Lake Dorothy

Wednesday, August 17

Lake Dorothy sits in a cirque at 12,067′ in the shadow of Mount Neva, a few feet of elevation above Arapaho Pass. It is the highest named lake in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. It covers about fourteen acres and is a hundred feet deep. There are native cutthroat trout in it, but I understand they are wily and elusive. The Continental Divide makes a turn from north/south to east/west here, and Lake Dorothy occupies the corner. To both the north and west, the divide is only a couple of hundred yards away.

You take the Arapaho Pass trail to reach it, and you’ll find that at the Fourth of July trailhead. Take Eldora Rd west from CO 119 in Nederland. At the west end of the town of Eldora, the pavement ends. From here, it’s five miles of pot-holed dirt road. We just had a couple of days of heavy rain, so all the holes were filled with water. It’s slow going. I was able to dodge most of the puddles but you just can’t miss them all. In the end, the parking lot was full of SUVs, pickups, and Subaru Outlanders. But one guy did get in there with his Ford Escort station wagon, so it’s doable without a huge amount of ground clearance.

The road to the Fourth of July trailhead is called Fourth of July road. And, of course, there’s the Fourth of July mine. The trailhead and road get their names from the mine, which is so named because C.C. Alvord discovered a silver lode there on the Fourth of July, 1872. More about that later.

The satellite image of the trailhead shows a full parking lot and cars parked along the road for quite some distance. I reckoned it wise to get there early and to have a Plan B in case I found no place to park. I left the house at six and satnav said I’d be there by 7:15. It is quite a crowded trailhead. I had two cars in front of me on the way in in the morning. The lot was about two-thirds full so I’d guess people started parking on the road by 7:45 at the latest.

When I left, the lot was full and cars lined the road for a considerable distance.

I put boots on the trail at 7:30. The car’s thermometer said the outside air temperature was 47. I kept the jacket in the pack figuring the exertion would keep me warm enough. Some of last night’s raindrops still clung to the pine needles. Given the amount of recent rain, the trail wasn’t terribly muddy and there weren’t that many puddles.

The trail climbs pretty steadily at about five hundred feet per mile. From the trailhead to the lake, it runs in a large arc, bending toward the west as it climbs the south-facing flank of Quarter to 5 Peak. It doesn’t meander at all and has only two short pairs of switchbacks. The first section of the hike is in dense forest. Shortly after the junction with the trail to Diamond Lake, the trail emerges from the trees onto a wide bench.

After crossing a couple of very wide, very shallow streams you reach the next trail junction and the Fourth of July mine. Take a right turn at the junction to climb a punishing twenty-one hundred feet in 2.2 miles to summit South Arapaho Peak. A shorter hike up that trail gets to a viewpoint of Arapaho Glacier. From this junction, the trail is visible on the mountainside above. Instead, I’m happy to keep the same bearing and continue following the arc’s not-too-strenuous climb to Arapaho Pass.

First, I poked around the mine for a quick minute. There are a few rusted machines and the remnants of a couple of timbers. There are some very small stakes ringed around a hole. The hole is the mine. Supposedly, it’s more than two hundred feet deep. There’s nothing covering the hole. Aside from two or three timbers, there is no sign of any structures here.

Once you pass the mine, you can see the trail almost all the way to the lake. From here to about a hundred yards from the lake you travel on an old roadbed. There are two different I’ve read about this road. It was built in 1900. One story is that they ran out of money when they reached the pass. The other says that two companies agreed to build the road, but the one on the west side didn’t build anything.

Today, standing at the pass, it’s striking that the old road was on an ideal route to the pass: an almost constant grade, no switchbacks, no having to dodge rock outcroppings, just a nearly straight shot. It’s also striking how the other side of the pass is a horrible place to try to put a road. This was before the automobile, and I don’t have any idea what the turning radius is for a team of oxen pulling a wagon. But you’re gonna need a bunch of switchbacks to go down that hill.

I imagine a light-duty road built for wagons more than a century ago would have been quite fragile and require a fair amount of maintenance to keep operational. It hasn’t been maintained in a century but there are still considerable stretches where it’s surprisingly intact. Long sections of retaining wall supporting the downslope side are still solid. Many places, of course, have fallen or eroded.

There’s another trail junction at the pass. One way heads eight hundred feet down the other side to Caribou Lake. The other goes to Lake Dorothy or to Caribou Pass (which is not on the Continental Divide). A short climb above the junction is rewarded with the first view of the lake.

It took me a few minutes short of two hours to make the hike. I was expecting to take more like two and a half, so I was pleased with myself. I found a nice spot along the water to sit and watch the world go by.

A few seconds after sitting down, I noticed I picked a spot only about fifteen yards from somebody’s backpack. I didn’t see who belonged to it. There was a hiker some distance away from me who was just leaving and I didn’t see anybody else. Then I started hearing voices and figured the pack’s owner and a friend were further along the shore, around a slight bend.

I couldn’t pinpoint the voices. Instead of being out of sight on my shore, it started sounding like perhaps they were on the opposite shore. I scanned the whole place but didn’t see anybody. After a bit, I heard a rock falling somewhere. It’s not uncommon. This one I thought sounded like it was the result of a footstep, but I couldn’t tell you why. A few minutes later, there was a second one.

Eventually, I spotted them. There were two: a man and a woman, by the sound of their voices. They were on the opposite side of the lake, but not on the shore. They were at the very top of the spine on the north ridge of Mount Neva, five hundred feet above the lake. I spotted the white helmet before I saw the orange one.

The mountain’s spine there resembles a flat W. I first spotted them when they reached the bottom of the right-hand part. They were going north to south, or right to left. They went right along the top – they were in silhouette quite often. The things people do. I could never do that. I’d be petrified, immobile. But the world would be a boring place if we all liked the same things.

I enjoyed my surroundings for an hour and a quarter before packing up and heading back down the hill. It was too early for lunch but I figured by the time I got back down to the mine I’d be ready. There was a nice open view there. C.C. Alvord may have picked a dud of a place for a mine, but he picked a place with a fantastic view. Oh, and I finally found the guy who belonged to the backpack. He was fishing quietly on the south shore.

So, about the mine…

In researching it, I was a bit confused at first. I found one reference that said it was a copper mine, another said it was silver and lead, and a third said gold. I had just assumed that it was gold. In the end, it was all of the above. Sort of.

It started with silver. The Rocky Mountain News said it was an outcropping of an enormous silver ledge that would keep a hundred thousand men mining for generations. The News was a bit off. Next to the deep shaft, Alvord built a bunkhouse for the crew, a blacksmith shop, and a stable for the horse that spent its days powering the mine’s hoist. I didn’t see anywhere how big the crew was, but I suspect it was maybe 99,990 short of a hundred thousand.

Over a five-year period, the mine did okay. Alvord expanded the operation with a tunnel downslope from the shaft (which I didn’t look for) and added another blacksmith shop there. But the mine was very close to a stream, and water constantly seeped into it. The whole operation was shut down in 1880. In addition to the streams, I’m sure there are many springs. There’s a small spring right on the trail a bit before reaching the ledge the mine sits on.

Twenty years later, the mine was promoted as being a huge copper source, the biggest in the region. The promoters put together a glossy 32-page brochure and sold 3 million shares at a dollar apiece. I can’t help but wonder if somebody from the News helped out with the brochure. When extending the tunnel they somehow managed to make a U-turn, blasting out of the mountain not far from where they started. Three million dollars was a lot of money in 1900, and I’d be amazed if they spent anywhere near that in their efforts.

Somebody got rich, and somebody got the shaft.