There are many areas in this continent where I long to return and explore more: Maine in the fall. The Wind River Range of Wyoming. The red rock country of Utah. The High Sierra. The Canadian Rockies.
All areas of intense beauty. All areas that call to see, hear, smell and experience more.
But there is one area in my adopted home that always calls to me. An area full of tall peaks, high passes without any names, alpine lakes of an intense blue, where mountain goats roam and the tundra is a riot of color with summer wildflowers.
This places is the San Juan mountains of Colorado.
And I always want to return.
someone notices how happy, relaxed and calm I seem after even a weekend in the mountains. Any stresses from work seem to go away. I am re-centered. And everything is put in perspective again: It is just a job. No matter how hard I work, nothing will ever truly be caught up and that the more I give, the more will be expected.
Even a night in the backcountry resets me back to where I should be. What someone half jokingly calls “The Grumpster” disappears and the person she agreed to marry is back: The goofy, loving guy who enjoys cooking (and makes a mess of the kitchen doing it) and is happiest when outdoors.
At her suggestion, I put in a for a week of solo backpacking time.
And the first place I thought of was the San Juans.
A chance to be immersed in the mountains again and reset myself back to where I should be.
So, I poured over my maps. Googled some route ideas. Revised. Revised again. Looked over my maps another time. And came up with a plan:
- I’d start in Silverton, walk out of town, hook up to some old 4wd/mining roads and old trail to make my way to Kendall Mountain, and ‘shwack over to Silver Lake. (look for SILVER LAKE MINE in the link)
- From there, work my way down by old miner trail and then old road to Little Giant Basin, then over to the Cunningham / Highland Mary TH and up to the Colorado Trail/Continental Divide Trail.
- Enjoy arguably one of the prettiest stretches of trail on the CT (and perhaps the CDT?), angle down to Heart Lake and up to the Continental Divide Trail not far from the Rio Grande Reservoir.
- Walk along the CDT and then get off the CDT to hike the physical Continental Divide almost all the way from below Mt. Nebo until I drop down into the Highlands Mary Basin.
- From the basin, get off trail, hike to the upper lakes and tarns and then hike by Rhoda and Whitehead mountains, drop back to 4wd road and follow it back to my truck in Silverton.
That was the plan. One I pretty much was able to follow. Sometimes the old mining trails and roads weren’t there and/or vanished. Other times said mining trails were sketchy and proved to be a little more interesting than I cared for. Other times, the trails on the new maps were in worse condition than the old mining trails show only on older maps! 🙂 The off-trail navigation went from piece of cake to “I better pay attention”. The Colorado Trail/Continental Divide Trail segments were both achingly beautiful and relatively busy. Walking the physical backbone of the continent was every bit as awesome as I hoped. And the wildflower displays were stupendous.
I don’t know the mileage or elevation gain of the trip. I just know it was a trip satisfying on many levels. And again relished being in some of my favorite mountains.
Rather than detailed description, here is a photo essay of my impressions, thoughts, feelings and general ramblings.
You can scan skip the purple prose by going directly to the almost 70 photos here. 🙂
It was an amazing trip. And I can’t wait to go back again.
On to the photo essay….
The hike started with fording the Animas River by Lackawanna Rd. With a mixture of old trails and some ‘schwacking, made it to Kendall Mtn outside of Silverton. Here is a view of Silverton below:
And here is a view from just below the Kendall Mtn summit:
After climbing down Kendall Mountain, I continued to follow more jeep track. The track passed along many mining ruins that stood as rusting testaments to the hundreds of people who lived outside of Silverton at the mining height over one hundred years ago.
I hiked over to Arrastra Basin and descended to the Silver Lake. This lake looked quite impressive from a distance:
Up close? The lake by far has the most extensive amount of mining remnants I’ve ever seen:
After visiting Silver Lake, I made my way down by an old miner trail. Perhaps 50ft from the end of the trail, there was a large chute of snow. I could see where the road began and the trail ended. But, there was loose scree and the snow in the way. It was also 8:30 PM at night. The snow was freezing quickly and getting icy. It was one of the most ‘interesting’ hiking experiences of my life. I somehow scooted over (after a bit of an equally interesting fall), made it to the flat part of where the road began and pretty much collapsed into a very deep slumber.
After this interesting day, I made my up the tarn below little Giant Peak. The blue water reflected of where I’d be climbing up to.
From there, I spied an another old mining trail and saw what looked to be metal at the top of a saddle. The further up I climbed, the more defined this old trail seemed to become.
The saddle below Little Giant Peak proved to be have more amazing views deep into the San Juans.
Eventually, I made my way over and up the Colorado Trail/Continental Divide Trail. Not only was the scenery amazing, it was a joy to hike on ‘real’ trail again and not have to worry about navigation. I saw quite a few CT hikers on their way to Durango. One even paused, looked at me, and then recognized me. Think it was my dorky hat that gave me away. 🙂
A rain storm came briefly and then the sun came out giving the mountains that wonderful light that all photographers love.
But it was time to leave the Colorado Trail and CDT behind…at least for now. By jeep track and then single track, I made my way to the more heavily forested areas near Heart Lake.
After Heart Lake, the single track gave away to jeep track again. I was getting lower and into the aspens.
Briefly followed a major dirt road and then hooked to the Ute Creek trail to get back to the divide. A little rougher and less well defined than the Colorado Trail/CDT portion earlier, I soon left this trail to walk the physical Continental Divide. I did not want to drop lower. I wanted to stay up high and walk the backbone.
An un-named 13er was climbed. And I continued to follow the divide. Down to Hunchback Pass and up to Hunchback Mountain. The views were savored both from afar and directly below.
Eventually, I hooked up again to the Colorado Trail/CDT for a brief period of time. I gazed down into the Elk Creek drainage.
Soon I left the trail CT/CDT and joined another trail.
The drainage I would take to High Mary Basin would be less well marked, but just as spectacular.
I made to Lake Verde and from there climbed up to the trail-less tarns in the Highland Mary Basin.
From my camp, I made it to a saddle between Rhoda and Whitehead. The trail visible on an older map did not seem to exist on the ground. Perhaps it was a little bit ahead or maybe it did not exist at all. The steep terrain and the large herd of sheep below in Spencer Basin persuaded me to continue cross country to the existing Whitehead Trail. Probably quicker…and it gave me this view of Arrow and Vestal Peaks in the Vestal Basin:
After the cross country excursion, I came to the Whitehead Trail and caught some last views of the high alpine terrain before my descent back to Silverton.
The end of the trail was reached and I hooked onto jeep track that turned into progressively better 4WD road.
As I descended, saw more people. Silverton came into view. I walked into town. My vehicle was reached.
The trek was over.
Time for a shower, cotton clothes, a burger and a beer.
But also time to think of when I can return to these mountains again.
Mileage and Elevation Gain
As mentioned, I did not bother figuring out the mileage and elevation gain. I just picked a route that looked interesting and felt like I was able to do in the time I had. The off trail travel (and semi-off trail in the case of old miner trails), my wanderings in Highland Mary Basin, etc. makes it hard to give a a good guess. Somewhere between a little and a lot. 😉
Click here. I gave the over-all route above.
I used both an older copy of TI Map #141 (Telluride, Silverton, Ouray, Lake City) and the newer one just for comparison. The older TI map had trails that are not shown on the newer map. Sometimes the trail was there..sometimes not. 😀 I also used TI Map #140 (Weminuche Wilderness). I’d suggest getting the TI maps and the appropriate 7.5 topo quads for the old mining areas surrounding Silverton. The older trails are typically on the quads vs the TI maps.
Post Trail Libations
Silverton is not a big town to say the least. Part of its charm. The town mainly exists because of the tourist trade. The large scale mining is long gone. As such, most of the restaurants (esp near the train that takes in many tourists), try too hard for that ‘old timey feel’ and cater to the tourist trade. . Don’t get me wrong, the ‘older’ (by Western standards) buildings were interesting. And the history buff in me delighted in knowing that this bar was a brothel well into the 1940s, that this was a bootlegging bar, etc. But, well, seemed a little cheesy at times. Gotta make a living…and they get to live in the mountains. I’d do the same if I could. 🙂
Having said that, a local suggested the Brown Bear Cafe. It is one road over from the train depot and did indeed have a local feel. The food was OK, but reasonably priced for a tourist town. The staff was friendly and the old brick building was great.
With my own interest in history and ethnic background, found it interesting that Italian immigrants used to own the place and catered to the once thriving Italian community that supplied many of the miners and and railroad workers in the area.
Took it all in while drinking some beer locally made just up the road in Durango.
Was not Oskar Blues good…but a good beer and any burger hits the spot after a week in the backcountry.
Later that evening, I stopped by the Silverton Brewery just down the street. Another place that had a locals feel. The beer is brewed in town and was quite tasty. Good place to kick back, talk to some locals and relax.
Paul, loved your photos and trip report. Normally, I don’t travel that far to go backpacking, but something tells me that I’m missing something. No doubt about it. Got to get out to the San Juans.
Thanks! The San Juans are a little further from the Front Range haunts..but worth the drive. My favorite mountains in Colorado. Simply awesome.
Hey Mags, awesome to see your pix of the San Juans. We just had to look around as we went through on the cdt last year and wished we could have spent more time in the range. And you’re not alone to need mountain time to keep your sanity.
i hear what you mean. The CDT takes in some awesome places in the San Juans…but only scratches the surface. So many places to see…so little time! 🙂
Hi Paul, I know this is an old post, but it caught my attention because I am planning a similar (but shorter) trip. I was hoping to camp in the vicinity of Rock Lake (below where the Rock Creek Trail loops over the divide and joins the CDT between Middle Ute Lake and Twin Lakes) and hike along the actual continental divide from there all the way up to Hunchback Mountain and then drop down to camp at Eldorado Lake. It looks like you covered at least a portion of this route—you said you gained the divide somewhere south of… Read more »
I’m hoping it’s a mix of easy tundra walking with some time-consuming talus (hopefully easy class 2?)
It has been a few years, but that is my recollection. I don’t recall anything remotely challenging in terms of technical scrambling. Have fun!