When the sun rises early, so do we.
A couple Saturdays ago the PBT team spent the morning watching the sun creep over the snow-covered peak of Mount Lincoln, above Montgomery Reservoir.
We were exploring the headwaters of the South Platte River, in some of the farthest-west territory of the Platte River Basin, a region of central Colorado called South Park.
Leaving the small town of Fairplay in the 5 AM darkness, we drove up Highway 9 toward Hoosier Pass. Once out of the cars at Montgomery Reservoir, our faces flushed from the bracing air and pink glow above the mountain.
This reservoir supplies municipal water to Colorado Springs, 100 miles to the southeast. It receives water from two main sources: the adjacent mountain snowpack coursing down from the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the South Platte River, and from the Blue River Project, also known as the Continental-Hoosier Diversion System. That system diverts water from the Blue River and its tributaries on the western slope of the Rockies through Hoosier Tunnel to Montgomery Reservoir. This is one of several transmountain diversion systems that move water from the western slope to the more populated eastern part of the state. From here water travels across South Park to Colorado Springs via the Montgomery Pipeline.
We spent a few hours there, setting up cameras to capture the sunrise over the mountain and sky color changing from pale pink to deep blue. Then we wandered over to the rushing water we could hear entering the reservoir from the west side.
A gorgeous waterfall of snowmelt coursed down from the peaks, loud and a little wild, past a gauging station into the reservoir. We could see waterfalls high on the mountain also feeding the stream down below, blue ice lingering in the higher reaches.
At the top of the ridge stands the Magnolia Mill, a marker of Colorado’s rich hardrock mining history which drove much of the state’s Euro-American settlement and the development of “first in time, first in right” water rights system.
According to the historic heritage sign affixed to the back wall, gold and silver were discovered in the area around Hoosier Pass in the 1800s, where the Montgomery Mining District established some of the highest mines in the North America. The 1930s Magnolia Mill replaced an earlier one that burned down. The mill processed gold and silver mined in the mountains high above, transported by tram.
In 1861, the town of Montgomery in the valley below housed as many as 1,000 residents as well as various stores, hotels and saloons.
When Colorado Springs began building Montgomery Reservoir in 1954, they flooded what remained of the old mining district—though by then most of the buildings had been taken elsewhere, according to the sign.
Today, part of the dilapidated building slumps sideways, but its corrugated metal walls still stand. Birds roosted in the rafters and flew in and out of the windows. The rising sun quickly warmed the air as we stood there, photographing, recording audio and getting a sense of this place.
Just past the old mill stands a sign for the Wheeler Trail, which takes you up to eponymous lakes. We didn’t have time to hike it this trip, but it’s on the list for next time.
We then moved up higher to the top of Hoosier Pass, around 11,500 feet elevation, to see mountains still loaded with snowpack in mid-June. Summer arrives late in the alpine world, and it has been a very rainy spring.
We’re exploring the South Park region because it’s critical to supply water to the growing Front Range cities—including Denver and Colorado Springs. Stay tuned for more stories from the South Platte in the months to come.