Early last September I made a solo voyage into the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado. Armed with my cheap camera, a few maps, and enough “magic plastic” to ensure I wouldn’t run out of gas, I headed to parts unknown.
I had been to the San Juans once as a child and didn’t remember much, I did remember they were rugged and beautiful and unlike the other mountain ranges in Colorado.
Weaving my way through a never ending maze of road construction and detours which, historically, plague Colorado every summer do to myopic government bureaucrats, I finally made it to Silverton…nearly five hours behind schedule. Silverton would be my base camp for the night before I set out in the morning for the fabled ghost town of Animas Forks.
I stopped by the historic “Bent Elbow Saloon and Restaurant” and managed to score the last chunk of prime rib, a bowl of the second best potato soup I’ve ever had, and cold beer right before they closed up for the night. As the staff cleaned up for the night, I watched a group of middle-aged Polish tourists take numerous shots of hard liquor and toast all things big and small in the world, which is the jovial custom of most eastern European cultures. The Poles left and as I finished up my dinner their laughter and merriment could be heard fading away as they walked down the dark and dusty main street of Silverton. I tipped the bartender and made my way back to my motel room.
The next day after a simple, but great breakfast at “Mattie & Maude’s”, I hopped in my Dodge Charger R/T and began my quest for Animas Forks. My maps showed the road to be dirt, but maintained, I had read several accounts stating the road could be navigated in a 2-wheel drive vehicle…then again I had read several more stating a 4X4 was required to make it in to Animas Forks. I figured I’d give it a shot.
I had been warned the night before that a few days earlier snow had made the road in to Animas Forks impassable, and that I should proceed with great caution because the steep, narrow road drops off sharply into the gorge of the “Rio de las Animas Perdidas en Purgatorio” (the River of Lost Souls in Purgatory” or, as it is called today the “Las Animas”. But, I’m young…well, not really anymore, but I’m not quite “old” yet, headstrong and tend to make stupid decisions when I’m on a “quest”.
Anyhow, I began my climb up the road towards Animas Forks in my Charger- a 2-wheel drive, high-performance street car with very little ground clearance. I covered the first 8 or 9 miles with ease, the road was flat and level and was well-graded, then the road rose sharply towards the sky and became very narrow as it began the climb towards Animas Forks and entered the gorge of the river. A few hundred yards up the incline a large sign warned “4X4 TRAIL BEYOND THIS POINT. HIGH GROUND CLEARANCE REQUIRED” My heart sunk…piss! I had driven halfway across the state and had suffered through the indignity of waiting in road construction all day the day previous, only to make it to within 3 miles of Animas Forks to find out I needed a 4X4!!!
I made the executive decision to go on- one of two things was going to happen, I would make it in to Animas Forks in the Dodge, or I would get stuck trying. Luckily for me, I made it in, experiencing only one slight “ah-shit” along the way, when I scraped hard over some rocks that had come down in the snowstorm a few days earlier, which resulted in a dented muffler and a slightly different exhaust note on the Dodge.
I made it in to Animas Forks, truly “a ghost town above the rest” situated at timberline at roughly 11,200 feet elevation. Animas Forks once boasted itself to be “the highest city in the world” but that was just the farcical dream of the locals…the town is however way the heck up there, and if you have bad lungs or are a flatlander from the midwest, you’re bound to get altitude sickness and spend the day feeling like you drank a bottle of cheap vodka the night before.
Animas Forks is well preserved- partially by the climate, partially by it’s inaccessible location, and partially by man. I was thrilled to see so many structures in such a fine state of preservation, but I was somewhat saddened to see “The Walsh House” had been fully renovated and preserved by a historic society in recent years. Many of the photos you find of “The Walsh House” show a ghostly, abandoned two-story Victorian with a large bay window looking out over the mine across the creek. “The Walsh House” now sports plexiglass windows, refurbished or replaced siding, and a gaudy coat of “Forest Service” brown stain has been slopped on every square inch of the structure. I understand this was done to preserve the home for future generations to enjoy, and I truly admire the hard work that went in to restoring the home, but it doesn’t look “right” in the middle of a decaying ghost town. It’s photographic appeal has been severely diminished in my opinion, but still is a very worthy subject.
I spent the morning walking around Animas Forks, checking out each building, snapping photos, and taking a walk through “The Walsh House” which is open for public exploration, and is nice place to escape the cold winds…even if it is that damn modern plexiglass keeping the wind away!
I returned to my Charger and began my descent back down the valley to Silverton. As I rounded the first bend in the road I pulled off the shoulder to let a pair of heavily outfitted Jeeps up the hill. As they slowly navigated the rocky road past me, their occupants stared out the window in bewilderment at the sight of the crazy man smiling at them from his two-wheel drive city sports car. One guy even shook his head and gave me a thumbs up. I waved and made my way on down the hill back to Silverton and rambled on down the road to the next stop on my journey.