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October Wanderings - Part 1

During October, we got out to two very different parts of western Colorado. First (and the subject of this post) was to Wolf Creek Pass and neighboring areas within the southern reach of the San Juan Range. We'd been over the pass and through Pagosa Springs several years previously, but had never stopped to explore the area.

Pastoral photo of cattle in a valley below Sliderock Mountain and Saddle Mountain in the Wolf Creek valley, Colorado
Bootjack Ranch view of Sliderock and Saddle mountains in the Wolf Creek valley

The second trip took us onto another leg of the Dinosaur Diamond Scenic Byway in the vicinity of the Book Cliffs and Roan Cliffs north of Grand Junction, but I'll have to cover that trip in a follow-up post.

Photo of a metal sculpture of two horses in front of a small business and home in Del Norte, Colorado
Metal sculpture in front of small business

During our early October trip to Wolf Creek Pass, we spent a night at a pretty campground next to the Rio Grande River in Del Norte, Colorado. The towns of Del

Norte and nearby South Fork have considerable charm, as illustrated by the fun metal sculpture of two horses we saw in front of a small business and home along Highway 160. South Fork, at the confluence of the South Fork and Rio Grande rivers, is also the junction between Highway 160, which continues over Wolf Creek Pass to Pagosa Springs, and Highway 149 (part of the Silver Thread Scenic Byway), which took us up to Creede on our explorations of the area.

Photo of a water tower for steam trains found at South Fork, Colorado
Railroad water tower, South Fork

South Fork once served as a stopping point on the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad along the way to Creede. This terminal branch of what was once an enormous network of rail lines reaching as far as Oakland, California, carried people to the mineral hot springs at Wagon Wheel Gap, and freight to and from the silver mines at Creede. Built in the late 1890's, the railroad was active until mining all but ceased in the 1940's.

Photo of the view of Wolf Creek valley from overlook on Highway 160 in Colorado
Wolf Creek Valley overlook

The overlook near the top of Wolf Creek Pass never disappoints. The valley itself is beautiful, and the surrounding mountains offer plenty geologically - including breccia pinnacles, some of which are seen at the bottom of the photo, very similar to those found along the Cimarron River to the northwest. Just a mile or so from the overlook is the turnout to Treasure Falls, a 105-foot waterfall so named because of a legendary treasure supposedly buried somewhere nearby.

Photo of Treasure Falls, a 100-foot waterfall just off Highway 160 in Colorado
Treasure Falls, near Pagosa Springs

The hike up to the base of the waterfall is fairly short, but steep, with a 300-foot elevation gain. To me, it was worth the hike to see the base of the falls and to get this image, which feels far more intimate and personal than the long view.

Photo of the base of Treasure Falls, showing the lower extremity of the plunge

We explored the area over the next couple of days, and chose on the spur of the moment to drive back to South Fork and turn north onto Highway 149 toward Creede. Because it was an impulse, we weren't prepared for how fascinating the Creede area is: from the beautiful mesas with names ending in "Park," to the sharply narrow and steep Willow Creek canyon where the fabulous Amethyst Vein was found. Several colorful characters spent some time in Creede during those boom years as well, including Soapy Smith, Bat Masterson and Robert Ford.

It's hard to visualize just how busy this narrow canyon was after the silver boom began. For example, my photo of the Humphrey Mill site in Willow Creek canyon doesn't offer any real context for how massive that rock spire is, nor even really, how much activity would have been common in the late 1800's and early 1900's. An interpretive sign mentions that in its heyday, the mill employed 1,000 men.

Photo showing a current view of the historic Humphrey Mill at Creede, Colorado
Humphrey Mill site, Creede
Historic 1930's photo of Humphrey Mill at Creede, Colorado
1930's photo of Humphrey Mill

And it's only one of the sources of employment that would have been available here; others included at least six major mines following the rich, four- to ten-feet-thick, miles-long Amethyst Vein that produced mainly silver, but also lead, gold, zinc, copper, and cadmium - consistently assaying a whopping 200 ounces of silver per ton! In fact, the nearby King Solomon Mine produced five million ounces of silver in 1892.

Photo of the Commodore Mine ore house near Creede, Colorado, giving a glimpse of how massive the structure is
Commodore Mine ore house, Creede

The photo at the right is the Commodore Mine ore sorting house. The building is about 80 feet tall, in three levels; the bottom half of the structure is cribbed and reinforced, holding waste rock, and the two upper floors are where the ore was dumped and sorted. The rail trestle that comes into the top level is covered by a snow shed roof. I found the National Register of Historic Places Registration Form for the Bachelor-Commodore Mine Complex, which includes this building, and it provided a detailed description of the building and its function.

Photo of base of Commodore Mine ore house showing how weight of structure has warped the bottom beams
Ore house base showing how weight warped timbers

We visited Creede on a Sunday when many of the places we might have enjoyed exploring were closed, such as the Underground Mining Museum and the Creede Railroad Depot/Museum. We would have loved to have been able to tour the fire station as well - it's billed as the "world's only underground fire station." Then, after we saw

Photo of exterior of the Creede Fire Station, Creede, Colorado
Creede Fire Station, "the world's only underground fire station"

the information about the 17-mile, very rugged Bachelor Loop four-wheel-drive road, we decided we (and our vehicle) weren't up to the adventure this time, in spite of it being a potentially great education about the mining history of the area.

Overall, Creede was our "sleeper" on this trip; the visit there gave me hours of interesting research and things to accomplish on our next visit. I'll also need to talk my husband into spending some more time exploring the little towns of Del Norte and South Fork - they were far more interesting to me than Pagosa Springs and its unfortunate amount of sprawl. More explorations loom!

Photo of the Rio Grande River south of Creede Colorado with mountains and aspen groves
Rio Grande River near its headwaters

Be sure stay tuned for a follow-up post about our second October trip. And don't forget to check out the other pages of my website for photo art suitable for your home, office or commercial space.

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