COPPER MOUNTAIN —Nearly everybody knows the story of how the miners came to Colorado and settled many of the areas that are now home to the state's most popular resorts, including Breckenridge, Copper Mountain and Aspen.
But did you know that there's still quite a bit of gold left in the mountains of Summit County? In fact, one of the biggest stashes is up in Mayflower Gulch, just a few miles from Copper and and in one of our favorite local hiking areas.
The biggest mining play in Mayflower Gulch was in the early 20th century, when the old Boston, Golden Crest, Golden Eagle and Resumption hummed with activity and filled the spectacular alpine cirque with dust for a few years. There was little activity in subsequent decades, but in the 1980s, when gold prices spiked to $800 per ounce, miners once again scraped the tundra in hopes of a big strike.
Mining experts estimate that there is still about $15 million to $50 million worth of gold in the area, but don't expect to find any nuggets laying around. Most of that gold would be tightly locked away in veins deep beneath the ground.
And it's likely to stay there forever, thanks to the Summit County open space program, which in 2009 paid $900,000 to buy 129 acres of mining claims where most of the gold is buried. As part of the deal, the former owners of the claims relinquished the mining permit in a move that will help preserve the environment and scenic vistas of the Gulch.
And it's just as well, because Mayflower Gulch, capped with 13,995-foot Mt. Fletcher offers some of the most stunning vistas in the Tenmile Range, starting with the craggy ridge leading northeast to Crystal and Pacific peaks.
The trail is also open to mountain bikes and motorized traffic. You'll want a four-wheel drive vehicle for the trip up the valley, but even low-clearance cars like Subarus can make it, going slowly. The trek up Mayflower Gulch is also popular in winter with snowshoe enthusiasts and crosscountry skiers, but be cautious during the snow season, because parts of the upper end of the trail are exposed to some avalanche-prone slopes.
To reach the trail, drive south on Highway 91 from Copper Mountain toward Leadville and watch for the trailhead on your left after you catch a brief glimpse of the imposing headwall from the road.
The trail begins on an old ore wagon road climbing moderately through a magnificent spruce forest, with expansive wetlands and beaver ponds in the valley below. Mining history is evident, with an old cabin still littered with ancient mining gear and ore chutes that slice through the woods.
After about a mile, the trail levels out near treeline, and you'll see the crumbling cabins of the historic mining camp. Don't forget to pack insect repellant, rain gear and a nice lunch, since Mayflower Gulch is the perfect spot for summer mountain picnic.
More Mayflower Gulch hiking options are described in the Summit Hiker series. Forest Service information on Mayflower Gulch is a this website and you can learn more about the mining history of the Copper Mountain area here.