Mountains with elevations over 13,000 feet surrounded us: Snowdon Peak, West Needles Mountain, Molas Pass, and Kendall Mountain were names Darlene and I had heard when we rode the Durango & Silverton narrow-gauge steam train along the Animas River. But the old mining train couldn't plow through the deep snows of winter, and Colorado State Highway 550 was Silverton's link to the outside world.
We drove to the Silverton Visitor Center to check road conditions before continuing on to Animas Forks. Kerry, the visitor center's worker, didn't know if the road was clear. "The road from Silverton to Eureka is usually plowed, but the road from Eureka to Animas Forks isn't cleared until spring. Don't try it unless it's been plowed." The older man's voice became serious and fatherly as he leaned across the counter at the Silverton Visitor Center and said, "I'm going to repeat myself. If the road hasn't been plowed, don't try to drive up to Animas Forks!"
We wanted to see the ghost town of Animas Forks during the winter and had driven from Durango, Colorado, to Silverton on State Highway 550 that morning. Colorado's San Juan Mountains are always spectacular, but as we gained altitude and the snow depth increased, the scenery became even more dramatic.
I promised not to be stupid and told Kerry I'd return with the road conditions before quitting time. "If we're not back by 4 p.m., send the dogs after us," I said. I was joking, but I could tell he'd taken me seriously.
Highway 110 from Silverton is paved for the first few miles and then becomes a two-lane gravel road. Snow was piled up on both sides, but the well-maintained road was merely wet. We photographed abandoned mines and mining equipment near Howardsville and noticed that the number of houses was decreasing. At an intersection, a wooden arrow pointed us toward Animas Forks, still eight miles ahead.
Two or three more miles brought us to the ghost town of Eureka, where we saw a picnic area and the terraced ruins of an old mining mill. Nothing else remained. Five hundred feet beyond the ruins, the two-lane road became a one-lane dirt road with a large sign prohibiting further travel to all but high-clearance 4x4 vehicles. I shifted into four-wheel drive.
The next five or six miles were thrilling. A large piece of construction equipment had plowed a one-lane furrow through huge snowbanks that often rose above the roof of our F-350. Kerry had given us good advice. We'd never seen snow this deep. The snowbank on my side of the road looked as if a massive cleaver had chopped through it, exposing large boulders, dirt, and aspen tree trunks. Only an avalanche could sweep such piles of debris down the mountainside.
The snow on the right-hand side of the road had been pushed over the cliff to the Animas River below. I slowed to a crawl and tried to reassure Darlene, but the road was icy in spots and blind curves obscured our vision as we continued to climb higher toward the snow-covered peaks ahead.
As we rounded a final curve, the roofs of the Duncan House and the Columbus Mine were visible over the mounds of snow. I pulled up behind a red Ford pickup and got out to talk to its owner. He, a friend from Silverton, and their two dogs had driven up the mountain to do some cross-country skiing. He said the road had been opened up only two days before.
We crawled over the snowbanks to see the ancient town. A brochure published by the San Juan County Historical Society and Bureau of Land Management informed us Animas Forks was at 11,200 feet and was named for its location between the north and west forks of the Animas River. The Gold Prince Mill ceased operation in 1910, reducing the area to a ghost town by the 1920s.
As we stood in front of the Duncan House and looked across the town to the mountain peak directly ahead of us, I thought about the men and women who had once called this deserted town home. We had followed the Animas River from Durango and Silverton and were now very close to its source in the snowfields above us. Early Spanish explorers called the Animas River Rio de Las Animas Perdidas--River of Lost Souls. I wondered how many souls had been lost in these mountains while searching for silver and gold.
But we didn't have time to ponder their fate. It was late afternoon, and we had to be back at the Silverton Visitor Center before 4 p.m. Kerry was waiting to hear about the roads, and I didn't want to disappoint him or cause him needless worry. We were five minutes late, but Kerry had waited for us, and I thanked him before we headed to our campground in Durango.
Be Advised: The information presented in this column is, to the best of our knowledge, correct and accurate at the time of publication. However, because of our lengthy lead time, we recommend you call the proper authorities or local experts for confirmation before visiting.
Editor's Note: Mud or snow on your windshield give you chills? Four-wheeling your weekends away? Got a good story to tell about it? Send us all the gear-popping seatbelt-tightening dust-kicking details in 500 words or less, along with your best photos (color slides, preferably), and we'll pay $300. Send to Truck Trend, c/o "On the Road," 6420 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90048. We'll publish your adventures.