August 17, 2010
Best Wild Places: Exploring the Alpine Triangle (Day Two)
By Kirk Deeter
Editor-at-Large Kirk Deeter and photographer Kevin Cooley spent three days with Trout Unlimited exploring the Alpine Triangle, a rugged expanse of the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado, so named because the region is loosely contained within the shape made by connecting the towns of Ouray, Lake City, and Silverton. TU wants Congress to declare the place a National Conservation area to protect its streams from mining expansion and new road development. Here's what they found on day two.
After a restful night at the historic Wyman Hotel we all rolled out into the quiet streets of Silverton. The thing is, until the trainloads of tourists arrive in mid morning, Silverton almost feels like a movie set… an authentic western mountain town largely locked in time. San Juan County (of which Silverton is the county seat) is one of the most sparsely populated counties in the country, with approximately 500 full time residents.
It wasn’t always like this… in fact during the boom years of the frontier mining industry (in the late 1800s and early 1900s) Silverton was one of many thriving mountain communities that were collectively home to thousands of miners and their families. Some mining towns, replete with grocery stores, dance halls, saloons, brothels, churches, and more, sprung up on the mountainsides, often above tree line (Silverton itself sits at an elevation of 9318 feet). We paid a visit to Animas Forks on our way out of Silverton. Here, a ghost town of old buildings still sits near the narrow creek as a fading monument to a largely bygone era (see photo above).
The mining heritage of the region is an important historic attraction that gives the Alpine Triangle unique character. A lot of people come to this region every year to see the artifacts, and imagine just what life must have been like in the often harsh alpine climates in the high country. And yet, from an environmental perspective, the mines and the landscape are now experiencing a slow and tenuous reconciliation. The effects of mining are visible by way of tailing piles, and discolored heaps on the mountainsides, and along rivers. Runoff that pushes heavy metal residue into waterways still impacts the waters, in some cases decades after commercial mining operations have ceased.
Of course, recreation is now the lifeblood of the region, and among the most popular options is jeeping (or riding ATVs), up and over an elaborate lattice of established high mountain roads. Driving the fabled “Alpine Loop” is a 4x4 dram, and arguably the most scenic trips an off-roader can make. If you like getting off the beaten path, it’s worth making a special trip to drive the Alpine Loop. Trust me, you’ve never seen anything quite so spectacular from behind a steering wheel.
There are a few tricks to keep in mind. Some of the roads are easier to manage than others. Some, like Black Bear Pass, and Poughkeepsie Gulch are insane… and only for experts. There isn’t a color-coded road sign system to warn you off making a wrong turn, so be sure to get a detailed map and a briefing on what’s what from the jeep rental operator, or the Bureau of Land Management (www.co.blm.gov).
You definitely want to drive a vehicle with a nimble turn radius. Making multi-point turns on the gnarly switchbacks, with the vehicle perched above several hundred-foot dropoffs is not a lot of fun. Also keep in mind that the uphill-directed vehicle has right of way. It’s good to scout the long narrow climbs, wait for traffic to pass, or at least find a few pullover options.
The good news about the loop is that the main roads are well traveled by day, so if for whatever reason you do encounter problems, other drivers will be around and willing to help you.
On our trip to Lake City, we went over Cinnamon Pass, with a maximum road elevation of 12,620 feet. We made a point to stop in American Basin on the east side of the pass, to take in vast fields of vibrant wildflowers in peak bloom. While the air distance from Silverton to Lake City is just over 20 miles, it took us half the day to make the trip by land.
The other half of the day was dedicated to fly fishing. I was particularly excited about this stop, because it meant crossing another river off my “to-do” list: the Lake Fork of the Gunnison. We hooked up with guide Andy Bryant, manager of the Sportsman Outdoors & Fly Shop (www.lakecityflyshop.com) and headed downstream from San Lake San Cristobal.
The water was surprisingly low, warm (mid 60s) and crystal clear, but we were able to land a few nice brown trout on small stimulator dry flies. The Lake Fork is one of the prettiest rivers in the state, and definitely a rewarding challenge for anglers of all levels.
Perhaps the biggest thrill was watching three mule deer bucks—all 8-pointers in full velvet—cross the river right in front of us. If you’re looking for a hunter’s hotspot, the Lake City region is apparently the place for mule deer, black bear, and bighorn sheep. And, thanks largely to a trophy elk management plan in this area, bull elk that score 350 or higher don’t even turn many heads… at least not among the locals.
I’ve decided to return to Lake City, to jeep the roads, fish the Lake Fork of the Gunnison, and do some hunting. Often.
Click here to see more photos from day two of our trip.