Date hiked: 06/10/16
While it isn’t a hike, per se, this update is more a tour of the best waterfalls Hinsdale County has to offer. Since learning of the fact the aforementioned county is one of the most remote in the nation, it’s a place I’ve been dying to explore, and after moving here, the time has finally came a-knocking.
First off on our journey is Whitmore Falls, which rests about eleven miles west of Lake City along County Road 20 A.K.A. The Alpine Loop Trail A.K.A. Engineer Pass Road. While the road is 2WD accessible to the remains of the old ghost town of Capitol City, and if the conditions are right, all the way to the falls, I parked it about five miles shy of my destination and made a hike out of it. And judging by the boot prints in the dirt, I wasn’t alone.
But regardless of whether you’re driving it or hoofing it, the road will usher you onto a scenic tour of the San Juans as it traces North Fork Henson Creek, with striking views to Sunshine Mountain (not to be confused with Sunshine Peak as Google Maps is so apt to doing), Broken Hill, Red Mountain and the other unnamed peaks sloping up from the valley floor.
The road also passes by two historic ghost towns on its way to Whitmore Falls (and even more beyond). Henson and the Ute-Ulay Mine sit just four miles outside of Lake City. For such a tiny little town, Henson was a rough little place to be in the 1800s. Eight doctors were kept on call to deal with the day to day shootings and mine accidents.
Capitol City, on the other hand, once boasted a whopping 800 citizens, and was named by George S Lee in hopes of him becoming governor and moving the state’s capitol to this isolated parcel of land. A dream that was obviously never realized.
At Capitol City, take the left and continue onto CR-20. From here, only two miles remain until Whitmore Falls.
North Clear Creek Falls
Next up, North Clear Creek Falls is an easy drive from Lake City. Heading south on Highway 149 towards Slumgullion Pass, watch the speedometer, and as you’re nearing twenty-five miles, watch for the roadside sign.
Hinsdale County truly lives up to its word – this had to be one of the most remote stretches of road I’d ever been on. The fact that Google Maps Street View doesn’t even feature a good chunk of the route should be witness enough.
South Clear Creek Falls
Another three miles south on Highway 149, and you hit the last stop on our tour de Hinsdale County at South Clear Creek Falls. Leaving the parking lot at North Clear Creek Falls, just watch for the Silver Thread Campground, about five minutes away. The parking area for the falls is on the second loop at the very end of the dirt road.
To Whitmore Falls
(From Lake City): From Highway 149 (Gunnison Avenue), turn west onto 2nd Avenue. Turn left onto Bluff Street which then becomes CR-20/Alpine Loop. Follow this easy 2WD dirt for 10.8 miles, veering left 9 miles in at the CR-20/CR-24 intersection towards Capital City to stay on CR-20. Beyond the intersection, the road grows rougher, but is still passable, in good conditions, all the way to the falls by any car. Drive with caution though, because the road grows tight and is popular with ATV-ers who don’t know how to slow down.
11.1 miles; 58 minutes
To North Clear Creek Falls
(From Lake City): From the southern end of Lake City, follow Highway 149 for 15.4 miles. Turn left onto FSR-510. After .5 miles, turn left onto FSR-510.3B. The parking area is on the roundabout a short ways up this road.
23.8 miles; 38 min
To South Clear Creek Falls
(From North Clear Creek Falls): Back on Highway 149, drive south for 3 miles to the Silver Thread Campground. The parking area for the falls is on the second loop at the very end of the dirt road.
3 miles; 4 min