Colorado's Summertime Secret

Lake City isn’t big, it isn’t flashy and it doesn’t have a colony of movie stars or rock
singers. What it does have is arguably the most spectacular scenery in a state that makes
its living on mountain panoramas, a full menu of activities including a small theater and a
museum, and such tourist magnets as specialty shops and an ice-cream parlor. Expand your
radius a few miles around southwestern Colorado and you can find pretty much any mountain
attraction you desire. Add in camping facilities ranging from National Forest primitive
spots to full-service private parks, and the area is the perfect Colorado RV location from
late spring to early fall. “We toured all over Colorado, and when we got to Lake City, we
knew this is where we wanted to build,” says Pat Rudloff of Evansville, Illinois, whose
personalized Land of Lincoln license plate reads something like lkcty6. That was 30 years
ago, and the Rudloffs have been summer residents here ever since. She’s a volunteer at the
Lake City/Hinsdale County Museum (circa 1877). She especially likes the First National Bank
building downtown, an 1870s stone edifice that was the first bank on the state’s western
slope (the Pacific side of the Continental Divide). “It’s like Jesse James is going to walk
out of there any second,” she says. There are numerous public campgrounds around, with
water and vault toilets – and wall-to-wall scenery. Some are high (atop Slumgullion Pass,
18 national-forest sites at an altitude of 11,200 feet) and some lower (fronting Lake San
Cristobal, the state’s second-largest natural lake), but still at 9,000 feet. Most will
facilitate trailers, even though some are on gravel roads. A couple are
wheelchair-accessible. All are generally open from Memorial Day to Labor Day. RVing
families have a big advantage over commercially housed tourists here: mobility. Should you
somehow get tired of the scenery down at the lake, for example, it’s an easy move to, say,
Williams Creek campground on the Alpine Loop. Want hookups? Need a shower or a laundry?
Check in at the private parks, such as Highlander RV Campground and Jeep Rental. This park
is on Hotchkiss Mountain on the Lake San Cristobal Road, and has several abandoned mines on
site, including the region’s granddaddy, the Golden Fleece (originally the Hotchkiss Mine).
Hosts Don and Diane Campbell can show you where they are. Lake City had its origins in the
1870s, sparked by the development of the Golden Fleece, and boasts many firsts on the
western slope, including the first protestant churches (Community Presbyterian and St.
James Episcopal, both built in 1876 and still standing); the first school (circa 1875), and
no doubt the first houses of ill repute, although given the history of that industry, it
would not have taken long to spread throughout the region. From the Golden Fleece to the
silver crash in 1893, Lake City was a bright boomtown, classier than most, by all accounts.
Then the bottom fell out, though some miners stayed with it until the early 1900s. “Then,
about 1915, Texans began to discover us,” says Grant Houston, owner/publisher/editor of the
Lake City Silver World News, a name that goes back to the first newspaper in the region.
They are still discovering the place, as are folks from all around the country. Tourism is
now the region’s life blood, and there is much to see and do. The town itself is marvelous,
with a friendly full-time population of about 500 that swells to 3,000 or more in the
summer. Its future seems to depend on self-sustaining residents – those able to earn a
cold-weather income independently of any sort of local economy. In the winter at 8,600 feet
with no ski resort, “making a living is the big thing,” Houston says. The original town
site is radiant in 19th-century Victorian charm, while the mountainsides are sprinkled with
newer log homes ranging from the simple to the super. The town feels like it is still
trying to reach détente with nature, and is a bit proud of it. During the winter, there is
a sort of cooperation: Some stores will open for a few hours a week, and the restaurants
take turns opening to feed the locals. Bears appear to be a fixture. Campers are advised
not to keep hummingbird feeders out at night lest a bear climb up and quaff the syrup.
Occasionally one will climb a tree downtown, creating excitement only among the
camera-toting tourists, who are quickly shooed away by the sheriff’s department, should the
animal be traumatized. Even with the summertime tourist influx, the area remains uncrowded
and, using your trailer as a base camp, it’s within easy reach of bucolic high-altitude
activities ranging from the contemplative to the daring. Rent a Jeep (about $100 a day) and
drive the Alpine Loop – Lake City-Ouray-Silverton, a four-wheel-drive-only National
Backcountry Byway that tops out at nearly 13,000 feet and is a 65-mile, all-day excursion.
On your way, photograph a private mountaintop cabin named in honor of Henry David Thoreau.
There are waterfalls, ghost towns and abandoned mines all along the way. The view from the
Engineer Pass summit is breathtaking, as is the drive, but in a considerably different
sense. Stay a night in Ouray and take a swim in the hot-springs pool. Visit Hidden Falls, a
roaring juggernaut that lies deep within a box canyon. On the return trip via Cinnamon Pass
(allowing enough time to see Silverton) take a tour of the Old Hundred Gold Mine. Fish or
boat at photo-moment San Cristobal lake, formed by the monstrous Slumgullion earth-flow
hundreds of years ago. It is not a large body, but is nonetheless second in size among the
state’s natural lakes only to Grand Lake, abutting Rocky Mountain National Park. Take a
look at the nation’s second-best big ditch: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Monument,
about 100 highway miles away. On your way back or on a separate foray, detour to Crested
Butte, one of the state’s best ski towns in the summer with lots of neat shops. Mountains
to climb? Five of them 14,000 feet or higher are in the neighborhood. A couple dozen more
are at the 13,000-foot range. Alferd Packer (or Alfred, there is some disagreement;
“Alferd” may have been the result of a misspelled tattoo) made his bid for history here,
slaughtering and cannibalizing several prospectors when they all got stranded in the middle
of the winter of 1874. According to some references, the trial judge put it this way:
“There was seven Democrats in Hinsdale County. But you, you voracious, man-eating [s.o.b.],
you ate five of them; therefore, I sentence you to be hanged by the neck until you’re dead,
dead, dead.” The consensus is that he didn’t say that, but it makes for a better story, the
locals admit. According to the Colorado state archives, the judge’s statement was much more
ordinary and “judgely.” Packer’s 1883 death sentence was reduced later to 40 years and he
was paroled in 1901. In a bizarre twist, he has become something of a state icon. There is
an Al Packer Grill at the University of Colorado at Boulder, for instance. Oh, and he
became a vegetarian. All the other expected Alpine activities such as rafting, rock
climbing, hiking, horseback riding, backcountry touring and photographing wildlife are
available here or nearby, and the state’s largest wilderness area, Weminuche, is just up
the road. Take in a live stage play at the Black Crooke Theater. There’s a real ice-cream
shop with a real soda fountain, several gift and antique stores and a smattering of other
specialty outlets. For a town of 500, Lake City is an unexpectedly complete destination.
“Where else can you find a town (with all this) without traffic lights?” Rudloff asks.

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