USGS Logo Geological Survey Bulletin 707
Guidebook of the Western United States: Part E. The Denver & Rio Grande Western Route


On leaving Salida the railroad runs up the right side of the valley, but it leaves the base of the hills in a short distance and finds a route near the middle of the valley. About a mile out of Salida the traveler has on the west (left) an unobstructed view of the southern part of the Sawatch Range, which at its extreme southern point is crossed by the narrow-gage road over Marshall Pass. This line, after passing westward from Salida about 6 miles, enters the range by Poncha Canyon, which is indicated on Plate XLIV.

The railroad ascends this canyon for several miles and then climbs the mountain slopes on the west, finding a way, after many turns and loops, over the range through Marshall Pass, which lies just beyond Ouray Peak (oo'ray), as shown in Plate LXIX, B (p. 162). Although the line up the Arkansas Valley above Salida was completed as far Leadville in 1880 and the line over Marshall Pass in 1881, the latter was regarded as the main line and was the first to be finished through to Salt Lake City.

Near milepost 217 a branch line turns to the left to a large silver-lead smelter in which much of the ore of this region is reduced. A description of such a plant and of the process of smelting is given on pages 252-254. A little farther on there is an abandoned mill on the right of the track, one of the characteristic features of a mining country that has seen its best days. The old mine that supplied ore to be crushed and concentrated in this mill may be seen halfway up the mountain slope on the right. The mill and a single house constitute Belleview, which is merely a siding for trains. A short distance beyond Belleview the railroad crosses the Rainbow Highway, which for some distance beyond this point continues on the right of the track.

From Salida up to the Continental Divide and for some distance down on the western slope the shape of the mountains has been greatly modified by glaciers. There are no glaciers in these mountains now, but long ago, during the great ice age, these ranges, particularly their east sides, were covered by great masses of ice which flowed down toward or into the valleys at their feet, scouring out here and there basins from the solid rock. As most of the striking scenery in this region is due to the effect of these bodies of moving ice they are shown on the accompanying maps as they existed at the time of their greatest development. The effect of high winds, low temperature, and snow on the vegetation at high altitude is also well shown at the summit of the mountains, as exhibited in Plate XLV, A, which is a view from the automobile road where it crosses the Sawatch Range west of Salida.

PLATE XLV. A (top). SUMMIT OF THE SAWATCH RANGE WEST OF SALIDA. From the automobile road leading to Gunnison and Montrose the traveler has a good view of the bleak summit of a high range. The trees make a persistent effort to creep up toward the crest, but the strong winds. low temperature, and drifting snow prevent them from reaching the top. As shown in the foreground, many of the trees grow horizontally on the surface, and those that stand upright are severely handled by the snow and wind. Photograph by Henry R. Hay, Salida.

B (bottom). CIRQUE ON A MOUNTAIN SIDE. This picture gives a good idea of the great amphitheaters or cirques scooped out of a mountain side by the old glaciers. The glacier formed at the head of a ravine, and the ice flowed out toward the observer and down the ravine to the left. It cut into the slopes on all sides and in time produced the cirque shown here. Photograph by Henry R. Hay, Salida.

About milepost 220 there are many large boulders, like those at Parkdale, on a low terrace near the river. As the railroad approaches the river the boulders may be seen at close range and at higher levels, until they appear on the terrace above the one on which the railroad is built. These boulders increase in size northward until at a place about a mile from the mouth of Brown Canyon, which is apparently the place from which they were swept, there are boulders of great size; one on the left of the track measures 24 by 14 by 10 feet.

Brown Canyon.
Elevation 7,324 feet.
Denver 222 miles.

The boulders are distributed in a fan-shaped, delta-like area, showing that on emerging from the canyon the current that transported them swung first to one side and then to the other of this great delta fan and, naturally, as it reached the open country, lost its transporting power and dropped its load. The station of Brown Canyon is at the point where the stream emerges from the canyon which it has cut in the hard granite. (See fig. 20.)

FIGURE 20.—Ideal section from Sawatch Range to Brown Canyon, showing the deep gravel filling in the old channel of the Arkansas.

The canyon is not straight but, as shown in figure 20, winds about in the hard rock, and at one place, half a mile beyond milepost 223, it touches the very edge of the granite mass, so that the recent cutting of the stream has exposed the gravel filling on the west (left; see fig. 21), showing conclusively that when the river established its present course it was flowing on gravel of fairly uniform composition and that the slope of its bed was so slight that it meandered over a broad, flat-bottomed valley in great well-rounded curves. When the uplift came that gave it power to trench its valley, the stream cut directly downward in its established course, and although in some places its course was on granite and in other places on gravel, the river persisted in following that course even to the present day.

FIGURE 21—Sketch map of Brown Canyon, showing its relation to the granite and the gravel.

The point of hard rock which the traveler may see on the left before he reaches the rift in the canyon wall is a large dike, which was once molten rock that was forced up from below through some great fissure in the crust of the earth. It is now solidified into a mass more resistant than the surrounding granite, so that it stands up as a nearly vertical wall.

At some places in this canyon there are great granite boulders, around which the water surges furiously when the river is above the normal stage. The traveler may be interested in the circular holes, ranging in diameter from a few inches to many feet, that have been carved in these boulders, and he may wonder how they have been made. Some of these "potholes," as they are called, are shown in Plate XLVII, B (p. 98). If he could look down into the potholes he might see the "tools" by which they were carved. These tools are small boulders, which the water, when it is high, whirls round and round in the narrow space. This constant grinding wears the holes deeper and broader and unites many adjacent holes, forming a channel in the rock.

About three-quarters of a mile beyond milepost 224, which is in the narrowest part of the gorge, the railroad crosses a rather large creek that enters the river from the east. A branch road once ran up this stream nearly 6 miles to some iron mines, but the mines were unsuccessful and the line has been discontinued, although it is still shown on some recent maps. The point where this branch joined the main line was known as Hecla Junction. The canyon is near the western edge of the granite area, but the gravel filling on the left can not be seen from the train.

About half a mile beyond milepost 230 the railroad crosses the river and in a short distance emerges from the rocky reaches of Brown Canyon. This canyon is extremely interesting from many points of view. To the geologist it reveals a whole chapter in the history of this region, a chapter that tells of its depression down nearly to sea level, when the highest mountains of Colorado were small ridges only 4,000 or 5,000 feet in height, and then of its elevation to its present position. To the lover of beautiful scenery it affords a pleasing variety of landscape, for one tires of even the finest scenery if it is without variety; but in passing from the open valley above Salida, where the principal objects in sight are the great mountain peaks of the Sawatch Range, to the confining granite walls of Brown Canyon the traveler experiences a pleasing sensation of the nearness of the landscape and of being brought face to face with the works of Nature. To the artist the canyon is beautiful because of its ruggedness and of the many vistas that may be obtained of the stream boiling and foaming through some narrow part, or of some beautiful side ravine where the dull gray of the granite is enlivened by the deep green of the conifers and the soft foliage of the aspens, or, if the season is autumn, by the gleam of gold which the yellow leaves give to the landscape.

The general aspect of the canyon, as well as its relation to the gravel filling on the west, may be seen to excellent advantage by looking back from the train after it has cleared the granite walls and crossed the river to the west side. Here the traveler can see that the higher gravel terrace on the west, as shown in figure 20, is about level with the tops of the granite walls of the canyon. This fact strongly corroborates the theory that the old valley was filled with gravel that forced the river to the east, onto the granite upland. Just after emerging from the canyon the traveler may get, on the west (left), a magnificent view of a part of what is frequently called the Collegiate Peaks or the Collegiate Range, from the fact that the three most prominent summits visible from this part of the valley are known as Princeton, Yale, and Harvard.29 The view on the left also includes Mount Shavano, which is the next high peak south of Mount Princeton. These peaks are peculiarly situated, as they do not form a part of the Continental Divide but stand distinctly east of that crest, and the larger streams heading in the range cut through this outer line of peaks in great canyons that are very striking features. One of the deepest of these cuts, the canyon of Chalk Creek, which the traveler may see on the left, separates Mount Shavano on the south from Mount Princeton on the north. The view of Mount Yale as seen from this point and represented in the sketch (fig. 22) is the best to be obtained from the railroad, for north of this point the big shoulder on the east side conceals the main sharp peak, and the mountain looks like a great round mass. Mount Harvard lies to the right of Mount Yale, and this mountain, as seen from any point on the line, presents the appearance of a great mass without a definite or sharp top.

29The history of the naming of these peaks is given below in the words of Prof. W. M. Davis, of Harvard University:

In the summer of 1869 Prof. J. D. Whitney visited the Rocky Mountains of Colorado with a small party, including four of his students (Archibald R. Marvine, Henry Gannett, Joseph H. Bridges, and William M. Davis) in the mining school at Harvard. His object was chiefly to determine the altitude of the loftiest ranges that he could reach, regarding which a brief report was published in Petermann's Mitteilungen (1871). The highest summit that he found (14,399 feet), was in the Sawatch Range west of the upper Arkansas Valley and was named Mount Harvard, after the university in which he was then teaching; while the next higher summit immediately to the south in the same range (14,172 feet), was named Mount Yale, after the university from which he graduated 30 years before. The name Mount Princeton was given a few years later to the fine mass (14,177 feet) next south of Mount Yale.

FIGURE 22,—Mount Yale from Nathrop.

Just before reaching Nathrop the railroad crosses Chalk Creek on a high bridge. The traveler may look up into the great canyon which this creek has cut in the Sawatch Range, whose base is only 5 miles away, though the head of the creek is 20 miles farther back. The Colorado & Southern Railway has a narrow-gage road in operation up this creek to the mining region about St. Elmo; it formerly crossed the range to Parlin and Gunnison, on the Marshall Pass branch of the Denver & Rio Grande Western, but the long summit tunnel has caved so badly that traffic beyond Hancock has been abandoned. This road may be seen on the left just after the train passes the village of Nathrop.

The gorge that Chalk Creek has cut through the mountains has been scoured by a great glacier, which has greatly broadened its bottom and smoothed its sides, but unfortunately the railroad is so far from the base of the mountains that the traveler can not see how much the ice modified the shape and appearance of the canyon nor the enormous terminal moraine, a mile long and several hundred feet high, that it built, This moraine lies outside the mountains, but it can not be seen from the train.

The mountains on both sides of Arkansas Valley are included in the Leadville National Forest, in the administration of which the Forest Service has come into close contact and, at first, into conflict with the miners regarding their right to cut timber on the public domain. The manner in which this subject has been handled and an outline of the results obtained are given by Smith Riley, district forester, in the footnote.30

30As the train goes up the valley of Arkansas River from Salida to Buena Vista the traveler sees the Collegiate Range on the west and the Trout Creek Hills and Buffalo Peaks on the east. These hills and mountains are all in the Leadville National Forest, which covers an area of 935,566 acres.

The celebrated Leadville and Summit County mining districts of Colorado are almost wholly in the Leadville National Forest. The question at once arises, What effect has the establishment of these national forests had upon the mining industry—are they beneficial or detrimental to it?

This question can be best answered by giving a brief sketch of the practices and customs of the mining communities in the State at the time the forests were created as compared with those prevailing at the present time. In the early days, when "mineral" was discovered, it was the practice to stake as claims all the ground that might become affected by the discovery. One incentive for this action was the desire to control the timber; another was the desire to control all possible mineral deposits found subsequent to the discovery. No effort was made to conform with the requirements of the law as to what constitutes a claim.

When an application for mineral patent is now received for a piece of land in a national forest the land is examined by an experienced, qualified mining expert of the Forest Service to determine the validity of the claim. If the claim is found to be invalid the evidence of its invalidity is submitted to the General Land Office, where action on the application for patent is taken. Such examinations have done much to stop the exploitation of other than mineral land under the mining laws as well as the wholesale location of timber by an individual or company to the detriment of the lone prospector.

Particular attention is given by the Forest Service to the preservation and protection of timber in regions where it may be needed for prospecting and mining, A prospector can obtain timber to develop his claim from the national forest without charge, but a paying mine must buy its timber. Where forest land in a mining district is sold care is taken to leave on it sufficient timber for its exploitation as mineral land should mineral deposits be found on it.

Roads, trails, and telephone lines are built by the Government through national forests to make them accessible for administration and protection, These conveniences are open to the prospector, who in turn is welcomed by the forest officer because of the assistance he is able to render in reporting fires or the misuse of forest property. Very little of the timber, however, that is used in the tunnels, shafts, and stopes of the Leadville mines has been obtained from the basin of Arkansas River. Practically all of it has been obtained from Fryingpan Creek, in the Sopris National Forest, and from the Eagle River country, in the Holy Cross National Forest. Most of the round timbers that are loaded on freight cars at Mitchell, Pando, or Red Cliff, on the other side of the Continental Divide, are destined for the Leadville mines.

The forests around Leadville are composed almost entirely of lodgepole pine (see Pl. XXXVI, B), and the city stands in the upper part of the zone of this tree. The traveler will note the large number of young trees scattered over stump areas or areas in which dead standing trees give evidence of forest fires. Lodgepole pine seeds readily in the soil and ash of fire swept districts, for the cones that contain the seed may remain on the tree year after year without opening, though the seed continues fertile. In this way large quantities of fertile seed accumulate on the trees, so that when a forest fire occurs the cones are slowly opened by the heat, and the seeds are released and fall in great numbers to the ground to sprout and grow, if the weather is favorable. Where the growth of lodgepole pine after a fire is scattering the fire may have been so severe that it burned up a large number of the cones, or favorable weather may not have followed the fire, so that only a very small percentage of the seeds could survive. Where the traveler sees a dense patch of these pine trees in a tract on the mountain side, however, he can be almost certain that a fire has swept over that tract and was followed by a heavy fall of seed and favorable weather during the subsequent growing season.

Elevation 7,696 feet.
Population 196.*
Denver 233 miles.

From the village of Nathrop the traveler, on looking back to the east, may obtain a good idea of the kind of country the granite makes some distance back from the main drainage lines. It forms a plateau or table-land that rises from 1,500 to 2,000 feet above the level of the valley. This plateau is probably a remnant of a once rolling surface that extended over most of the mountain country and that has been described as a peneplain.

About a mile north of Nathrop the Denver & Rio Grande Western crosses to the east side of Arkansas River, and a short distance farther on it crosses the Colorado & Southern Railway, which follows the east side of the valley from this point up to Buena (bway'na) Vista. After he crosses this railway the traveler, if the light is just right, may see faintly in the distance on the side of Mount Princeton a wagon road that zigzags up the south spur of the mountain to some old mines, from which it has been extended to the top. This road may soon be so improved that automobiles can reach the top of the mountain, from which an even wider view may be obtained than that from Pikes Peak, for Mount Princeton is surrounded by range after range that can be seen only from some commanding eminence, The height of Mount Princeton is 14,177 feet. Its relation to the Arkansas Valley is well shown in Plate XLVI.

PLATE XLVI. MOUNT PRINCETON. The towering peaks of the Sawatch or Collegiate Range dominate the upper valley of the Arkansas. This view of Mount Princeton shows the three great spurs on the east side with enormous cirques between them. It was taken from the Trout Creek road and includes the lower end of Buena Vista on the right. Photograph furnished by the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad.

Near milepost 237 the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad again crosses Arkansas River, and a short distance beyond this crossing the traveler may see Trout Creek Pass on the east (right). The Colorado Midland Railway formerly operated a line through this pass. At a lower level he may see the Colorado & Southern Railway, which crosses through the same pass. This road formerly connected the lines of this system in South Park with the line that runs southward from Buena Vista, but it is not now in operation.

Buena Vista.
Elevation 7,968 feet.
Population 903.
Denver 240 miles.

About 2 miles north of the river crossing just mentioned, on the east side of the track, is the State Reformatory, to which juvenile offenders are sent. After crossing Cottonwood Creek, a fine, swift, clear mountain torrent, the railroad reaches Buena Vista ("good view"), a town embowered in a beautiful grove of cottonwood trees and one of the most attractive places in this part of the Arkansas Valley. It stands at the intersection of two of the most noted automobile roads in the State—the Rainbow Highway from Canon City up the Arkansas and the road from Colorado Springs by way of South Park. These roads, after uniting, continue northward through Tennessee Pass and westward to Glenwood Springs and Grand Junction. Cottonwood Creek, which furnishes an abundance of pure water for domestic use and for irrigation, comes down in a deep canyon between Mount Princeton and Mount Yale from the Continental Divide, which is some distance west of these high peaks. Long ago a great glacier occupied the canyon and scoured it out, but it came down only to the point where the canyon opens out into the valley, and the traveler on the railroad has no opportunity of seeing the results of its work.

The attractions of Buena Vista consist of an admirable climate and beautiful surroundings for summer visitors; the ascent of Mount Princeton, which is a little higher than Pikes Peak; and Cottonwood Hot Springs, at the mouth of the canyon 6 miles above Buena Vista, It is proposed to lay a pipe line down to the town and establish bath houses so that more visitors may be able to bathe in the mineral water. Buena Vista was established in 1879 and is the seat of government of Chaffee County.

Immediately north of the station at Buena Vista the traveler may notice on both sides of the track huge boulders that are arranged in the form of a fan, similar to the great fan of boulders at the mouth of Brown Canyon. The boulders at Buena Vista may not be so large as those at the mouth of Brown Canyon, but many of them measure from 12 to 15 feet in their longest diameters.

Nearly 2 miles from the station the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad enters Wildhorse Canyon, a small canyon cut in the massive granite. The automobile road does not follow the river in this part of its course, but keeps to the west (left) on the unconsolidated gravel that fills the old valley. This canyon is not so deep nor so continuous as Brown Canyon, and for some distance in its middle part the granite in the west wall gives place to gravel. At its upper end, on the right (east) side of the track, a great block of granite stands like a sentinel. This block is shown in Plate XLVII, A. Here the traveler may look back and see that the gravel terrace on the west side of the river, stands at about the same level as the top of the granite wall that bounds the canyon on that side, From this fact it is apparent that at one time the old valley was deeply filled with gravel, which was brought down from the high mountains on the west, and that the stream was crowded eastward upon the rocky slope of the valley. Later, when the stream had removed some of this gravel and resumed the work of cutting its valley down, it again flowed on the hard granite, but far to the east of its former course, However, a stream has no power of itself to alter a course it once establishes, and so Arkansas River persisted and cut the canyon in the hard rock.

PLATE XLVII. A (top). NATURAL GRANITE MONUMENT. This striking remnant of massive granite at the upper end of Wildhorse Canyon stands to the right of the tracks and is at least 60 feet high. The granite is cut by dikes of other material, which show in the picture. Photograph by Marius R. Campbell.

B (bottom). POTHOLES IN GRANITE BOULDERS. In Brown Canyon there are many large granite boulders around which in ordinary stages the water swirls and boils but which in floods are completely submerged. The rushing current rolls round and round small boulders caught in hollows of the larger blocks, catting great circular pits called "potholes." Photograph by Marius R. Campbell.

PLATE XLVIII. MOUNT ELBERT AND MOUNT MASSIVE. Colorado's highest peaks as they appear in winter from Leadville. A large smelter in California Gulch is shown in the foreground. The east face of the range is cut by many cirques, from which great glaciers once flowed down into the valley of the Arkansas. Photograph furnished by the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad.

On emerging from Wildhorse Canyon the traveler may obtain a much better view of Mount Yale (14,172 feet) than that which he obtained near Buena Vista. Here it appears as a single peak directly across the valley, with the sharp summit of Mount Princeton on the left and the great rounded mass of Mount Harvard (14,399 feet) on the right. A little farther along he may see a great hollow that apparently has been scooped out of the east slope of Mount Harvard on the side facing Arkansas Valley. This hollow is semicircular in outline and has a nearly flat floor. From the train it looks like a very small feature, but its walls are probably several hundred feet high, and it is not less than half a mile across. (See fig. 23.) To such a semicircular hollow as that on Mount Harvard or the one on the Continental Divide west of Salida (Pl. XLV, B) geologists have applied the French term "cirque," meaning circle. It was produced by a small glacier that was formed in a ravine far up on the mountain slope.

FIGURE 23—Great cirque on Mount Harvard.
Elevation 8,374 feet.
Denver 248 miles.

As far as milepost 246 the valley has a general width of 5 to 8 miles, but on looking ahead the traveler may see that it becomes narrower and finally seems to close in completely. The old and rather broad valley doubtless continued to the head of the stream near Tennessee Pass, but a little distance above Riverside it is so much filled with gravel and boulders that it is scarcely recognizable. Near this constricted part of the valley large boulders abound, forming a fan similar to the boulder fans observed at the mouths of the canyons below. The change in the character of the valley is due to the fact that in the Great Ice Age, when glaciers were active, they formed mainly on the mountain slopes at or above an altitude of 11,000 feet and flowed down the side canyons or gulches for distances that depended on the grade of the canyon and the size of the glacier. In the Arkansas Valley below Riverside the glaciers that headed in the Sawatch Range reached only to the mouths of the side canyons, but farther north the altitude of the valley is so great that they not only reached the mouths of the rock-bound canyons but pushed out into the river and filled the main valley with the rocky debris that they had carried on their surfaces or that had been embedded in them. This condition prevails above Riverside, and for this reason the valley is much narrower here than it is lower down. The glacial material brought down from the mountains crowded the river to the east side of the valley and even forced it over on the granite of the east wall, as it did in the other canyons below. The large blocks of rock that were derived from this granite were carried down the canyon and for some distance out on the flat valley floor.

The canyon which the railroad enters at milepost 252, although short, is rather picturesque and has a steep granite wall on the east side, against which the stream has been crowded by the glacial drift that was brought down Pine Creek from the west. Through this narrow passageway the river boils and surges over and around the great boulders that obstruct its course. The glacial drift is first seen as the railroad bends sharply to the left, a little above milepost 252. At first sight it may not be apparent that this material differs from the gravel that composes the terraces below, but careful inspection will show that the boulders are all composed of fresh rock and that their surfaces are generally smooth and unweathered. It also shows that many of them are scratched, or striated, as the geologist calls it, as they were brought down by the glacier and held like a giant rasp against the rocky sides of the canyon. Such scratches are regarded as reliable indications that the boulders have been transported by ice.

At milepost 254 the railroad crosses the river to the east side and follows the east bank for a long distance. In some places the west wall of this canyon is composed of granite and in others of glacial drift, but the traveler on the railroad train can not determine the reason for the presence of the drift until the train has rounded the broad curve above the bridge and he is able to see on the west (left) up the open valley of Clear Creek. As this view up the creek, which is well worthy of attention, can be had only while the train is running a quarter of a mile the traveler who wishes to see it clearly should be ready to look this way as soon as it becomes visible. By looking up Clear Creek he will see that the stream issues from the high mountains in a canyon that has a broad U-shaped cross section, and that outside the mountains it is walled in by parallel ridges of broken rock and gravel that was deposited or heaped up by the ice. Such ridges along the sides of a valley are called by geologists lateral moraines. The moraine on the north side of Clear Creek, at the point where the stream emerges from the mountains, is 700 feet high, and its front, which is composed of loose material, is as steep as it can stand. The moraines run parallel with the creek until they reach the river, where they curve around and nearly meet, forming a loop that originally inclosed the mass of ice. The glacier not only reached the river, but at times pushed a little farther and heaped up the loose gravel on its east side. Naturally when such a glacier melts away the part of the valley it occupied will be left relatively free from boulders, and it therefore generally forms a swampy tract or a lake surrounded by a ridge or ridges of gravel. The stream quickly cuts a trench in this bounding ridge, so that the valley is thus drained through a narrow cleft. The users of water far down the Arkansas have taken advantage of this natural site for a storage reservoir and have built a dam across the lower end of the valley and thus connected the two parts of the moraine, so that the swampy area has become a reservoir for the storage of water until it is needed in the valley far to the east for the irrigation of crops.

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Last Updated: 16-Feb-2007