Better Days Are Coming

Set 7: Colorado 149 - "The Silver Thread Byway" - South Fork to Lake City, Colorado

Text and Photos Copyright ©2002 by Carolyne Butler

Views Through the Windshield Index
PREVIOUS - SET 6: Raton, New Mexico, to Durango, Colorado

NEXT - SET 8: Various Byways off Colorado 149: Creede to Lake City, Colorado

The pictures in this set were all taken along the Silver Thread Scenic Byway, from South Fork to Lake City, except for the first one. These pictures were actually taken on four different days, and during different weather, so the looks of the landscape will vary. I've put the pictures in approximate geographical order (rather than the chronological order of when they were taken), so that the views are such as one would see if driving from South Fork to Lake city.

On the official Colorado road map, the entire length of Highway 149 between South Fork and Lake City is listed as "scenic." We'll vouch for that!

More about the Silver Thread Scenic Byway, including pictures, can be found here:

An overview map of the area can be found here:

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Rio Grande Sign.

Rio Grande Sign

Colorado Highway 149 certainly qualifies for its designation of "scenic." The Rio Grande National Forest, through which Colorado Highway 149 runs, is named for the river whose headwaters arise in it. But the Rio Grande National Forest is more than just the headwaters for the Rio Grande. Read the brief overview on the Rio Grande National Forest home page:
or on the GORP site:


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The Silver Thread Scenic Byway heads northwest from South Fork

The morning dawned with periodic rain accompanied by low clouds. How gloomy. Now we wouldn't get to see much scenery, especially the scenic canyon and gorge that make up the first leg of the journey on Highway 149. But instead, I was surprised to see how beautifully the low clouds actually enhanced some of the views. The highway generally follows the Rio Grande River, although the river isn't always visible from the road.


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Clouds and cliffs along the Silver Thread Scenic Byway.

Cloud mists drift around the colorful cliffs

No photo can do this area justice. But that can be said about a lot of other beautiful places too.


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The Rio Grand River along Colorado Highway 149.

The Rio Grande

This wasn't a sharply focused picture, and the scene has very litle color about it, but it does show how the Rio Grande came near to the highway it followed, or to be exact, the other way around. The river came first. Cloudy scenes such as this look more like the Smoky Mountains to me.


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Low clouds along Colorado Highway 149.

More clouds

When we drove north to Creede on this highway, most of the landscape was cloud-locked; when we returned driving in the opposite direction, the day was mostly sunshiny. As a result, the change in view was so great that it almost seemed we had driven on two different highways.


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Looking north on Main Street in Creede, Colorado.

Looking north on Main Street in Creede

The town of Creede has a population of less than 400 (in 2000), not counting tourists. In its heyday, around 1892, its population reached to over 10,000. And a rollicking place it must have been, with such figures as Calamity Jane, Bat Masterson, and Bob Ford counted among its citizens. (Bob Ford, who shot the outlaw Jesse James, was himself shot and killed in Creede.)

At one time, turbines in one of the old mills in the gorge furnished electricity for lamps that burned 24-hours a day along Creede's one main street. There may not been a connection, but Cy Warman, who founded Creede's first newspaper, The Candle, wrote: "It's day all day in the daytime / And there is no night in Creede." For the rest of his 1892 poem, "And There Is No Night in Creede," CLICK HERE.

More about Creede, including pictures, can be found here:
A whole lot more of interesting history of the area using quotations from old newspapers can be found here:


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Come by and sit a spell. Watch the traffic go by. Eat fudge.

One of a number of beckoning shops in Creede where it's so-o-o easy to spend a few of your tourist dollars.


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Well, what did you expect? Only the pretty sights?

Almost every town we passed through had its ... er, less attractive side.


— 9 of 21 —


General Store

I took this picture on our way back toward South Fork after spending a week at Bristol Head Campground. I wish I'd had time to poke around in here, but we had a long drive ahead of us over Wolf Creek Pass and on to Lake Vallecito near Durango.


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Outdoor mural, Creede, Colorado.

Mural depicting some of Creed's history

I have no idea who the gun fighters are supposed to be. Maybe the guy who shot Bob Ford. Or maybe Bat Masterson.


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Old mining equipment, Creede, Colorado.

This equipment helped men wrest millions of dollars in silver out of the mountains' guts

On the left just up the gorge from downtown Creede are two underground structures, the Voluntary Fire Department and the MINING MUSEUM. If you lack space to build a building, just dig into the mountainside. Across the road from the Mining Museum are a number of large pieces of old mining equipment, some of which you can see in this picture.


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Underground Fire Department, Creede, Colorado.

The only underground fire department in the United States

There was no sign of any activity here. I wondered if anyone stayed here at all, or do the volunteers head here only in case of fire.


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Mountains near Creede, Colorado.

Creede is tucked up in those rocky mountains somewhere

In the section between South Fork and Creede, there are numerous vacation homes along the Rio Grande. A few miles past Creede, vacation homes begin to thin out somewhat. (The entire county, Mineral, of which Creede is the only town, has a population of less than 1,000.) Even with all the vacation homes along the Silver Thread, after we left Colorado Highway 160—which is one of the main east-west routes through Colorado—there was a considerable reduction in tourists and traffic. And that is exactly what we came to Colorado to enjoy.

A few miles out of Creede, the spaces become what can only be termed as "wide open," as you can see in the above picture. At one pull-off along the highway, I took a PANORAMA PICTURE (406kb) that's typical of the views to be seen in this area. (This one's not a VTTW picture—I had to get out of the van to take it.)


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Old mine, one of many in the Creede area.

Ruins of an old mine beside Highway 149

Decrepit structures such as this can be seen in many places in the mountains where people once had mines. It seems that no matter where man has built, whenever something is no longer useful to him, he simply leaves, without cleaning up his mess behind him. I guess that's the way life is . . . at least for now.


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The Rio Grande Pyramid

Finally, we have reached the area where the Rio Grande River is born. At this overlook, a Rio Grande National Forest sign explains the features seen in this view. It says:

Reaching for the Sky

Rio Grande Pyramid stands silent watch over her realm of woods and water. Protected by the 13,830 foot mountain, winter's snow fields gather, later melting under summer's sun.

Filtering down slopes of grass and timber, the moisture bursts forth in rumbling creeks. Pausing briefly in Brown and Hermit Lakes, it pours into the Rio Grande for an 1,850 mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico. Wherever it passes, semi-arid lands are nourished and refreshed; would-be deserts become fertile croplands.

Protective management of high country soils and vegetation helps produce some 1,600,000 acre feet of water each year from Rio Grande National Forest.

This view is looking approximately southwest from Highway 149. For a larger view of the above picture, CLICK HERE.

On another day we drove the Forest Service road past Brown Lakes State Wildlife area, the lake in the foreground—a short section of that road can be seen on the right of the picture—then up as far as a small, mosquito-infested natural lake on Black Mountain. (Some of the pictures from that short trip can be seen in the next set.) The waters seen in this picture are from tributaries of the Rio Grande, particularly South Clear Creek. South Clear Creek leaves Brown Lakes, crosses Highway 149, then flows through our campground, Bristol Head, about a mile or so from where I took this picture. (You'll see a picture of Bristol Head Campground in the next set of pictures.) To the left of the big mountains on the left of this picture is another valley through which the Rio Grande itself flows, and which includes the Rio Grande and Road Canyon Reservoirs. (Some of the pictures from that area are also included in the next set.)


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Slumgullion Earthflow near Lake City, Colorado.

Slumgullion Earthflow near Lake City

This particular earthflow from the mountain-top is still moving; the Web site below says as much as 20 feet a year (another Web site says as much as 28 feet). You can see in this photo how the earth just slumped away from the mountainside. That event happened several hundred years ago, long before the area was invaded by trappers and prospectors and those who followed in their wake. The slide was named Slumgullion because its mud looked like Slumgullion Stew, a reportedly none-too-appetizing dish concocted by old-time prospectors as they rested when traveling over Slumgullion Pass.

For more about this "Slumgullion Slide," see


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Outskirts of Lake City

Rain softens the view of the mountains north of Lake City. (I think perhaps the tallest peak in the distance is Crystal Peak, at 12,933 foot elevation.) Somewhere along the road below is Cannibal Plateau and the site of "The Alferd Packer Massacre." If you're not weak of stomach, you can read more about the "San Juan Cannibal" here: and here:

While in Lake City, we picked up some literature about the area that included a reprint of what artist John Randolph sketched when he discovered the human remains at the Packer massacre site. His drawing was published in Harper's Weekly in October 1874, and the scene was more grisly than what I had imagined. (If you think you just have to see a picture of it, someone has a very small picture online in a slide show at Or for a larger view CLICK HERE. Don't say I didn't warn you!)


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Downtown Lake City

In 1975, Don decided he didn't want to take our annual trip out West. That was the decade (1969-1978) when we traveled West each year. (After that, we had a 20-year hiatus when we were rarely able to take even a short vacation, much less a trip out West.) But Don suggested that if I really wanted to go so much (I did), I could invite his recently widowed cousin and her two boys to go on the trip with me. We had three children, the youngest being about two-years old, the oldest twelve. So off we went, two women with five kids in tow. It was the first time I'd ever gone anywhere like this on my own—and also the last time.

We had planned a four-week grand tour, the longest I had ever been on vacation, and would be using our pop-up camping trailer pulled with the van we had at that time. The first week we were away, Don got so lonesome that one time when I called him to check in, he asked me to change our route because he was going to fly to Denver in one week and join us. So instead of heading on to the Grand Canyon as planned, we turned back toward Denver.

While we were still in Southwest Colorado, though, we went on an all-day jeep tour of the Alpine Loop, which is a top-of-the-world circle route through the high mountains and old ghost towns between Ouray, Silverton, and Lake City, parts of which are accessible only with four-wheel drive. For economy's sake, we had planned to eat out only twice each week, and we had already used our two times in Santa Fe and Taos, so we packed our lunch and ate it at a convenient picnic table here in the park at Lake City, off to the right in the picture. But that was so long ago that very little I saw of Lake City this time looked familiar. (This was Don's first time in Lake City.)

We've been wanting to rent a jeep to drive the Alpine Loop again on our own, but something comes up on each trip so that we haven't been able to do it so far. On this trip, fierce thunderstorms every day decided it for us. We aren't as brave as most tourists. We didn't want to be caught high up on some mountain top in an open jeep while the lightning was dancing.

More about the Alpine Loop and Lake City here:

For some nice photos of someone's trip around the Alpine Loop, go here:


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A picture I couldn't resist taking

I thought it interesting to see flowers growing here in July that back home in Pensacola are considered late winter and early spring flowers. We plant pansies and carnations during our mild winters, and they're already blooming in February. By May the weather in Florida is far too hot for these cool-season flowers, but here at this altitude and temperature, they seem to thrive in summer.

Lake City has several blocks of interesting old homes that I wanted to get some pictures of, but didn't because when we drove past them my camera was unavailable. (I had too rapidly filled all three of my SmartMedia cards and was having to wait to free up one of them as it downloaded to the laptop, which for some mysterious reason known only to computers decided to start crashing the entire time we were driving through town.) Don wanted to get back to the campground and not take more time to loop back through town just so I could snap more pictures. (Maybe next trip.) In the meantime, just to get an idea, you can see photos of some of these houses in this tour of three streets in Lake City:

Perhaps when it was new, this old-timey bathtub now serving as a whimsical flower-pot had a home in one of those quaint little houses.


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Lake San Cristobol, Lake City, Colorado.

Lake San Cristobol, Lake City

The bare earth from the Slumgullion Slide can be seen here between the trees. Lake San Cristobal, the direct result of damming caused by one of the mudslides, covers about three square miles.


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We saw this fellow beside the road between Slumgullion Pass and Spring Creek Pass as we were driving back from Lake City to our campsite. He (or she?) was headed somewhere in a hurry, and I got only one shot at him as we drove by. He remains forever frozen in his leap.


Views Through the Windshield Index
PREVIOUS - SET 6: Raton, New Mexico, to Durango, Colorado
NEXT - SET 8: Various Byways off Colorado 149: Creede to Lake City, Colorado