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On Walkabout In: Lake City, Colorado

Basic Information

  • Name: Lake City
  • Where: Colorado, USA
  • Population: 375
  • Founded: 1875
  • More Information: Lake City website


Back in August I made a trip to Lake City, Colorado in order to do hikes up the nearby 14ers, Handies and Uncompahgre Peaks. You can read more about that trip at the below links:

My climbing buddy and I really enjoyed our time staying in Lake City and with so many nearby mountains to climb I knew I would be making a return trip.  I recently made that return hiking trip to Lake City in order to hike up Redcloud  and Sunshine Peaks. Lake City is located in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado and is accessed by taking Highway 149 south from the major town in the region, Gunnison:

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Unlike the last time I drove to Lake City when it was dark out, this time I made the drive during the day time and was able to enjoy the scenery along Highway 149 as I headed south from Gunnison to Lake City:

Picture from Lake City, Colorado

Initially the scenery consisted of grassland that was home to a number of ranches that were backdropped by snow capped mountains in the distance:

Picture from Lake City, Colorado

As the highway got closer to Lake City it began to parallel the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River that was slowly carving a gorge into the landscape:

Picture from Lake City, Colorado

The rock walls along the side of the river were quite impressive in some areas:

Picture from Lake City, Colorado

In the vicinity of Lake City the river was filled with fishermen and various signs advertising fishing retreats.  So it was pretty obvious that this river was a very popular destination for people who like to fish.

It was just a beautiful day out when I pulled into Lake City:

Picture from Lake City, Colorado

There had been snow the night prior that had dusted the mountains with snow, but now it was just partly cloudy out with plenty of blue sky to enjoy.  The place I stayed at in Lake City was G&M Cabins:

Picture from Lake City, Colorado

I had stayed here the last time I was in town and enjoyed my stay so I decided to stay again.  These cabins are actually quite old with the first 9 cabins built from 1936 to 1937 by H.B. “Jimmy” Grant.  A few years later in 1948 6 more cabins were built by the brothers Glenn and Max Hersinger.  Thus the name G & M Cabins comes from the first initial from each of these brothers.  Something I really like about these cabins are that they are located right in the middle of town.  So everything is within easy walking distance.  For example Silver Street with it historic Old West buildings that have been converted into various shops is right behind the cabins:

Picture from Lake City, Colorado

It is fun to walk on the wooden sidewalks and check out the various shops in the downtown historic district:

Picture from Lake City, Colorado

There are many historic buildings scattered throughout the town that hint at the Old West past of Lake City.  Here is an excerpt from the Lake City website which discusses the past history of the town:

Even before ratification of the treaty, prospectors who had found mineral deposits while the land was still under Ute control returned to file claims and settle in Hinsdale County, which was formed on February 20, 1874 from parts of Costilla, Conejos, and Lake Counties and originally included present-day Mineral County. In August of 1874, Enos Hotchkiss built the first documented structure on the present site of Lake City after filing the Hotchkiss claim (Golden Fleece) with Henry Finley and D. P. Church.

Reacting to news of the Hotchkiss discovery, prospectors and speculators flooded to the area, and on February 23, 1875, the county seat of Hinsdale was moved to the swiftly growing community of Lake City. On August 16, 1875, the townsite of Lake City was incorporated and quickly became a supply hub and smelting center for individual prospectors and mining operations in the region. And, initially, all San Juan mining claims had to be filed at the land office located in Lake City. The area developed so quickly that in just a few years more than 500 structures had been built and many “firsts” for the Western Slope of Colorado occurred. Experiencing both ups and downs, the mining industry and the population of Lake City and Hinsdale County peaked around 1900. Over the next decades, however, mining activity decreased, as did the number of people claiming Hinsdale as their year-round residence.

While, mineral production around Lake City continues, the resources that are proving to be the mainstay of Hinsdale County are its pristine beauty, its diverse recreational opportunities, its down-home hospitality, and a well-preserved history that is highly visible in the Lake City National Historic District, at the Hinsdale County Museum, and along the Silver Thread and Alpine Loop byways.  [Lake]

You can read more about the area’s history at the link.  The building that is most closely linked to this historic mining past is the Miners and Merchants Bank:

Picture from Lake City, Colorado

The bank was originally constructed of wood in 1876, but a year later plans were made to construct the bank of stone and in August 1877 the currently standing bank building was completed.

Image from the Lake City Historic District website.

The bank lasted until the mining boom days in Lake City ended and in 1914 the bank closed its doors.  Over the years the building was used as a Post Office, various stores, and a hotel.  However, in 1983 local investors bought the building and reopened the first bank in Lake City since it closed way back in 1914.  It is pretty amazing when you think about it that this same structure built back in in 1877 is still being used as a bank to this day.

Across the street from the bank is the second most prominent building in the historic district, the Hough Building:

Picture from Lake City, Colorado

A man by the name of John Simpson Hough used his mining riches to build to build this commercial building back in 1882.  Today it is used as a gallery. For those visiting with kids, across the street from the Hough Building there is a nice park with a playground to let their kids burn off some energy if they are bored from checking out shops and old buildings:

Picture from Lake City, Colorado

Another beautiful structure on Silver Street adjacent to the park is the Lake City Public Library:

Picture from Lake City, Colorado

Across the street from the library is the Hinsdale County Museum:

Picture from Lake City, Colorado

Unfortunately it was closed for the season so I missed my chance to learn more about the area’s history.  The museum is housed in a building called the “Stone Trade Palace” that was built in 1877 to replace a wooden structure at the site that was used as a retail store.  The retail store only lasted a few years before the owners moved out and the new occupants opened a hardware store in this building in the early 1880’s.  After all these years this well made building continues to be one of the key structures in the community.  Outside the museum there is this old train caboose from the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad which once accessed the town:

Picture from Lake City, Colorado

Here is a brief history about the railroad from the Lake City website:

On Monday evening June 24, 1889, track was laid into Lake City completing the town’s fourteen-year quest for a railroad. The final cost of the construction of the branch was $770,996.80.

At 10:00 A.M. on Thursday, August 15, 1889 the first regularly scheduled passenger train with engineer P.J. Ready at the throttle pulled into Lake City Station, Second District, Third Division. The paper reported, “It is here! We breathe freer.”

The distance from Sapinero to Lake City was 36 miles, with 10 bridges. The train averaged 12 miles per hour. Local residents were fond of saying that you didn’t want the Rio Grande engine to run over you because “it was on you so long”.

From 1889 -1921 for the first 32 years of the Lake City Branch Railroad, Pete Ready (born 1858 near Lexington, Missouri), engineered the train. He was credited with saving many people with his expertise in piloting the train.

Service on the D&RG Railroad between Sapinero and Lake City ended May 25, 1933, after 44 years of service. []

Next to the Hinsdale Museum is where the old livery stables in the town used to be:

Picture from Lake City, Colorado

Somebody had converted it into an organic grocery store, but when I visited it had been shuttered and was for sale by Murphy Realty who seemed to have for sale signs everywhere you looked around Lake City and the surrounding area.  I do not know if there is an exodus of people from the Lake City area or not, but it appeared good old Murphy was doing a lot of business.

From the historic district I then walked down the street to Henson Creek which flows through town:

Picture from Lake City, Colorado

There is a trail that parallels the creek that eventually merges with the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River on the edge of town:

Picture from Lake City, Colorado

Walking along the creek also gave me an opportunity to spot some of the snowcapped mountains that surround the town:

Picture from Lake City, Colorado

I then started walking back towards the center of Lake City and spotted the Hinsdale County Courthouse which according to the marker on top of the building was built in 1877:

Picture from Lake City, Colorado

I could not help, but be impressed how well the town has preserved and continues to use all the old buildings located in the downtown historic district.  From the courthouse I just continued to explore the town and spotted this old wagon under a tree:

Picture from Lake City, Colorado

Then from there I began to run into various historic churches.  The first two were right across the street from each other.  The church pictured below is the Community Presbyterian Church which was built in 1876 and like the other historic buildings in the town beautifully maintained:

Picture from Lake City, Colorado

Here is a brief history of the church from its website:

Church in the late 1800’s.

During the early 1870’s, Alexander Darley and his brother George were missionary pastors in the San Juans.  In 1876 Alexander called for a meeting at Brockett’s Block in Lake City to discuss the establishment of a new church.  Several days earlier Alexander and his brother George had arrived in the young mining town with the intention of building the first church on Colorado’s Western Slope.  Rev. Darley spent two and a half days securing names on a petition to send to the Presbytery asking for the organization of a Presbyterian church in Lake City.  Fifteen charter members, representing six different denominations, were elected as elders and deacons and it was decided to build a church as soon as possible.  Since only three of the first members were Presbyterians, it was established as the first Protestant house of worship on the Western Slope.  The church was built before the town’s courthouse or school building and achieved Darley’s dream of establishing the first church on the Western Slope.  [Our History]

Across the street was the much smaller St. James Episcopal Church which was also built in 1876 and claims to be the oldest Episcopal congregation in western Colorado:

Picture from Lake City, Colorado

Walking up a hill on the west side of the historic district I then spotted the First Baptist Church which for Lake City is a “newer” structure since it was built in 1891:

Picture from Lake City, Colorado

From the hill that the church sits up on I had nice view of a snowcapped mountain rising above the town to the south.  Looking on a map I think this is the 12,826 foot Red Mountain:

Picture from Lake City, Colorado

I had spent a couple of hours walking around town and decided it was time to get something to eat.  So I went over to the Packer Saloon which like just about every other building in town is quite old being built in 1876:

Picture from Lake City, Colorado

Alferd Packer is a well known person in Lake City’s history because he is Colorado’s most famous cannibal.  Yes, you heard that right a cannibal.

Alferd Packer

Packer served as a guide for a group of prospectors who set out from Utah to mine in the San Juans back in 1873.  Packer obviously wasn’t a very good guide since the party proceeded to get lost and stranded by the winter weather just outside of Lake City.  Since the town was founded in 1875 the area was still a remote wilderness when Packer and his men arrived in the area.  One thing led to another and Packer eventually ended up eating his four companions to survive.  Fortunately I was not served any human flesh at the Packer Saloon and instead had a really good elk sausage.


After eating dinner I then headed back over to my cabin to get some rest and sleep since I had an early start in the morning to go and climb up Redcloud Peak.  I was glad I was able to drive into Lake City earlier in the day in order to spend some time exploring the town.  I enjoy checking out old buildings and learning about the historical past of the various places I visit.  Lake City definitely has plenty of historical sites to explore.  However, the following day I had nothing historical to checkout, just a fourteen thousand peak just waiting to be climbed.

Next Posting: Redcloud Peak, Colorado

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