Morning was beautiful at the mouth of Cunningham Gulch, though we were in the shade for a while as the sun worked its way over the ridge to our east.
I forget if it was Monte @Blackdawg or Dan @drr that asked, but one of them mentioned the small ponds across the way - some large-for-the-size-of-the-ponds fish inhabiting the cold waters. Intrigued, I headed that way, while Dan - because I'm pretty sure it was Dan who mentioned it - headed to the Old Hundred Mill that I mentioned as rather interesting as well.
Breakfast followed, my milk turning to slush as it hit the sides of my plastic cereal bowl. Brrr, must have been a cold morning. Soon enough, the sun rose high enough to envelop our camp in a warming brilliance and after a leisurely morning we were all packed up and ready to head into town. Silverton to be exact.
Tower Mountain, rising up at the mouth of Cunningham Gulch.
Sultan Mountain, a little beyond our destination of Silverton.
Once in town, we split up. Monte and Devin @MissBlackdawg headed off in search of water for Ollie, Dan and Mike @Digiratus ended up at the public restrooms, and I ended up in the middle of town at the Shady Lady.
Silverton was a cool place - most of the roads unpaved, the building façades harkening back to the time of their original construction. Only the paint and residents had been updated, the colorful pallet bringing the whole place to life.
Our morning errands complete, we headed back onto the Alpine Loop, quickly getting back into the hills via Cement Creek Road - dust from the roads hanging in the air as we ogled the historic mine ruins.
From there, our route followed Hurricane Pass Road, climbing nearly 2,000 feet to just over 12.5K in just a few miles - the views as we gained elevation, tremendous.
Nearing our turn from Hurricane Pass to Hurricane Peak, an old rail loading ramp jutted out from the hillside. It was with near disbelief that I watched everyone else drive by - intent on continuing the upward journey to the peak. I couldn't pass this spot up, so a quick call over the CB to let everyone know I would catch up, and I was out of the truck - sprinting up the hillside to get a different perspective.
At the top, I discovered both the view I'd been looking for, as well as a special surprise - a mine shaft carved into the mountain - water trickling out through the protective grating over the mouth.
My curiosity satisfied for a few minutes, I caught up with the guys who'd waited for me at the next overlook. It was from this point on that our views of Corkscrew Gulch and Red Mountain No. 1 really never ended. Contrasted dramatically against the surrounding ridges and blue sky, I must have take nearly 100 versions of the same photo, as each time I glanced to the west, I couldn't help but gasp just a little.
We were clearly above the tree line at this point, and like many of the other high mountain passes we'd travelled, the road wound its way up a screefield, switching back on itself in order to temper the ascent. At times, we were driving into the sky.
Other times we found ourselves on plateaus - above it all from one direction, and yet still several hundred feet below our ultimate destination. I wasn't the only one in search of frequent stops at this point, and we were often all our of our trucks to capture the midday splendor.
Eventually we reached the terminus of the road, some 300 feet below the summit of Hurricane Peak. From the air, we must have looked like mice, scurrying from a sinking ship as we parked our trucks and scattered in different directions to capture the view.
From the ridge leading to Hanson Peak, our earlier route over California Pass was easily seen; Engineer Pass far in the distance.
In the end, Devin had the right idea from the get-go, making a beeline towards the summit of Hurricane Peak. Soon we all followed, the excitement of what lay at the top easily offsetting the exertion needed at 13,447 feet above sea level.
Too soon - but nearly half an hour after achieving our second highest elevation of the trip - we picked our way back down, the lure of Corkscrew Gulch's red rocks, beckoning us onward. We hadn't discussed it to that point, but as I looked out over the landscape - the red ridges filling more and more of the horizon, I mentioned on the CB that it would be a great place to eat lunch.
As we had at Hurricane Ridge, we spent a good amount of time just soaking in the views at Corkscrew Gulch. A whole different perspective, we were both above and within the mountains here - and the colors, well - they were the most vibrant we'd seen the entire trip. Lunch here was a treat, even if it was a bit breezy.
Eventually, we were forced to face the fact that we had more places to be - and see - there was no rest for the curious. We got ourselves turned around and back up the narrow switchbacks that had ushered us to our lunch overlook.
The remainder of the Corkscrew Gulch trail was reasonably uneventful. As our elevation dropped, we found ourselves back in the trees, the views of the morning now obscured by the foliage. We continued down - toward US-550, the Million Dollar Highway - passing a few UTVs and Jeeps headed in the opposite direction.
A short jaunt on pavement - it couldn't have been more than a couple of miles - and we were back on dirt, this time headed up Red Mountain Pass Road in search of the historic Corkscrew Gulch Turntable. What we didn't know, was that this area would prove to be one of the richest of our trip from a mining history perspective. Almost immediately, a reasonably in-tact complex presented itself alongside the road.
Being that it was already 2:30pm, we resisted the urge to stop, and continued onwards towards our destination. That, we discovered, was a parking area - the turntable some eight-tenths of a mile along an old railroad-grade-turned-hiking-trail. All of us - even Mike - set out on foot!
Unfortunately, all but one of us made it to the turntable, the uneven surface and distance getting to Mike's leg after nearly half a mile. There wasn't much to see, but what little was left of the turntable showed it to be a reasonably major operation, used to turn a locomotive up and down a switchback too steep for it to navigate alone.
An hour later, we returned to the trucks, our buddy Mike, and to our southward exploration of Red Mountain Pass.
In the 1880s and 1890s, the Red Mountain mining district was a booming 19th-century industrial juggernaut in the pristine San Juan Mountains. Silver was the basis of the currency, and much wealth was created in the area. Towns sprang up overnight, and the mountain sides were soon stripped of trees. Ranchers settled in the nearby valleys to raise cattle to feed the hungry miners, and railroads (like the Durango Silverton Narrow Guage Railroad) were built through rugged mountain passes to carry ore to be processed.
One of the richest discoveries in the area was made in 1882 by a prospector named John Robinson, and that claim was developed into the Yankee Girl Mine. One of only three vertical-shaft mines in the area, the Yankee Girl ore was so rich that it was shipped directly to the smelter, bypassing preliminary processing. The ore was valued at $10,000 per ton, and over $100 million (in today's terms) was extracted before the mine was shut down in 1898 after the country went to the gold standard and silver prices plummeted. Outdoor Project
The headframe covers an enormously deep, 1,200' vertical shaft. We tried dropping a rock through the grate, and never heard it land.
Wondering if we'd found a hole to the other side of the earth, we were careful as we stepped away from the Yankee Girl shaft and continued on our way. A plethora of mines presented themselves - several in various states of reclamation. For any mine buffs, this would be a fascinating place to explore. And yes, that means I'd love to go back with a bit more time!
Unknown loading chute.
Still-active mines in the area.
Looks can be deceiving; you definitely wouldn't want to drink out of this tailings pond.
It was here, as we were admiring a headframe that - like the Yankee Girl - was covered for protection from the harsh winters, that Mike had a bit of trouble with the Redhead. As we started up the trucks to move out, he notified us over the CB radio that the Redhead had stalled.
The same thing had happened the previous day at the crest of Cinnamon Pass, but we'd all sort of chalked it up to elevation, and his truck starving for air - because really, if we could bury our heads in the sand and have the problem go away, that would be the best course of action. Having the same thing happen a second time meant that there really was a problem, but once again we tried to ignore it - Mike waiting a few minutes and then trying again, the Redhead starting up when he did, allowing us to proceed along our high road along the ridge above US Basin and Browns Gulch (San Juan County Rd 825).
Even keeping his truck running at all times, the Redhead died twice more as we made our way along the ridge. Each time, it seemed to have something to do with the engine being both hot as well as low on fuel. We'd pop the hood to let it cool a few moments, and then Monte would "lay hands" on the throttle body, opening it fully as Mike keyed the ignition.
Eventually, we realized that Mike could achieve the same result by fully pressing the throttle as he attempted to restart the truck. This was a good thing, as the Redhead stalled three more times at the beginning of our descent towards the Million Dollar Highway.
It was not, however, a good thing that the Redhead was dying in the first place. Especially concerning to me was that we were planning to run Black Bear Pass the following day - the elevation and steep trail, a bad combination for an AT truck that was continually stalling out. Could the Redhead be down, again!?
Since it seemed that the problem was lack of fuel, our ultimate solution - for the remainder of the trip - was some talented, two-foot driving by Mike - one foot keeping fuel flowing with the accelerator, the other providing resistance on the brakes. It was a bit sketchy, sure - but it worked, and we made it to camp!
Camp, it turned out, was difficult to find. We'd planned to camp up the road leading to Clear Lake, but with the exception of campgrounds, all of the dispersed camping had been closed to motorized traffic - a bummer, but understandable given the amount of traffic this area sees! We tried several other roads, finally finding ourselves high atop a tailings pile, a mile or so off of the Million Dollar Highway.
It was dramatic, to say the least.
Around the camp fire that night, the topic of conversation was predictable - what were we going to do about Mike's truck? Hoping I had some MAF cleaner in my OSK, I pulled it out of the bed only to find that I'd removed it in the Tacoma's weight loss regimen the previous winter. Initially a bummer, several of us came to the similar conclusion that while a dirty MAF might cause abnormal fuel trims and decreased gas mileage, stalling wasn't something we'd ever associated with such a condition.
In the end, there wasn't much we could do except to monitor the situation - and monitor it we'd be forced to do, because running Black Bear and Imogene Pass on our final day on the trail had been the only request Mike had made as far as the route was concerned. There was no way he was missing out on this fun. Or whatever it turned out to be.