• JP Magazine
  • Dirt Sports + Off-Road
  • 4-Wheel & Off-Road
  • Four Wheeler

Cochetopa Triangle - "Boys, She's A Bonanza!"

Posted in Events on October 1, 2009 Comment (0)
Share this
Photographers: Joanne Spivack
This sign marks the turn up and out of Silver Creek and the entrance into Toll Road Gulch. The gulch takes its name from the Otto Mears-built toll road used to transport ore and supplies between the Bonanza District and the railroad.

In 30 years of four-wheeling, we have explored a good share of Colorado's high country. Very few areas have eluded our backcountry probing, but a triangle we had never penetrated is roughly bounded by Marshall Pass on the north, Colorado 114 on the south, and Highway 285 on the east. We refer to this area as the Cochetopa Triangle, after the Cochetopa Hills that anchor the area. For years, we have traveled Highway 285 through the San Luis Valley of Colorado, passing the highway sign pointing the way to the town of Bonanza. And we always wondered what was back in those hills. So many places to explore, so little time...

The 2008 Southwest Four Wheel Drive Association's Summer Quarterly Meeting outside Buena Vista, Colorado, brought us within striking distance and the schedule accommodated a quick one-day loop through this intriguing area. We started the day's explorations by turning on to Forest Road 201 from Highway 285 at Mears Junction. Mears Junction is where the old Denver and Rio Grande railroad grade leaves the highway and heads west over Marshall Pass. Marshall Pass is an interesting trip in its own right but it wasn't our destination this August day.

When we reached the old town site of Shirley, instead of heading west over the pass, we turned south up Silver Creek. After about five and a half miles of climbing through this narrow, picturesque valley filled with a chain of small lakes, the road makes an abrupt turn to the left. A sign announces that you are entering Toll Road Gulch and advises four-wheel drive. Ahhh...just what we wanted.

This historic route was built as a toll road, one of many constructed in Colorado by Otto Mears. Known as "The Pathfinder" for his road and railroad work, especially in the San Juan Mountains, Mears was a successful road developer and entrepreneur who constructed literally hundreds of miles of toll roads to serve mining camps in Colorado. This particular route connected the rapidly expanding camps in the Bonanza District to the railroad. We followed Mears' creation as it wound up and out of the Silver Creek drainage, rewarding us with spectacular views of both Mount Ouray and Mt. Shavano. As we neared the saddle, our views broadened with the Collegiate Range marching northward on the horizon. After passing through the high notch, the road meanders into the Squirrel Creek valley and drops toward Bonanza.

As we descended towards Bonanza from the north, we first came to the Superior Mill. Built in 1959, it testifies to the boom-bust nature of mineral extraction continuing to the present day. The structure is large but less interesting than other relics since its internal equipment and machinery have been removed. The next site of interest is the portal for the Rawley Mine.

View Slideshow

The Rawley Mine was one of the largest producers in the area. Founded in 1880, it shipped more than $6-million worth of ore. In 1911, a new tunnel over a mile long was driven in from this location to access multiple mining properties and provide an exit for the water that plagued the mines. A tram line was erected to carry the processed ore from the Rawley up and over the ridge to the railroad at Shirley. We found the tramline location still shows up clearly on Google Earth.

Shortly after the Rawley tunnel, one reaches the town site of Exchequer. After the big boom in the Leadville area to the north, miners drifted south and hit numerous promising strikes in the vicinity of Bonanza. The area actually supported four separate towns at one time. Sedgwick was laid out in 1880 with Kerber City just across creek. Bonanza was founded in 1881 about two miles north with Exchequer another mile up the creek. Legend has it that when the first strike in Bonanza was made, the prospector exclaimed, "Boys, she is a bonanza!"

The name stuck. As Bonanza grew, it absorbed the population of the other three settlements. A small cemetery is just up the hill at Exchequer and is about all that remains of the town. Always be respectful when visiting these burial grounds. There is no better way to gain a sense of the poignant history of a mining town than reading the graves in the local cemetery. The climate, the relatively primitive conditions, and the inherent danger of the industry exacted a significant toll in return for the hope of making the next big strike. The simple handmade markers bear witness to hard lives, early deaths, and babies who died before even being named. We were glad to see that someone is tending this plot and keeping it tidy.

We drove through the town of Bonanza. It has the distinction of being the smallest incorporated town in the state of Colorado. With only a few dozen permanent residents, it is a far cry from the 1,500 souls who called it home at the height of the boom in 1881. As the price for precious metals fluctuated over the years, so did the town's population. A fire in 1937 wiped out more than 30 buildings in its main business district so what remains is rather sparse and widely scattered.

Following the "Red" route on the Bonanza Off-Highway Vehicle Tour map (see sidebar), we headed up Forest Road 837. This lush and scenic loop took us past several historic mining sites including the Cocomongo Mill. This mill was used for both the Cocomongo Mine and the much more lucrative Bonanza Mine just up the hill. The Bonanza Mine was reopened in 1949 after being closed for more than 50 years. At least some of the mill building dates from this latter incarnation as it housed more modern equipment and is covered in asphalt sheeting. It gives the impression of a stout building but it is slowly succumbing to the harsh Colorado winters. Re-visiting old mining sites, we've sometimes found a tumbled heap of timbers where a building had stood just a few years earlier. Many feet of snow every winter will do that to a roof. The tenuous future of these relics makes our photographic record all the more precious.

View Slideshow

After finishing the Red loop, it was time to start heading back to our camp. We chose to take the "Blue" route back out to Highway 285. This route is marked as more difficult than others as it heads up and over Whale Hill. It appears as if most of the current day traffic is ATV width. While wide enough for a Jeep, the trail felt extremely narrow and demanded the driver's full attention as it hugged the hillside. The road eventually broke out above tree line on top of the hill. The views down into the San Luis Valley from this broad 12,000-foot perch were astounding.

And now comes the fun part...the descent. The route drops almost 4,000 feet in just over six miles to reach the highway. We couldn't help but think about the test this road would give a cooling system if it were run in the uphill direction. The drop is steep and sustained; and in short order we had reached the highway and were headed back to our campsite.

We only scratched the surface of the Cochetopa Triangle during our quick one-day survey. We will definitely be returning to explore the rest of the roads and trails to the south and west of Bonanza and to enjoy the several other routes stretching from the Otto Mears toll road to the highway. After all, "She is a bonanza!"

View Slideshow
View Slideshow
GPS Coordinates
Waypoint Description
Latitude N Longitude W

{{{M}}} D.DDD M D.DDD
Mears Junction 38 26.893 106 6.406
Site of Shirley 38 25.352 106 7.719
Entrance to Toll Road Gulch 38 21.813 106 10.65
Superior Mill 38 19.65 106 8.667
Rawley Mine Portal 38 18.863 106 8.592
Exchequer Cemetary 38 18.367 106 8.767
Town of Bonanza 38 17.644 106 8.559
Cocomongo Mill 38 18.767 106 9.017
Whale Hill {{{Summit}}} 38 19.317 106 6.2
Intersection of Fr 890 and Hwy 285 38 20.283 106 0.95

Comments

Connect With Us

Newsletter Sign Up

Subscribe to the Magazine

Sponsored Content