We began our Day 9 with a stop at Honeyville; located just 10 miles north of Durango. We had driven past here the day before on our bus ride to Silverton and when the kids read the Honeyville sign advertising a indoor beehive, we knew we had to make a stop. As soon as we walked in we saw the large, glass enclosure with hundreds of bees making honey. A clear tube reached up towards the ceiling, then disappeared into a wall to the outside. It was like a game of Where’s Waldo, searching through all those bees for the queen (luckily she has a yellow dot to help to identify her). When Mia and Drake located the queen, they proudly showed other patrons their find.
While they were entertained, I found a spot at the counter and was thrilled to taste samples of Honeyville’s Wildflower Mountain Honey, Jams and Honey Wine (also known as Mead). It was a difficult choice but I ended up selecting whipped honey (Drake & Dad’s favorite), Brambleberry Jam (a heavenly mix of blackberry, raspberry and blueberry) and a bottle of Honey Wine. One of their many awesome gift sets came home with us for our neighbor.
Back on the road, it was a short drive to our picnic spot, Little Molas Lake. I had read about this “off-the-beaten-path” campground in an issue of Sunset Magazine . I briefly looked into staying here, but when I couldn’t find the RV size limit and knew it was a (free) first-come-first-serve campground, a picnic seemed the smarter choice. We turned off Highway 550 onto a dirt road that led us to the campground. It is very small with only 5 designated spots. One of the sites was occupied by a small RV, while the others were tent campers. It was primitive camping with only a vault toilet and no running water, but it was truly a beautiful place to camp.
The road ends at a parking lot next to the lake. As soon as we got out of the truck we were struck by the stunning 360 degree view of Grand Turk, Snowdon and Twin Sister peaks. Lazy clouds drifted by reflecting on the surface of the sapphire lake. We shared the shoreline with a lone fisherman who wasn’t having much luck catching the elusive Golden Trout. We took a walk around the lake enjoying the sounds of birds and insects and admiring the assortment of colorful wildflowers. It was by far the most beautiful place we have ever enjoyed a picnic lunch. I could have pulled out a lawn chair and spent the entire day soaking in the beauty and solitude, however, the road called as we still had more amazing places to see today.
Tip: Across the highway is the larger, Molas Lake where there is a campground that accepts reservations and accommodates RV’s up to 23′.
Seven miles later, we had descended into the town of Silverton. We continued through town making our way to our next adventure: Old One Hundred Gold Mine. We had just enough time to select a bright yellow mining jacket, a white hard hat, and take some photos in our mining garb before boarding the original ore cars that would transport us into the mine. Our tour guide and retired miner, relayed the the history of this mine which started in 1872. Although it produced gold, it was never enough to turn a profit and the mine was abandoned in 1973. Today, the mine is finally making a profit! Tourists here have put the Old One Hundred Gold Mine in the black.
The ore cars slowly rolled into the dark mine before speeding up for the 1/3 mile ride into the depths of Galena Mountain. It was gloomy, with only the glow of sporadically placed electric lights. We were glad to have our mining jackets on as it was chilly; especially with cold mountain water dripping intermittently from the ceiling. Once we arrived at the center of the mine, we disembarked from the ore cars for the tour. First, we learned more about the history of extracting ore, starting with the use of pick axes and dynamite to the equipment of more recent times. When the tour guide switched on the rock drill, I can’t even describe the gut shaking noise that it made. Hands flew up over ears of the folks in the tour group as the noise reverberated through the mine. It brought to light the very difficult conditions miners worked in. Next, was the old mine shaft elevator, the way miners traveled to this level to work. Our guide told us a story of a man who didn’t pull his hand in quickly enough as the elevator ascended, then shone his flashlight up to where there was a rubber hand stuck in the wall. This made all the kids gasp and the parents chuckle.
Last, we learned more about other equipment the miners used including the primitive candle lanterns which were incredibly dangerous due to the gases that could build up quickly in the cave. The kids’ favorite part was the demonstration of how the miners used dynamite to take down walls to get to the ore veins. There were men who were experts at this incredibly dangerous job. They would drill many holes into the rock wall, place sticks of dynamite inside of the holes at different depths in a pattern. Next, they used different lengths of fuse. This way, the miner could light large amounts of fuses (longer ones being lit first) before running for cover. Another lesson of the everyday danger of mining.
Once we made the return trip back above ground, we made our way to the Gold Panning area. This is the real deal! Water from the mine flows into sluices where mining pans are available to try your luck. After we figured out how to sift the sand properly, we found silver, copper and small flakes of gold. This is where Drake, Mia and Troy could have stayed all day; hands plunged into the cold water looking for treasure. It was great fun and we may have just found a new hobby!
About 7 miles along a dirt road from the Old One Hundred Mine is Animas Forks Ghost Town, located at 11,184 foot elevation. At its heyday in 1883, it was home to 450 hardy residents, but as mining profits declined, the town did as well. By the 1920’s, Animas Forks was deserted. Today, only a few cabins remain of the town and part of the dilapidated mine. We enjoyed the ability to walk into the remaining buildings where we could see peeling wallpaper, period newspaper stuffed in the walls, and building nails scattered on the floor. Drake and Mia giggled at the attached outhouse in one cabin.
Tip: The road to the ghost town is passable in summer by two-wheel drive vehicles, but it is strongly recommended to have a 4-wheel drive vehicle with high clearance to go beyond.
At this point we had two choices. Should we continue on the 4-wheel trail to reach Highway 550 just South of Ouray, or should we return the way we came. We made the family decision to enjoy some 4-wheel driving and head towards Ouray. In hindsight I realized we had made the mistake of not being prepared. If our truck would have broken down, hit a storm or have gotten stuck we would have had some serious problems as we were traveling without much food, water, or any blankets. Gratefully, our truck didn’t break down (although it did later in the trip which hit the point home for me).
Tip: Weather at high altitudes can change quickly so check forecasts before setting out off-road.
From Animas Forks we headed towards California Gulch. The alpine landscape surrounding us was incredible; covered in low-lying wildflowers and verdant grass. Every so often a marmot would appear to check us out. We had fun stopping at a few abandoned mines that dot the otherwise unblemished landscape.
Soon, we were climbing the north ridges of Hurricane Pass and quickly learned how it had gotten its name. It was quite gusty up here but oh what a view. Standing at the summit at 12,730 feet, we had an eagle eye view of the alpine landscape below and the surrounding Red Mountain peaks 1, 2 and 3. Breathtaking! As far as we could see, no signs of humanity touched the land. We were completely alone upon this mountaintop and the feeling of solitude was overwhelming.
Descending into Cement Gulch was relatively uneventful, while the western ascent up the next peak to Corkscrew Gulch was steep and steady to the 12,217 foot summit. From here we could see the striking aqua color of Lake Como, and then….. we saw where the 4-wheel trail went. My heart was in my throat as we stopped at the precipice. We were literally looking straight down! Looking left, it registered that our descent would be a series of very steep, switchbacks. Before I could calm myself down, Troy had approached the first of the switchbacks. He couldn’t make the incredibly sharp turn and had to BACK UP! I literally could not see the edge of the cliff , just the drop. Just as I thought we wouldn’t make it, Troy got traction, backed up and made the turn downwards. My heart was beating so fast I was sure everyone could hear it. The next switchback had us backing up as well, but at least we were not hanging on the edge of the drop-off. Slowly we weaved our way through the remaining switchbacks to flat ground. Looking back up it was amazing to know that we had actually descended it!
The rest of our trek was no less beautiful as we descended below tree line and into lush forest. The trail was rough in sections here but being on flat ground, it was no problem. Every so often the kids would spot a deer grazing, its head up to following our passing. We arrived at Ironton, the place where we rejoined the San Juan Byway (Hwy 550) for our long drive home. This truly was the most spectacular and memorable day of our trip.