For the past 10 years, my wife and I (and now our two girls) have spent part of our summer in Lake City, Colorado. Like so many mountain towns in the state, Lake City experienced a boom period in the late 19th century thanks to mining. At its peak, the population of Lake City pushed 2,000, driven largely by an influx of people with dreams of striking it rich in the mineral-dense San Juan Mountains, Colorado's largest mountain range. For some, wealth came, but for many more the hope of hitting the mother lode was never realized. As quickly as Lake City's mining industry boomed, it seemingly just as quickly went bust. By the early 20th century, the excitement and energy of Lake City had fizzled. Some people remained, but the town was left a shell of what it was in its prime. Today, Lake City's mining roots are evident in just about any place you look. Tailings, sealed-off mine shafts, miner's cabins, old rail lines, to name a few, dot the landscape and serve as living relics that will hopefully forever remind Lake City's visitors of its beginnings.
Situated at the northern end of the San Juan Mountains, Lake City serves as the county seat of Hinsdale County, considered by many to be the most remote county in the lower 48. Just west of Lake City sit five of Colorado's 14,000 foot peaks: Uncompahgre, Wetterhorn, Handies, Sunshine, and Redcloud. To say raw natural beauty is in abundance is a gross understatement. Approaching Lake City from the south provides you with an impressive glimpse of some of this beauty. From the south, after summitting two passes (Spring Creek and Slumgullion), Highway 149 drops you into the valley below, where Lake City sits snuggled amongst the mountains.
You go to the same place long enough and you begin to notice not just major changes, but minor ones as well, which makes returning to Lake City year after year even more exciting and intriguing. You start to really know the land, the subtleties of the rivers and streams, the movement of the deer, the locations of the different wildflowers. This year, thanks to a healthy amount of snow (something that has been lacking the last two years in Colorado's southwest), water levels have been refreshingly high. Areas of the Lake Fork of the Gunnison and Henson Creek that have been possible to explore the last two summers have been submerged, or even washed away. This land is constantly changing, always subject to the unyielding forces of nature.
Part of the trip we look forward to most is Lake City's 4th of July celebration. The 4th kicks off with a parade through town, followed by races and festivities at the downtown park. The day concludes with a bang. Literally. Fireworks light up the sky and surrounding mountainsides to cap off a memorable holiday.
Each year, Suzanne and I get out for at least one long hike. Having hiked four of the five fourteeners in the area, we've ventured out the last few years to hike some of the many longer trails surrounding Lake City. This year, we chose Alpine Gulch, a trail that winds its way up through a drainage basin and eventually above treeline. Our route didn't see us that far; instead, we hiked four miles out and the same four miles back. Afternoon thunderstorms and having to re-cross a raging creek seven times spurred our sooner-than-expected return. Over the course of four miles, we passed through aspen groves, small meadows, dense pine stands, and, of course, over a creek...seven times.
We've started a new tradition in Lake City, which is now in its third year: four wheeling the Alpine Loop. Each year, we rent a Jeep Wrangler and drive the 30+ mile stretch of road that traverses some of the most scenic stretch of Colorado backcountry. On the loop, you summit two passes, Cinnamon Pass (12,640 feet) and Engineer Pass (12,820 feet). Between the two, you can descend to one of Colorado's most visited ghost towns, Animas Forks, which is always one of our favorite stops. Perhaps the most well known destination along the route is American Basin, one of Colorado's most famous wildflower areas. The wildflower blooms this year weren't quite at their peak during our stop thanks to a healthy snowpack this year, but we weren't disappointed.
On the final morning of our trip, I returned to an area I hadn't been to in seven years. Wetterhorn Peak offers one of Colorado's classic Class 3 climbs and the basin out of which it rises is stunningly beautiful. The objective on the final morning wasn't a summit of Wetterhorn, just a photography outing to capture an area I hadn't been to in a number of years. Above treeline, the San Juans loom over you and at your feet flows Matterhorn Creek, still swollen from snow melt.
Can solitude be found in Colorado's San Juan Mountains? Absolutely. Depending on the time of year you visit, you may have to venture higher and further to find it. I wonder if the miners felt the same?
Without a doubt, Lake City is one of Colorado's small town gems. If you haven't been, go as soon as you can. Any season will do. More information about Lake City can be found on the following sites:
Some parting images from our trip...