Before You Go
For more information, contact Lake City Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-569-1874 or visit online at www.hinsdale-county.com
Creede-Mineral County Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-327-2102 or www.creede.com
Rainbow Trout Ranch, 1-800-633-3397 or www.rainbowtrout-ranch.com;
Colorado Tourism,
1-800-COLORADO (800-265-6723) or www.colorado.com

For Travel Assistance
Visit your nearest AAA service office for maps, TripTiks and TourBook guides.
Order travel materials online or use our online travel research tools.

Strike it rich
Gold mining has panned out in south-central Colorado, but visitors can still find a wealth of inspiring scenery and delightful activities

Published: Mar/Apr 2003
By Elaine Warner

The Ranch, located within Rio Grande National Forest, offers an extensive list of activities (above). The rugged Rainbow Trout Ranch was built from massive spruce logs. (below) /Elaine Warner photos
High mountain valleys carpeted with wildflowers, crystal lakes, pristine rivers and towering waterfalls, ghostly reminders of treasure seekers and quaint towns unspoiled by hoards of tourists–all this is available to travelers who are willing to leave the beaten path and venture into the southern Colorado Rockies.

Gold and ghost towns

Though westward expansion brought settlers to Colorado, the big rush came when gold was discovered. Suddenly, the hills were alive with the sound of mining.

Lake City, named after Lake San Cristobal, was founded in 1874. As the gold and silver played out, many small communities died and faded into memory. Lake City, established as a supply center and railhead, was able to survive–now the only town in Hinsdale County. Today, tourism is the main industry, but Lake City’s location amid countryside that consists of public lands has saved the town from over-development.

Massive peaks tower over tiny Lake City. Five of Colorado’s 54 Fourteeners (mountains exceeding 14,000 feet in elevation) are nearby. The town has been designated a National Historic District, with more than 75 late 19th-century buildings, including four churches, the oldest continuously used courthouse in the state and almost a dozen historic homes varying from simple miners’ cabins and chinked log pioneer homes to elegant Queen Anne Victorians.

If relaxing is what you want to do, you can do it here. But if you yearn for more activity, there’s plenty around. Trout fishing is a favorite sport for many, while other visitors enjoy the miles of hiking and mountain biking trails.

Nearby, there are ghost towns to explore. Though some are accessible by hiking or passenger car, many require other transportation. One of the premier routes is the rugged Alpine Loop, a 63-mile road that passes the ghost town of Capitol City and connects the towns of Ouray and Silverton with Lake City. A four-wheel drive, high-clearance vehicle, which can be rented locally, is a must for this trek.

Another popular nearby destination is Lake San Cristobal, the second largest natural lake in Colorado. Created by the Slumgullion earth slide, which dammed the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River, the lake attracts fishermen, boaters and kayakers.

Silver skyway

Lake City is at the northern end of a 75-mile section of state Highway 149 designated the Silver Thread Scenic and Historic Byway, which weaves its way southeast through Creede and on to the town of South Fork. The highway, once a toll road and stage route, takes visitors through some of Colorado’s most spectacular scenery.

One of the most unusual natural features along the byway is the Slumgullion earth slide, the site of a giant mudslide that occurred some 700 years ago. Miners called the churned-up area “slumgullion,” their name for the stew that was a mainstay of their diets.

After crossing the Continental Divide at Spring Creek Pass, a digression on Forest Road 510 takes visitors to North Clear Creek Falls. From the wheelchair accessible overlook, you’ll see the stream plunging 100 feet down over the edge of the cliffs and on its way to the Rio Grande River.

From silver to soapsuds

Farther down the Silver Thread is Creede. Even before its founding, tourists came to the area to experience the real West, enjoy the fishing and luxuriate in local hot springs.

This small influx paled in comparison to the number of arrivals brought in by the discovery of silver in 1890. Ten thousand hopefuls, dreaming of striking it rich, settled here. In addition to miners, Bob Ford (who reputedly shot Jesse James) and lawman Bat Masterson were attracted to the boomtown, as was Soapy Smith. Smith’s game was wrapping money in bars of soap and selling them to eager miners. His shills got the bars with the bucks and Smith cleaned up. He became a political power in the community until townspeople got lathered up enough to end his reign.

Silver deposits in the Creede area were so rich that they were still being mined as late as 1985. Today’s visitors can enjoy a history lesson at the Underground Mining Museum, a series of rooms and tunnels which feature silver mining from the early days to modern technology. Though tourists can take a self-guided tour, there are guided tours conducted in season by former miners who make the whole experience come alive.

Contemporary Creede is also noted for its active arts community. Potters, glassblowers, sculptors, painters, photographers, jewelry makers and fiber artists are featured in the numerous galleries in town, while the Creede Repertory Theater draws theater-goers with its summer season of musicals, comedies, dramas and special events.

There’s no getting away from the mountains which loom over the town, but who wants to? One of the best ways to understand the town’s heritage is to take the 17-mile-long Bachelor Historic Tour up into the mountain mining district. Though the road is unpaved, narrow, winding, rough and steep, it can be traveled with caution by passenger car. The route winds past old mines, ghost towns and offers a number of photo opportunities.

In addition to fishing, hiking and mountain biking, rockhounding is particularly popular in the area. Pamphlets available at the chamber of commerce describe areas where seekers can hunt for fossils, geodes, agate, jasper and fluorescent calcite.

Grand Rio Grande

Surrounding all this territory is the magnificent Rio Grande National Forest, nearly 2 million acres of land encompassing parts of the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo mountain ranges and the headwaters of the third longest river in the United States, the Rio Grande del Norte. The forest is home to black bears, bighorn sheep, deer and mountain lions. In addition to wildlife viewing, other activities include the ski runs at Wolf Creek.

For those who want their summer fun conveniently packaged, Rainbow Trout Ranch is a sure bet. The Conejos River meanders through the high altitude valley that is home to the ranch. The grand lodge, constructed of massive spruce logs, nestles beneath peaks Faith, Hope and Charity. At 9,000 feet, the ranch enjoys warm, summer afternoons and cool evenings.

The ranch was first known for its fly-fishing, but today, the first-class riding program and extensive list of family and children’s activities draw families from all over the country. Whether it’s a cup of hot chocolate in front of the turquoise-studded fireplace, watching hummingbirds on the spacious wrap-around porch, a challenging trail ride, a dip in the pool or a barbecue beside the river, every hour of the day offers opportunities for rest or recreation.

In addition, side trips for rafting or riding the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad are easily arranged at the ranch.

Though the gold and silver have played out, visitors to south central Colorado can still strike it rich. Roads less traveled, fabulous scenery and a wealth of activities make this part of the country a mother lode.

Elaine Warner is a contributor from Edmond, Okla.


Contents may not be reproduced in whole or in part unless expressly authorized in writing by AAA Traveler Magazines.