March 25, 2018
San Juan Mountains, Mining Country
Story by Kathryn R. Burke
All content © San Juan Publishing Group, Inc, All rights reserved.
EXPLORING MINING COUNTRY is absolutely fascinating! Each new venture leaves you wondering how these people accomplished so much with so little (at least by today’s standards) and in such a short time. There were no cranes, no helicopters, no battery-powered nail guns (and no OSHA, either, which might explain how they did it.)
Yet these people built mills, mines, boarding houses (some with entertainment and dining halls!), even entire towns, many at impossible heights. They built tram systems to carry ore out and men and supplies in. A few brave souls even lived up there year round. When the towns burned—fire was common—they did it again. When the trains came to San Juans they laid rail to the tallest town, above 12,000 feet! (Video of Red Mountain Mining District between Ouray and Silverton.)
The folks who settled here were incredibly industrious and inventive. Think about how easy it is to haul stuff around today, then look at what these people did with little more than mules. You’ll find heavy equipment, and even iron cook stoves, all transported by two- and four-foot motive power. (Of course, they had no TC or internet, so people rarely sat around looking at “virtual reality.” For these people,
reality was the real thing!
The San Juans are criss-crossed with mining claims, tunnels and trails, the latter mostlyrequiring four-wheel drive and several best traveled with a professonal guide/driver. (Some jeep rental companies limit the use of their vehicles, not allowing them to be used on the roughest, most difficult trails such as Black Bear.) Some mountain rides require a good deal of concentration, especially for the driver, and sometimes for the white-knuckled passengers as well, so going with a pro is often a good way to go.
If you’re planning to explore the area, set aside several days. You’ll have a lot of territory to cover, way too much for one day. You might also find a preliminary museum visit beneficial. San Juan County’s world-class Mining Heritage Center in Silverton is a good start. Ouray County Historical Museum (Ouray) provides a mock mining exhibit and an outstanding collection of locally-mined minerals. Both towns also offer underground mine tours: The Old Hundred Mine in Silverton and the Bachelor Syracuse Mine in Ouray
When you’re ready to hit the mine trails, start out with a couple of guided tours to get the feel of the terrain and learn the history of the area, then rent a jeep or ATV and head out on your own. Tours are great, because the drivers know the roads and all the stories associated with them. Our favorite tour company is the well-established Switzerland of America (SOA) in Ouray. We’ve found their drivers to be the most knowledgable and very professional and proficient on the often-difficult (and sometimes downright scary) jeep trails. Guides offer a degree of comfort and keep you regaled with tales (true and false) while you snap away with your camera.
When you’re ready to head out on your own, several companies rent vehicles. Silver Summit RV and Red Mountain RV in Silverton and Switzerland of America in Ouray, both rent new Jeeps kept in top condition for mountain excursions. Others also rent jeeps and ATVs. It’s prudent to be sure of the age and mechanical condition of the rental vehicles, however, before you fork over your cash. If you go with a guided tour, the same rules apply—and—you should inquire as to the driver’s experience before you go along for the ride.
Most tour and rental companies, and many local shops, also provide maps and detailed information about the various routes you might explore. You will also find numerous books about the history and trails in local bookstores and shops. Buckskin Books in Ouray is one of our favorites, due to it’s extensive selection.
Page top image: Animas Forks, 11,300 ft., highest mining town in San Juan County. ©Don Porter
Images on right of mining districts, San Juan County and Ouray County
The Silverton Magazine was published by San Juan Publishing from 2000-2010. All content is copyright, in perpetuity, San Juan Publishing, Group, Inc. All rights reserved. For reprint permission, contact the publisher.