Colorado’s Red Mountain Creek Lives Up to Its Name

October 07, 2020



Photographer: Patti Weeks
Summary Author: Patti Weeks

When silver was discovered—and later lead, zinc, copper and gold—in the 1880s in southwest Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, mining towns popped up in a concentrated location along the Red Mountain Creek. Miners, equipment and metal ores were hauled by horse-drawn wagons and later via railroad. A wagon toll road, connecting Silverton and Ouray across the high mountain passes, was built in 1882 and was paved in 1924. Nicknamed the Million Dollar Highway, this 25-mile (40 km) portion of U.S. Highway 550 is ranked as one of the most dangerous highways in the world. It is indeed treacherous, but the scenery is spectacular!

About midway between Silverton and Ouray, strangely tinted reddish-orange rocks are visible in Red Mountain Creek, a tributary of the Uncompahgre River. Some of this ochre tint is caused by the natural iron pyrite runoff from the Red Mountains, which accounts for the ferricrete encasing the stream-lined rocks. But the brownish water also consists of acid mine drainage (toxic sulfuric acid), runoff from tailing piles and heavy metal overload from the now-abandoned mines. Photos taken on October 12, 2019.

Via the Superfund the EPA authorized the Idarado Mining Company, on the west side of the Red Mountains near Telluride, to clean up and revegetate its defunct mining district. Their plan, implemented in 1992, also included the more challenging cleanup of the Red Mountain Mining District on the east side of the Red Mountain Creek. The Idarado cleanup plan became a model environmental remediation project, and Idarado is continuing to employ innovative methods to reduce pollutants in the Red Mountain Creek to a sustainable level.

Photo Details: Apple iPhone 11 Pro: 4.25 mm; f/1.8; 1/527 sec.; ISO 32; second photo the same, except 6mm; f/2; 1/122 sec.; ISO 50.