In the rugged mountains ringing the San Luis Valley, visitors may trace the steps of early prospectors and other fortune seekers who were lured to the region by promises of gold, silver, turquoise, and other minerals. Although the bustling mining camps of the late 19th century have faded, the Valley’s frontier spirit lingers. Downtown districts, railroads, mines, and landscapes preserve the fascinating stories of the area’s rich mining history.
1 Creede: Depot, Underground Mining Museum – The Creede Museum, located in the historic railroad depot, features memorabilia from Creede’s boomtown heyday. The museum library houses a large collection of historic photos and documents. The Underground Mining Museum, located in a man-made cavern, has life-like exhibits that demonstrate historic silver mining techniques and mining equipment. Creede Museum Memorial Day-Labor Day: Monday-Saturday 10am-5pm | 719.658.2374 | Underground Mining Museum Summer: daily 10am-4pm | Fall-Spring: weekdays 10am-3pm | 719.658.0811
2 Bachelor Loop Tour – The 17-mile Bachelor Loop Tour takes visitors past historic mines and camps in the Creede Mining District. A four-wheel drive vehicle is not required, but the gravel road has some steep, narrow grades through West Willow Creek Canyon. Visitors should allow about an hour to drive the full loop, but may turn around at any of the 16 numbered sites.
3 Silver Thread Scenic and Historic Byway – Narrow footpaths that once carried nomadic groups through the San Juan Mountains eventually developed into stage coach routes, toll roads, and today’s modern highways. One of the most beautiful is the Silver Thread Scenic Byway. On this 135-mile journey linking South Fork, Creede, and Lake City to US 50 west of Gunnison, travelers experience southern Colorado’s rich history, wildlife, and spectacular Rocky Mountain scenery, including North Clear Creek Falls, one of Colorado’s Seven Natural Wonders. Another historic route traversed Stoney Pass to link the mining camps of Baker’s Park (now Silverton) with the railhead at Alamosa by way of Creede and the Upper Rio Grande Valley. Stage coach passengers, mail sacks, and ore wagons bounced over this desolate, high country road. The road over Stoney Pass is suitable for OHV and 4-wheel drive vehicles only.
4 Denver & Rio Grande Railroad Water Tank – At its height in about 1890, the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad (D&RG) had the largest operating narrow gauge railroad network in North America, linking Denver with Santa Fe and other distant cities. This railroad was a major carrier for coal and other minerals. A historic water tank that served the railroad still stands north of US 160 in the town of South Fork . This tank was part of a spur line that extended to the mining town of Creede.
5 San Juan Driving Tour (over Stunner Pass) – The San Juan Driving Tour takes today’s visitor along U.S. Forest Service roads within the Conejos Mountains. The historic gold mining camps along this route (Jasper, Stunner, Platoro, and Summitville) speak of an era when thousands of prospectors rushed to the Valley to seek fame and fortune in the “Silvery San Juans” and a few lucky men became millionaires overnight. Motorists may stop at Chinzell Flats where the array of blue columbine inspired Colorado’s state song, “Where the Columbines Grow.” To access this route from Del Norte, take 14 Rd. south where it will become FR 330 and climbs up past Summitville where it joins FR 380. Take FR 380 to the left and follow it around Prospect Mt. and Lookout Mt. until it runs into FR 250. Taking FR 250 to the left leads down the Alamosa River into La Jara on X Rd (CO 15). Following FR 250 to the right leads to Stunner Pass and Platoro, and then down the Conejos River to Antonito on CO 17. From Del Norte to Antonito is 72 miles or about 3 hours. The roads are 2-wheel drive and are open all summer. Call 719.657.3321 for road conditions.
6 Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad and Depot – The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad was constructed in 1880 as part of the Rio Grande San Juan Extension. This narrow gauge line served the silver mining district of the San Juan Mountains. While other lines were converted to standard gauge, the San Juan Extension persisted as a narrow gauge railroad. Eventually the most scenic section was preserved and converted to passenger travel. Located at an important rail connection, the 1882 depot stands to this day just east of Main Street in Antonito. Passenger trains, located in the new depot at the edge of town, operate from Memorial Day Weekend-mid October departing Antonito daily | 1.888.CUMBRES for ticket reservations and fares | www.cumbrestoltec.com
7 Denver & Rio Grande Railroad Locomotive #169 — At the time of its construction in 1883, No. 169 was one of the fastest narrow gauge engines built. The engine operated for 50 years and traversed rails that linked Alamosa with mining centers such as Crestone, Bonanza, Orient, and Creede. The engine now rests at Cole Park in Alamosa as a reminder of the steam engine’s glory days. http://www.museumtrail.org/Engine169.asp
8 Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve – Visitor center exhibits illuminate the long history visitors have with the Great Sand Dunes – from early American Indians to modern travelers. Many of the landmarks around the Valley were named by early Spanish explorers and settlers. Spanish prospectors used arrastras, or stone wheels, to crush rocks and release ores from mineral veins in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains north and south of the Sand Dunes. Summer: 9am-6pm | Spring and Fall: 9am-5pm | Winter: 9am-4:30pm | 719.378.6399 | http://www.nps.gov/grsa/
9 Rio Grande County Museum – The museum features a collection of stories and artifacts that illuminate the mining heritage of the region. Del Norte originated as a supply town for the mines of the Summitville District in the Conejos Mountains. The Summitville Mother Lode drew thousands to the San Juan Mountains and set the stage for the San Luis Valley’s homesteading rush. Tuesday-Saturday: 10am-5pm | 719.657.2847 or 800.233.4403; 9am-10pm| http://www.rgcm.org
10 Orient Mine – From the early 1890’s until its closing in 1932, the Orient Mine was the only iron mine in Colorado. In 1881 the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad built tracks to the mine. At its peak, over 200 tons of ore were shipped to smelters in Pueblo and Durango each day. In 1893, an under-hand stopping method used to remove ore caused a cave-in. The bodies of six men were recovered, but the actual number of miners who died and were left buried remains one of the Valley’s mysteries. The Orient Mine and Valley View Hotsprings are protected by the Orient Land Trust. 719.256.4315; 9am-10pm | http://www.olt.org/index.htm
11 Bonanza – Bonanza sits nestled at the base of the southern Sawatch Mountains. Founded in 1880 and once a thriving mining camp, it is now the smallest incorporated town in Colorado, with a population of just 16. During the mining boom, Ulysses S. Grant held stock in Bonanza mines. Visitors to Bonanza may explore its historic cemeteries and take in the views of the aspen covered peaks named for the Ute tribal leaders, Chipeta and Ouray. Signs in the town and a U.S. Forest Service brochure interpret this historic mining district.