Traveling by horse–and iron horse–in the rugged San Juan Mountains.
By Darley Newman
With several peaks reaching 14,000 feet, sheer canyons and steep switchbacks, riding in the San Juan National Forest can be challenging. Riders and horses that venture out in this part of southwestern Colorado will be rewarded by scenic surroundings. Of all the places to ride in the San Juan Forest, Pass Creek Trail to Engineer Mountain is particularly dramatic. Off the trail, many historic mines dot the San Juan Mountains. In the immediate vicinity of the Pass Creek Trail, you are safe from any mine hazards, but off the trail, it’s best to stay out of any mines which you happen across.
You can still experience the history of the mining days by riding the nearby historic Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. The railroad, which has been running for more than 125 years, was built to transport precious metals from the mining town of Silverton through Durango and onward. Once word of the scenic beauty of the route got out, guests began to ride the train too.
The train still brings visitors to Silverton, but getting there is the real adventure. You’ll hear the rattle of the wheels and the whistle of the steam engine as the train climbs 3,000 feet along the Animas River.
With its year-round population of 500-some residents, Silverton is a National Historic Landmark. Greene Street is the main thoroughfare with shops, restaurants and places to bunk in for the night, but Blair Street may be the most interesting. At the height of Silverton’s mining days, Blair Street had 30 saloons, gambling houses and brothels in a three-block stretch.
The town is quiet these days, but you can certainly imagine what boomtown life was like as you stroll through the colorful streets. North of Silverton, you can safely tour the Old Hundred Mine, ride an electric mine train and take in mining demonstrations.
Back on Engineer Mountain, our horseback ride begins by winding gradually up through a sub-alpine forest. Stopping at a pond to give our horses a break, we see up through a clearing to an incredible view of Engineer Mountain towering above us. It sticks up into the sky as if it is the penultimate climb. For us, it will be.
This is just a day ride, which is nothing for Anne Rapp. A guide for more than 25 years, she regularly undertakes pack trips into the forest. As we ascend the mountain trail, conquering switchbacks, I feel the brisk air grow colder.
Above timberline, we ride through fields of wildflowers (primrose, geraniums, Indian paint brush and orchids) accompanied by hummingbirds. Here I clearly see the rainbow green and red hues of Engineer Mountain towering in the distance. Gray clouds have stacked up against one side of the mountain. I zip up my fleece vest and hope that it doesn’t rain.
Our climb, which began at 10,600 feet, ends at around 12,000 feet at the base of Engineer Mountain. Here, Anne and I stand in awe of Lake Electra shimmering in the distance, the Needle Mountains covered in toothpick-like trees, the Animas Valley and what seems like endless views. Had the sky been clearer, we would have been able to see all the way to New Mexico.
Once it is safe, we begin our descent home. The recent hail makes the trip down a little more treacherous. My horse Cinnamon slips more than a few times on the slick rocks. We ride slowly, letting our horses pick their way through the rocks., and make it back to the trailhead safely.
If you plan on riding in the San Juan National Forest, you have many options. The most direct trail up to the base of Engineer Mountain is Pass Creek Trail, which gains elevation quickly. Other options are Engineer Mountain Trail, which is a little rougher than Pass Creek, or Engine Creek, which is not a system trail, but it will
The best months to ride here are July and August. The weather is as mild as it gets and the wildflowers are in bloom. In June and maybe even July, you can face snow drifts since these trails run the north side of the mountain. August is monsoon season, so you will definitely want to bring rain gear. For those bringing their own horse and camp, your best option is the Lower Hermosa Campground, 18 miles away.
Whenever you choose to trail ride in this rich mining region, don’t forget to take advantage of your other horse option: the iron horse. The twin pleasures feel almost as good as striking gold!
Anne Rapp of Rapp Corral
Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad