Scenic Byway: Silver Thread

Scenic Byway: Silver Thread 1On the Silver Thread Scenic and Historic Byway, modern travelers view sights that marveled 1870s stagecoach passengers. The mighty Rio Grande carves huge curves through a lush valley. Centuries-old mudslides scar a mountain slope. The jagged profile of the San Juan Mountains etches the western horizon.

As the 75-mile route follows Colorado 149 from South Fork to Lake City, it parallels the Rio Grande River and then climbs over the Continental Divide to Lake Fork of the Gunnison River.

Those who travel the byway can fish, hike, attend repertory theater productions and explore shops, museums and galleries in historic towns.

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A 17-mile self-guided auto tour winds past vestiges of mines that fueled Creede’s economy in the late 19th century.

South Fork, a former stage stop on the Barlow and Sanderson stage line, serves as the east gateway. Heading northwest, the road passes through Coller State Wildlife Area. Lucky travelers may spot Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, golden eagles or bald eagles. In autumn, elk migrate to the area.

Palisades tower beside the highway. Volcanic action created these impressive cliffs.

At Wagon Wheel Gap, a turnoff leads to Wheeler Geologic Area’s extraordinary spiral formations. Those who enjoy rugged 4-wheel-drive roads and have plenty of time will want to take this 24-mile side trip.

Continuing westward, the byway reaches the historic mining town of Creede, nestled in a narrow canyon. Along its main street, 1890s buildings house art galleries, shops, restaurants and B&Bs. The Creede Repertory Theater features about eight productions May through September.

The Underground Mining Museum and Creede Historical Museum chronicle the town’s mining boom and that era’s colorful characters, including Bat Masterson and Soapy Smith. On the 17-mile Bachelor Loop self-guided auto tour, visitors can drive past vestiges of Commodore, Amethyst and Last Chance mines. During Creede’s halcyon years, they extracted more than a million dollars worth of silver ore monthly.

The byway courses through the fertile Upper Rio Grande River Valley for another 20 miles. The meandering river sculpts a sinuous path through ranchlands.

Before turning away from the valley, the route reaches a scenic overlook of Stony Pass and the site of San Juan City, a former settlement on the Barlow and Sanderson stage line. The byway then climbs north through stands of aspen and fir. An overlook captures a glorious vista of Colorado’s largest wilderness area, Weminuche, named after the Weminuche band of the Ute tribe. Rio Grande Pyramid scrapes the sky.

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North Clear Creek Falls tumbles into a canyon hidden from the roadside.

At mile 49, a turnoff leads to North Clear Creek Falls. Because it is not visible from the highway, those unaware of its existence miss out on this beautiful scene. A short trail leads to a close-up view of the thundering cascade. Bristol Head rises in the background.

The byway crosses the Continental Divide at Spring Creek Pass. From Windy Point Overlook’s 11,000-foot elevation, travelers can view the shark fin profile of Uncompahgre Peak, the brilliant color of Red Mountain and several other towering mountains. Lake City sits at the base of the range.

After cresting Slumgullion Pass, a remarkable sight comes into view. A huge swath of earth, called Slumgullion Earthflow, covers a slope where mudslides occurred 350 and 700 years ago. When heavy rains supersaturated the soil, millions of tons of mud and rock broke loose and flowed into the valley below. The deposits formed a natural dam across Lake Fork of the Gunnison River, creating Lake San Cristobal, Colorado’s second largest natural lake.

Yellow, ochre and brown in color, the earthflow reportedly is still moving up to 20 feet a year. As a result, individual trees growing on the slope tilt at odd angles.

On the descent to Lake City, travelers can walk up a short trail to Lake San Cristobal Overlook. On the slope rising behind the alpine body of water, tailings mark the site of Golden Fleece Mine. Its lucrative lode yielded silver, which in 1874 assayed at $40,000 per ton.

On the outskirts of town, the route passes the Alfred Packer Massacre Site. Packer was accused of murdering and cannibalizing five gold seekers he was guiding after they became lost in a severe winter storm. The public labeled him the Colorado Cannibal. In the end, he was found guilty of manslaughter and served five years of a 40-year sentence.

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Views of Bristol Head summit, at 12,713 feet, await travelers on the Silver Thread Scenic and Historic Byway.

The byway reaches its west end in Lake City. Enos Hotchkiss, who established the Golden Fleece Mine, founded the community in 1874. Today the tranquil town is a popular vacation spot, known for its exceptional hunting and fishing. Along Silver Street, specialty shops offer an eclectic array of merchandise. Items include handmade jewelry, crafted wildlife sculptures, fine art by locals and even Alfred Packer dolls.

Before heading home, travelers can enjoy a leisurely stroll in Lake City’s sublime mountain setting.

If You Go

The Silver Thread Scenic and Historic Byway follows Colorado 149 between South Fork and Lake City. The total length is 75 miles; drive time is two hours. The route is great for grand vistas of the San Juan Mountains, mining history and intriguing geology, such as the earthflow. The paved road is open year-round. Lush meadows, wildlife and Creede’s repertory theater make summer a great time to explore.

Creede Chamber of Commerce: 800-327-2102 or www.creede.com

Lake City Visitor Information: 800-569-1874 or www.lakecity.com

South Fork Visitor Center: 800-571-0881 or www.southfork.org

Rose and David Muenker, who live in Denver, are co-authors of the Colorado Front Range History Explorer, which features history-oriented sites and attractions of our state’s most populous region, and Colorado Front Range Scenic & Historic Byways.

From the Editors: We spent a heap of time making sure this story was accurate when it was published, but of course, things can change. Please confirm the details before setting out in our great Centennial State.

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