Ute trail connected Crested Butte to Crystal Valley 145 years ago
To read Ferdinand Hayden’s report on his team’s 1873 exploration of the Elk Mountains, go to https://pubs.er.usgs.gov/publication/70038931. Pages 675 and 677 refer to the Indian trail into Rock Creek.
To see a map created from Hayden’s field notes from the 1873-74 journeys, go to the Denver Public Library’s Digital Collections at http://digital.denverlibrary.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/p15330coll22/id/77818/rec/1.
Working on the plan for a trail from Carbondale to Crested Butte, Dale Will discovered recently that it’s not such a novel idea.
An acquisition and special projects director for Pitkin County Open Space and Trails, Will said he learned that some of the first white men to explore the area in 1873 noted the presence of a foot trail climbing a pass north of the small mining camp of Crested Butte and descending into the headwaters of Rock Creek, now known as the Crystal River.
Will said he ran across the existence of the Indian trail while scouring explorer Ferdinand Hayden’s report about one month ago.
“It’s a significant point because some people feel we’re trying to foist something new on that valley,” Will said. “Non-motorized travel — it’s not a new idea by any means.”
Hayden led a party into the Colorado mountains to prepare a geological and geographical survey of the territory for the U.S. government. He and his band managed to avoid conflicts with Indians and escape death while climbing jagged peaks and uncharted territory to produce an 895-page report the following year.
Hayden reported his party followed a “heavy trail” west of Twin Lakes (on the east side of Independence Pass), followed the south fork of Lake Creek and crossed the Sawatch Range before finding the headwaters of the Gunnison River. At that point, one branch of the trail went to the Ute Indian agency at Los Pinos to the south.
That’s where the travel journal got interesting for Will. The other trail went up the East River to its head, crossed a divide and descended into what Hayden labeled Rock Creek.
“(G)enerally speaking, it follows Rock Creek down to the Grand River,” Hayden wrote. “This is one of the principal Indian trails in the territory.”
Hayden’s party spent extensive time exploring around Gothic and Belleview mountains, north of Crested Butte, according to his geologic report. The pass they crossed was apparently Schofield.
Rock Creek is now known as the Crystal River and the Grand River is now called the Colorado.
Hayden’s report shows a trail existed 145 years ago, and probably much longer.
“Most of the time game trails turned into trails used by indigenous people,” said Bill Kight, a former archeologist for the White River National Forest. He said the Hayden survey has a reputation of being extremely accurate in their depiction of trails and other geographic features.
Hayden is a fascinating character in the exploration of the American West. He was trained as a medical doctor but his passion was geology. He joined two separate governmental surveys in the 1850s, then interrupted his adventures to serve as a surgeon for the U.S. Army during the Civil War.
He returned West after the war and led numerous expeditions in Nebraska, Utah, Wyoming, Montana and Colorado. His reports were key to creating Yellowstone National Park and partly responsible for the rapid settlement of Colorado in the late 1870s, according to the Encyclopedia of the Great Plains at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.
An 1881 “Drainage map of Colorado,” based on the Hayden survey’s fieldwork in 1873-74, supplies a fascinating glimpse into the early geographic exploration of the Elk Mountains. The Indian trail that Hayden referred to appeared to follow what’s now known as the Lead King Loop, a popular off-road route that goes through the town of Crystal. Hot springs prominently displayed in Rock Creek Valley are now known as Penny Hot Springs, a hippie hangout.
Following Old Ute trail
Original geographic names on the map included Maroon Mountain (now Maroon Peak), Snow Mass Mountain (Snowmass Peak) and Sopris Peak (Mount Sopris).
White men were already using the Indian trail by 1873. An annex to Hayden’s report by A.C. Peale on mining the Colorado mountains said there were 30 mining claims located on the south side of Rock Creek but little activity. A firm called the Rough and Ready Co. held several lodes, according to the report.
Will’s research shows that Pitkin County government started working on a road in its portion of Crystal Valley in 1884 and had completed a wagon route from the Garfield County line to the Gunnison County line by 1890.
“Comparing with the Hayden maps, it seemed to roughly follow the old Ute trail, which one would expect,” Will said.
After construction of a railroad, long since abandoned, and later a state highway, the route has strayed somewhat from the original trail and wagon road.
Now, Pitkin County Open Space and Trails is working to revive a pedestrian trail in the Crystal Valley. It built a 5-mile paved trail from Carbondale to BRB Campground. The county is studying how to build a 19-mile stretch from BRB to the summit of McClure Pass. Meanwhile, Gunnison County and Crested Butte officials are exploring construction of a trail from Crested Butte to McClure Pass.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper identified the route as part of a list of 16 high priority trails in the state.
The open space program has recently started engaging the public in the planning process for the trail.
“I’d have to say that it’s mixed at this point,” Will said of sentiment.
While many people support a trail, opinions are split on whether it should be along the alignment of Highway 133 or follow the old wagon grade. More public meetings are expected this year on the alignment options.
Wildlife habitat is a paramount issue and some homeowners are concerned about their privacy.
“We’re going to carefully go through all the wildlife reports,” Will said.
Reporter Scott Condon can be reached at email@example.com.