The new coronavirus pandemic has upended our lives. Schools are closed, businesses shuttered and we are following stay-at-home orders. Daily exercise is essential to keep our heads on straight. For your jolt of joy, go hike Smelter Mountain.
The rugged and rocky trail is steep and short. In one mile, it climbs more than 1,000 feet to the “East End Viewpoint,” everyone’s favorite Durango overlook. Check out historic Main Avenue, the Animas River and the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad yard at your feet. Survey outward to the La Plata Mountains, the San Juans and local landmarks.
Take your children with you and turn the adventure into an outdoor classroom. Even strong kindergarteners can do this hike. Students will learn about the history of Smelter Mountain, geology, flora and geography. Clip and carry the 10-point quiz with you. Bring food and water, and you’re all set for a picnic at the viewpoint.
How To Stay SafeThis is a family-centered field trip. Respect social distancing imperatives by hiking solo or with people in your household. The Smelter Mountain footpath (no bikes!) is narrow. Keep at least six feet from other trail users. The mountain is within Bodo State Wildlife Area managed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Wintertime restrictions were lifted this week, so now the trail is open all day. Spread yourselves out by hiking early in the morning or late in the afternoon. Mule deer are year round residents. Please leash your dog.
How Did Smelter Mountain Get Its Name? The Durango Smelter began operating on a grand scale in 1882 at what is now the Durango Dog Park. High heat stoked in kilns was used to extract silver, gold, copper and lead from rock mined in the San Juan Mountains. The milling enterprise was so significant the town was nicknamed Smelter City. The mill shut down in 1930, but with the advent of World War II, uranium was produced on the same site for two decades.
Trailhead GeologyThere is a lot to learn right from the parking lot. Durango geologist John Bregar said Smelter, Raider Ridge and Crader Ridge are three in a series of hogbacks tilted up and rammed against the San Juan Mountains. Hogbacks are long, narrow ridges with steep slopes of nearly equal inclination on both flanks. Smelter is a continuation of Raider Ridge. The sandstone layers that hold up Raider Ridge come across the river and hold up Smelter.
There are four primary rock formations on Smelter Mountain. Mancos Shale is the thickest and oldest formation. It underlies the Mesa Verde Group, which is composed of three layers. Point Lookout Sandstone is the lowest member deposited in the Cretaceous era as the Western Interior Seaway receded. It is named for the dramatic protruding cliff at the entrance to Mesa Verde National Park. We’ll be climbing through bands of Point Lookout Sandstone at the start of the hike.
The middle layer is the Menefee Formation. It contains coal seams so pure the D&SNG shovels it into their fireboxes. Capping the ridge is Cliff House Sandstone, the youngest member of the Mesa Verde Group. The formation was named for the Ancestral Puebloan habitation sites built in alcoves typically found in this layer. It was deposited when the sea was rising to inundate the Colorado Plateau once again. Just think, the rise and fall of the sea is recorded in the rocks.
Smelter Mountain Trailhead, Elevation 6,540 FeetLet’s get hiking! The single track descends about 50 feet to an ephemeral creek that collects water from the south flank of the hogback. Jump across the pretty little stream flowing over a sandstone bed.
The trail climbs to a powerline support tower and there it splits. Turn left to climb the mountain. Straight ahead is a popular backdoor entrance to the dog park. Many people access Smelter by walking through the dog park.
Point Lookout SandstoneThe trail braids multiple times on the lower mountain. I like to go right at the Bodo SWA boundary sign. The trail contacts beige-gray Point Lookout Sandstone. The fun begins in the big slabs and blocks.
The trail splits again under a minor cliff band. The left hand option is a little more tame with natural stone steps. Turn right if you like to play around on big rocks. Practice your scrambling techniques! Put yourself into four-wheel drive by using your hands for extra propulsion. The two trails come back together on a sandstone table.
The path barges up an open slope. As you climb the hill, you will begin to see smooth, rolled cobbles and boulders that seem out of place. These floaters rolled down the hill from an alluvium deposit near the top of the slope.
Bregar explained that long ago the outwash plain for the Animas River used to be at this level, 6,900 feet. During the Quaternary glacial period, boulders and cobbles were deposited when ice dams shattered at the terminus of the glacier. All that remains on Smelter Mountain is this little pocket. The boulders have various markings and colors. The rocks are named for places we all know and love: Eolus Granite, Uncompahgre Quartzite and Snowdon Quartzite.
FloraIn springtime, Smelter Mountain will come alive with wildflowers. The banana yucca was a food source for Native Americans. Any day now a long cluster of large, white flowers with a purple tinge will shoot up from the broad, spine-tipped leaves. Return in the fall when the fruit is ripe and sweet.
Enter a piñon and juniper woodland with a few ponderosa pines scattered about. There are two types of juniper. The Rocky Mountain juniper typically has a blue-green cast. It is sometimes called a “weeping” juniper because its leaves are feathery and droopy. It grows 30 feet tall, straight up from a central trunk.
Utah juniper is darker yellow-green and the foliage is stiffer. It branches out from the base into a broad spreading tree that can be as wide as it is tall, up to 20 feet.
Menefee FormationYou will know when you contact the Menefee Formation because the trail platform turns black. Arrive at an exhilarating and open air lookout at 0.8 mile, 7,280 feet. What an exciting view of town and points north. This little opening is so satisfying some hikers call it good enough and turn around here. The next lift looks a little daunting, but by now you’ve got most of the vertical put away. Dig deep and heft up the last 300 feet to the top.
Cliff House SandstoneAs you leave the lookout, notice the yellow boulders slumping down on the Menefee. This is a good example of a geological contact line. The Cliff House Sandstone formation is the topmost resistant bed in the Mesa Verde Group. It is so strong and powerful it holds up the Smelter ridge crest. The rough trail climbs steeply along the north rim of the ridge.
East End ViewpointA row of Cliff House blocks jutting out over thin air signals arrival at the East End Viewpoint. Golden eagles and red-trailed hawks circle overhead, and the vista is downright astonishing. In your euphoria, don’t just plop down on any old rock. Choose your sitting boulder carefully – erosion is a powerful and capricious master. Young children need attentive supervision.
This is every local’s favorite view of town. Name what you see: the Animas River pulsing blue power, the crescent-shaped Train Depot, historic downtown, U.S. Highways 550 and 160 joining at Camino del Rio and Fort Lewis College up on the Rim. On the second level are Animas City Mountain, Missionary Ridge, Raider Ridge and Crader Ridge. In the north and east, so high they are touching the sky, are the San Juan Mountains: Engineer Mountain, the Twilights and Mountain View Crest.
Northwest are the La Plata Mountains. In the midway zone, Point Lookout Sandstone rings Twin Butte East and comprises the vertical east face of Perins Peak. The Hogback is a classic example of Mancos Shale.
Smelter Mountain, 7,725’ The crest of the hogback is one mile west. It is the fifth and final roller and each one is planted with communication towers. The outdoor classroom turns around at the viewpoint, but if you want to see the highpoint, walk west on the dirt service road. Spurs peel off to the towers. Check them out or flank the ridgecrest on the south with a view of Lake Nighthorse.
http://debravanwinegarden.blogspot.com. Debra Van Winegarden is an explorer and freelance writer who lives in Durango.