longer.
Many, many thanks to Judie and Mark for letting us tag along with them on this unforgettable adventure.