* If you are interested in the history of the Huerfano Valley, be sure to read the comment section.
Bill and I headed out at 6:00 a.m. for an 8 o'clock rendezvous with Bill's daughter, Laura, grandson, Quinton and friend, Nathan in Walsenburg, Colorado - gateway to the Huerfano (pronounced War-fan-oh) Valley.
The sun was bright red as it came up over the horizon and broke through the clouds and the lingering smoke from the Los Angeles fires. "Red sky in the morning, Sailors take warning..."
After a huge breakfast at George's Restaurant (they have the BEST breakfast burrito with green chili!), we drove west along Route 69 towards Gardner, CO - a small historic town that was over-run with hippies in the 60's - turned onto CR550 to Red Wing - more of a bend in the road than an actual town - and through the Huerfano State Wildlife Area to the Upper Huerfano trail heads at the foot of Mt. Blanca in the San Isabel National Forest. Most of the trip was slow and extremely bumpy as we crawled over rocks and boulders on the poorly maintained jeep trails - but the views were worth it!
This cute little fixer-upper was along the trail at exactly 10,000 feet. I would love to know the history - who, when, how and why.
Finally, a little after 10:00 a.m. we headed out on the trail. The youngsters, Laura, Quinton and Nathan were already way ahead of us old folks. They took a detour up to Lily Lake on Blanca Peak as we headed further west to the high mountain canyon on the back side of Mount Blanca. The elevation at the trail head was about 10,600 feet, over 4000 feet above Colorado Springs. Hiking was much more of a challenge for me at that elevation - so we took it easy.
The trail wound up and through some of the most beautiful scenery in Colorado, roughly following the Huerfano River back to its headwaters.
The flora was colorful but most of the wildflowers were past unlike last year when we hiked there in early summer.
We could see Mount Blanca and Mount Lindsey through the trees. There were pockets of snow on the barren rocks above treeline.
Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful!
This time of year, most of the mountain snows have already melted so it was a dryer walk than earlier in the year. We crossed the stream almost a dozen times and still kept our feet dry. That's because, this trip, we remembered to pack dry socks.
This is an American Dipper, a strange little non-descript stout, dark gray bird that lives along the river banks. He feeds on aquatic larvae by jumping head first into rushing water.
We stopped and watched this little guy as jumped from rock to rock before diving into the cold water for a light snack. What a hoot!
Further up the trail we could hear voices. Looking out of the woods towards the river we saw a group of horseback riders with pack mules walking single file back along the lower trail.
Two of them came over to talk to us. They were Rangers with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They had just ridden up to stock Lily Lake with fish and were on their way back to the trail head. They told us to be careful as it was archery season and there there hunters in the area; not to mention the bear and mountain lion.
We were almost to the McMillian Mill, an old, long-ago abandoned, mill site set deep in the canyon.
I don't know much of the history of the mill site, except it was built to support the MacMillan Gold Mine higher in the mountains. The mine was once owned by Bill's father-in-law, Jay Parsons and his friend, Harold Brown. As far as we know, it was sold after the Forest Service blocked motorized access (they blew-up the road) and made it a wilderness area.
This is a quote from an printed interview with Alton & Mary Tirey, long-time residents in the area:
"The MacMillan Mine mined gold and some silver. It was a hard rock mine at the foot of Mt. Blanca. There were 2-3 boarding houses and many family residences. They were snowbound November through April or May. They had a six or eight horse team they used to freight ore out and bring supplies in. They were all white horses, and they were rigged up with sleigh bells all over them because they hauled that wagon in and out fast and wanted everyone on the road to get out of their way. Alton's mom remembers two or three saloons up there. They were still standing when I was a kid. The MacMillan Mine operated years before I was born in 1906."
All along the trail, we crossed thick cable lines and timbers that were laid to support the wagon trains that brought in the workers and heavy equipment and carried out the the gold and silver ore.
Hendrie & Bolthoff Mfg. and Supply Co, Denver, Col. These are the steam boilers that powered the crushers and ran the tram that brought the ore down from the mines.
We stopped at the mill site for a light lunch. It was obvious that many, many people had been there before us. Behind me is a decaying wood pile with enough firewood to keep a fire going through a long, cold winter.
This is the view from above the old mill looking down towards the river and east - back to the trail head. Just behind where I was standing to take this picture was the foundation of an old mountain cabin - or maybe one of the boarding houses. I need to do some more research on the area...
Above the mill, almost to timberline, in the heart of the canyon. There were high walls of mountains on three sides. You can see the snow on the mountain. There were several thick wrapped steel cables coming down the side of the mountain from the abandoned mines.
At timberline, over 11,000 feet, we could look up and through the pass to Blanca Peak. Bill has been to this area many, many times - hiking, fishing and hunting. He even owns land near the peak on the Alamosa side of the mountain - but you can't get to it! It's interesting to hear his stories especially those from the 70's when he farmed in the San Luis Valley and hunted in these mountains for Bear, Elk and Deer - meat for the family. He came in on horseback and camped for weeks while he hunted. He tells one story about hippies from Gardner that ate his horse.....
This is one of the waterfalls that marks the headwaters of the Huerfano River. This time of year, it's just a trickle - but that's not the case in the Spring when the snow begins to melt.
Our GPS was useless as the mountain walls blocked the signals from the satellites. It stopped at 11,059 feet - back by the mill site.
We explored the area and took lots of pictures before the clouds began to darken and we heard thunder in the distance. We decided it was time to start the long hike back to the car. The "kids" caught up with us about the half-way point. They had reached Lily Lake (12,400 feet elevation) and come down around the mountain, through the pass to the canyon where we had been earlier.
They went on ahead waiting in the car where it was warm and dry - while we battled rain, sleet, hail and snow the last mile of our trek. It was a wonderful hike and we enjoyed every minute!
On the way back we detoured to see some more of the area. This picturesque duck pond was near Gardner.
There were two deer on the other side of the pond.
And even more deer down the road.
Every time I see a Great Blue Heron here in Colorado, I wonder when he will head back to Florida.
All-in-all, we saw dozens of deer, chipmunks and black mountain squirrels; several marmots, and lots and lots of birds. We didn't see any elk, bear, mountain lions or hippies.