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.
In wide sweepers, the road follows the much tighter curves of the river toward Creede. Because the highway bypasses it, I almost drive past the historic part of the town, which would have been a shame to miss. Creede, with its colorful buildings and the rocky gorge as a backdrop, is pretty, very pretty. This wasn’t always the town’s main attribute. During the height of the mining boom, it was said to be one of the wildest places in the state. There was a two-mile-long street that only consisted of brothels, gambling houses, and saloons. At its peak in 1893, the population rose to 10,000. These days about 400 people inhabit the town.
I pass several men fishing for trout along the slightly larger river back on the highway toward South Fork. It is now big enough to carry rafts down the wide valley. South Fork marks the point where the road and landscape are changing. A few miles outside of town, U.S. 160 enters the wide-open San Luis Valley. Wedged between the San Juan and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the valley has an average elevation of 7,500 feet and receives little precipitation. The semidesert character reaches its peak at the Great Sand Dunes National Park. The tallest dunes in the country (750 feet) are definitely worth the 30-mile detour. They almost seem to glow in the low evening light in front of the mountains that tower directly behind them. Hard to imagine, but they owe their existence to the Rio Grande. Hundreds of thousands of years of wind have picked up sand and sediments from the river system and carried it to the foot of the mountains, where the wind loses power at the steep slopes and drops the load. The dunes are still rising.