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Threading the Loop

Colorado’s Silver Thread Scenic Byway, State Highway 149, connects history and stunning scenery as it winds through the San Juan Mountains’ rugged peaks.

By GEORGE OXFORD MILLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2001


SOUTH FORK, Colo. -- From the beginning, you know this is not the ordinary horseback ride on which you plod along three feet behind the mount ahead.

"Don't let your horse drag you under a limb," Dale Dilley, the head wrangler warns as we mount up. "You gotta' pull the reins right or left like you're steering a car."

We start off cross-country. "I just hate the sound of hooves on roads," Dilley, owner of Dilley's Guide Service, tells us with a grin.

He leads horse rides in the Rio Grande National Forest near South Fork, Colo. Pinyon and ponderosa pines and Utah juniper cover the steep slopes and snow-capped mountains loom in the distance.

We bushwhack through the forest above the narrow valley of Bear Creek. "Lean way back in the saddle and hold out your feet in the stirrups," Dilley advises as we start downhill.

He angles his horse along the 45-degree slope and cuts sharp switchbacks back and forth. He makes our half-day ride look so easy.

Sitting in a saddle is just one way to explore part of the scenic San Juan Mountains in the Colorado Rockies. The 75-mile Silver Thread Scenic Byway, State Highway 149, winds through the most rugged peaks in Colorado between South Fork, Creede and Lake City.

Before the week is over, we face snow flurries on a 13,000-foot pass in an open Jeep, ride an ore cart 1,500 feet into the heart of a granite mountain, visit ghost towns, see waterfalls, hike along mountain streams to alpine meadows and get barked at by about 1,000 yellow-bellied marmots.

The only conveyance we miss is floating over the valley in a hot air balloon. High winds grounded us on two consecutive mornings.

Beginning in South Fork, the Silver Thread Scenic Byway winds along the picturesque Rio Grande, here a gold metal trout fishing stream, and north to Creede, a wide-open mining town during the 1890s.

The road continues north almost to the headwaters of the Rio Grande, North America's third longest river, then over the Continental Divide. It crosses Slumgullion Summit at 11,361 feet and descends to Lake City, another old mining town on the shores of Lake San Cristobal.

The Silver Thread Scenic Byway traces its origin to 1873 when a group of businessmen in Del Norte built a toll road to the mines in the high mountains. The rush was on to incredibly rich silver and gold strikes in what became Creede, Lake City and Silverton. The toll was set at $2.50 for a wagon and team, $.25 for saddle horses, and $.20 for pack animals and loose stock.

Humans have long come to the Rio Grande Valley to enjoy the gifts of nature. The Utes visited to bathe in the hot mineral springs. Later, ranchers and farmers settled in the fertile valley and timbered the forest. Then came the prospectors in the 1870s. In 1891, the story goes, a prospector chasing his three burros discovered one of the richest silver lodes ever. The town of Creede sprang up quickly.

By 1892, Creede had produced about $1-million worth of silver and swollen to 10,000 people. "Bat" Masterson operated a saloon and Bob Ford, the man who shot Jesse James, ran the lawless town with a tight fist. But the silver panic of 1893 ended the boom and most of the mines closed.

The silver today comes from the pockets of tourists prospecting for the more intangible pleasures of nature found in the mountains.

Retirees, many Texans and Californians, have discovered the beauty of the southern Rockies and created a rush almost as booming as the gold and silver miners. Instead of saloons and brothels, galleries, cafes and boutique shops line the main street of the old mining towns.

Fortunately, responsible developers such as South Fork Ranches are building low-density developments to meet the land-rush demand while preserving the integrity of the countryside.

A pair of lofty rock spires frames the north end of Creede and the beginning of the Bachelor Historic Loop. The 17-mile dirt road, steep and rough but passable by passenger car, leads to the original town site in the canyon and to many of the old mines. Miners excavated hundreds of miles of shafts as they followed the 100-foot-wide vein of ore 1,500 feet deep onto the mountains.

Once the thunder of dynamite and the hubbub of thousands of workers echoed off the canyon walls, now only the sound of cascading water fills the air. We sit beside the creek and feel dwarfed by the magnitude of the task of tunneling through the hard rock mountain with the technology of the early 1900s.

After the discovery of gold in the Lake City area in 1874, the toll road was extended north making it 81 miles long. Following roughly the same route, the Silver Thread Byway passes through the Rio Grande and Gunnison national forests with five campgrounds offering full hook-ups and provides access to numerous four-wheel-drive roads, snowmobile, skiing, hiking trails and the Weminuche Wilderness Area.

North Clear Creek pours out of the mountains into the valley and plummets 125 feet into a narrow canyon. The Forest Service operates two aspen-shaded campgrounds on the side road to the falls. At the falls, we parked and hiked a few hundred yards down the canyon rim for a better view of the rushing torrent. The gorge slashes through the volcanic bedrock with palisade rocks dropping straight down to the river.

Just a few miles north, the Byway crosses the Continental Divide at Spring Creek Pass, 10,898 feet, and all the mountain streams reverse direction and flow toward the Pacific.

The road tops Slumgullion Pass and drops into a majestic valley framed by 31 peaks that exceed 13,000 feet. Seven hundred years ago, a massive landslide dammed the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River and flooded the narrow alpine valley to form the turquoise Lake San Cristobal.

Lake City provides a gateway into the mountains for hiking, fishing, ghost towns, Jeep tours and snow sports. For the adventurous, the four-wheel-drive Alpine Loop Back Country Byway leads over two 12,800-foot passes to Silverton. Several companies offer day trips and Jeep rental for exploring the old mining roads.

The Silver Thread Scenic Byway began as a toll road for miners seeking fortune in the mountains. We still take it to discover the beauty and history the majestic peaks have to offer.

Freelance writer George Oxford Miller lives in Clarksboro, N.J.

If you go

For lists of area accommodations and activities and a map with numbered, interpretive stops along the Byway, contact the South Fork/Silver Thread Interpretive Center, (800) 571-0881, Box 1030, South Fork, CO 81154; http://www.southfork.org. Contact the Creede Chamber of Commerce at (800) 327-2102, http://www.creede.com and the Lake City Chamber of Commerce at (800) 569-1874, http://www.hinsdale-county.com. For camping and trail information, contact the U.S. Forest Service, Box 270, Creede, CO 81130, (719) 658-2556. To arrange horse rides, contact Dilley's Guide Service, (719) 657-3554, e-mail: dilley-buff-elk@amigo.net.

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