Pagosa’s Past: San Juan Mountain trails

Photo courtesy John M. Motter
The Old Joe Mann cabin is located on one of the more popular hiking trails in Pagosa Country. Following the San Juan East Fork River, this trail has a colorful history as a Native American trail before the coming of the white man, a wagon trail for pioneers, a military road for the Army, and access to the mines in the nearby mountains and a state highway before construction of Wolf Creek Pass.

By John M. Motter
PREVIEW Columnist

Mountains matter. Mountains are one of Pagosa Country’s major assets. Everybody knows that folks come here to enjoy the mountains. Pagosa Springs, with its world-famous hot springs, is a favored destination for folks visiting the Southern San Juan Mountains. Historically, the reasons attracting Pagosa Springs visitation are varied and colorful.

Before white men came, Utes, Jicarillas and other Native American men hunted for game in the San Juans while the distaff side of their families grubbed for roots and berries and such.

When snow blanketed the mountains, the native people hunkered over small fires where the womenfolk seared strips of meat while abuelos surrounded by los jovenes fingered grains of corn and told tales of the ancestros.

The first mountain visitors from across the Atlantic Ocean were Hispaños, who landed on the eastern coast of Mexico in search of gold and forayed as far as the San Juan Mountains in that search.

For a few years, beaver trappers took “gold” in the form of beaver hides from the many streams in the San Juans. Soon after came the San Juan Mountain ‘49ers, also hunting for gold. These pioneer prospectors developed prosperous silver mines, ergo Silverton, but found little gold. They were succeeded by “gold on the hoof,” herds of longhorns driven from Texas to take advantage of the lush San Juan Mountain grasses. Arch enemies of the cattlemen were sheepmen. Cattle grazed in the lower mountains and tens of thousands of sheep in the higher mountains, say above 10,000 feet.

The San Juan Mountains were covered with marketable timber, mostly ponderosa pines. Enterprising timbermen made fortunes cutting and marketing lumber from those pines.

Next, wouldn’t you guess, in the early 1900s, the U.S. Forest Service was created to manage the forests. They established and enforced rules for use of the land and trees and identified and marked trails. And here’s where our story has gone full circle. The mountains are beautiful, but to enjoy that beauty beyond just sitting at the bottom and looking out of the window, trails are needed. And trails aplenty are available. Next time you are hiking up a trail to a favored lake or camping spot, remember the history we’ve just outlined. You owe thanks to all of the people groups we have described. Very likely, a Native American hunter, a Hispanic treasure seeker, a prospector, a cattleman or a sheepherder with thousands of sheep and, finally, a government forester cleared the path you are following.

It’s fun to imagine, just as Lewis and Clark were first on the Oregon Trail, you are first on the trail you are following. But, you need to remember: That wilderness you are in echoed many oohs and aahhs long before you arrived.