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Waterfalls and moose

Continuing our waterfall search, we visited Silver Falls, located north of Pagosa Springs near the foot of Colorado highway 149, which comes down from Wolf Creek Pass. This site was at the end of about eight miles of rough four-wheel-drive-only road, followed by a very steep hike that left me panting and caused Andrea, who has knee problems, to turn back halfway.

Jan and I struggled the rest of the way up to the falls over a steep, narrow path covered with loose stones—very tricky footing, and exhausting too. It was worth it, though. Silver Falls is an interesting, complicated series of cascades, much higher than Piedra Falls. The rate of flow was relatively sparse, but we loved the twisting skeins of water.

Silver Falls

On the way back home, we saw a large class C RV stopped by the side of the road at the foot of Wolf Creek Pass, just a mile or so outside Pagosa Springs. There was smoke wafting from the front wheel well, and a young woman stood looking at it, wearing a puzzled frown. The highway from the pass is a long, very steep downgrade, so we figured they had probably overheated their brakes, and turned around and went back to see whether they needed help. (Like me, Jan carries a fire extinguisher in her car.)

Turned out it was a rental rig, with a young couple, an eight year old boy and a five year old girl, on their very first RVing trip. And yes, they had smoked the brakes, although they really didn't understand why there was "vapor" (!) coming from the front end. Nobody at the CruiseAmerica rental agency had told them how to drive over a mountain pass. They were lucky to have been able to pull over before they lost their brakes completely. "I was only going 35!" said the man in a bewildered tone. Yes, but he'd been doing that by keeping his foot on the brakes all the way down the 9% grade.

I told them what happens when you ride the brakes until your brake fluid gets hot enough to boil: you lose the ability to slow down, and are apt to go over the edge at the next curve. Then I explained about the need to downshift on these downgrades so you won't have to use your brakes. Rules of thumb: Start slow and stay slow. Let the engine hold your speed on downgrades, with only a touch of the brakes before corners.

I didn't make an issue of how close to death they'd unwittingly come, but I made sure they understood what they needed to do next time. Then I gave them my card and referred them to my article on mountain driving in Eureka! Live.

They were grateful, and promised they'd wait half an hour for the brakes to cool off before driving any further. We headed on into Pagosa Springs, hoping they'd survive the rest of their trip. On the way, Jan played the song "Wolf Creek Pass" for us. Read the lyrics, and you'll see what I mean. The song is funny, but losing your brakes on a mountain pass is not.

I'll say one thing for Pagosa Springs: it has the largest and best Ace Hardware store I've ever seen. In addition to the usual hardware, they sell clothes, furniture... and a large assortment of classic candies. I was astonished to see Bonomo's Turkish Taffy, which had been out of production since 1989.

Bonomo's Turkish Taffy

For you trivia buffs out there... it actually isn't Turkish, and it isn't taffy. ("Technically, it's a short nougat," according to the inventor's son Tico Bonomo.) But then there are lots of misleadingly named foods out there. Take Post's "Grape Nuts" cereal: it contains no grapes and no nuts. It's basically stale bread that's been ground up. (Don't believe me? Look it up!)

Sadly, once the initial thrill of rediscovering a long-lost candy treat wore off, I remembered why I was never a big fan of Turkish Taffy: it gets stuck in your teeth and gums up your whole mouth. By the time i'd finished that bar, I felt as if I could wait another twenty years before I'd want to try it again.

Moving on

A few days later Andrea headed off on her own, while Jan and I moved to dispersed camping near Creede. From there, we set out to find the Copper Creek and Phoenix waterfalls.

We had directions from the woman at the Creede visitors center, and various maps... plus of course our GPS (not always 100% accurate when it comes to forest roads, but better than nothing). We drove up and down the rutted dirt roads, exploring all the possible avenues without finding the falls. But we did stumble upon the Last Chance Mining Museum, up on the side of Bachelor Ridge.

Last Chance Mine hardware

A group of restored and not-so-restored buildings houses a great collection of mining tools and lore, plus a huge array of minerals and gems for sale—everything from amethyst to turquoise to zinc. The sale of these specimens helps fund the ongoing restoration of the mine; the woman in charge there told us that next season they're going to offer underground tours. Imagine standing in the middle of a 15-foot-wide solid vein of amethyst flecked with silver! Here's an interesting article that tells all about the mine.

It's hard to believe that some of these buildings are still standing!

Last Chance Mine building

Funny thing: despite getting directions from several seemingly knowledgable locals, and driving all over the Creede area several days in a row, we never did find either the Copper Falls or the Phoenix Falls. But serendipitous discoveries such as the Last Chance Mining Museum made up for it... that, and the often stunning scenery on these back roads, such as this chasm just outside of town:

Creede gorge

Our campsite near Creede was pretty, but it was slotted in between two towering stone masses, so we were utterly unable to get a Verizon internet connection, even with our cellular roof antennas and booster amps. The only way to go online was to drive into town and park by the visitors center, where free Wi-Fi was available. For heavy internet users like us, that was very frustrating! We're used to having round-the-clock access. So a few days later, Jan and I started off for Lake City, where we hoped to find better connections.

We made a stop at North Clear Creek Falls, a spectacular waterfall just off the highway. Unlike Silver Falls, North Clear Creek Falls had plenty of water thundering down into a deep chasm. It was beautiful and impressive in the late-afternoon sunlight. We liked it so much that we decided to spend the night in the parking lot there, within earshot of the falls.

North Clear Creek Falls

The next day we climbed the high bluffs on the other side of the canyon to photograph the falls from another viewpoint. You can see our two rigs in the upper left corner of this photo.

Camping by the falls

As I may have mentioned before, I'm afraid of heights. Taking photos from these sheer overlooks is scary, but the results are worth it. I'm just very, very careful where I put my feet!

South Clear Creek Falls, although only a couple of miles away, was a little harder to find. But we eventually located it, at the end of a fairly long, steep hike.

South Clear Creek Falls

The next day we drove over Slumgullion Pass, which is even steeper than Wolf Creek Pass. We took the 14 miles of downgrade in first gear, and thanks to engine braking, only had to use our brakes very briefly before a couple of hairpin curves.

We found a nice campsite at one end of San Cristobal Lake, overlooking a stream. And we went out exploring, looking for more waterfalls. What we found instead were moose.

Moose male

Up by Deer Lakes, near the top of Slumgullion Pass, they're common. We saw a medium-sized male, and a female with calf, all three contentedly browsing on willows.

Moose female

Jan and I stayed very quiet while photographing them, talking only in whispers. But when Junior got curious and started to head up the hill toward us, we decided it was time to leave.

Moose calf male
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