One of the foot-tall stack of handouts we got from the Colorado Visitor Centers we’ve visited was a booklet about the Colorado scenic loops. They are back roads that link places with a theme – Top of the Rockies, Gold Rush, etc. Just up Highway 149 from here is the Alpine Loop. Unlike the others, this one specifies 4xwheel drive, high clearance is needed, but you know how seriously we take things like that, so we made that our destination for the day.
Our first stop was Windy Hill, which had a great over-view of the San Juan Mountains in every direction.
The information sign included a quote from the early explorers that says it all about this amazing range of mountains.
“If you should, in your imagination, put together in one small group, perhaps 12 miles square, all the heights and depths, the rugged precipices and polished faces of rock, and all the sharp pinnacles and deeply-indented crests, and twenty times the inaccessible summits that both of us have ever seen, you would not have a picture equal to this.” W.H. Holmes, Sept 7, 1871.
There are old mines pockmarking the mountain sides everywhere we looked. Those 19th century prospectors were the first cousins to the gophers that dig up you lawn, only they burrowed through sheer mountain peaks that made you wonder how on earth they got up there in the first place, much less built all those mine structures. It’s hard to see, but there are three mines at least on this hillside. The gold that comes out of it now will the gold of all those aspen trees that are covering the mountain side. We have to come back here in the fall some time.
There was enough mining going on to justify a town up in these mountains. The founder of the town, in a fit of optimism, decided it would become the capital of the state some day, so he named it Capitol City. There are two log cabins left, but at its peak there was a smelter, mill and lots of boarding houses to accommodate all the miners. If you want to own your very own town, Capitol City is for sale. We decided to pass.
Our next stop was an overlook of Whitmore Falls. From the road, what we could see was a little riffle of white water – no big deal. Then I saw the stairs at the end of the pull-out, so we went down to the real view area and got a lovely view of a pretty spectacular waterfall. Right next to the railing there was the top of an evergreen tree just loaded with cones. All the trees are topped with a heavy load of cones that make them glow like they have gold caps when the sun hits them.
We were driving along and all of a sudden, there was a monumental chimney just out in the middle of nowhere! It was a lime kiln built by the same man who built Capitol City. This was a place where the black line had been firmly drawn across our map, and we had to agree that the road was getting narrower and much more rocky. Ahead we could see Engineer Pass, but it was a destination we were not going to make. So, at least for this trip, this is going to be the road not taken. Next time we’ll rent a jeep and do the whole loop.
We traveled down the graded dirt road that was squeezed between high bluffs and a busy stream, and found a pull-out where we could eat our lunch while listening to the water music. Gypsy had to go wading, of course, so then we had damp dog in the back seat.
This is one of the larger mines, the scene of a miners’ strike that caused the mine owners to ask for help from the army. The owners decided it was those disgruntled Italians who started it, so all people of Italian descent were banned from the county!
The only catch is that old law of hiking – going down means going up at some point and at 10,800’, the going up gave us a good work-out. I consider it a wilderness stress test, and I guess our hearts are in good shape! The legs, not so much.
On the way home again, back through Lake City and down 149, we passed a meadow with a large herd of elk does and yearlings grazing, so we joined the “elk jam” to take some pictures. Then some yahoo with a bad muffler came roaring by and they elk all headed for the trees. But I got a decent shot of them before they declared “show over.”