A back road trip to Summitville

Photo courtesy John M. Motter
The two buildings featured here once stood on the north side of Lewis Street on the first two lots east of Third Street. The building on the left was the first county school building, built circa 1885. The building on the right was the first Catholic Church, built circa 1897.

Lots of folks like to drive back roads in Pagosa Country looking at the scenery and hoping for a glimpse of deer, elk, maybe a bear or a mountain lion, or maybe even a moose. Some like to fish the clear water gurgling through the many mountain streams. I’m one of those folks who likes all the above. In addition to wildlife and flowers, I see history everywhere I go.

One of the most visited back roads around here follows the East Fork of the San Juan River eastward through a narrow cañon, then widens into a series of grassy meadows where folks used to live even before there was a town of Pagosa Springs. After crossing a few creeks, the valley bottom narrows again, fords the river and begins its tortuous climb up Elwood Pass and across the South San Juan Mountains.

It’s hard to imagine this valley was once home to prehistoric residents and more recently, contemporary Native American cultures. When mountain men and prospectors entered the Four Corners area, many of them used this route to cross the Continental Divide. The East Fork road was once upon a time a military highway and, for a fleeting period, a state-financed highway.

During the fall months when aspen shimmer and glow on the mountainsides, this road accesses many of the more breathtaking, photogenic panoramas I know about. Since I haven’t done the entire route for more than 30 years, I advise you to check with the Forest Service for road conditions before attempting the travels I’m about to describe. Life can get dangerous really quick in the high country and you’re a far piece from help. In those days, I didn’t have a four-wheel or front-wheel drive. A modest four-door sedan packed with a few sandwiches, a jug of water, a handyman jack, a map or two and a spare tire got the job done.

In those days, you could cross Elwood Pass and Timber Hill and look over the McCormick Cabin and, then, because the road branched, you could choose from a variety of destinations. The most popular destination was Summitville, formerly a gold-mining community located at an elevation of 12,473 feet on South Mountain. In its day, Summitville was the highest mining camp in the U.S., higher than Leadville.

Gold was discovered in the Summitville area circa 1870 and for several years, it was the destination of choice for prospectors and their donkeys, and others of similar ilk. With its hotels, rooming houses, bars and other businesses, Summitville supplied a small army of fortune hunters who combed the surrounding mountain wilderness in search of yet another El Dorado. Summitville even had a newspaper for a short time.

The route from Del Norte to Summitville to Pagosa Springs via Elwood Pass has been used since the 1870s and during the early years was one of the primary routes into Pagosa Springs and the San Juan Basin.

Many of Pagosa’s first settlers used this route, as did mail delivery from the east. At or near Summitville, there were also roads going to South Fork, Monte Vista and down a branch of the Alamosa River eventually reaching Alamosa.

At the top of Elwood Pass, another branch of the road follows Park Creek downstream to U.S. 160 near the eastern terminus of Wolf Creek Pass. This is good to know because a Forest Service campground is located at the intersection of the creek and U.S. 160. This is a good place to camp and tour the high mountain country around Summitville.