The Alpine Loop

Many folks visit the Lake City area due to the precipitous and thrilling alpine loop backcountry byway. If you have a high-clearance, 4WD vehicle, you can travel over un-metalled, bumpy (terrifying) routes that were carved out by miners in order to access remote work places at up to 12,800 ft. Along the route you will see many traces of mining in the landscape, like the coloured piles of waste-rock and tailings in the mid-ground of the picture below.

You may also see ghost towns, and bits and bobs of leftover mining structures and infrastructure.

Up in Lake City tourism is an important part of the economy. Since the tax base from private land is so low, it makes sense that visitors bringing in money from outside is a great way to boost income. Plus, Lake City is an interesting and unique place – it has a lot to offer the holiday-maker: sublime views, calm and isolation, wilderness, a ski-hill suitable for learners, a whole host of historic buildings, taxidermy galore, friendly mountain men and women, and a cat in the post-office who pops out of the lower PO boxes on occasion.

As a confirmed map geek I love the maps created and shared by the Alpine Loop Spatial Analysis and Mapping project (check out this beauty).

The Ute Ulay mine site straddles the alpine loop, about just outside Lake City. There were 611,000 Alpine Loop user days in 2008 – that means there is potentially lots of passing trade at the Ute Ulay. Click on the graphic below to see numbers of visitors.


Future History

Last week I held a ‘coffee and conversation’ morning at the Mocha Moose, which is one of the two fine coffee shops in Lake City (the other being Mean Jean’s).

It was great to meet the people that came along to express their affection for the Ute Ulay site, and their hopes that it will be preserved for future generations. The Ute Ulay mine and mill site is fairly rare in that many of the structures and landform associated with the workings are still there, and many of those date from the 1880’s, with a smattering of additions from various periods, up to the present day.

There were lots of helpful suggestions. A feeling of urgency that something should be done before more of those structures are lost was in the air. Some people volunteered to help with the physical reconstructions, and there were some great ideas about how people might be engaged as development happens.

Historical preservation of the site seems to be uppermost in most peoples’ minds when they think about the Ute Ulay. It is the historical aspect of the place that intrigues people. The fact that it lies empty is intriguing in itself. J. B. Jackson says that ‘there has to be that interval of neglect, there has to be that discontinuity; it is religiously and artistically essential… ruins provide the incentive for restoration and for a return to origins’ (Jackson, J.B. (1980) ‘The Necessity For Ruins’. Amherst: University of Massachussets. p102).

One of the attendees mentioned the town of Bodie in California. What struck me about the images of Bodie is the presence of many everyday objects which give the visitor a tangible and real flavour of what life was like in that place, across time. There is a similar opportunity to retain traces of working lives at the Ute Ulay.

On the official website it states that ‘Bodie State Historic Park is part of the California State Parks System. With the State of California’s budget crisis (for the past several years), State Parks have lost annual funding for many years in a row. Bodie has not been spared. These continued decreases in funding for Bodie by the State has led to fewer and fewer park aides and lack of interpretation for visitors.‘ (accessed 27th Feb 2012)

The future economic situation at the Ute Ulay (and in Lake City) is something that I am very aware of. The economy of Lake City is based around a narrow range of sectors, which is unsurprising due to the small population of the town (around 375). Tourism brings in the most money here, due to the small tax base and remoteness.

Click on the image to see details.

It seems to me that the gift of the Ute-Ulay would be greater if it was able to not only be self-funding, but to contribute to the breadth of economic activity in Lake City.

What if the Ute-Ulay was an economic resource? As well as attracting more visitors, it could lengthen the tourist season (or tempt second home owners to spend more time here). It might provide more jobs for Lake Citians, and over a longer time period. For now, it’s just an aim – but an important one.

Treats: Home and Away

Yesterday I drove back to Denver. I am here to pick up Lydia Moyer, who was one of the Hardrock residents; she is coming back to collaborate further on the project.

It was another beautiful drive, and despite my experiments in cryogenics, Seamus the Sat Nav was up and ready to guide me (note to self: don’t leave a Sat Nav in the car at -30 C).

I love Lake City because it is quiet, friendly, and because you can see the stars from everywhere at night. However, as I reached Denver, I found myself looking at all the cars, and shops and neon lights with palpable excitement. Look at all the THINGS!

In an extremely unscientific survey, I have been asking Lake City residents which treats will motivate them to travel, and to where.

Some say that humans’ ability to connect so quickly with the rest of the world via technology, has rendered the terms rural and urban obsolete. It is certainly possible to have almost anything delivered to you in Lake City (- in fact if the delivery man sees your car, he’ll just pop the parcel in there). However, when it comes to experiential treats, you might just have to be there in person.

Click on the image for details of my unscientific results.


Itsy Bitsy

I was thinking about how you can almost drive forever from Lake City to get to any other town, and how you can drive the same distance from Manchester and be unable to count how many towns you drive through. American cars are bigger, the wilderness is bigger, the  food portions are bigger…. is everything bigger?

Well, when I compared the size of the entire United Kingdom (and don’t forget people, that is 4 countries!) to the size of Colorado (only 1 out of the lower 48 states!) it’s fair to say that I was somewhat bamboozled. Was I reading correctly? I checked – not just wikipedia – and checked again – and it seems that Colorado is bigger than the   e n t i r e   U K ! (!)

Click on this picture for more details.

Don’t get me wrong… size isn’t everything. I mean – small is beautiful. It makes sense of my 5.5 hour drive from Denver though.

So having a remote inactive silver mine site, out here in remote Colorado, is really very remote. In fact, Hinsdale County (home of the Ute Ulay mine site) is the county with the most ‘roadless space’ in the conterminous United States according to a paper in Science Magazine (full article). It’s the place to come if you want space to breathe, a little solitude, or a reminder of how itsy bitsy each human really is.


The Ute Ulay Mine is in Hinsdale County. The long, rectangular Ute and Ulay mine claims are laid over the rugged terrain and represent private ownership, as do all the mining claims in the county. Land ownership in Hinsdale County is unusual in that it is mostly public land.

Public land makes up 95.3% of all land in Hinsdale County; and of that, 49% is wilderness area. Public land is governmentally owned, is managed by federal agencies, and is not taxable.

There are varied restrictions as to what activities are allowed in different parcels of public land. Generally recreational activities of some sort are allowed, though the regulations differ in different types of public land; as you drive along any road, you see signs letting you know that you have just passed from one designation to another. I find it fairly confusing – activities such as camping, horse riding, mountain biking are allowed in some areas – whereas only hiking is allowed in others (wilderness areas).

If you look at private land ownership in Hinsdale County, you can see some patterns:

Of the 4.7% of privately-owned land, there are many square parcels that have been claimed around water (a precious resource here), there are other square parcels that make up ranches – these are often close to roads (but I’m not sure which came first, the ranch or the road), and the long, thin, rectangular strips are mining claims – just like the Ute and Ulay.

In Hinsdale County these mining claims exist mainly around a geological feature called a ‘caldera‘. This is  a feature left by a volcano, where a large pocket of larva has erupted, leaving an empty space below that the land falls into. The surrounding fractures in the rock are just the right type of place for mineralisation to occur. Mineralisation in this location often means silver, gold, lead etc. Hence the many claims.

Some things are only really visible to us from the ground; the steep terrain and outline of the horizon, but others only show up when we plot them on a map.

A State of Flux


Hinsdale County is a beautiful and remote location. Many people are drawn to come here to Lake City on holiday, and many of those people buy second homes. During the month I was here last summer with the Hardrock Revision residency, it became apparent that the population of Lake City fluctuates wildly during the year. This has a big impact on businesses and the economy here. Now that I’m back, in the depths of winter, I can certainly see the difference.

A dig around the US Census and other reports brought some numbers to light.


Eggs at Altitude


All the way up from Denver my ears were popping as I climbed to Lake City which is at 8,671 ft above sea level. That’s 8,546 ft higher than my hometown of Manchester. There are some serious mountains near Lake City too – Uncompaghre being the highest at 14,409 ft.

With the Ute Ulay mine being at 9,200 ft you’d get very fit working at that altitude.

Apart from the possibility of altitude sickness, which can usually be avoided with a few simple measures, there can be some serious side effects of life so high up. Water boils at a lower temperature the higher you go – so my soft boiled eggs and soldiers were a disaster this morning.