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Following the Rio Grande River

Posted in Events on August 1, 2011
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In 1836, the Texas Revolution stripped Mexico of a vast territory that became a breakaway nation called the Republic of Texas (see our July 2011 issue for more of that story). The western boundary claimed by the new republic was partially defined by the Rio Grande River. It included much of New Mexico, Colorado, and Oklahoma. It also followed the Continental Divide and went north into Wyoming.

The climb out of the valley toward Stony Pass is steep and very scenic.

We could find no records to indicate that anyone from the Republic of Texas or from Mexico had ever been to the mountains of the San Juans. In those days, countries laid claim to unsettled territory by simply drawing lines on a map. The only people living in those remote areas were scattered tribes of Native Americans.

In 1845, Texas was annexed by the United States. That agreement included the sale of all territory outside its present boundaries to the United States to pay off the huge debts it had incurred fighting with Mexico.

Mexico disputed that purchase, saying Texas was still part of Mexico. The result was the Mexican-American war. The United States easily conquered Mexico and even took over Mexico City for a while. A treaty was signed in which the USA paid $18 million to Mexico for all lands it claimed north of the present Mexican border.

The trail to Stony Pass is narrow in places.

It was more than fifteen years before anyone from the United States followed the Rio Grande into the San Juan mountain area. During the late 1860s, trappers and prospectors used Del Norte as their supply point to explore trails previously known only to Native Americans. One of those trails crossed the Continental Divide and entered the Animas River Valley by way of Stony Pass.

A prospector named George Howard was among the first to file a claim in the valley. In 1872, he built his home at the point where Cunningham Creek flows into the Animas River. At that time, the primary access being used into the valley was over Stony Pass and along Cunningham Creek. By 1874, the settlement of Howardsville had formed and became documented as the first town in the valley. It became the first post office and county seat.

We had fog on the west side of the pass but much more sunshine after crossing the Continental Divide.

We left Howardsville with the intention of connecting to the Rio Grande River and following it all the way across the state. It was a foggy day that limited our enjoyment of the scenic views normally enjoyed on the way to the top but when we crossed the Continental Divide, we were greeted by patches of blue sky.

The official name of the road that was built when the pack trail over Stony Pass was widened is County Road 3. The National Forest calls it FR 520. It was never in the condition that travelers enjoy today. There were a couple points where wagons had to be disassembled to get up or down. The road was heavily used until the railway was built between Durango and Silverton.

The front of the vehicle would be in Texas and the back end would be in Mexico, if we were to use the borders that existed in 1845. The vehicle straddled the headwaters of the Rio Grande River.

A short distance east of the pass, the road crosses a small flow of water that makes up the headwaters of the Rio Grande River. The water passes through a tile under the roadway. The river is so small at that location; it is possible for a vehicle to straddle it. By mentally traveling back in time to 1845, the front of the vehicle can be imagined to be within the border of Texas while the back of the vehicle can be in Mexico. Fortunately, both sides are now within the border of Colorado.

The river takes a direct line to the floor of the valley, but the road stays high on the Texas side of the mountain. The many scenic views along the way all include looking down on the river. When the road catches up to the river at the valley floor, the driver is faced with crossing Pole Creek. There is no bridge for it and during certain times, it can be more than headlight deep. When we were there in July, it was bumper deep.

During the 1880s, a small settlement existed between Stony Pass and Pole Creek called Grassy Hill but we are not sure exactly where it was. An old map shows it closer to the pass than the creek.

The river runs along the floor of the valley while the road gradually descends the side of the mountain offering spectacular views.

Bear Creek empties into the River from the south side. A side road follows that creek going south to Kite Lake. During the 1890s, Bear Town was established near the lake but did not last long.

During that same time frame, a small settlement called Junction City was located beside the Rio Grande River near the Bear Creek junction. There are primitive camp sites in that area now.

Timber Hill was a dreaded section of the road during the early years. Although the road had been widened enough for wagons to pass, the surface was rocky and frequently muddy. It was a steep grade through a dense forest. Bandits took advantage of the difficult pace and chose Timber Hill to set up their ambush. A landmark on Timber Hill is a huge boulder on the south side of the trail.

The only major settlement that ever existed on the Stony Pass Road was called Lost Trail Camp. During the 1890s, it served as a stage stop with stores, saloons, and even a post office. The town is gone but a National Forest Campground took its place. Beyond that point, the road surface is well maintained and eventually connects to Highway 149.

Depending on recent weather conditions and the time of year, Pole Creek can be very deep.

Join us next month as we continue across Colorado along the banks of the Rio Grande River. We will visit the gravesite of the dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard. The coward was Bob Ford, and, of course, Mr. Howard was Jesse James.

GPS Positions
Trip Meter Latitude position North Longitude position West Landmarks and other locations
0.0 N37 50.1346 W107 35.7033 Begin the trip in Howardsville, Colorado. From the billboard, turn right onto San Juan 14.
0.0 N37 48.9197 W107 34.6946 Take the left fork at the sign for Stony Pass.
1.5 N37 49.0023 W107 34.1769 Continue straight.
4.1 0.0 N37 47.6882 W107 32.8599

At some points, the road climbs back up the sides of the mountain to get around areas that would be difficult to build a dependable road surface.

This is the top of Stony Pass. Reset trip meter.
1.1 N37 47.0583 W107 32.0474 Cross the Rio Grande headwaters.
5.7 N37 45.9473 W107 28.1019 Cross Pole Creek.
5.9 N37 45.7326 W107 28.0156 Continue east. The road south goes to Kite Lake.
7.4 N37 44.9038 W107 26.9702 This is Timber Hill.
20.8 N37 43.5143 W107 15.3671 After the Reservoir, this is a campground.
31.6 N37 47.3938 W107 7.7363 This is Highway 149. Turn right to follow the Rio Grande River.

By the time the river exits the dam it has become wider. There are campgrounds constructed on its banks with some great waterside locations.

The tires on Lone Writer’s vehicle are provided by BFGoodrich. GPS mapping is provided by DeLorme. For more information visit

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