For several years I had a guide book of hikes in Colorado. One of the hikes was to a place called Silver Lake. There was a picture in the book too, of some old mining building. Can’t say that I ever paid much attention to that section of the book. That was until one night I was in the SP neighborhood. I was perusing the message boards and happened across a certain thread where Kane had posted a link to a trip report posted by Aaron Johnson along with a nice endorsement. I read the report, it was about that same Silver Lake.
In the report I read about an old mining town high in the San Juans that once upon a time buzzed with activity. A place that really shouldn’t have existed given its location, a place where humans really weren’t supposed to live. Here was a place where human engineering allowed men to seemingly overcome nature, digging, drilling, blasting, and smashing rock in the search of precious metals. Here was a place that used to echo with noise, while silence should have been its lot. Now everyone was gone, silence had returned. However, all that man had built, dropped, or left was still there. However, in a way, Silver Lake was dying, the buildings were falling, artifacts were disappearing. Silver Lake sounded like a wild and magical place, the kind of place where the wind still whispers of times long since passed away. I wanted to visit this place, especially while at least some of the buildings were still standing.
This was the spring of 2004. I was planning a trip to Colorado for that summer. Due to circumstances that have since changed, I thought that this might have been my last opportunity for an extended trip in the Colorado mountains. I wanted to be really selective in my destinations, it was probably going to be now or never. I wanted to see the best of Colorado. This obviously meant that I had to go to the San Juans! I planned on climbing Wetterhorn Peak and Mount Sneffels, before going to the Elks and climbing Capitol and Castle. I was going to start the whole thing out by hiking up to Silver Lake.
In July 2004, my sister Meghan and I left Manhattan, Kansas early one morning and drove west. Later that day, along Highway 50 as we were nearing Montrose, we caught our very first view of the mighty San Juans. I hope that I never forget that feeling! I had read about the San Juans, how they had been likened to the Swiss Alps, how they were the largest, most jagged range in Colorado. Now as I gazed to the south I saw stretching out before me the most rugged, jagged mass of mountains that I had ever seen. Even though I couldn’t see them doing so, I knew that those mountains just kept on going and going behind that first mass. There was no doubt in my mind that the San Juans were Colorado’s finest.
That night we camped a little ways west of Silverton along South Fork Mineral Creek. The next morning we packed up and headed out. We drove through Silverton and on into mining territory. Soon we turned off highway 110. Here is were things started to go wrong. I had a guidebook description of how to get to the trailhead (if it can be called that) for Silver Lake, and a Colorado topo atlas. We followed the directions in the book, or so we thought, and wound on private property complete with signs telling us to get lost. I looked up into Arrastra Gulch and was rather mystified where this Silver Lake place could be. On either side the gulch was walled in by steep mountain slopes. In the middle to the rear there seemed to be a high, broad bench of rock with water cascading down a cleft in it. Surly Silver Lake couldn’t be way up there behind that thing! Ha! Was I wrong!
Well, this didn’t seem to be the way to go so we tuned around. We went on to try about every other road possibility and we kept on finding the wrong way. Finally we met some people who must have had a summer house in the area and they directed us to the right road. Once on the road we kept on driving up and up, passing old mine shafts until we found ourselves at a little lake high above timberline. This was as far as we were going to be able to drive, so we parked. Something didn’t seem quite right. But we shouldered our packs and started hiking up to the trail we could see that continued up to a small pass. The altitude defiantly was slowing me down, and Meghan was really dragging along. Once we go to the small pass it become evident that this was not the way to Silver Lake. I was tired, and basically lost. As a result, all I knew was that the view I was seeing was not the right one, no Silver Lake. We turned around. I felt that Silver Lake was probably lost, we were both pretty spent, and besides, we still didn’t know how to get to the trailhead for Silver Lake.
When we returned down to where we had parked our vehicle we ran into a guy from Durango who was hiking with his energetic dog. We talked to him for a while and we learned that we indeed were on the wrong side of Little Giant Peak. WE drove back down and decided to try and find the right road. We did, finally, find the right road. The day was wearing on; we were already tired; it was our first day in the high country so we were not acclimated at all; I didn’t know it but AMS was sneaking up on me in a big way; and the afternoon San Juan monsoon rain was overdue. We figured that it was now or never, so we went on. We eventually parked the vehicle and after a short-lived wrong turn, we found our way up to the Mayflower Mine. As we were so tired and also not so sure we even would make it all the way up to Silver Lake, we striped down our gear—down to stupidly ill-equipped levels. We had a daypack with lunch, water and one fleece and one rain jacket (both my sister’s) and I had my camera bag.
Once past the mine, the trail went over a pile of old mining scrap metal. It continued along the bottom of a cliff face until we reached a big pile of snow which seemed to block the trail. The snow had melted back away from the rock leaving enough room to pass through. Once past the snow we continued up along the trail though the scree until we arrived at the cliff band. At a muddy weakness in the cliff band an old cable ran down. We pulled ourselves up the muddy gully on the cable. Once on top we saw a more welcome sight, alpine meadows. The sky had since turned to gray, and now we had some green to go with the gray, not just the coldness of the rocks below. We had made it this far and the way on was much flatter. We had made it this far, the worst was over, we kept on going.
On we slogged, along the now more gentle trail. We made our way past some old metal pipes, not there yet, but… On we went. Then there it was. Finally. Silver Lake at last. The once thriving mining town lay before us, lay before us in a curious cheerful gloom. The town had hung on this long, an outpost of human advancement that shouldn’t have existed…not all the way up here anyway. While Silver Lake was still clinging onto its foothold of existence, it had defiantly been slipping away, and had been slipping away at a rapid rate over the last twenty-five years. The town which had once been rows of buildings along streets, was now more a sea of fallen timber. Waves upon waves of old weathered boards that had once been buildings. There in the middle of this melancholy ambience stood the powerhouse, watching as almost all of its friends lie and drifted away. It remembered, it had seen them fall; heard the creaking and the crashing as the San Juan snows ever so gently piled up until they just couldn’t hold any more. Yet, now the memories of those fallen buildings lived on in the powerhouse. The powerhouse beckoned and we were drawn. As we walked over towards the powerhouse, looking down in the sand, there they were, the old pieces of leather boots, the old bottle fragments. It was too bad however that a quarter century of grave robbers had carried off some of what had been there. We kept going, the sky finally opened up and it started to rain. The powerhouse was there, it didn’t look like it was going to fall on us, so we went inside. We had made it, finally. We sat down on a makeshift bench and ate lunch. We were grateful to be out of the cold light rain due to the fact that we had so little proper clothing with us. The powerhouse was a friendly shelter to us. I didn’t at all look forward to having to leave it and head off on the hike back down, but it was already 3:00 in the afternoon and we were going to have to go down sometime. I ventured out to take a few pictures and as I was worried about the camera getting wet I didn’t take enough. After we had rested and looked around a bit, it was time to say goodbye. We hiked out, leaving only our footprints in the sand, footprints which soon too would be gone.