On the Road to Clear Lake, Near Silverton

On the Road to Clear Lake, Near Silverton

It goes without saying that I like Arizona, I grew up here and the place you grow up always has a special place in your heart. But I have to admit Colorado is my favorite state. Monty grew up in Grand Junction, where the red rock Colorado Monument is located. To the east you have Grand Mesa, at 10,000 feet elevation, covered with forest and over two hundred lakes. To the north are the Book Cliffs, there is even skiing close by, needless to say he loves Colorado. To my way of thinking, Colorado has just about everything; the tallest mountains, with over fifty mountain peaks over 14,000 feet, (14ers) sparkling clear streams, and green meadows. All surrounded by beautiful forests, of pines, spruce and quakies, sunny warm summer days and crisp cool nights. It is a summer paradise. The whole winter snow thing, well that’s another story altogether.

Over the years we have enjoyed countless summer days in Colorado and loved it, but first I want to share one of our winter trips. Back in the early 90’s we spent Christmas with Monty’s children, Michael, Andrew and Noel in Colorado. We had a nice visit with them and they talked me into tubing down the snow packed mountains outside Grand Junction. Being a desert rat I didn’t have any clothes suitable for a day in the snow. No problem, the kids mom let me borrow a snow suit and off we went, Monty and I and three kids in the Blazer and a couple of huge truck tire inner tubes tied on the top. It was a beautiful sunny day and the tubing was fun, although I do remember one trip down the slope, I think it was my last, that I was suspended between the two truck tubes legs wrapped around one and arms around another. To say the trip down was harrowing would not even touch the experience. I hung up my borrowed snow suit and called it a day.

Sign in Crested Butte

Sign in Crested Butte

After visiting Grand Junction we headed to Durango and stayed at a Bed and Breakfast. The Logwood Inn is an absolutely lovely huge log cabin with large windows facing the forest, and a wrap around porch for outside seating. Our bedroom was upstairs, the slanting attic ceiling was cozy, charming wall paper decorated the walls, and the big four poster bed was complete with down quilts. The dinning table seated about sixteen and it was a full house this weekend. I was never quite sure how a B & B worked, I mean at home I have breakfast in my p.j.’s with my hair still in rollers OK, that’s a slight exaggeration. Are they expecting us to show up in our flannel p.j’s or is this time for the sweaters and jeans? Luckily we went for the sweaters and jeans and fit right in with the other guests from all over the country.

The people that owned Logwood Inn had an interesting concept, their plan included building this beautiful large home, and essentially living in the basement while the paying guests enjoyed the rest of the house. They prepared huge country breakfasts and desserts for evening snacking, just help yourself. I guess most of the time the guests were off doing vacation things so they weren’t exactly confined to the basement.

Well, there is all the kitchen duty and of course changing of the linens, etc. I don’t think that would be our choice of lifestyle, but they seemed happy. Maybe the guests paid the mortgage and when it was paid off they could close the door to guests and enjoy the huge fireplace in the living room in peace and quiet.

Narrow Gauge Steam Train

Narrow Gauge Steam Train

One night we took a trip up to the Purgatory Ski Resort to take a sleigh ride through the forest. We still talk about this experience like it was yesterday. The sleigh was wonderful and two handsome draft horses had sleigh bells that kept up the holiday sprit. We had thick blankets that kept us warm on this chilly but full moon night. The forest in the snow is so quiet it makes you want to whisper. We wound our way thru the forest for quite a while before we arrived at our destination – a log cabin complete with roaring fireplace and tables set for dinner. We had stew with fresh baked bread and dessert. It was a Christmas card experience.

There was a side story going on with the thirty something mom and her son who sat in front of us. Mom was eager to chat up the cowboy wrangling the sleigh and she was just short of leaving the kid with us and crawling up to ride with the cowboy. She had some pick up lines that were impossible to ignore. I think I saw some eye rolling from the other sleigh riders. On top of that the kid was in a fit of giggles because the horses kept farting. The whole thing kept us smiling. With all the people on this ride the wrangler asks Monty to say grace before dinner. To his credit he didn’t mention we saw the gal give her room key to the cowboy, but I think there was a brief mention about the horses diet. Such fun memories.

The Durango to Silverton train was completely booked and we were disappointed to miss a chance to ride through the snow covered forest. Monty’s dad spent his life working on the railroad, when it was the Denver & Rio Grande Western, so Monty has a special fondness for trains, especially steam engines. When Monty was in school he spent summers working on the railroad and he has some fun stories to tell about the ‘good old days’.

On one of our many trips to Grand Junction we stopped in Thompson Springs, about 50 miles from the Colorado/Utah border. Monty worked for the D&RGW RR in this area for an entire summer. It is really out in the middle of nowhere. We looked over the buildings still standing and he told stories about the various jobs he had on the railroad and laughed about the foreman looking for volunteers to string wire on poles. He didn’t know anything about stringing wire but not one to pass up a challenge, he agreed to do it. He found himself working up on poles suspended out over a deep canyon. He felt he earned his pay that week. The guys worked out in Thompson during the week and they were all eager to head home on Friday night.

We have spent many hours in Silverton waiting for the steam engine bringing the tourists from the Durango station. The thrill of hearing that train whistle gives me goose bumps…every time. We have waited at the station to hear the train come in and also climbed up on the cliffs above the station to get pictures. It is an experience not to be missed.

Monty rode the train in his younger years, but it is an all day event and we haven’t taken a day out of brief week of vacation to do it. Now we hesitate to leave Zoe that long. But we still have a fall train ride on our bucket list. About the third week in September the Aspen trees, commonly called quakies should be turning yellow. For some reason these trees are like comfort food, good for the soul.

We’ve had a lot of memorable experiences from this area in the San Juan Mountains. Funny when we started going to Colorado I envisioned all of these mountain towns as small cities but most are confined to one main street with a few houses on side streets. Of course the mountains don’t let the town spread out much and there aren’t that many hardy souls willing to spend the whole year, so the population is small. The houses are serviceable, not fancy, and it’s not unusual to see discarded snowmobiles in the yards. Lots of summer visitors, but the season is short.

In this area some of our most memorable moments have been spent around the South Mineral Creek Campground. This is a popular campground and over the years we are about 50-50 for getting a space there. No reservations accepted so first come first served. There is a very nice overflow area right on the creek that is very popular. Lots of self contained Rvers choose the overflow because it’s free, right on the creek and the views are great. Tent campers need the campground so they have access to the potty.

High Country

High Country

South Mineral Creek Campground is at the base of the mountains and as such, there are several streams funneling their way into the rushing creek that runs through the campground. The streams eventually join the Animas River in Durango. There are several magnificent waterfalls in this area, not only are the waterfalls a joy but all the greenery surrounding the area is beautiful. Waist high ferns of every description, new pine trees, every plant has new growth and seems to be celebrating summer, the trails are thick with pine needles and the smell is wonderful. But summer is short in this high country, better enjoy it while you can.

Ice Lake is up a four wheel drive road right outside the campground. It is a spectacular lake nestled in a bowl of mountain peaks above timber line. We have been there many times and found it still covered in ice with snow still on much of the surrounding areas and other years with it free of any ice or snow. Either way it is a treat. Wild flowers grow out of the green tundra and water falls are created from the melting ice and that makes a beautiful sight.

Colorado Hiking

Colorado Hiking

One of our all time favorite hikes begins just out the front gate of the campground. This hike is for the hardy hiker and while we hiked it several times in our younger years, in the last several years we have simply cheered on the younger hikers as they make their way up to Clear Lake. The lake is the final destination of this grueling up hill climb. A little more than three quarters of the way up the mountain there is a stream, fed with snow melt that keeps the riffraff from seeing the lake. Monty has taken off his shoes to wade the stream and swears his feet were blue when he dried them with his t-shirt on the other side. He’s hiked to the lake a couple of times but being the wimp that I am, I just waited on a nice warm rock until he came down. He tells me the lake is beautiful and I really should see it but trying to wade an icy swift moving stream filled with slippery rocks just doesn’t seem like a good idea.

Although the trip up the mountain is gorgeous with waist high wild flowers and grass, the lake is well above timber line and it is down right cold at night. On one trip we met a mom, dad and two young boys, they had pitched tents and were enjoying nature at it’s finest. I admire people that are so comfortable taking little kids out to the wilds and feeling perfectly good about it. It is a wonderful experience and I’m sure the kids will grow up with an appreciation for nature that city kids might miss. But hey, that is the definition of Colorado, whether it’s hiking, skiing, kayaking, biking, dirt bike riding or fishing these are outdoor people.

The highway from Silverton to Ouray is called the Million Dollar Highway, legend has it that the name comes from the 1920s cost to build the highway at over a million dollars a mile. Others claim that the fill dirt used to make the road contains a million dollars in gold ore; while still others claim the name stems from the panoramic million-dollar views. I’m not sure which story is true but the views are spectacular.

Snow Shed Across the Million Dollar Hwy

Snow Shed Across the Million Dollar Hwy

You’ll encounter narrow lanes, steep cliffs, and no guardrails. I guess you might say it is a white knuckle trip for people not used to mountain roads, but the sights are breath taking and when you reach the summit of Red Mountain Pass, you will be standing at an elevation of over 11,000 feet. Red Mountain is aptly named for the unusual color. Most of what you see above timber line is a brilliant red dirt and it really stands out against the blue sky and the green trees below.

On down the highway in the Uncompahgre Gorge, is a waterfall that is a spectacular in the spring. When we first started coming here there was a couple of wide spots along the road to pull off but now they’ve built a parking area for the waterfall gawkers. Something I’d never seen before is a snow shed across the highway. There are certain areas where the snow tends to slide and in order to keep it from blocking the highway they construct snow sheds so the slide hits the shed, passes over the highway and continues down into the gorge. Several people lost their lives in this area before they constructed the shed. On the other side of the Pass you begin a decent into the town of Ouray. Ouray reminds me of something out of the Sound of Music. It is a quaint mountain town, but larger than some, with about a thousand people. There are plenty of outdoor restaurants and some nice shops on main street and hot springs to soak in.

Over the years we have taken the four wheel drive road over Imogene Pass from Ouray into Telluride. This is not a mountain road for the faint of heart, the summit is over 13,000 feet. The road can be extremely rough depending on the conditions over the winter and it is one lane most of the way. We’ve loved doing this on the ATV, nice comfy ride in the great outdoors. We were usually riding in shorts and t-shirts with sweatshirts and rain gear in the pack. Often times there was snow melt on the road from the twenty foot drifts along the side of the road. There are several old mining camps up on the pass, the largest one is the Tomboy mine, no buildings left intact but lots of lumber that indicates at one time there was a thriving community up here. I can’t imagine being here in the winter.

The town of Telluride was one of my many surprises in Colorado. I’d heard of Telluride in conversations about skiing or music festivals or in entertainment news, since it is popular hang out for the stars. I expected it to be very high end and ritzy like Hollywood and Rodeo Drive, but it’s just a typical mountain town. One main street with shops and restaurants and a town park at the end of the road. What you don’t see are the multi-million dollar homes tucked away in the mountains surrounding Telluride. Across a deep gorge a group of condominiums has sprung up and there is a skyway tram that runs from the condos into town. It is very scenic in the summer and allows the residents to get into town without driving out to the highway and around the mountain. All of this mountain area of Colorado is unusual, although towns may be close, as the crow flies, it is always many highway miles around the mountain or over mountain pass using a 4×4 road. Of course the 4×4 roads aren’t available in the winter.

Another mountain pass we’ve crossed often over the years is Ophir Pass. This 12,000 foot pass leaves out of the small mining town of Ophir, population 50, and connects to the Red Mountain Highway that leads to Ouray. We were usually on the ATV and since it was not street legal, we crossed the pass and returned the same way back to Ophir.

Ophir Pass in July

Ophir Pass in July

Across the highway from Ophir is a forest road that leads to the Ophir Loop railroad grade, and an old wooden railroad trestle over a deep gorge. Most of the trestle has collapsed now but you can tell it was an engineering marvel in its time. We used to wonder who was the engineer to drive the first locomotive over it. I bet he was hoping the builders knew what they were doing. The Loop refers to the engineering design that allowed the train to gain sufficient elevation to make it over the pass. It is a pretty area and we have enjoyed using it as a lunch stop after the hike to check on the trestle.

Cortez, Colorado is the gateway to Mesa Verde National Park. As such, it has a population of about 8,500. I’m sure many of the residents work at the park. I talk more about Mesa Verde Park in our camping trip with Tommy in 2012. Our trips to Colorado have involved camping, originally with the tent, then campers, so we’ve never spent much time in Cortez. About ten miles outside of Cortez heading north to the Telluride area is some of our favorite country. The first stop is the delightful town of Dolores, named for the Dolores River that runs beside the town.

Our favorite memory of Dolores is a couple we met there in 2009. Gordon and Jeanne Kuhlman are octogenarians who own land on the edge of town. Their property is split by the east/west road that runs through Dolores. To the south is their home with some corrals, garden and such, to the north are several acres of grazing land that abuts the river.

Over the years we have seen a few RVs parked on this prime location by the river. We stopped to meet this delightful couple and they showed us a great shady spot under the cottonwood trees with a deck that extends out over the river. They had a vacancy for a couple of days and it was ours for a nominal fee. We were thrilled with their ‘Along The River’ hideaway and looked forward to a few days of rest and relaxation. We got settled in and walked down to look at the river. Zoe was six months old and not very experienced with water, she jumped in and the current immediately started taking her down stream, her eyes were big as saucers. In a panic, we started calling encouragement for her to get to the side so we could grab her.

Along the River Camping, Delores

Along the River Camping, Delores

Gordon and Jeanne came over on their ATV’s in the evening to visit a bit and play with Zoe. Gordon decided it was time to irrigate the grazing land and that was the beginning of Zoe’s great love of water that wasn’t moving too fast. This was before any drought conditions and Gordon believed in pouring the water to the grass. Oh my gosh, Zoe discovered the irrigation ditches and proceeded to jump in and run the length and back and forth across the field. In a low spot the water over flowed and created a small pond in the grass, she found that too. Zoe had the time of her life and we lamented our now much bedraggled puppy.

The Kuhlmans had lots of stories to share, the previous year they woke up to a bear in the kitchen. He was throwing stuff out of the refrigerator and cabinets just trashing the kitchen. They started making enough noise that the bear was annoyed and wondered out of the house. Jeanne said it was a real mess to clean up.

Over the years they had lots of people spend a few days with them ‘Along the River’ and they referred to each camper by the name of their dog. They had trouble coming up with the names of the people but assured us they had it written down somewhere. They loved Zoe and we know if we ever call up there to stay with them again, we better just refer to ourselves as Zoe’s mom and dad.

Another Beautiful Colorado Creek

Another Beautiful Colorado Creek

Much to our surprise they asked us to lunch the following day. This wasn’t lunch at their home across the street but at their homestead up in the mountains. What a special experience! The land was actually homesteaded by Jeanne’s parents. I don’t remember the exact years they lived here but this homestead is two rooms, a sitting/bedroom along with a kitchen. The walls were covered with, what we consider, antique implements of farm /ranch life and narrow cots piled with quilts. Jeanne used the kitchen wood burning stove to heat up the BBQ and beans. She explained that she and her sister met every year and put up preserves using this old wood burning stove. There is no running water, electricity or anything that we consider necessities. When lunch was ready Jeanne set a wash basin of water and a bar of soap out on the fence post along with a kitchen towel and that was washing up before lunch. We ate on a small porch outside and it was good food and good conversation with a few neighbors. Zoe was loose in the yard and that was fine until she decided to taste the soap. I saw her out of the corner of my eye and excused myself to grab the bar of soap before she ate the darn thing.

After lunch I helped Jeanne clean up, you know the usual, pumping water into a large tub and heating it over the wood fire to wash dishes. She set Monty to work pumping water into a bucket to water a new tree in the yard. You gotta be optimistic to plant a two foot sapling in your yard when you are in your 80’s.

Jeanne’s Hideway

Jeanne’s Hideway

Gordon had work to do using a back hoe for some project he and the neighbor were working on. Jeanne jumped on an ATV and looked at Monty and said, “You know how to drive one of these, right?” He said he did and the two of us climbed on we took off across the meadows and to the mountains. Zoe ran along side of us for a bit but I was worried she would hurt herself in the rough terrain so eventually I just held her on the back of the ATV. We went quite a ways up into the mountains but finally had to abandon the ATV’s so we could work our way through the tangle of downed trees and brush. Our reward was an alcove over looking the valley, we were thrilled to see there were still remains of an Indian dwelling. It was awesome and Jeanne was adamant she doesn’t show it to just anyone but she thought we’d like to see it. She had us read like a book. We loved it. Until this moment we’ve never mentioned it to anyone just in case someone might want to invade their privacy or cause damage to this area she so loves. What a wonderful experience this was.

Up the road from Dolores is some of our favorite ATV riding, our first ATV adventure took us up Scotch Creek. There is narrow dirt road that runs along the creek up into the high country. It is a beautiful ride, we had our helmets on and were picking our way over the rocks and ruts in the road when we were met by a couple of ‘good old boys’ from Oklahoma coming down from the top. We chatted and although our machine was a small sport model, still shiny and new they were a couple of really big boys on old beat up heavy duty ATV’s. They were chatty and gave us some tips on riding, etc. I think that’s when we decided wearing helmets to drive ten or fifteen miles an hour on a back country dirt road seemed a little like overkill. So that was the end of our helmet wearing days. We love the breeze in our hair and bugs on our teeth and life was good.

Cayton Campground was just up the road and it quickly became one of our favorites, site number 8 was ours when we were there. It is located at the end of the campground with a whole back drop of dense forest. Marathan Campground is a little further up the road and we love this one too. Marathan is surrounded by aspen trees and is absolutely beautiful. A great hiking trail leaves from the campground, Mattie loved it there.

Further up the road is Lizard Head Pass with an elevation of 10,000 feet, lots of trail heads here for the hearty hikers. This area has some great meadows and it is a summer place for sheep. There is no 4×4 road over this pass. It doesn’t connect any towns so no need for a road over the pass other than the highway that winds around it.

Mentioning the sheep on Lizard Head reminds me of the day we spent on Stoney Pass, we encountered a Basque sheepherder and his flock of sheep. We were driving along in the high country when all of a sudden we were completely surrounded by a large herd of sheep. This area is rolling hills covered in tundra, perfect for nibbling sheep. The shepherd didn’t seem in any hurry to move the sheep so we just sat and watch as they munched along. We got so tickled at the lambs, they would be trotting along side their mom and all of a sudden drop to their knees and start nursing with great gusto. We looked around and all the lambs had dirty knees. Several of the sheep wore bells, cow bells not jingle bells and between the bells and the bleating of the adults and the baas of the little ones it was a noisy group.

The Basque people came to America in the early 1800’s and many of them made their way west and became shepherds. Their wagons resemble the covered wagons used by the early settlers. We could see this shepherd’s wagon up on the hill.

Basque Wagon

Basque Wagon

Up in this same area we met a group of women embarking on a hiking trip on the Colorado trail. The trail is five hundred miles long running from Denver to Durango and they were doing the last ninety miles from Silverton to Durango. An ambitious undertaking given the terrain and weather. They were excited and looking forward to a rich experience. We cheered them on.

We’ve traveled through Stony Pass area many times and usually stop at Pole Creek. This is one of the zillions of beautiful creeks in Colorado. Pole Creek is fairly wide and swift moving, we’ve crossed it a couple of times in the Jeep or Tracker but on the ATV it is dicey. Occasionally we’ve just settled for the creek being the lunch stop and turn around. We came up from the opposite side of the creek a couple of times and discovered a huge beaver lodge. Those guys had almost demolished an entire Aspen grove. I don’t know what they were planning to build but whatever it was it was going to be big. On one trip we met a group of Outward Bound kids and their counselors. Apparently the kids aren’t supposed interact with outsiders but the counselors were friendly enough.

If you are traveling the Silver Thread Scenic Byway between Silverton and Gunnison take a side trip to Lake City. This is another one of Colorado’s delightful small towns, with a population of just under four hundred. Yep, another main street with just a few houses sprinkled around the edges. The two main attractions are the fishing store with everything you need to catch fish in the near by San Cristobal Lake or the streams that feed it. At the other end of town is the bakery with room for three customers at the most. They offer a surprising variety of pastry and over the years we have sampled most of it.

In this Lake City area our destination is a camping spot in the forested area past the lake. There is no designated campground here but lots of places to pitch the tent along the stream. We have loved riding the ATV in this area. The dirt road that follows the stream for miles is a perfect place to watch beavers build their dams on the river. We know why beavers are known as ingenious builders, we have watched them in action. They glide effortlessly in and out of their lodges, and seem to be on a mission to gather tree branches to build dams, they are tireless.

One of our favorite rides in this area is up the mountain into the dense forest to visit the ghost town of Carson. It is always fun to look at the old mining equipment and dilapidated buildings that are left and imagine what it looked like as a vibrant community.

Cataract Canyon

Cataract Canyon

On one memorable trip we realized the weather looked threatening and as we headed down the mountain it started to sprinkle. Since we had quite a ways to go before reaching camp we decided to take a few minutes to get on some rain gear. That’s always a tough call, spend the time getting covered up or just make a run for it. In this case it didn’t matter much, the sky opened and we were soaked in no time, rain gear or not. Colorado is known for afternoon summer thunder storms and we must have been right under that particular storm. The lightening was flashing everywhere and the simultaneous ka-boom of thunder was deafening. In Colorado, it’s nothing for the temperature to drop twenty degrees in a matter of minutes and it did just that on this afternoon.There was no place for shelter so we just kept on riding. It was really sort of terrifying. We were so happy to see that tent, we jumped off the ATV, stripped off our soaking clothes and crawled in the sleeping bags to warm up. Our teeth were chattering we were so cold. We were actually a little concerned that we were just too cold to warm up but it all worked out fine.

Not willing to waste an afternoon of vacation, after the storm passed we set off for a hike up Cataract Canyon. This was a lovely hike, the first obstacle was crossing the creek and the next was trying to walk without stopping every few feet to admire the waist high wild flowers.

Meeker Sheepdog Championship Trials

Meeker Sheepdog Championship Trials

On one of our many trips to Colorado we followed an old railroad grade up to see the Alpine Tunnel, built between 1880 and 1882 this 1,700 foot narrow gauge railroad tunnel crossed under the Continental Divide. When construction was started on the tunnel the engineers expected to encounter hard rock, but it turned out to be sandy loose rock that allowed a lot of water in the tunnel. They ultimately lined the entire tunnel with redwood to hold back the sand. There was a small railroad station on this spot and a large bunk house and mess hall for the tunnel builders. The elevation here is over 11,000 feet so the winters were brutal, they have journal entries about running ropes from the bunkhouse to the mess hall and over to the tunnel so men wouldn’t get lost in the whiteouts.

The tunnel is now blocked off with fencing at one end while a landslide has sealed off the other end. Volunteers have restored the small telegraph office and filled it with various items belonging to the men or women who worked here. Pictures line the walls and you can look through the old journal that was found. We were admiring the blue sky and the up close mountain peaks when up over the peak pops a F16 fighter plane. It was incredible, the noise was deafening and I swear the plane was so close we could see the pilot. We were shocked and excited and when the second plane came over we were thrilled. It was really something.

Meeker, population 2,500 is a town in the White River Valley located in the northwestern part of Colorado. Meeker is best known for the Classic Sheepdog Championship Trials held there in the early fall. We had the opportunity to attend one of these trials in 2008 and it was a truly memorable experience. The border collies are absolutely incredible. They herd sheep through various gates and corral them into a pen. Sounds easy but the sheep and dog are probably a half mile from the handler who uses a whistle and hand signals to guide the dog while the dog herds the sheep through the various free standing gates. When the dogs and sheep reach the finish area the dog pens the sheep before coming to the handler for a pat on the head. These marvelous dogs are so well trained it is a treat to watch them work. Dogs and their handlers come from all over the world to compete in the Meeker Championships.

Only in Colorado will you find a $2,500 mountain bike on the roof of a $500 car. The young folks here don’t look anything like the young people in the desert southwest. Living in the small mountain towns isn’t simply a place to hang your hat but a whole attitude about life. My perception is that most have a minimalist mind set, having ‘stuff’ isn’t important, living the way you want to live has a high priority. If you want time to enjoy the outdoors in all seasons you find a job that allows you to do that. The only McMansions you see are owned by people who recently moved to Colorado, they didn’t grow up here. Children grow up loving the outdoors and joining their parents hiking, biking, tent camping in the summer and skiing or snow boarding in the winter. The family dog is usually along for the fun. They are a hardy group and I respect their values.

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