CDT 2021: Day 45, Spectacle Lake Campground to Stunner Campground

Should you come my way, you can share my poison wine

I didn't expect this morning to be as cold as it was. The inside of my tent was coated in a layer of frost when I woke up.

Spectacle Lake Campground was located at about 8,800 feet. I don't think the frost was caused by the elevation, though. I think it was because of moisture from the Conejos River, which was only about 100 yards away from our campsite.

DateThursday, May 27, 2021
WeatherClear, then becoming mostly cloudy; temperatures from low-30s to low-60s
Trail ConditionsGravel road, mostly climbing
Today's Miles23.3
Trip Miles679.2

Top O' got a head start on our walk this morning. I needed a few extra minutes to refill my water bottles.

It had been nice to have well water, plus a picnic table and a privy. We planned to stop tonight at another National Forest campground, and I wondered if we would have the same "luxurious" accommodations there.

The temperature wasn't much warmer by the time I began walking. The sun was up, but the air remained chilly because the trail was still in the shadow of a mountain ridge.

I only walked a couple of miles before I arrived at a small resort called Rocky Mountain Lodge. Top O' and I didn't know about this place because the Guthook app didn't show it on the map.

I slowed down as I walked by the resort to see if it was open so I could buy coffee or a soft drink. It was closed, and I presumed that was because it wasn't open for business until after Memorial Day. That seemed to be the case for many businesses in this part of Colorado.

After nearly an hour, I still wasn't walking in sunlight. The temperature seemed just as chilly as when I left camp. Fortunately, I didn't need to go much farther before the road made a bend to leave the shadows, and I was finally in warm sunlight.

After barely making any elevation change since we started walking in the wide valley yesterday, the road began to climb noticeably late in the morning. The ridge on both sides of the river valley narrowed where it entered a section called The Pinnacles.

The narrow gulch only continued for about a mile before the valley widened again. The road dropped back to the river's level and continued to follow it for the next ten miles.

We occasionally caught views of snow-covered ridges. When I looked in the direction of the CDT, I wondered if No Keys and OldTimer had left Chama. I hoped they and the other hikers attempting that route stayed safe.

The morning started with a clear sky. Clouds began to pop up at around 9:30 a.m. and increased in size and number over the next couple of hours. By the time we stopped for lunch, the sky was completely overcast.

Top O' and I had walked 11 miles by this time. We ate lunch on a picnic table at Lake Fork Campground. Unlike where we stayed last night, this campground was already open for the season.

The sky was still cloudy when we began walking again, but within 15 minutes, the clouds broke up. The sky remained mostly sunny for just 30 or 45 minutes before more clouds moved in.

We stopped for a few minutes to talk to a man fly fishing near the road. He told us he likes to fish on this river because he can watch for swallows as he drives along the river. If he sees several birds swarming over the water, he knows they're eating bugs. If bugs are there, fish are likely to be just below the water surface.

After walking 5.5 miles from Lake Fork Campground, we came to a small community called Platoro. The time was 2:45 p.m. We found Lost Miner Café was open at Skyline Lodge, so we stopped to eat a second lunch.

Platoro began as a mining camp, perhaps in the early 1880s, though researchers find no mention of it in publications until 1888. That was the year a post office opened, and it became a town. Its name came from two Spanish words, Plata (gold) and Oro (silver).

The town grew rapidly, and by 1890, about 300 people lived here. Many of the buildings were just makeshift tents.

As was the case with many mining boomtowns, Platoro's population growth didn't last. By 1913, it had diminished as the mines played out and prospectors left. The expense and difficulty of hauling precious metal ore from this remote area also contributed to its demise.

Tourism has revived the town somewhat, but the season is short because of the weather. A few businesses catering to tourists are all that remain here, like the lodge where we stopped.

While we were there, we asked about reports we had read about the water in the mountains ahead. The warnings were true, we learned. Some streams contain traces of arsenic and heavy metals. They were polluted by runoff, some coming from the Summitville gold mine and some naturally by the acidic mountain slopes.

The poisoned water was only a problem in the Alamosa River drainage. We were told to follow the slopes to see where the streams drained. If they drained to the Alamos River, don't drink the water.

The road we were walking left the Conejos River at Platoro. Until now, we had climbed 1,000 feet in 16 miles. The next two miles would add another 800 feet of climbing.

The higher elevation gave a better view of surrounding mountains, which weren't often visible from the bottom of the valley. That included Forest King Mountain, which was just 1.3 miles away.

I could also see Platoro Reservoir at the foot of the mountain. It was created when the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation constructed an earthen dam on the Conejos River between 1949 and 1951. It's located about a mile upstream from the town.

Beyond the reservoir stood Conejos Peak, but from our angle, the peak wasn't visible. Still, the mountain's flank could be seen, and it was covered in snow.

Looking back toward the town we just left, I realized how quickly we had climbed in a short distance. The road's grade made the ascent seem less steep than it was.

Top O' and I knew we would enter the Alamosa River watershed when we reached the top of the climb. Before we got there, we began looking for a stream to refill our water bottles one more time. We had already refilled them in Platoro, but being unsure how far the bad water flowed, we wanted to carry as much as we could.

We found a small stream near the top. Now we were confident we had enough to get out of the watershed before needing more.

Our climb ended at Stunner Pass, which was at an elevation of 10,600 feet. From there, the road began a gradual descent.

Some of the mountains ahead immediately caught my eye. Bright orange, yellow, and red rocks had been exposed by erosion. The first of these mountains I saw was called Lookout Mountain.

The mountains were formed by volcanic eruptions. The colors in the rocks come from the oxidation of iron and other metals. They are the source of some of the poison in the water.

Little Red and Big Red mountains came into view a short distance farther down the road. There was no mistaking how they got their names.

The red oxide we saw was what prospectors were looking for when they came to this area in search of gold and silver. The mineralized outcroppings were a tip-off that gold or copper may be nearby.

Alum Creek flowed from the foot of the two mountains. It's been said that if an iron nail is dropped in the creek, the naturally acidic conditions of the water will dissolve it within eight years. The Forest Service says the creek has high concentrations of silica, iron oxide, aluminum oxide, calcium oxide, magnesium oxide, and sulfur trioxide.

The road soon dropped more steeply and followed Globe Creek down to the Alamosa River. After crossing a bridge over the river, we turned just above where Alum Creek flowed into the river and began walking on Forest Service Road 380.

Planning began in 1911 to make this road a major connector route across the Continental Divide. A flash flood on the river in 1913 killed several people, and those plans were abandoned in favor of a new route across Wolf Creek Pass.

We didn't have far to go from the bridge to reach Stunner Campground. Although this was the site of a mining town of the same name, there wasn't much here today. The only building was a reconstructed log cabin, and it wasn't inhabitable.

Stunner's history is similar to Platoro. The town began in the 1880s and rapidly grew as mining claims multiplied on the surrounding mountains. By 1892, 400 people lived and worked in Stunner.

Although several mines were dug within two or three miles of the town, only one produced enough gold ore to be shipped.

We found a site in the campground to pitch our tents at 6:30 p.m. One other group was here, but their campsite was so far away we never spoke to them. The campground lacked a water pump though it had picnic tables and a privy.

I never seriously entertained the thought of taking the snow-covered CDT. Still, I admit I wondered if I might feel a little regret not going that way. Today erased any chance of regret for following the Great Divide Alternate instead. This route has everything I could want: gorgeous scenery, an easy footpath, and even a restaurant meal.

Of course, I haven't seen all of this alternate route yet. My opinion could change tomorrow because we will climb well above 11,000 feet.

Hello one and all
Was it you I used to know
Can't you hear me call
On this old ham radio
All I got to say
I'm alive and feeling fine
Should you come my way
You can share my poison wine

From "King of the World" by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen (Steely Dan)

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