Vien R. Guenther
Historic Town of Lake City - Hinsdale County, Colorado
Updated: Oct 10, 2020
Lake City is a charming historic town tucked away in one of the most remote areas of Colorado. It is the only town in the county of Hinsdale which has four wilderness areas and two wilderness study areas. Designated as a National Historic District in 1978, the town boasts 200 historic Victorian structures. In visiting the town, you can get a glimpse of the past during the height of the mining boom in the 19th century.
Visiting Hinsdale County is not only about Lake City, the second largest natural lake in the state is found here, the Lake San Cristobal. Also, the area has hundreds of miles of hiking and off-road trails. The county is home to some spectacular waterfalls - North Clear Creek Falls, Whitmore Falls, Nellie Creek Falls (four-wheel drive access only) and Horseshoe Falls, and plenty of beautiful scenic byways. You can't just stay for one day. We stay here when exploring the area and when hiking in the American Basin.
TO GET HERE
Lake City is located in the San Juan Mountains (the largest mountain range in Colorado), in the southwestern part of the state. It's about 55 miles south of Gunnison via the Silverthread Scenic Byway/State Highway 149 - 74 miles north of South Fork. If you are coming from Denver, it will take you about 265 miles of driving.
To make it worth your while when visiting the area, if on a road trip, you can start from Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, then stop and visit the historic town of Creede (also a nice town to stay), then continue to the historic town of Lake City.
BROWN LAKES/RIO GRANDE OVERLOOK
Following the State Highway 149, there are places worth stopping by, so don't hurry to reach your destination. The overlook before the North Creek Falls has a splendid view of Brown Lakes/Rio Grande Valley. The high mountains you will see here are the Rio Grande Pyramid ( 13,819 feet) and Simpson Mountain (12,904 feet).
NORTH CLEAR CREEK FALLS
A short distance from the overlook is the North Clear Creek Falls, hidden just beyond the road, about a half mile off the highway. It is easily missed since it is hidden below a small ravine in the middle of the valley. This is the most photographed waterfall in Colorado - one reason probably is due to its easy access and paved trail to the overlook. No need to hike here.
Past the North Clear Creek Waterfall, you will drive over Slumgullion Pass. It is a scenic high mountain pass in Hinsdale County - the sign at the highest point of the road reflects the elevation of the summit (11,530 feet. The pass is named for the nearby Slumgullion Earthflow, a massive landslide from Mesa Seco which began about 850 years ago. The massive slide (4-miles long and covering over 1,000 acres), blocked the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River and created Lake San Cristobal. Another slide began about 300 years ago and according to the United States Geologic Survey, it is still moving as much as twenty feet a year.
How in the world did they come up with the name of the mountain pass? The early settlers and miners at that time must have been hungry. The yellowish soil reminded them of slumgullion stew, hence the name. It means "everything but the kitchen sink" dish. It is an ancient meal that goes way back to between the 4th to 8th centuries, a poor man's meal.
LAKE SAN CRISTOBAL
Near Lake City is the second largest natural lake in Colorado, Lake San Cristobal. The lake is 2.1 miles long and 89 feet deep. You can go fishing or boating here. This lake is stocked with rainbow trout. Lake City has been discovered as a hunting and fishing destinations in the 1940's. Many Texans come here in summer so that the town was nicknamed "Little Texas". Indeed, we saw camping sites full of humongous RV's with Texas flags on them.
LAKE CITY'S NATIONAL HISTORIC DISTRICT
Lake City was once a mining boom town. In the 19th century, the town was the center for supply for many miners and prospectors working in the nearby San Juan mountains. Exploring the town today, you can imagine what it was like during the height of mining days in the area. The restored houses and wooden sidewalks are reminiscent of the Old West. The only missing things are the miners, cowboys and their horses. Half of the town of Lake City is designated as a National Historic District.
Lake City is a quiet town. There are no traffic lights. This is not a resort town but an off the beaten track town, but there are fine restaurants, so you won't get hungry. No shortage of gift shops either.
Who is Alferd Packer?
You will probably be curious as to who he was, if you haven't heard the story yet. Now, that is one interesting story involving a man accused of cannibalism. It was one of the most notorious events that happened in Colorado history. There is even a saloon named after him. If you are interested you can visit the Alferd Packer Massacre Site, just off SH-149 southeast of Lake City. There is a memorial to Packer's victims at the site and interpretative panels about the story.
MINING IN LAKE CITY
Mining was what made the town. Outside of Lake City, you will find relics of the mining industry. Ore was first discovered here in 1871, but was not exploited until after the Ute Indians ceded the land. Shortly after, gold and silver ore was found. In 1874, the first log cabin was built at the site that would later become Lake City.
Whitmore Falls is another beautiful waterfall, located just off the Engineer Pass Road (also known as the Alpine Loop Scenic Byway) near Capitol City, a ghost town once named "Galena City" (the last time we were there, the whole town was for sale).
The Whitmore Falls observation point is a short hike off the road but it is well worth your while if you hike down to the base of the waterfalls. It's a short but steep trail with loose rocks so you have to be careful.
The historic town of Creede is also well worth visiting while in the area.