Trail Run: Silver Gulch (Silver Basin) in Southwest Colorado

Obscure + Tricky = Awesome

Feb. 13, 2018 By Justin Fort. Photos by Majid Gol and Justin Fort.

If you're new to high-mountain Colorado, you're going to love the trails: even the most used are spectacular. Visit this region a few times, however, and you'll find yourself seeking the trail less travelled. The more obscure, the better. Every turnoff and two-track disappearing into the wood beckons, and every mine on the map (as well as those that ain't) need a serious examination.

Silver Gulch (also called Silver Basin; FR 869.3A) is a delectable detour you can probably do, and it's used infrequently enough that it might just make you earn it.

The run up Silver Gulch will have you lost in a rock and pine gauntlet within minutes of the trailhead.

Silver Gulch: The Hard Facts

- The climb-rate is fast and low-gear-furious. You'll pick up about 2000ft, terminating just shy of 12,000ft up.

- The trail is less than four miles, but it's complex: plentiful tight off-camber turns and maneuvering will require your attention.

- It's a dead-end, but with several cross-mountain connectors to Sidney and Governor Basins that have been open in the past. There are several other spur trails that are worth your time, too - get lost.

- Features range from rock-faced slab to mud-bottomed bog. Fresh rain can put a lot of water across the trail.

- Necessary equipment: four-wheel drive, low-range, a locker is nice but not essential, 31-inch or equivalent tires of knobby nature, real ground clearance, skills.

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Backwoods Colorado Trail Fun: Just Tough Enough.

As we said, Silver Gulch is a piece of work - one of those trails to the high-mountain backcountry that miners had to cut so they could do their thing during Colorado's early heyday. As it's a part of the ring of rich deposits surrounding Ouray, Colorado, Silver Basin is neighbor to some of the richest lodes and the most exotic mining adventures in history.

Trail map courtesy of This run makes more sense when you hold it up to a topo map (see below). Do yourself a favor and buy one for your truck.

Our first experience with Silver Gulch was a bit of a freakshow - a classic night run. Combine the severe climb, slippery rocks, multiple water crossings (including a bog), a 30-degree temperature drop, campers and their fires deep in the woods, a bear, and a small-blocked four-speed CJ-7 with a superfat carburetor on its virgin climb, all with eight trucks' lighting flashing across the mountainside like it was inhabited by disco aliens, and there was no way we weren't going to rerun it in again with daylight.

You'll note Silver Basin in relation to Sidney and Governor Basins (crossover trails noted). This area produced staggering amounts of gold and silver. Do yourself the favor of learning (and visiting) that history - it built America.

Access to the trailhead shunts to the right from the hallmark Imogene Trail (FR869) off Camp Bird Road (FR853.1B), just past the Sneffels Creek crossing. It climbs from the start and doesn't let up much. You'll pass a number of spurs that lead off into the woods: those that head west - towards Sidney and Governor Basins - once connected, and with some work, still could. We've yet to try other spurs that run off 869.3A, particularly ones that turned south (leftwards) from the Silver Gulch trail.

Some bogs are harder (on the bottom) than others. This one flows through a tailings field, rendering it more passable than others.

Trails like Silver Gulch - less travelled than many, but not forgotten - offer an ideal balance of way-out awesomeness and the work required to get through. We were stopped twice, most notably in an effort to stack rocks and build workable passage: the trail had been blown out the night prior by torrential rain. It should be noted that during the week we were there, we saw day after day of rain squalls and storms that the locals called ten-year rain. These downpours not only blew out trails, but sent avalanches downhill with dump truck-sized boulders. THIS was high-mountain off-roading at its finest.

Beautiful colors usually mean "toxic" in these hills, but not by man's doing. These hard-rock mountains are full of interesting, valuable and hazardous minerals.

Our daytime run up Silver Gulch was truncated by heavy snow that blocked our access to the highest points on-trail. It's worth going all the way - there is a frigid high-water lake and a rough spur that tracks up to a mine high on the steep Silver Basin bowl. On the plus side, the heavy snowfall that left the micro-glacier in our way also bloated the hills with moisture, fattening up the ponds and bogs, and putting local flora into high gear. Every two-track through a field was pinched by dense flowers.

We considered spending a half-hour clearing the snow and ice that blocked the trail about 200 yards from the top, but it wound up being about 90 percent ice. Never mind.

We hoofed it up to the high lake at the trail's end to make sure it was still there (it was, as cold and as flowery as ever), then dropped down to poke around on side-trails and in mine portals adjacent to Silver Basin. The heavy moisture load also meant that mine portals that were usually open for exploration were instead flooded with 32.1-degree water. Bummer. Keep in mind, hard-rock mines like those in Colorado are wet by nature - these mountains are full of water - so a pair of boots will aid your exploration. So will some body fat.

 These tight and nasty trails are the best, even when they don't go anywhere important. After a while, you learn that it's the GOING that's important.

We passed up several turnoffs from FR 869.3A while searching for a passable connector between Silver Basin and the adjoining Sidney Basin mine/gulch complex. This sort of cross-mountain shortcut used to lace the area, but have been overgrown and/or avalanched into disuse. Fix them with use! Any run - like our run up Silver Gulch - could have your crew spend an hour stacking rocks, wading through ankle-deep mountain runoff, or removing fallen trees, just so you can go a little further.

Colorado is a Great Place to Get Lost

Once you're initiated to Colorado off-roading, or 'froading as I like to say, taking the road less... taken... is a four-wheelin' win-win - the most memorable trails are those that need to be remembered. Great 'froading was to be found on every turnoff (of every turnoff).

Tricky trails like this also develop self-confidence and comfort with your trail rig (as well as with your fellow four-wheelers). In turn, this confidence eases your decision to chase down more mystery turnoffs. Isn't that the point?

Our LS-powered FJ40 was popular with other off-roaders. Mikey ran different sets of wheels on each side, so passersby couldn't tell if they'd seen it before.

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