Colorado and New Mexico: Down the Rio Grande

Text: Uwe Krauss • Photography: Uwe Krauss

It happened in the winter of 1874. Five prospectors hired a man to guide them across the San Juan Mountains. Weather was severe that year; the men fought huge snowdrifts and 
extreme low temperatures. Progress was very slow. No game for hunting was to be found, and the party ran out of food. Up at Slumgullion Pass, they had already boiled and eaten 
their moccasins. Six weeks later, only the guide showed up at Los Pinos, claiming he had lost the others in a snowstorm.

Reality was different. A search party of natives revealed that Alferd Packer had probably killed his companions while they were sleeping and partially eaten them. He escaped from authorities and hid for nine years before being caught and convicted of manslaughter. He was sentenced to 40 years in a labor camp.

The place where the gruesome act took place is now called Cannibal Plateau. Not a cozy place to begin a journey, but geographically it’s a distinctive one. Not far from here, the Rio Grande starts its long trek toward the Gulf of Mexico. Depending on how it is measured, it’s the fourth- or fifth-longest river in North America. The upper part of the river runs through Colorado and New Mexico and cuts through some spectacular landscapes—a good reason to follow its journey on a bike.

From Slumgullion Pass, Highway 149 takes me down into a high valley where I get my first glimpse of the young river. Measured by size, the Rio Grande doesn’t live up to 
its name yet. It is rather a decent creek. But the scenery along the green, water-fed meadows flanked by the San Juan Mountains is grand for sure. I want to get as close to its source as possible, so I turn right toward the Rio Grande Reservoir. Thirteen miles later, on a well-maintained gravel road, I reach the pretty lake. Several creeks run out of the Weminuche Wilderness Area into it and form the headwaters of the river. The beautiful mountains are out of reach on a motorcycle. No problem: I’ll just stay at the lake, grab my picnic lunch, and enjoy the moment. From now on, it is all downstream.

I get back onto Highway 149, also called the Silver Thread Scenic Byway. The word scenic is the most important part of the name. Soon I have to stop again, this time at the Brown Lake overlook. Right in front of me the small lake shimmers in the sunlight. A little farther back, the Rio Grande meanders down the valley. The skyline of the Rocky Mountains in the distance features the Rio Grande Pyramid and Stony Pass area, where the first drops of the river run to this side of the Continental Divide.

(End of preview text.)

For the complete touring article, including facts & information, map(s), and GPS files, please purchase the September/October 2012 back issue.