Exploring the Earth and Sky of the West


Alaska (Part Two)

Several people stand on the crest of a white and blue mass of glacial ice

Exploring the Root Glacier, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve, Alaska

The second stop on our Alaska trip of 2019 was Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve. The largest national park in the United States, Wrangell-St. Elias spans more than 13 million acres in the wilderness of southeast Alaska. Our destination was the old mining town of Kennecott, situated deep in the park’s interior between the volcanic Wrangell Mountains and the coastal St. Elias Range.

Due to the tire issues mentioned in my last post, we opted not to take our Subaru down the 60-mile long McCarthy Road, the main access route into the park. In hindsight, we probably would have been fine, as the road was in excellent condition (at least relative to the roads we’d been used to driving in Utah. The similar-in-length Hole in the Rock Road makes the McCarthy Road look like a recently-paved superhighway). Fortunately, we were able to book a last minute van shuttle from Kenny Lake, AK to the end of the McCarthy Road. Regardless of your mode of transportation, you then walk across a footbridge spanning the glacial silt-laden Kennicott River into the town of McCarthy. (The only vehicle access to McCarthy is via a private, and very expensive, bridge a bit further downstream.) Kennecott is another 5 uphill miles by shuttle, bike, or foot:

A red and white building with a sign saying "Kennecott"

Kennecott, Alaska. The 14-story wooden concentration mill is seen in the background.

Strangely, reaching Kennecott would have been much easier in 1919 than it was in 2019. The McCarthy “Road” is actually an old railroad grade originally built in 1909 to bring supplies in and ore out of the famous Kennecott Copper Mines. From 1911 through the late 1930s, the Kennecott mines shipped millions of tons of copper ore to Cordova on the Alaska coast via the Copper River and Northwestern Railway. The town had state of the art amenities at the time, including one of the best hospitals in the territory as well as the first X-ray machine in Alaska. While the mines closed in 1938, Kennecott Copper remains one of the larger copper-producing companies in the world, perhaps best known for the massive Bingham Canyon Mine just outside of Salt Lake City.

Following the closure of the mines, Kennecott lay mostly deserted for decades before beginning to draw tourists in the 1980s. Much of the land and buildings within the town were acquired by the National Park Service in 1998 and added to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. Restoration and stabilization of historic buildings in Kennecott is ongoing. Today, you can actually explore many of these buildings, including the town power plant (photo below) and the massive concentration mill (photo above), a 14-story wooden structure where copper ore was crushed and then mechanically and chemically concentrated into the high grade ore that was eventually shipped out via the railroad.

The interior of the Kennecott Power Plant, with massive boilers used to produce electricity and steam heat for the mines and town residents.

History aside, the natural landscape of Kennecott is really what makes it stand out as one of the most stunning places I’ve ever visited. The town is perched on the flanks of Bonanza Ridge, with rocky peaks towering more than 4,000 feet above and what remains of the Kennicott Glacier below. At first glance, it is not apparent (even to a geologist) that the mounds of rubble in the valley below ARE a glacier, but ice does lay beneath the veneer of debris. Like most of the world’s alpine glaciers, the Kennicott Glacier has retreated dramatically since the town’s heyday in the early 1900s, when its surface was level with or even above the elevation of the town. Today, you look down several hundred feet on to what remains of the glacier and the detritus it has brought with it out of the mountains. The origin of the glacier, and the dominant feature of the northern skyline, is the massive Mt. Blackburn, the fifth highest peak on the United States at 16,391 feet:

Wooden buildings cling to a slope with glacier covered mountains in the background

Old mining buildings in Kennecott cling to the slopes above the debris-covered Kennicott Glacier, which originates on the slopes of Mt. Blackburn, seen in the background.

A few miles north of Kennecott, the Kennecott Glacier is joined by the Root Glacier, a somewhat more “normal” looking glacier that we spent nearly an entire day exploring. The experience was rather surreal given that the air temperature was nearly 90 degrees. Climates amenable to the formation of glaciers don’t often produce days where a swim in the frigid glacial melt water actually sounds appealing as opposed to horrifying, but that was certainly the case on this day.

As spectacular as the glacier was, there is something quite unsettling about walking around on one in a T-shirt. The signs and symptoms of a warming climate were all encompassing. We walked along deep gouges (surprisingly reminiscent of Utah slot canyons) carved into the ice by strong currents of melt water…

The Root Glacier, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska

The Root Glacier, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska

encountered many sublime pools filled with deep, electric blue pools of glacial melt water…

The Root Glacier, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska

and carefully avoided deep shafts, known as moulins, that carry cascades of melt water into the internal plumbing of the glacier. In many places, we could hear the dull roar of the melt water boring tunnels through the ice beneath our feet. Glaciers like Root won’t survive many more summers with too many days like this one.

A channel of water flowing across a white glacier carves a tight bend in the ice

Meander in a meltwater channel, Root Glacier, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska

Brown sediment fills in interestingly shaped cracks in glacial ice

Patterns of sediment in the ice, Root Glacier, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska

Despite the best efforts of the interpretive signs displaying historical photographs, and the park film showing the sights and sounds of the past, the sheer remoteness of Kennecott in 2019 makes it difficult to imagine the Kennecott of 1919: a busy town immersed in the deafening roar of copper mining, with a glacier not yet ravaged by climate change dominating the horizon.

Cluster of pink flowers overlooking a debris covered glacier at sunset

Clusters of fireweed overlooking the Kennicott Glacier, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve, Alaska

Rails Vanquished, Rails Reclaimed: Hiking the Iron Goat Trail

The largest concrete snowshed on the Iron Goat Trail

Driving west on Highway 2 over Stevens Pass last spring, I kept catching glances of what appeared to be some sort of elongate, dark grey, overgrown, man-made structure paralleling the highway on the opposite site of the Tye River valley. Whatever it was, only isolated chunks of it were visible through the dense vegetation and the deep, late-season snowpack. It appeared to me to be made of concrete, although it was hard to be 100% sure given that my primary goal at the time was to prevent a van full of people from careening off the highway and plummeting into the gorge below. Ironically, little did I know that the very existence of the mysterious object I was seeing was the result of a passenger train carrying hundreds of people doing exactly that 113 years earlier.

The largest concrete snowshed on the Iron Goat TrailWalking through a large concrete snowshed along the Iron Goat Trail, built at the site of the 1910 Wellington disaster to prevent future avalanches from sweeping trains and passengers off the rails.

The logo of the Great Northern Railway at the Iron Goat Trailhead

It didn’t take long after getting home to my internet connection to figure out that what I was seeing was the old grade of the Great Northern Railway, the northernmost of the transcontinental railway routes in the U.S. The Great Northern reached Seattle in 1893 and the route it took across the Cascades can best be described as “gnarly”. A series of extremely steep switchbacks, and eventually a 2.60 mile long tunnel completed in 1900, funneled trains safely, if not easily, over Stevens Pass to Seattle. In the summer at least. The biggest danger of the route lay in the combination of heavy winter snows and steep rugged topography. The railway built a number of snowsheds, large concrete or timber structures which covered the rails in avalanche prone areas to protect the locomotives. Avalanches don’t always play nicely though, and in March of 1910, during a storm in which 11 feet of snow fell in one day, a 10′ thick slab of snow detached from Windy Mountain several hundred feet above the tracks and swept two trains off the tracks just outside the railroad town of Wellington, Washington. 96 people perished in what remains the deadliest avalanche in U.S. history, and one of the worst railroad disasters in the country’s history to boot.

Despite the somber backstory, the old railroad grade has been turned into what has to be one of the most fascinating hiking trails in Washington: the Iron Goat Trail. Taking its name from the mountain goat on the logo of the Great Northern Railway, the Iron Goat trail follows the portion of the railroad grade that was abandoned in 1929 after the 8-mile long Cascade Tunnel (still in use by the BNSF today) opened, which for the first time allowed trains to bypass the pass and its deadly avalanche chutes entirely.

The west entrance to the Windy Point Tunnel

Looking into the abandoned Windy Point Tunnel along the Iron Goat Trail

While this hike may not provide a wilderness experience (Highway 2 and the associated drone of motor vehicles is just a stone’s throw away across the valley), it does provide a heavy dose of history and just enough eeriness to keep you from ever wanting to spend the night. In between the Wellington disaster and the opening of the Cascade Tunnel, a span of just 19 years, the Great Northern Railway heavily fortified the section of rails near Stevens Pass in an attempt to prevent another disaster. I hiked the four mile section of the trail from Highway 2 to the Wellington Townsite and nearly the entire stretch was engineered in some way: tunnels, timber snowsheds, concrete snowsheds, you name it, the Great Northern Railway spared no expense in attempting to tame the mountains and make this a viable travel route over the Cascades. They even gave the town of Wellington a new name, “Tye”, because of all the bad publicity. Ultimately though, the mountains emerged victorious: the line was abandoned in favor of the tunnel less than 30 years after it was first constructed, leaving the man-made structures built in response to the Wellington disaster to slowly decay and become re-assimilated into the mountain.

This process is already well underway. After decades of enduring heavy winter snows, timber snowsheds are now unrecognizable piles of rotting wood. Concrete snowsheds are crumbling, exposing their innards in a scene that my hiking partners likened to the post-apocalyptic visuals of the Hunger Games.

A concrete snowshed falls into disrepair along the Iron Goat TrailDeep snow and avalanches ultimately get the better of anything man builds to lessen their impact

Many of the tunnels have partially collapsed, including the Old Cascade Tunnel, the longest in the world when it opened at the beginning of the 20th Century. In 2007, a portion of the roof collapsed, creating an unstable dam of debris which occasionally likes to rupture and send a deadly torrent of water rushing out the west end of the tunnel without warning. The Windy Point Tunnel, built to keep trains from derailing around a particularly sharp curve, is also slowly crumbling away while the entrances are slowly reclaimed by the forest:

Entrance to Windy Point Tunnel on the Iron Goat Trail

Moss and debris slowly reclaims the old grade of the Great Northern railway at the entrance to the Windy Point Tunnel

A rockfall along the Windy Point Tunnel is the backdrop for some fall foliage

Portions of the Windy Point Tunnel have been heavily damaged by rockfall. Thankfully, Gary and the fall foliage escaped unscathed.

After a somewhat strenuous 700 foot climb from the trailhead up to the Windy Point Tunnel, the hike follows the gentle grade of the old rail bed for several miles in either direction. Thanks to impressive work by local volunteer groups, the trail is well-maintained and a series of interpretive signs explain the history of the Great Northern Railroad and the chain of events that led to the Wellington disaster. Several spots on the trail have great views of the Tye River valley and the surrounding peaks in the Cascades making for a beautiful, intriguing, and incredibly diverse hike. But stay away during the winter for obvious reasons, and like I said, not really somewhere you’d want to spend the night…

Interesting graffiti in one of the snowsheds

Fun graffiti inside the concrete snowshed

For more info, trail maps, and directions, check out http://www.irongoat.org/

Boulders to Bullion: A Tour Through the Mayflower Gold Mill

Spend enough time driving or hiking around western Colorado and you will inevitably be introduced to the rich mining history of the area. This is especially true in the San Juan Mountains where it’s hard to hike for more than a few miles without running into an assortment of old and dilapidated mining structures, ranging from head frames covering mine shafts that plunge hundreds or thousands of feet into the mountains, to bunkhouses that still contain the metal skeletons of the rickety old beds slept upon by early 20th Century miners. Most of these buildings have been abandoned; left to slowly decay and disintegrate under the weight of the dozens of feet of snow that accumulate in the mountains each winter. However a handful have been preserved or restored by local historical societies, such as the Mayflower Gold Mill just a few miles outside of Silverton, Colorado.

A mill is an integral part of any mining operation. While Hollywood seems to think that western gold rushes involved a handful of old grizzled, bearded men fishing fist-sized gold nuggets out of streams with their gold pans, the reality is that most of the rock mined in Colorado had concentrations of gold and silver that were best measured in parts per million, and concentrations of other metals like copper or zinc that were only somewhat higher. The purpose of a mill like the Mayflower was to take in this low-grade ore and spit out material concentrated in gold, silver, and a plethora of other valuable metals while leaving the rest of the rock, known as “gangue”, behind.

The crushing room inside the Mayflower Gold Mill

The crushing room inside the Mayflower Gold Mill.

The Mayflower Mill opened its doors in 1929 and was a technological marvel for its time.  It was the last of the San Juan mills to close, in 1991, long after most of the mines in the area had ceased production. Ever since 1991, while the exterior of the mill has undergone stabilization at the hands of the San Juan County Historical Society, the interior of the mill has been left more or less untouched. The mill closed suddenly; one day it was open for business, the next it was shuttered for good as the prices of gold and silver plummeted and no one ever came in to clean up. Piles of partially crushed ore still lie on stationary conveyor belts, waiting patiently to continue their trip through the mill. Pairs of rubber gloves still lie on counters and railings, now covered with a thick layer of dust. Calendars with pictures of scantily clad women still hang from rusty thumb tacks in offices and control rooms. If all this wasn’t eerie enough, the power went out about five minutes after I entered the mill and from then on the only light source other than sunlight streaming through a handful of windows was the flashlight in my hand. Walking through you would never guess that it’s been closed for only 22 years; the place looks like its been abandoned for a good half-century and much of the equipment looks much older, yet somehow advanced for its age.

The tour through the mill is self-guided and costs $8 which at first seemed steep but ended up being well worth it. Not for the quality of the interpretive signs dispersed throughout the mill (despite the extremely friendly and helpful staff, the signs could use some serious work) but merely for the pleasure of exploring the mill itself, one of the most fascinating man-made structures I’ve ever been inside.  My computer is telling me I have something like 48,000 photos on my hard drive at the moment. I’m willing to bet more than 95% of those were taken outside. Why? Well to be honest, I don’t generally find man-made buildings that fascinating so I’ve never been that much of an indoor photographer. Once in a while, I find myself somewhere like the Mayflower Mill that changes that, at least temporarily 😉

Iron balls used in the milling process

Piles of iron balls were bounced around in large drums to help mutilate the ore into pieces as small as a grain of sand!

While milling ore to produce gold and other metals may seem somewhat alchemistic, in essence the process consists of two phases: crushing the rock into very, very, VERY small pieces, and then using a variety of noxious chemicals to separate the metal from the rock based on their physical properties. Ore would arrive at the mill in large metal buckets that zipped downhill along an aerial tramway that connected the mill to the Mayflower Mine several miles and several thousand feet above the Mill in Arrastra Basin:

A view of the aerial tramway connecting the Mill and the mines in Arrastra Basin

A view of the aerial tramway originating from the Mayflower Mine in Arrastra Gulch. The miners would often ride to work in the empty buckets headed back up to the mine. Hard to imagine a commute with a better view!

The crushing is then accomplished using a variety of progressively diabolical looking devices that to this day are covered in rock dust and surrounded by little piles of partially crushed ore that fell off of one of the many conveyor belts snaking through the mill. Normally there are buttons that you can press which turn on some of these devices for a short period of time but this was thwarted due to the aforementioned power outage. This was the device that I would have most liked to see in action:

A spiral classifier used to sort crushed ore

A spiral classifier, used to separate different sized pieces of crushed ore.

Debris lies on the ground around one of the ore crushing devices

Pieces of partially crushed ore scattered around the base of an enormous jaw crusher.

The separation occurred in a series of tanks and vats that, while not visually impressive, still seemed to reek of the boiling concoction of lead and cyanide they once contained. My gut feeling was that hanging around this part of the mill for a long time would probably be a bad idea. The final product was rich-enough in gold that access to the areas where the final stages of separation took place was restricted to only a handful of employees who were continuously monitored by a network of security cameras. Unbelievably, even after all this, the ore would still need to be sent to a smelter for further purification and processing before pure gold bullion, or other metals were obtained.

Here are a few more random pictures from inside the Mayflower, which truly is a photographer’s dream, ESPECIALLY when the power is out. I was so caught up in taking pictures inside that I completely forgot to get a picture of the mill from the OUTSIDE!

A rack full of every size drill bit imaginiable!

Every size drill bit imaginable!

A pile of old milling equipment

Piles of old equipment in a dark corner of the mill. Actually, since the power was out when I visited, just about the whole place was dark…

A little workplace humor

A little workplace humor for good measure!

New Life for the Elwah

Fog cloaks trees in the Elwah Valley

Remnants of early morning fog along the Elwah River

In 1910, the Elwah River on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State underwent some changes. Big changes. Power was needed to support the burgeoning timber industry in and around Port Angeles, WA. A dam would be built. A 108 foot high dam that would transform the river upstream of it from from a wild, roaring river teeming with five different species of native salmon, into a flat and placid reservoir, filled not with salmon but with sediment. With no fish ladders, these salmon would be denied access to their spawning grounds upriver by a massive concrete block known as the Elwah Dam. Within a few decades, any fish that managed to miraculously jump over the 108 foot high dam would have a second nasty surprise waiting for them just a few miles further upstream, the 210 foot high Glines Canyon Dam, built in 1927.

Sunset over the Elwah Valley

Sunset over the Elwah Valley from Highway 101, just west of Port Angeles, WA

Fast forward nearly a century, and big changes are occurring yet again.  In just a few short months, these two barriers will have been completely and permanently removed and the Elwah River will once again flow, uninterrupted, from the permanent snowfields and glacier of the Olympic Mountains all the down to sea level and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Even now (June 2013), only a small remaining stub of Glines Canyon Dam is preventing the salmon from moving back up into their traditional spawning grounds, and nearly 24 million cubic yards of sediment  trapped behind the dams from moving down to the river’s mouth. To give you a sense of just how much material that is, 24 million cubic yards would be enough to bury an American football field under so much sediment that not even seven Empire State Buildings stacked on top of each other would reach the top of the pile. While numerous dams have been decommissioned and removed around the world over the past several decades, none have been as large as Elwah and Glines Canyon. Nor have any been as controversial, as indicated by the fact that Congress passed legislation to remove the dams in 1992, yet demolition did not begin until 2011.

The former site of the Elwah Dam

The former site of the Elwah Dam, now occupied again by the free-flowing channel of the Elwah River


Groundwater containing dissolved iron was trapped beneath the reservoir for decades. With the reservoir gone, this water can escape and the iron rapidly oxidizes as it is exposed to oxygen in the air. 

Controversy aside, it is not often that one gets the opportunity to walk along the bottom of a reservoir without fear of drowning. As removal of the two dams enters its final stages, there exists a fantastic opportunity to watch an entire ecosystem attempt to return to its natural state. I visited the Elwah River valley on a cloudy, yet pleasant by Olympic Peninsula standards, weekend in May to see the effects of dam removal first hand. My first stop was the former site of Lake Aldwell, the narrow, yet shallow reservoir, 4 km long and 30 meters deep, that once existed behind the Elwah Dam. Lake Aldwell was the lower of two reservoirs on the Elwah (the other being Lake Mills behind Glines Canyon Dam), just five miles upstream from where the river ends its 45-mile long journey from the mountains to the sea.  It was also the first to be drained, in 2011, and consequently has already had an entire growing season to begin recovering from over a century of submersion. Assisted by planting efforts, so far, “recovery” consists of some small alders, grasses, and a handful of wildflowers that have taken root in the layers of extremely fine grained sediment that accumulated on the bottom of the reservoir from 1910 to 2011.

Prior to the construction of the dams, the Elwah River valley contained spectacular old growth forests, the proof of which can once again be seen today. It is is the stumps of these gargantuan trees that are perhaps the most impressive sight at Lake Aldwell. Giant cedar stumps, the result of early 20th century loggers who were understandably eager to harvest the enormous trees on land slated for inundation, have been exposed as the river rapidly washes away the layer-cake of sediment that  piled up at the bottom of Lake Aldwell. The size of the stumps are humbling and they are shockingly well preserved; many of them still contain the deep, horizontal notches cut for logger’s springboards, some so fresh in their appearance that it’s hard to believe that they weren’t felled just a few years ago, a testament to the preservation power of the meters of silt and dozens of meters of water that covered them for a century.

Stumps on the floor of Lake Aldwell

Giant Cedar stumps on the floor of Lake Aldwell. The former level of the reservoir can be clearly seen on the far bank.

Stumps and new vegetation on the floor of former Lake Aldwell

Century old stumps are joined by new vegetation just beginning to take root in the lakebed sediments.

A large cedar stump on the floor of Lake Aldwell

A stump that has been only partially exhumed from the sediment, with the six-foot tall photographer for scale.

The most powerful location from which to contemplate the restoration of the river is undoubtedly the site of the former Lake Mills.  Unlike Lake Aldwell which is located right along US Hwy 101, Lake Mills requires a little bit of effort to get to. Located within the confines of Olympic National Park, the head of the now drained reservoir is reached only by driving up a narrow, one lane dirt road that winds through the rainforests of the Olympic Peninsula several hundred feet above the course of the Elwah. Near the end of this road, a narrow footpath leads down to what was once the lake’s edge.

Being the uppermost of the two reservoirs, Lake Mills was where nearly a centuries worth of sediment accrued, scoured out of the Olympic Mountains just as it had been for thousands of years, by storm after storm after storm blowing in off the Pacific, dousing the mountains in rain, and sweeping the sediment into rivulets, tributary creeks and streams, and eventually the cold, swift, and turbulent Elwah. Once Glines Canyon Dam was built in 1927, the whole system just shut off. Vast quantities of silt, sand, and gravel sediment that would normally create a delta at the mouth of the river began creating a delta in Lake Mills instead.

Immediately upon breaking out of the trees, one is taken aback by the sense that something drastic has happened here. Over a thousand vertical feet of dense, dark green, damp forest immediately transitions to a landscape that looks like it belongs on Mercury or the Moon rather than the lush Olympic Peninsula. One is greeted by a staircase of spectacular gravel terraces leading down to the river’s edge, terraces cut by a river eager to make up for 100 years of lost time. The river’s path is changing on a near daily basis as it cuts down through the canyons of sediment. The only sound that accompanies the roar of the river is the constant and somewhat unsettling sound of miniature rockfalls breaking loose and sending pebbles, cobbles, and sometimes boulders scurrying down slope, the sounds of a landscape still changing by the minute as the river tries to re-establish its old course through the valley.

Lake Mills Panorama

Terraces carved out of delta sediments by the resurrected Elwah River as it runs through the valley formerly occupied by Lake Mills.

The erosive power of the Elwah can be seen just by observing its color as it runs through its former delta. When the river first exits the confining gorge of Rica Canyon and explodes out into the wide valley once occupied by Lake Mills, it shines with a brilliant aquamarine color, almost tropical in its hue, due to the presence of extremely fine grained sediment suspended in the river. The river does not retain this color for long though. For decades, any coarse sediment brought here by the river would be abruptly dropped at the entrance to Lake Mills, as the energy level of the river dropped precipitously entering the tranquil reservoir. Now, with the reservoir gone, all that sediment is there for the taking and the river quickly takes full advantage. Just a few hundred yards later, the river has turned the color of a late-afternoon summer thunderstorm, a deep and foreboding dark gray, as the Elwah picks up coarse sediment and begins moving it downstream where it naturally belongs.

The color change in the Elwah River as it picks up sediment flowing into the former Lake MIlls

While the dams may be gone, and the fish have already shown signs of returning, the story of the Elwah is, in reality, just beginning. All the effects, both positive and negative, of such a large scale experiment won’t be known for many decades. I encourage you to go see it for yourself; as I mentioned earlier, opportunities to experience a landscape changing at such a rapid rate are rare, much less one in as spectacular of a setting as the Elwah River.

More information about the Elwah River Restoration project can be found here.  To get a better idea of the changes that have occurred so far, I strongly recommend checking out slideshows and time-lapse videos made from a series of webcams that have been monitoring the progress here.

Where the Rivers Run Orange: Remnants of a Colorado Silver Rush

The San Juan Mountains have a way of making you feel uneasy.  Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that the most infamous cannibal of our time, one Alferd Packer, consumed five of his fellow prospectors here during the winter of 1873-1874. But while the alpine scenery rivals or exceeds that of any mountain range I’ve ever visited, the fact that many of the streams cascading down the steep slopes run with a neon, metallic orange color that coats every last pebble along the streambed in a golden veneer lets you know that something is wrong.

A very orange and acidic Red Mountain Creek

While you might think that someone dumped a truckload of kool-aid into the mountains, in reality it’s because the San Juan’s used to be gold and silver country. Looking at a topographic map of the San Juan’s is like looking at some sort of twisted and tortuous treasure map, with literally thousands upon thousands of tiny crosses marking the locations of long defunct mine shafts, many of them waiting to swallow up the unaware hiker.  The majority of these mines were established in the later 1800’s when silver in previously unheard of concentrations was discovered in the mountains, along with smaller amounts of gold, zinc, copper, and other heavy metals. Like an enormous hardrock gopher mound, the San Juan’s are riddled with underground mining tunnels. It is possible to travel between the towns of Silverton and Telluride, several hours apart by road, without ever setting foot on the surface of the Earth.  While few active mines still exist, the imprint that the mining had on the land is readily apparent to anyone traveling between Ouray and Silverton on U.S. Highway 550, commonly known as the Million Dollar Highway (for reasons which are disputed…) which, due to the persistent lack of guardrails along its more perilous stretches, is not for the faint of heart.

Ouray, Colorado: founded as a mining town in 1876 and the self-proclaimed “Switzerland of America”

Ouray County Road 31 heads into the mining district with Red Mountain looming in the background

Remnant buildings and tailings of the Guston Mine

Ouray County Road 31 branches off of Hwy 550 about halfway between Ouray and Silverton and winds through the Red Mountain Mining District for several miles. This area, located about 10,000 feet above sea level, was home to a number of rowdy mining towns during the its heyday in the 1800’s. Since I am rarely (ok, never) mistaken for a history buff, an excellent history of the Red Mountain District written by people who know what they are talking about more than I do can be found here. The road is marked as a 4WD on maps road but seemed very well maintained. I ventured that I could have gotten my trusty Toyota Corolla down it when dry, but probably not at a rate much faster than I could walk it. As a result, I parked my car along the highway and struck out on foot. In hindsight this was both a good and a bad idea. Bad in that the skies of Colorado decided to unleash their first drops of moisture in months, when naturally I had left my rainjacket at home. Thankfully, old mine buildings make for decent shelter if you can find one that doesn’t look like it will collapse in the slightest gust of wind. However this was good considering that the road basically turned into a clay bog as soon as it started raining which means that I would have been S.O.L had I decided to drive instead of walk.

The mainframe of the Yankee Girl Mine, one of the most productive and lucrative silver mines in the San Juan’s

Acid mine drainage along a creek near Red Mountain

A short walk in along Road 31 and it becomes immediately apparent that the land has been completely and utterly gutted by the silver mining process. It is the bright orange creeks and streams catch your eye first. This phenomenon is known as acid mine drainage, and occurs when rainwater or snowmelt comes into contact with metal-rich rocks, such as the rock that composes the tailings piles that surround all of the old mines. The water leaches metals, most commonly iron, out of the rock and into to the water. The iron then oxidizes resulting in the highly acidic, bright orange water that flows throughout the region. Perhaps even more pervasive than the orange creeks though is the smell. Nearly all of the mines and tailings piles are accompanied by a metallic, musty odor that leaves you with the funny feeling that it would probably be a bad life decision to inhale the air for an extended period of time. The smell is truly difficult to describe, the closest analogy I can think of is the hydrogen sulfide so commonly associated with the geysers and hot springs of Yellowstone, although this still falls short. This smell was much less sulfurous and disagreeable, and while I wouldn’t go as far as to say it was pleasant, it wasn’t bad enough to make me cover my airways with a bandanna or seek refuge somewhere else.

The National Belle Mine overlooks the former site of Red Mountain Town

One of the last remaining structures in Red Mountain Town

Stop number two for the day was the remains of another 19th century mining camp: Ironton. Unlike the Red Mountain District, which was so extensively mined that it is essentially located on a barren hillside that has been mostly stripped of trees, Ironton and its associated mines, such as the Colorado Boy seen below, are nestled deeper within the forest. A well marked trail leads to Colorado Boy but many of the other sites in the area are located along routes that have been nearly completely reclaimed by the forest, making them difficult to find without a good map and good sense of direction since GPS devices don’t work worth a darn in the dense woods.

One of about a dozen structures still standing in Ironton

Mainframe of the Colorado Boy Mine

Just south of Ironton, spanning a large gully known as Corkscrew Gulch, lies a bridge that I am convinced was the inspiration for the rickety wooden span in Shrek that Donkey and Shrek traverse in order to cross the boiling lake of lava.  Oddly, this interesting relic isn’t listed on any maps of the area and I was unable to find many pictures of it online, yet it was one of the highlights of the day. I initially spotted the  bridge from below, it wasn’t even obvious that it was a bridge at first but being the curious cat that I am, I was naturally intrigued. After about a half hour of bushwhacking my way up the ridge on the west side of the gulch, I located the trace of an old, overgrown wagon road that eventually led me to the edge of the canyon and the bridge abutments. Now this bridge, missing as many planks as it was, would have been completely impassable regardless but for whatever reason, one of the two cables spanning the gulch had been cut causing the span of the bridge to hang like a limp wet noodle across the canyon. The bridge is in such bad shape that the weight of a house fly alighting on the remaining cable would likely cause the remainder of the structure to plummet several hundred feet to the streambed below. Interestingly, upon further research, this bridge was at one point the longest suspension bridge in Colorado. To this day, it holds the unofficial title of “sketchiest bridge in Colorado” and I don’t envision it relinquishing this title any time soon.

Sketchy bridge from the bottom of Corkscrew Gulch

View of the bridge from slightly uphill

A closer and more detailed view of the sketchiness

Despite the glaring environmental ramifications and water quality issues associated with the mining that took place here, , spending an afternoon exploring the mines was a fascinating step back into the exciting history of the San Juan Mountains and southwestern Colorado. The mines are so prevalent and such a seemingly integral part of the landscape here that it is sort of difficult to imagine the San Juan’s without them. Just don’t drink the water….