It was a beautiful, crisp September morning in Silverton and we were looking for gold! Aspen gold, that is. We had come north to this southwestern Colorado town for the fall color extravaganza but it appeared we had arrived a few days too early. The fall colors are fickle and fleeting and the signature golden hue we sought was still limited to a few small clumps of trees in the immediate area. From experience, we knew local color conditions can vary widely from valley to valley so we immediately put "Plan B" into effect. If the color wouldn't come to us, we would go seek it out! Our destination for the day was to be the ghost town of Carson, perched high on the Continental Divide, almost 30 miles distant. Covering that much ground increased our chances of finding some of the brilliant trees that we were seeking. The fact that the area we would be traversing is some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in the entire country did very little to dissuade us either.
After a leisurely "bed-and-breakfast" start time of nearly 10 a.m., we headed east out of town on Highway 110. The road quickly turns to graded gravel on leaving Silverton and then becomes much narrower, steeper, and rockier at the old town site of Eureka. We continued climbing to the ruins of Animas Forks, dropped into Low Range, and turned right and up toward Cinnamon Pass. Cinnamon Pass will always hold a very special place in my four-wheeling memories as it was the first high Colorado pass I traversed in a Jeep over thirty years ago.
Cresting the ridgeline, we started the long, gradual drop into the headwaters of the Gunnison River. This deep mountain valley has a generous carpeting of aspen clinging to its sculpted sides and our excitement rose as we noticed that the annual color change was much further along on this side of the pass. Just short of Castle Lakes, we started keeping a sharp lookout for the turnoff up Wager Gulch leading to our destination -- the abandoned mining camp of Carson.
We were looking for "gold," but over one hundred twenty years ago a man by the name of Christopher Carson was seeking gold of the more permanent variety. He staked out the Bonanza King Mine and several other properties when the mining district was organized in 1881. His mine was an early producer and the town that grew up in the area soon bore his name. History of the area is a little fuzzy, but it is probable that the name of Carson was actually used by two different towns created during two different mining booms. "Old Carson" is situated at the head of the gulch on both sides of the Continental Divide. The settlement grew up around the aforementioned Bonanza King Mine, the St. Jacobs, the Thor, and the other 150 or so claims in the area. Silver was king and the district grew rapidly. A road was built up Wager Gulch in 1883 to facilitate getting supplies in and the rich ore out. A southern route was added in 1887 when a competing road was pushed up Lost Creek from the Atlantic side of the Divide. Carson was a bustling, busy place until the silver crash of 1893 abruptly quieted the area. Additional discoveries of gold-bearing properties livened things back up for a time and nearly $200,000 in gold was taken out of the St. Jacob's alone in 1898. The long distance from the railroad and increasing extraction costs once again slowed production and by the early 1900s, the town was mostly silent.
A later strike at the Bachelor Mine led to the construction of a later version of Carson, and it is these buildings near the mine in Wager Gulch that still stand today. This well-preserved site is about 4 miles up Wager Gulch from the valley road. The road is steep and rocky in places but is still easily navigated by a stock SUV. As we climbed higher, the colors just kept getting better. Finally, at a switchback about halfway to the town site, we stopped, shut down the motor, and sat in enthralled silence.
It was one of those quintessential four wheeling moments: a rocky dirt road leading upward, suffused with the iridescent golden light that only aspen trees under a sunny sky can provide, canopied with a Colorado sky so blue that it defied description. It was one of those truly special moments that, at least partly, explains our passion for this form of recreation: a place to stop, pause, and just try to soak it all in.
We finally shook ourselves loose from our own little version of gold fever and pushed on up the trail. Right at the tree line, the buildings of "new" Carson pop into view across the meadow. A relatively recent upgrade to metal roofing should help keep the severe Colorado winters and their frequent and abundant snow load from erasing these buildings. Park the vehicles, stretch your legs, and explore the properties. Remember to take only photos and memories so future enthusiasts may do the same!
The road to the ridgeline was obvious at this point, and soon a four-way intersection on the Continental Divide slid into view. The road to the right quickly dead ends on a shoulder of Bent Peak. The road to the south also terminates with a viewpoint above the Lost Creek Valley and provides some good views back toward the scattered remains of Old Carson. A turn to the left passes some of the mining buildings and then climbs still higher up the ridge to the east. There is one stretch of road that is quite steep but if you know how to actuate a transfer case, head on up! The view from the crest is dramatic with the mighty San Juan range dominating the entire western horizon. A fork just past the crest leads to the historic La Garita Stock Driveway (left) and the road down past Heart Lake, Pearl Lakes, and eventually, the highway between Creede and Lake City.
We reluctantly turned to retrace our route, marveling once again at the magic of sunlit aspen groves on the downward trail. Even with all of our "gold" prospecting, town site explorations, and numerous camera stops, we slipped back into Silverton by 6 p.m.
Carson is one of those relatively out-of-way places that provides an unforgettable window into the rich history and stunning topography of the San Juan Mountains. Grab your favorite 4WD, a map, a camera, and a friend or two. And remember, there is still gold in those hills!