Lake City:  The Most Beautiful Place in America

When I was living in Qatar these past three years, I often thought – dreamed is probably a better word – of visiting Lake City, Colorado again after I moved back to the U.S.  Lake City, population 378 and founded in 1874, is a small town that sits at 8,671’ in the heart of the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado.  As I said in my previous entry, I worked as a BLM ranger in the Lake City area for six enjoyable summers during the 1980s and ever since, Lake City has felt like my second home.  

 
 
Above:  Lake City was my home for seven weeks, from mid-June until the end of July, as I set up my website.  I also visited lots of favorite places and saw some old friends from the days when I worked as a ranger here.

That's partly because, in my humble opinion, the Lake City area is the most beautiful place in America.  I've traveled around the U.S. more than just about anyone I know and Lake City takes the cake, hands down.  This area is more beautiful than Glacier National Park, Yosemite, Rocky Mountain National Park, or anywhere else in the U.S.  I hadn't been to Lake City since 2002, a visit which I described in my DelsJourney.com website, and it was great to be back.  In fact, it was the happiest I'd been in months.

As I was sitting over there in Qatar, I even used Google’s satellite imagery to zoom into the exact place I wanted to stay when I got to Lake City:  Williams Creek campground, located about 10 miles south of town.  Using the imagery, I even checked out campsite #12, my favorite campsite in my favorite campground in the world, and thought about how much fun I’d have camping there again someday.  When I die, I want to be buried in campsite #12 – but I think the Forest Service would have a problem with that, as would most future campers.  Especially since the camping limit is only 14 days.

And now I was here in Lake City once again – though not in site #12, darn it.  When I pulled into Williams Creek that first Friday evening in June, there was only one other camper in the 22-campsite campground and, wouldn’t you know it, he was camping in campsite #12 (a.k.a. "my campsite") so I chose site #22 instead.  It was a good site, certainly, but not as nice as #12.  

An hour after I pulled in, the campground host, Joan, stopped by and introduced herself.  She was making her evening rounds and stopped her white pickup, got out, and greeted me with a “Good evening, sir!” in a bubbly, Texas twang.  She and her husband had been the campground hosts here at Williams Creek for the past month, she told me, and she said, “So far this summer, we’ve only had 10 campers, so I’m glad to see you.”  I assured her it would get crowded fast, knowing Lake City, and she agreed.  “But still, I like to see lots of campers here,” she said.  I also told here that back in the 1980s, I used to give evening campfire/slide shows for campers right here at Williams Creek campground.  Those campfire talks were fun, as I told the campers stories and showed them slides of the mining days back in the 1800s.

Then I asked Joan about site #12, which was currently occupied by a guy in a trailer and Joan said, “He’s moving out on Sunday and going back to Denver.  He’s a teacher and has to go back to work.”  “Darn,” I said sarcastically and Joan laughed.  “Well, I’m going to get that site before anyone else does,” I told her. 

Having the right campsite is extremely important and, in my opinion, can be the difference between an enjoyable stay and an unpleasant one, and I’ll go to great lengths to find the absolute best campsite in any campground.  Yes, I’m one of those annoying people who drives around a campground two or three times, slowly evaluating each site, while you’re trying to enjoy your dinner.  Sorry, can’t help it.  But even though I was in site #22 and not site #12, it was still absolutely wonderful to be back here in Lake City.

The next day, Saturday, I drove into town and walked around.  I hadn’t seen Lake City since 2002 but it hadn’t changed much, which was nice – although I knew this was still the slow season and things would get a lot more crowded in the days and weeks ahead.  Lake City was founded in 1874 as a mining town and boomed during the next 20 years, but the mining had dwindled by the 1920s along with the town’s fortunes.  Today, the town’s economy is based on tourism, especially in the summer months and especially among Texans, giant herds of which stampede into Lake City like Texas longhorns during July and August when it’s hotter than Hades down in the Lone Star state but nice and cool way up here in the San Juan Mountains.  In fact, it’s not uncommon during the summer to see more Texas license plates in Lake City than Colorado plates. 

My first stop in town was the Lake City Visitor Center, which is also the BLM office and thus was my home back in the 1980s when I worked here (though it was in a different building back then).  I walked into the empty Visitor Center and met Colton, who was the lone staffer there, sitting behind the desk.  Colton told me he was a junior at the high school in Lake City, in a class of fewer than 10.  We chatted for 20 minutes then an older couple walked in and asked Colton about the road over Engineer Pass.  Colton wasn’t sure how to answer, so I butted in.  “The road over Engineer isn’t too bad, but it is fairly narrow on the other side," I said. I told them I hadn't been up there in 28 years but figured it hadn't changed much.  "I wouldn’t recommend driving your big Tundra over it but you might consider renting a jeep,” I continued.  “Yeah, I was thinking about doing that.  What do you know about Cinnamon Pass?,” he asked me.  “Well, actually I put up the sign for Cinnamon Pass back in 1986, so let me tell you about it.” 

I talked to the couple for another 20 minutes, telling them all about the Lake City area and the four-wheel drive roads up in the mountains.  This was exactly what I did back in the 1980s when I was a ranger here, giving tourists information about the area, and I picked up right where I had left off in 1988.  It was like I’d stepped back three decades and all the memories and stories and knowledge about this area instantly came flooding back to me.  It was wonderful.

After the couple left, I perused the maps and brochures in the Visitor Center and started reading a brochure called “Ghost Towns of the Lake City Area.”  “Boy, this is really good,” I thought to myself as I started reading it.  “Hey wait a minute.  I wrote this!”  Sure enough, it was in a different format now but it was a compilation of brochures I’d written back in the 1980s describing the various ghost towns in the area.  I’d posted them on signs back then, which I built and erected at each ghost town.  I chuckled to myself, knowing that something I’d written over 30 years ago was still being enjoyed – well, hopefully enjoyed – by visitors today.  My legacy lives on!

Coming Back to Lake City

 

Putting on the Brakes

I said goodbye to Colton, a really nice chap, and made my way over to the Lake City Public Library, which I’d visited often back in the 1980s when I was doing historical research as a ranger here.  That was two library buildings ago – much smaller buildings – and today the library has a glorious home near the city park.  When I walked into the new library, I was immediately greeted by a super-friendly black-and-white cat, and then the librarian, a woman named Karen.  I told Karen I used to work here and she told me, in five minutes, just about everything that had happened in Lake City during the past 30 years, while the cat (named Mr. Witty, Karen told me) started climbing up on my shoulders.  Good thing I like cats because I quickly became Mr. Witty’s BFF.

I asked Karen about the head librarian when I lived here, a woman named Elaine.  “Oh, she’s still the head librarian here.  She’ll be here next week, and I’ll leave her a note telling her you dropped by.”  Then I told Karen the reason I was here.  “I need to start writing stories for my website, so I’ll be spending a few weeks here in the library.”  “Oh, that’s great,” she said.  “Make yourself right at home.”  And so I did – for the next seven weeks. I'd underestimated it by just a tad.

Yes, I spent seven weeks in Lake City.  Between June 10 and the day I finally left, July 31, I did three main things:

  1. Taught myself web design.
  2. Wrote four months worth of website updates.
  3. Visited my favorite places from when I worked here, reliving old memories.

Task #1 was learning, or actually re-learning, web design.  I’ve created websites before, like my 2001 travel website, DelsJourney.com, but I wanted to learn a newer and more powerful web technology called Joomla.  I had a vision of my ExtremeGeographer.com website in mind and it would have: 

  • A slideshow on the home page with lots of pictures.
  • Tons of clickable thumbnail photos which opened up to both medium and large-size photos, each with a caption.
  • Interactive web maps where I’d show the route I took as well as a dot showing each day's stopping point.
  • 360° interactive panorama photos of scenic places that you can pan and zoom, and
  • Lots of videos.

So that’s mostly what I did during the rest of June and all of July:  I taught myself web programming and set up a framework for my website.  By late July, I still hadn’t posted many stories but I’d learned all the technology and the framework was in place.  Now I just had to write the content.

Task #2 was just that:  writing content.  Starting in late July, I began writing and posting website stories, starting with returning to the U.S in March, getting ready for my road trip in April, and leaving Portland on my trip in May.  Each day until late August, I wrote stories about the previous four months, relying on my memories, notes I’d written or verbally recorded on my cell phone, and especially, my photos.  It was a lot of work but by late August, I had written 35 News updates from April to August and was all caught up.  Between the text, web maps, video, and panorama photos, it took me about 4 hours to create each page, so it was a lot of work.  Yes, everything you’ve read up to this point I wrote either during the seven weeks I was in Lake City or the subsequent three weeks I was in nearby Montrose.

Task #3 was another important reason I was in Lake City.  I hadn’t visited this area since 2002 and I wanted to explore it again and relive some of my fond memories from when I was a ranger here.  So each weekend when the library was closed, I traveled to my favorite places.  I was happy to see that the sites – American Basin, Engineer Pass, the Powderhorn Wilderness Area and others – were still pretty much as they were in the 1980s.  The only difference was the visitation.  There were now 2 or 5 or 10 times as many people at these places than back in the 1980s and it seemed that everyone now had their own ATV or quad, rather than all riding together in a single jeep, making the narrow dirt mountains roads a lot more congested and noisy.

So while I loved my visit to Lake City, I’ll never, ever go back there in July or August – it’s way too crowded and noisy during that time.  From now on, I’ll visit in either June before everyone arrives or in September after the crowds and their ATVs have gone back to Texas.

I’ll spend the next few web entries describing my seven weeks in Lake City and three weeks in Montrose as I taught myself web programming and got caught up with my website, then I’ll pick up again in late August when I resumed my road-trip.  Believe me, when I started this road trip around America in May, I hadn’t planned on spending most of the summer in the Colorado Rockies and it put me behind schedule a bit, but it had to be done.  And on the positive side, the Rockies were a pretty nice place to spend the summer.

OK, now getting back to the story about campsite #12 above:  The next day, Sunday, the guy in site #12 pulled out and literally 20 seconds later, I moved right in and had my coveted site.  And there I stayed for the next seven weeks.   For the rest of June, the campground was virtually empty and on those nights when I was the only person in the campground, I pulled out my harmonica and played tunes by the light of my campfire.  The Forest Service has a 14-day camping limit but the campground wasn’t filling to capacity until mid-July, so I stayed at Williams Creek campground until July 31.   And for those seven weeks, I was in heaven.

Late June in Lake City