The 20-mile-long Silverton Railroad from Silverton to Ironton over Red Mountain Pass was the best paying U.S. railroad per mile when it opened in 1889. The historic railroad ended up only running for a couple decades, but its path is still traceable today, along with the vestiges of the towns and mine sites it served.
On Saturday, Feb. 10, a guided snowshoe tour through the Red Mountain Mining District will give guests a chance to better understand the area's mining heritage and its impact on the San Juan Mountains, while exploring the backcountry. This annual, mid-winter tradition is led by Ouray County Museum curator Don Paulson, who will share detailed stories about mining and mountain life over the last century and a half, as well as facts about the names of peaks and other geographical features along the route.
A retired California State University professor, who led research projects and taught organic chemistry, he has always been interested in narrow gauge railroads and Colorado mining. He began coming to Ouray and researching the area's history in the mid-1970s, and moved here in 2006.
"The winter scenery is beautiful and the structures in the snow make for very outstanding photos. If you love history and being outdoors in the winter this is the trip for you," said the tour guide, who has authored several books, articles and talks on the area's history, including "Mines, Miners and Much More" published by Twain Press in July 2015.
Tour guests will join him on cross country skis and snowshoes on a route that is about two miles each way on County Road 31 from Highway 550 to the Yankee Girl Mine. The area's most prolific silver producer in the late 1800s, Yankee Girl's head frame is an often-photographed, iconic structure and visible for miles across Red Mountain Pass. The head frame is the building on top of the 1,500-foot deep shaft that raised and lowered the ore and miners from the mine.
Tour participants will also visit the site of the town of Guston, which has several photogenic buildings. "The tour takes place at 10,000 feet so participants should be acclimated to the altitude. It can be taken by any age as long as you're in good physical condition," he said.
The tour is organized by the Ouray County Historical Society and the Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership (UWP), a nonprofit protecting and restoring the Upper Uncompahgre Watershed. UWP has completed remediation projects to improve water quality in streams near abandoned mines, and helps organize the annual San Juan Mining & Reclamation Conference, among its many activities.
UWP communications director Tanya Ishikawa said, "I've taken this tour twice now and can't wait to get up there a third time. Snowshoeing is such a fun way to spend the day in the mountains, and I always meet interesting people on the trail. Plus, Don is truly a great interpreter of the past who makes history come alive."