Silver Plume Mountain


At the time, it all seemed so simple. So natural. So inevitable. How did we manage to miss Silver Plume Mountain all these years?

Most people fleeing the dusty and dissipated plains don’t exit I-70 shy of Summit County, and them what do almost never take Exit 226.


Clear Creek is definitely my favorite county, and Silver Plume is without question my favorite part of it. Seeping history and mystery from every 140-year-old plank and paver, Silver Plume is a ghost town along Casper lines – a little friendly, a little retiring, a little doughy, and, if you want to know the truth, and if I can be trusted to tell the truth, which is no simple question, a little needy. Still, little Silver Plume goes out of its way to please, and I go out of my way to be pleased, so it was fitting and proper when, one bright morning in early June, me and Iron B took advantage of Main Street’s semi-ample on-street parking and prepared to tackle the 7:30.


I can see by your familiar vacant expression that elaboration is necessary. Back in the 1880’s, Silver Plume was awash in gold and grit, and the thickly-perforated hillside at its back featured a solid dozen busy hard-rock mines employing an ethnically diverse army of hard-rock miners who spent long days spitting fist-sized nuggets down on the rooftops below and quiet evenings failing to apply themselves in ESL classes at the guild hall. Those working major bores like the Pelican and the Drift were required by management to punch in each morning by 7 o’clock. Thanks to the enlightened, or possibly apathetic, leadership of its co-owner and superintendent Clifford Griffin – a Limey, if it matters, and I think it does – those working the 7:30 Mine were granted a half-hour’s grace.

If you’re wondering why I would waste a precious portion of my limited consciousness relating that seemingly insignificant scrap of historical trivia, it’s because I care deeply about your psychological wellness. We’re in for a rough ride this morning, and it’s my hope that possessing some small personal insight into Griffin’s character will help soften the emotional traumas that lie ahead. Courage, Camille!


The trailhead is very well-marked when you’re standing in front of it. To achieve that advantageous position, saunter east through downtown and hang a Louie on Silver Street. When you run out of Silver Street, heave to starboard and behold. In point of fact, the 7:30 Mine Trail is actually the ancient 7:30 Mine Road, a steeply artifact laboriously carved, stacked, hammered and willed into the sheer mountainside. Completed in 1872 by the Brown and Republican Mountain Wagon Road Company, the precipitous toll-way served a half-dozen of Silver Plume’s most prosperous mines, and the last stop on the line was the 7:30. The trail sets out from 9,100 feet on a relentless climb through Clear Creek County’s golden age.


On every side rest half-buried vestiges of industry, rusting reminders that the Valley of Clear Creek once figured large on the national economy. Jumbled fans of tailings sweep down across the trail, and flowing pipes jutting from the dense brush still drain deep shafts whose entrances have been lost to human memory for a hundred years. And beware! Long-stilled tram cables stretching across the path present rocket-propelled hikers with a very real threat of decapitation.



 Just so you know, I’ve done the 7:30 trail at least a dozen times. It’s my favorite trail in my favorite town in my favorite county because it unstintingly provides everything I want from a hike. Besides an unmatched catalog of Centennial State history and dense aspen stands, the vistas available from its sometimes-precarious trace can stand toe-to-toe with any in the Rockies. And, if you go in Spring, and I make a point of it, the way is refreshingly replete with water, crystal clear run-off trickling, chuckling, splashing and glittering all about and, at many points and for considerable stretches, directly under foot. But best of all, the 7:30 has the Clifford Griffin Memorial, and I must now ask that you bestir yourself long enough to retrieve a box of facial tissues before continuing.



We lit out at 8:30, climbing steadily through four switchbacks, one stream crossing, several lunar landscapes of processed rock, and eye-pleasing legions of aspen and bristlecone, always tending strongly toward the West. At places the antique roadway has crumbled into rubble and collapsed down the hillside, leaving uncomfortably vertical scallops in the mountain wall that can only be traversed along extremely narrow, white-knuckle tracks beaten across loose scree by the misguided feet of hikers goaded into foolish risk by people holding large insurance policies on their persons with double-indemnity clauses guaranteeing a lifetime of financial independence in the case of accidental death.


You come even with Clifford’s lonesome cenotaph 1.8 miles along and 1,180 feet above. To pay your respects intimately, a small cairn opposite a gated shaft is the only clue you’ll have to the monument’s access. The way is short, and bouldery, and dumps out on a high shelf far above the interstate. Time has been stern toward the stout granite monolith, but discerning eyes can still read Clifford’s nicely formal ciao-for-now more than 125 years later.


Clifford Griffin

Son of Alfred Griffin Esq of

Brand Hall, Shropshire, England

Born July 2, 1847

Died June 19, 1887

And in Consideration of his Own Request

Buried Near this Spot


Legend has it that Clifford, desolated by his lady-love’s callous indifference, spent most of that warm July evening atop the rocky prominence, sawing sorrowfully away on his violin and contemplating the heart’s terrible fragility. Then he shot himself in the pinto-bean with a .38 caliber revolver. The good people of Silver Plume will tell you that sometimes of a warm summer night the mournful strains of Clifford’s violin can be heard echoing softly down the canyon. Of course, there’s not a lot to do in Silver Plume of a warm summer night except drink, and consequently they tend to say a lot of things that defy empirical review.


The 7:30 Trail ends maybe a few hundred yards up farther along amid a litter of rusting boilers, tumbled structures and tetanus. The humble wreckage of the once-prosperous 7:30 Mine had always been sufficient reward for me in the past, but not now. Brown Creek washes through the gulch from higher parts, and if we wanted to plumb Silver Plume Mountain’s secrets we would have to follow it to its source. On a topographical map it’s an unremarkable two inches of crisp, clean, water-repellent paper. A cake-walk, surely, with but a single barrier to success.



Immediately adjacent the 7:30, the way is barred by a picturesque waterfall that, in season, is swollen with ice-cold snowmelt and hot malice toward all who go upon two legs. Iron B and me go upon two legs, and weren’t looking for trouble, but we had a job to do. Peering ahead and attempting to divine the trail’s character above the falls, it seemed to my hopeful eye that the gulch opens into a broad and gentle way just ahead, and I announced that conclusion with completely unwarranted certainty. A modern Lancelot, I allowed Iron B to precede me, and she quickly – and, I think, too harshly – disabused me of my innocent misapprehensions.

“Wrong again, Nimrod!” she shouted. “It gets worse! A lot worse! We have to cross over!”

Crossing over Brown Creek was precisely what I’d been hoping to avoid. On the other hand, I knew only too well that if Iron B wasn’t interested in pursuing the east bank, I wouldn’t be, either. I clambered up to her precarious perch above the falls and quickly deduced that the crossing would be several times more difficult from that location than the same maneuver just below at the 7:30.

“I didn’t say you should come up here,” she smirked.

Yeah, thanks B. We managed to get across the creek with only a thorough soaking, and bulldozed through the dense vegetation on the west side to discover a trail heading in our direction.


I call it a trail because I don’t know what else to call it. It was, for the most part, indistinguishable from Brown Gulch’s steep and thickly forested walls. It was, more than anything, the hollow promise of a trail, composed mostly of intermittent traces inscribed by lost hikers whose bleached bones must have long ago been swept into oblivion by the remorseless cataract sharing its knife-edged bed. It was, for more than half a mile, a close and noisy horror without a square foot of level relief to its credit, a nasty and precipitous track less interested in providing access to the mountains than in spilling everything upon it into the roaring creek.

11“This is kind of cool, isn’t it?” said Iron B, giving no thought to how our words can affect those around us. “Real bushwhack-y.”

            It was a long 45 minutes, I can tell you, and a desperate six-tenths of a mile. If there’s a moral to this story, and I think we both know you could stand to absorb a few morals, it’s that if you can’t find a single word on a mountain’s approach in all the vast informational landfill that is the Internet, there’s probably a good reason for it, and you might want to pick another mountain.


We eventually, and thankfully, rose up out of the woods like Lazarus from his grave and stepped into a great shaven bowl rimmed by 210 degrees of sheer majesty.


This, at last, was the hike I’d signed on for. The faux-trail vanishes about two steps beyond the last stunted pine, so you can pretty much pick your route thither. We took a hard left and started climbing.



 The last mile of Silver Plume Mountain is a pretty straight-forward tundra-walk up the peak’s broad eastern shoulder. Smooth as green velvet, mild of grade and hospitably inclined, it’s fit recompense for the heavy toll paid back in the gulch.

As it happened, no sooner did we break out under blue skies than those skies began filling with dark clouds and menace. I barely noticed. I was just glad to have friendly ground back under foot.


We topped out at 10:55 and 12,477 feet amid spitting snow and the grumble of distant thunder. Due east, 12,386-foot Republican Mountain presents a dignified profile. To the north, un-ranked Sherman Mountain, 12,287, offers an easily plucked 107 feet of prominence. Hard-by on the West, the imposing bulk of 13,641-foot Bard Peak dwarfs everything else in the vicinity. And, off south-a-ways, the whole of the Front Range from Mount Evans to Loveland Pass stretches out before you like a Motel 6 landscape painting.


Agopus leucura "White-tailed Ptarmigan

Agopus leucura “White-tailed Ptarmigan

Curiously enough, in the case of Silver Plume Mountain, “X” actually does mark the spot, with a Chi-shaped jumble of native granite occupying the mountain’s wide, bald pate. A long scythe of gentle ridgeline connects Silver Plume, Sherman and Republican, and Iron B and me had discussed the possibility of snapping up those two tempting prizes before heading down. In the event, however, worsening weather conditions and dreadful prospect of returning down Brown Gulch in rain made the decision for us. We started down.


 It is my good and right and commendable policy to present these thrilling accounts in as true and unvarnished a manner as possible, or at least those parts of them that can be easily corroborated. In that laudable spirit of conditional Glasnost, and before the gloating Iron B has a chance to, I will courageously divulge to you that I took a pretty good spill at the top of the gulch. For a fearless and free-wheeling adventurer such as I, the occasional oopsy is all in a brave day’s work, but this was a bit more awkward. While navigating the 45-degree track just within the gulch’s choking grip, I sat down, suddenly and without ceremony, my full and considerable weight applying directly onto my right foot, which was tucked underneath and pointing behind me at the time, nearly tumbling into white pandemonium of Brown Creek in the process 

 If there is any place further removed from human commerce, or less convenient to a medivac landing site, than the tip- top of Brown Gulch, I haven’t been there. I imagined nursing a broken ankle for 24 hours while mocking rescuers tried to devise a way to get me back to civilized parts, and Iron B did nothing to allay my anxieties. Fortunately, and in testament to my superb physical condition and Olympian resolve, I was able to creep, hobble and whine my way back down the 2.3 miles to the antique Town of Silver Plume in a mere two and a half hours. Never has a $15 Walmart hiking pole been used more gratefully, or been put to such noble purpose.

Ranunculus adoneus   "Alpine buttercup"

Ranunculus adoneus “Alpine buttercup”

However it ended, Silver Plume Mountain was a good hike, if one takes “good” to mean “not fatal.” For the most part, I enjoyed it, if one takes “enjoyed it” to mean “was not utterly wretched for a statistically significant percentage of it.”

And, as an homage to my favorite town in my favorite county, it simply had to be done.

But I won’t do it again.

 I’ll still visit with Clifford every now and then, particularly in autumn when the hillsides once more flow with gold. I’ll still stop for a pastie at the Silver Plume Tea Room, and pick up an apple-walnut pie while I’m at it. And I’ll still look up toward that big granite X and brag about the most miserable .6-mile I ever knew. But it’s plain to me that Silver Plume Mountain, a modest summit resting quietly between more flamboyant neighbors, doesn’t really want to be climbed.

Iron B thinks I’m crazy, but she also listens to books on tape, so her opinions can be safely discounted.

Clifford 026

Staunton Park Confidential

It’s like this…

After weeks, months, and finally years of delays, Staunton State Park finally opened for business on May 18. Now, me, I’m not one to attend a gala grand opening on the grounds that they tend to attract attendees and I hate to share anything in general and trails in particular. For some reason, though, Welsh Doug seemed to think we had to show or die trying and, mindful of Welsh tendencies toward hostage-taking, blackmail and legal harassment, I decided it would be easier to cave. As it happened, on May 17 Welsh Doug came down with an acute case of Craven’s Palsy and bailed on the expedition altogether. Having already composed and sent an entire brief email announcing the hike, I had no choice but to continue as planned. That plan started with catching a 9 a.m. Staunton Park shuttle at the Mountain View Park ‘n’ Ride in Conifer, but upon learning that park-service motor-coaches provide no mentholated towels, television monitors or beverage service, I thought it better to take our chances at the main gate. Iron B, MegaWatt and Yours Truly arrived there at about 8:45, and took our place in line behind perhaps 10 early-rising Parkies. Within 10 minutes the line stretched away out of sight down Elk Creek Road 

The gates opened promptly at 9 o’clock, and we raced into Staunton, seizing a parking space at the Mason Creek Trailhead just in time to wait in another line. On a more positive note, the bathrooms were so clean I couldn’t bear to sully their sanitized perfection. But I could, and did, eat a light breakfast of chocolate croissant and soft-boiled egg off the stall’s factory-fresh floor.

There are about 18 miles of trail at Staunton State Park, and most of them are accessed from the Staunton Ranch Trail – 3.3 miles of showroom-quality, neatly-manicured and virtually un-trod multi-use dirt measuring a précised 4-feet in width and still displaying rake-marks left by wooden-sandal-shod gangs of $200-an-hour Japanese feng shui artists flown in at public expense to groom the park.

That’s the ranger’s house. His name is Colin Chisholm. I know that because we spoke on the phone some weeks ago. He was very helpful on the phone, very forthcoming, very accommodating. When I showed myself inside and asked to use the bathroom he pretended to not know who I was and threatened to have me ejected from the park if I didn’t stop rooting around in his refrigerator and leave immediately. I see now that his previous graciousness was all an act. Very disillusioning.

The Staunton Ranch Trail climbs gently, but steadily, into the heart of the park. Sensing that I was growing parched from my manly efforts, MegaWatt offered me a “Fruit Gum” candy. They are English candies, made by the English, imported from England and purchased by MegaWatt at a Denver store that specializes in impoverishing red-blooded American confectioners. He gave me the first one (lime-eel) for free, then suggested a retail price of $5 for each chewy drop thereafter. He seriously thought me so weak and dependent and self-indulgent that I could be compelled to pay five bucks to suck on a 2-cent orange-eel, mango-eel or raspberry-eel morsel. Turns out he was right. I just love eel. Fortunately I had come prepared to pay steep littering and public indecency fines and was carrying lots of cash.

The rock feature called Lion’s Head is visible from nearly everywhere in the park. Remarkably, from no matter which angle one perceives that mighty pile, it looks nothing like a lion’s head.

About 2 miles in we hit a crossroads. Old Mill trail to starboard led up toward Staunton Rocks. As only Iron B aspires to the rock-climber’s moronic arts, we instead turned left onto Scout Line Trail. It’s hiker-only, which seemed a plus, and has a more trail-y aspect, having apparently been entirely snubbed by the Japanese gardeners.

Iron B took pictures of Staunton Rocks, possibly so she can later scale them mentally on her computer in the comfort of her own home. If so, she’s hit upon an activity even sillier and more useless than rock-climbing.



Scout Line Trail ascends quickly, leaving the open, harvested central areas and rising into densely-forested realms. And just in time. It was upon this gentle woodland resident that I lavished the precious gift of moisture, which blessing it gratefully accepted. A true “circle of life”.

 Staunton Rocks. Yeah, they’re pretty rocky, alright. But then so is my driveway, and you don’t see it getting all full of itself.

Whatever delight we had in hiking biker-free was soon tempered by Scout Line’s precipitous nature. After a few half-hearted feints at switch-backing, it gave up the pretense of gentility and made straight for the mountain top. The good news is the views were splendid. The bad news is that I was too blinded by tears to notice.

Here’s a view I didn’t see.

The intersection of Scout Line and Marmot Passage Trail. Despite my repeated warnings, MegaWatt persists in engaging with strange hikers. This fellow and his dog are from Oklahoma. Either he or his dog saw Staunton’s opening advertised on the Internet and decided to “git ‘er dun’” He had no food, no water, no map, and no compunction about marrying a first cousin. He did have a really big knife. It’s likely he thinks a really big knife is all a real man needs to survive in the wilderness. He’s half right. Take it from someone who knows – a real man also needs all the food and water he can steal from his two hiking companions.

And a map. Unfortunately, that’s a chamber of commerce merchant map of the 16th Street Mall. Interestingly, MegaWatt didn’t seem to mind, or even notice.




First bicycles, and now this. The whole “multiple use” concept is clearly out of control. What next? Big Wheels? Dogsleds? Segways? Slave-borne palanquins? Actually, that last one sounds kind of cool. I must propose it to Colin at the first opportunity.


The Stauntons left a bunch of cabins littered about the ranch. This, on the other hand, is the Staunton Park Visitors Center. It’s much nicer inside.

Staunton Pond. Anybody else catching a theme here?




Still plenty of water in the park. Cool, cool water, on a bed of black aspen leaves. Just right for slaking!

Given my correct and supportable views on rock-climbing, the only destination in Staunton Park I would attempt was Elk Falls. As it happens, Elk Falls lies at the farthest extremity of the very last trail some 6 miles distant from the Mason Creek Trailhead. At this point I’m guessing we’ve done every foot of those 6 miles, and climbed something like 1,500 to 1,800 feet. MegaWatt immediately produced a Sharpie from his backpack and vandalized the sign to read “Elk Falls Overlook H8TIN.” I tried to tell him that only works on stop signs, but he wouldn’t have it.

Iron B and MegaWatt argue before making the last push. Iron B wants to whistle the theme from The Great Escape. MegaWatt wants to whistle the theme from Bridge on the River Kwai. Disgusted, I stepped in and made them whistle the theme from the Andy Griffith Show. And it served them right.


There’s the Oakie and his coon-hound, now. Thanks to the masculine power of his really big knife he was able to take a less rigorous combination of trails and arrive at the overlook before us.


And there they are. The falls are pretty, sure enough.


A plunge of 100 feet, by all accounts. A trail is contemplated leading directly to the falls, but construction can’t begin until all appropriate Shinto purification ceremonies are completed.  By August this view will be considerably reduced. I feel fortunate to have caught Elk Falls in full bugle. By our estimation we were among the first 20 persons to witness this spectacle on Staunton Park’s opening day. That’s gotta be worth fifty bucks, at least. I will submit an invoice to Colin first thing Monday.

MegaWatt brought salted peanuts and nothing to drink. Being saintly, I gladly shared with him my Tum-E Yummies blue-colored beverage. I may as well have shot him in the mouth with a sugar-cannon. What was I thinking?



Feeling pleased with ourselves and maybe a little fatigued, we took the easier, shorter, quicker Bugling Elk Road, er, Trail back. Do I regret not getting a chance to stick my success in Scout Line’s face? Maybe a little, but only a little.



Cabins everywhere except this perfect little meadow. Makes you wonder how the Stauntons got so rich


Look! A rock climber! One, lone rock climber! I guess Staunton really is a magnet for, er, that guy.





After our exertions it was a pleasure to glide back down Staunton Ranch Trail. Like a grand trunk road, Stauntion Ranch meanders down the valley at a gentle slope and easy pace. Just what I needed after the terror at the falls.


Twelve miles later back at the park entrance, the festivities were in full swing. By festivities I mean this guy in a funny hat. Colorado State Parks must have blown their 6-figure opening-day entertainment budget on fugu box lunches for the trail groomers.

Party on, Colin!