Exploring The Mining History Of The Cochetopa Triangle
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.