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Highland Mary Lakes

Via Cunningham Pass

With Bill & Christine Dean

In the annals of America’s western mining history, few places can compare with the lore and legends of Silverton, Colorado. This rides trailhead is located in Cunningham Gulch, a mere five miles southeast of Silverton. The ride we share with you in this article really begins much before Silverton and present times. In fact, it dates back to the time of the Anasazi (Ancient Ones) and Ute peoples, natives to this Colorado high country. We know this from archeological discoveries that have identified Anasazi and Ute's artifacts found at Highland Mary and other nearby lakes.

 

It was these earliest native inhabitants that first trod these high mountain pathways into the trails that later Spanish and countless other treasure seekers traveled. For the Spanish, it was the quest for the fabled “Seven Cities of Cibola” which, legend has, as being made of pure gold. For the later fur trappers and prospectors of numerous ethnicities, the dream of beaver pelt and gold riches drove those fortune seekers across these native pathways.

In our time and place in history, we still travel these ancient pathways but for different reasons. Late every spring as the winter snows recede, sheep stockmen still practice the yearly ritual of driving thousands of sheep up these lofty Rocky Mountain trails. They graze their flocks on the lush summer mountain grasses, just as the shepherds of ancient times in the Holy Land. Then as the aspen trees turn gold giving warning of the impending winter, a woolly rush down these trails to the low country begins. These trails now share an abundance of other travelers such as backpackers, hunters, and horsemen as they enjoy both the Colorado and Continental Divide Trails which cross the top of Cunningham Pass.

 

I suppose we all seek the treasure of recreation and escape from a modern world which for many seems to be spinning out of control. As we present this ride to you, take note of the place names given, in them, you will find history. The word Weminuche has its origin with the Ute language while Colorado, Rio De Las Animas, and the Rio Grande are all of Spanish heritage. Silverton, Cunningham, and Highland Mary are of Anglo origin.

The Charles Baker Party of 1860 is credited with many of the place names we use today on this ride. The Baker Party included the name of a Major Cunningham listed on its rolls and in this early diary no first name was listed for him. The sole mission of the Baker Party was the prospecting for gold and silver treasures hidden in this high rocky ground. Baker Park in which Silverton is located was named for Charles Baker and many of the surrounding gulches, parks, and creeks are named after members of this group. Each member of Bakers prospecting venture was initially given an area to prospect, and his name was then given to that area. Major Cunningham’s name is still attached to this beautiful mountain valley which begins near Highland Mary Lakes and runs north to the Rio De Las Animas (The River of Lost Souls).

 

Most of this historic information presented here we gleaned from the pages of Allen Nossaman’s wonderful exhaustive history book series entitled “Many More Mountains”. It’s a three-volume set of a planned four, but unfortunately, Allen passed away before completing the last volume. As a footnote, Allen became the editor of the Silverton Standard & Miner newspaper in 1963 and held that position until 1972. He later became a San Juan County Judge and passed away in Silverton at the age of 66 in 2006, always the consummate historian of his beloved Silverton and San Juan County.

Our ride begins in the upper reaches of Cunningham Gulch, which is where we camped next to the sturdy sheep pens which were recently rebuilt after being destroyed by an avalanche in 2019. This ride took place on August 23, 2021, and we camped the night before and after using the pens. They are available for use with horses if the sheepmen are not using them which is only about two weeks out of the year, one in late June and the other early September.

 

The sheepman that has the BLM lease on this grazing land came by our camp while we were riding and left us a nice note with his phone number as they were needing the pens beginning September 1st. Once we arrived home, I called him to let him know we’d vacated the pens and left the gates shut to discourage use before their impending sheep drive which was only a handful of days away. It was a nice conversation and he thanked us for the call.

We arose pre-dawn on the 23rd and Christine whipped up a nice ranch breakfast while I fed the horses and cleaned their hooves. After fueling everybody, we saddled and tacked Ritah and Shiloh for the climb up Cunningham Gulch Trail to the Continental Divide. The first mile of the ride beyond the sheep pens is on the county road passing the ruins of the Highland Mary Mill up to the Highland Mary Lakes/Cunningham Gulch Trailhead. So please note there are two ways to reach Highland Mary Lakes from this trailhead. The first mentioned trail, Highland Mary, has recently been upgraded from foot traffic only to include stock traffic as well.

 

We did talk with some llama trekkers from Montrose the evening before and they advised against taking stock over it still. It has a large boulder field passage that’s reportedly sketchy at best. We were fine with that as I was more interested in riding up Cunningham Pass because of the history. However, it would make for a very nice loop ride if one could safely traverse the Highland Mary Trail over to the Continental Divide on horseback.

After signing the wilderness register, we took the Cunningham Gulch Trail. This trail which traverses Cunningham Pass is the original route taken into the area by the Baker party of 1860. We could almost hear the echoes from the past as we imagined the shouting and crack of whips while the Baker party prodded their tired and reluctant pack animals out of the Rio Grande drainage climbing the roof of the continent at over 12,000’ elevation!

 

It was a different place and time for stock animals back then as they endured the burdens at hand. As Silverton developed a name for mineral wealth it has been stated that a blind man could find it by following the stench of dead pack animals stripped of their loads and carelessly tossed to the side. Fortunately for Ritah and Shiloh, the joys of love and recreation include only heavy breathing in the rarified air for them. Ritah and Shiloh steadily climbed to the roof of the continent at Cunningham Pass without shouts and whips! We reached the intersection with Colorado (CT) and Continental Divide Trail (CDT), elevation 12,180’. At this intersection, we entered the Weminuche Wilderness.

Turning south we rode along the gently rolling terrain and glacial tarns of the CDT until we reached the Whitehead Trail. A tarn is a geologic term for a depression in the mountain bedrock, formed from the weight of ice and snow which fills with water in warmer months. This is ideal for summer sheep grazing which is why the shepherds still favor this alpine country. For us, on horseback, it gives many stock watering opportunities, and the views are beyond description. Taking Whitehead Trail, we skirted the north rim of Elk Creek swinging to the northwest reaching Highland Mary Lakes.

 

The views of Vestal and Arrow Peaks in the Grenadier range are breathtaking. As we neared Highland Mary Lakes, we ran into a large herd of sheep complete with an Ecuadorian shepherd and Great Pyrenees guard dogs. If you have dogs with you as we did, high-country etiquette is to not bring your dogs into the herd with the many possible issues they could cause. So, we stopped just short of our planned destination with the lake's insight.

With that change in plans, we decided to return to the CDT via Whitehead Trail and ride south on the high alpine plateau towards Kite Lake. Just before the plateau, a summer shower caught us, and fortunately, there was no thunder and lightning. We rode south until we achieved fine views of the Trinity Peaks at which time it was mid-afternoon, time to head back to camp where we had a nice steak dinner planned. Our return ride was simply gorgeous as the rain clouds had disappeared and the horses, knowing we were headed back, had a little extra spring in their walk. It was a 16.5-mile ride for the day all told. We began this story with tales of treasure seekers in the high country.

We can tell you, and as the photographs attest, there’s still treasure to be found along these trails... the treasure of a spectacular Colorado high-country ride!

If you'd like to watch an excellent video from this ride take a look HERE!

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