Nature, history and adventure define the Mineral County experience.

The full-time population of Mineral County is only about 700, with our summer visitors adding a very substantial seasonal increase (to around 4000). It's an interesting mix of the old mining and ranching families rich in local tradition, and the newcomers (meaning anyone not born in Mineral County, even if you've lived here 30 years), who have added a certain cosmopolitan nuance to an old mining camp.

Roughly half the folks live in Creede, the county seat and the only incorporated "municipality" in Mineral County. Creede is a tiny town with a charming old-west business district tucked into the mouth of a high mountain canyon, site of a major 1890s silver strike. A high-quality grocery, sporting goods stores, gift shops, galleries, eateries and a repertory theatre line Creede's 6-block "downtown." Hardware and grocery stores and other services are prominent. Creede has a reputation as an arts center with a laid-back attitude, and was voted Colorado’s Top Art Town in 2010. A series of festivals and events dedicated to the arts and local history occur throughout the year.

After the silver mining closed in 1985, the primary economy became tourism, with housing construction and various government employment filling the other top payroll slots. In 2011, silver mining returned to the area, and began providing jobs again. Toursism-based employment is highly seasonal. Local wage scales are lower than many other areas. With our limited privately held land, the residential market, especially rentals, is fairly tight. While real estate prices are climbing, they are still very reasonable compared to many other Rocky Mountain markets. Residential development and home building are "major" activities.

Mineral County is in a very rural area. The nearest major “big box” store is about 55 miles from Creede. Nearest large discount chain stores are about 70 miles. Local customs and culture do not place a high demand on retail services; folks accustomed to 24-hour stores and shops will have some adjusting to do. There is only one gas station in Creede. On the other hand, there are no traffic signals! No MacD's or Burger King either. But we've got great local sandwich builders and some innovative chefs who take pride in their work.

The Region: The San Luis Valley & "Big Cities"

Mineral County is on the western edge of the San Luis Valley, the largest, highest inter-mountain valley on the planet. The six counties that comprise the SLV cover an area roughly the size of the state of Connecticut. The regional population is less than 100,000. The major economy of the SLV is agriculture: cattle, potatoes, hay, wheat, sheep, barley, vegetables, and the like. Mineral County is almost all mountain terrain, and has only a very small involvement in the Valley's agriculture.

Population centers include Alamosa, Monte Vista, Del Norte, Antonito, and a scattering of even smaller towns and villages. Alamosa hosts Adams State University. The Great Sand Dunes National Park is on the eastern side of the SLV. Several hot springs dot the area, some of which are open for public use. West from Mineral County, the nearest sizeable town is Pagosa Springs, and then Durango, about 120 miles from Creede. East it's about 190 miles to Pueblo, the nearest "full service" city. We're about 270 miles southwest of Denver, by highway.

Getting Away From it All

A visit to Creede/Mineral County is definitely an excellent way to "get away from it all." Even with our summer tourism, we do not have the crowds and jostling of better-known destinations. No giant neon signs, cookie-cutter franchise motels or chain restaurants, either. And winter is the undiscovered season of hidden delights, adventure, romance, and mountain majesty. Fewer people, lower prices, actually more activities available than in summer...winter is our secret too special to believe—including Wolf Creek Ski Area, acknowledged to have "the most snow in Colorado." And our attractions are real: an auto tour of the old mining district and ghost towns, a mining tour guided by real hard-rock miners, live theatre, friendly folks, and all tucked into a vast and dramatic natural landscape, with tiny Creede the jewel in the crown.

Living here is the ultimate way to get away from it all. The lifestyle is different. Relaxed, less demanding, more attuned to nature and its attributes. Sure, there's a price to pay for our remote mountain sanctuary. But picture this: for us a Whopper or Egg McMuffin is an unusual treat and a trip to Wal-Mart a major shopping opportunity. Talk about cheap thrills! But most folks living in Mineral County are here for that lifestyle. Those "modern conveniences" quickly fade in significance as you enjoy the full moon cresting a snowy ridge, walk through the golden glow of an autumn aspen glade, pause to watch the mountain sheep in their breathtaking scamper up a cliff face, or gather with your neighbors for the county-wide potluck dinner after the Christmas Tree walk.

Access: Highways, Roads & Airports

Year-round access to Mineral County is via both US Highway 160, which crosses roughly northeast-southwest over Wolf Creek Pass in the south part of the county, and Colorado Highway 149, which cuts a southeast-northwest diagonal through the central part of the county. The state highway folks usually make short work of any snow on these roads. Numerous Forest Service roads and 4-wheel drive and hiking trails crisscross the mountains and are popular recreation access summer through late autumn; however, most are closed by winter snows. Quite a few miles of these roads are groomed for snowmobiles, a very popular activity during the winter. Other trails are groomed for cross-country skiing, also pretty big around here. Highway 149, passing through South Fork, Creede, and Lake City, has been designated the Silver Thread National Scenic Byway. And is it ever! Nearest commercial airports are in Alamosa and Durango, both with car rental agents. Creede sports a 6,700+ foot paved landing strip.

Original Inhabitants

A variety of Native American peoples frequented the Upper Rio Grande Valley long before western Europeans knew of its existence. Archeological evidence reveals that Paleo-hunters camped in the high country. A later hunting-gathering group, known today as the Utes, also migrated through the San Juan Mountains according to the seasons—pushing into the high country in the summer and returning to lower, protected valleys in the winter. However, the cold mountain winters were not favorable to permanent native settlements.

Native people gave special significance to the formations in the Wheeler Geologic Area. The hot springs at Wagon Wheel Gap also were a favored site. In the mid-1800s an influx of settlers, including New Mexicans from the south and Homesteaders from the East, curtailed the Utes’ nomadic life. After the discovery of gold in the San Juan Mountains, troops at Fort Garland moved the San Luis Valley’s Ute people off their traditional lands onto reservations in the Four Corners region. Ouray, who had married an Uncompahgre maiden, Chipeta, became influential in helping guide the southern Ute bands through their 19th century transitions.

Pioneers and Tourists

Ranching and tourism are well-established traditions in the Upper Rio Grande Valley. Kit Carson’s brother-in-law, Tom Boggs, and several other settlers began farming at Wagon Wheel Gap as early as 1840. M.V.B. Wason homesteaded the Wason Ranch in 1871. Hay became a major commodity for the mining camps at Summitville and Lake City. Prospectors and other travelers, lured by the wealth of the San Juan’s mineral fields, coursed toll roads linking Lake City with supply towns in the San Luis Valley. Barlow and Sanderson stages made several runs daily.

By the mid–1870s, tourist activities also began to thrive along the Rio Grande. Books such as Crofutt’s Gripsack Guide or Ingersoll’s Crest of the Continent enticed Easterners and Europeans to experience the American West. The pioneering name of Soward became associated with the Upper Rio Grande Valley in 1876 with the purchase of the Antelope Springs Stage Station and Halfway House. James Workman bought the Texas Club, now the location of Freemon’s Ranch, at the stage-stop settlement of San Juan. Nearly 15 years before there was a town called Creede, a hotel opened at Wagon Wheel Gap.

       Fortunes Made and Lost   (Nicholas Creede & Nephew Harvey Lester, 1870 - Creede Historical Society Archive #3069-P-434)

     Fortunes Made and Lost

(Nicholas Creede & Nephew Harvey Lester, 1870 - Creede Historical Society Archive #3069-P-434)

The Denver & Rio Grande Railroad began transporting eager tourists into the area as early as 1883 with the opening of the depot at Wagon Wheel Gap. Fishermen would ride the train to a favorite “hole,” disembark to fish for the day, and then catch a ride on a returning train. The Utes’ favored hot springs soon became a popular spa with tourists coming in droves to “take the waters.” Praise for the curative and restorative benefits, both by drinking from the bubbling hot springs as well as bathing in the soothing flow, spread through publications promoted by the railroad. A lavish bathhouse sheltered guests as they luxuriated in the therapeutic springs. The historic bathhouse still stands at the 4UR Ranch as a poignant reminder of those early tourism heydays.

 

 In 1890, the Upper Rio Grande Valley’s destiny changed dramatically. Nicholas Creede discovered a high-grade silver vein on Willow Creek, a tributary of the Rio Grande. The great rush was on! The boom camp’s population quickly swelled to 10,000. (There are about 850 full-time residents in Mineral County today). Slab cities and tent towns like North Creede, East Creede, String Town, Jimtown, and Amethyst seemed to appear overnight. Fortunes were extracted from mines with colorful names such as Amethyst, Holy Moses, Commodore, Last Chance, and Kentucky Belle.

To reach the ore field and camps, the hordes of miners and camp tag-alongs had to cross Wason’s ranch. The crafty homesteader opened a toll road, but the hefty fee caused disgruntled travelers to proclaim that Wason must have been a pirate on the high seas before settling on the Rio Grande. The uproar brought results with the State of Colorado buying the toll road right-of-way from Wason.

 (Creede Original Town Site, 1892 - Historical Society Archive #450-CRO-6c1)

(Creede Original Town Site, 1892 - Historical Society Archive #450-CRO-6c1)

In 1891, Colorado Springs railroad tycoon William Palmer extended the rail line from its terminus from Wagon Wheel Gap into Willow Creek Canyon just above present day Creede. During the ensuing boom years, two trains arrived and departed Creede daily. By 1892 over a million dollars in silver had shipped down-valley. Creede made Colorado a “boom” state once more.

Along with the prospectors and miners came gamblers, saloonkeepers and ladies of the evening. Bob Ford, reputed slayer of Jesse James, opened a dance hall and saloon. Soapy Smith, owner of the Orleans Club, soon declared himself boss of Creede. Bat Masterson, of Dodge City-Wyatt Earp fame, operated another saloon for a Denver firm. Poker Lulu Swain, the Mormon Queen, and Timberline plied their trade in “the House.” Although the Creede Candle lamented: “Creede is unfortunate in getting more of the flotsam of the state than usually falls to the lot of a mining camp,” it’s editor, Cy Warman, also caught the spirit and hopes of the lively community with his famous lines: “It’s day all day in the day time, And there is no night in Creede.”

Spar City, Stumptown, and Bachelor evolved into thriving communities. Bachelor even boasted a school. Today, Spar City is a private resort. Only nostalgic relics mark the sites of Stumptown, Weaver, and Bachelor (see Bachelor Historic Tour Loop). A series of floods and fires destroyed the original buildings in East Willow Creek Canyon. Many inhabitants moved to neighboring camps, but for only as long as it took to rebuild. The silver panic of 1893 also threatened to bring an end to Nicholas Creede’s bonanza. Fortunately, the high assay of the ores in the Creede District in other valuable minerals carried the miners through the Depression of the 1890s. Creede became the silver camp that would not die.

Eventually Jimtown appropriated the name “Creede.” Prospectors and families alike abandoned the other camps and moved to the little town at the mouth of Willow Creek Canyon with its brick stores and electric streetlights. Following the example of Telluride, which was the first electrified community in the world, the Creede miners installed their own electric system just one week before Cy Warman penned his literary legacy about there being no night in Creede.

Hard rock mining continued as the dominant economic factor in Creede for nearly a century. In 1985, when the price of silver dropped again, the last mine, the Homestake, closed permanently. Today Mineral County is returning to its tourism roots. And Creede, the little mining camp that refused to die, shares not only its beautiful natural setting, but also its colorful heritage with thousands of visitors every year.

The Land, Mountains, Forest, Streams and Wildlife

Mineral County is primarily high-mountain country cut by a few prominent rivers and their valleys and canyons. A number of peaks are among Colorado's 'Fourteeners' - mountains topping the 14,000 foot mark. Creede itself is at an altitude of 8,852 feet (one caution: our altitude may take some getting used to, so figure on taking it easy the first couple days, drinking lots of fluids).

We host some of the headwaters of two major rivers of the southwest. The Rio Grande begins its 1,800 mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico on the east side of the Divide. On the other side the San Juan starts its course, flowing through New Mexico and Utah, as well as the Navajo (Dineh) Nation, Southern Ute Reservation, and other Native American holdings, to join the Colorado River near Lake Powell, and on to the Gulf of California. Together with numerous lakes, reservoirs and streams, this makes Mineral County an excellent fishing venue. Moose, elk, bighorn sheep, deer, bear, cougar, lynx, bobcat, beaver, and smaller mammals, waterfowl, birds and aquatic life are also abundant throughout the area.

Headwaters of the Rio Grande and San Juan Rivers: Two mighty Southwest rivers rise in Mineral County’s San Juan Mountains. The Rio Grande, the third longest river in the U.S., is well known as the international border between Texas and Mexico. This great river begins high on the eastern slopes of the Continental Divide just west of Creede. Collecting water from many rivulets and smaller streams, including Willow Creek, which flows through downtown Creede, the Rio Grande gathers strength for its 1,800-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico. Tributaries of the San Juan River head on the Western Slope of the Continental Divide across from Spar City. This historic river dips into New Mexico, edges into Utah near the Four Corners, and joins the Colorado River just north of Lake Powell.

Mineral County is a vast recreation area with extraordinary public access. Roughly 900 square miles of mountains, forests, valleys, and canyons allow an incredible array of outdoor activities all year long. Ninety-five percent (95%) of the land area of Mineral County is publicly held, mostly in the Rio Grande and San Juan National Forests. There are also two wilderness areas, the La Garita and the Weminuche, and state wildlife areas as well.

Mineral County is bounded by two magnificent wilderness areas: The Weminuche Wilderness defines Mineral County’s high country west of Creede with elevations rising from an average of 10,000 feet to peaks reaching above 14,000 feet. Named for a band of Ute people who lived in the area through the 19th century, the Weminuche spans the Rio Grande and San Juan National Forests to form the largest wilderness area in Colorado. Fifty miles of the Continental Divide passes through the Weminuche Wilderness area. Individuals do not need permits to enter Wilderness Areas but should register at trailheads. Outfitters or anyone else leading a group for compensation, even for a non-profit group, must obtain a Forest Service permit.

Highlights: North Clear Creek Falls- Wheeler Geologic Area

This public land is administered by the National Forest Service and the BLM. The Rio Grande National Forest staffs an office in downtown Creede where maps, campground information, and a variety of guides may be obtained.

Mineral County is in southwestern Colorado, right along the Continental Divide. Our lowest elevation is around 8,500 feet, and we top out above 14,000 feet. We have abundant sunshine year 'round, keeping most winter days pleasant, while our altitude keeps summer heat at bay.

Not many air conditioners up here! Our low humidity also tempers the experience of cold and heat, neither of which is as oppressive as one finds in more humid climates (like Texas, where 40 degrees can feel like our 10). A sunny, calm day at 35 degrees F will find many folks in just sweatshirts, or shirtsleeves if they're working or exercising outdoors. Winter nights are often cold, and below-zero temps not uncommon. Day/night temps regularly vary as much as 40 degrees. A really hot summer day for us will see temps in the 80s, but we usually top out in the 70s. Right after sunset you'll feel the cool of the evening.

Overall, this part of Colorado is arid to semi-arid, but the higher mountains get more moisture. Most of this is in the form of snow, and much of it falls in late winter and early spring. In late summer, brief localized afternoon showers are not uncommon. Autumn is almost always a splendid season, especially as the aspen leaves turn gold, usually beginning early in September. For many visitors, and locals, it's their favorite time of year.

Preparing for our Climate

We are located at a high altitude (8,500 – 14,000 feet). Visitors to the area may need a day or two of adjustment; usually just relaxing and increasing your fluid intake will help you acclimate to the altitude.
In all seasons, mountain terrain can make its own local weather, and changes can be rapid. Dress in layers, and make sure that you take along warm or protective clothing even on the nicest of days. Our weather is part of the adventure. Sunset brings an immediate drop in temperature that may require heavier clothing.