Vasquez Peak Wilderness

Since living in Colorado, I’ve often found that my outdoor adventures have led to in depth history discoveries.  Yesterday was no different.  Bryon and I set out to find a hike in a more remote area, a bit off the beat and path, away from the crowds along the Front Range mountains. As we poured over our many maps (we have an entire map box filled with hiking maps of Colorado), and scoured the Internet for information, we happened upon the Vasquez Peak Wilderness.  It’s a lesser known wilderness area off of Highway 40 near Empire, Colorado.  We decided on hiking to the top of Vasquez Peak, a 12,947-foot peak that is the highest point of the wilderness area.

To access the trail head, the directions pointed us down a road towards Henderson Mine, a few miles past the small town of Empire, Colorado.  Empire, like so many other towns in the mountains, was a mining town established around the time of the Colorado Gold Rush in 1859.  So when I saw Henderson Mine on the trail map, I just assumed it was another abandoned mine like so many others found in Colorado.  Boy, was I wrong.

Henderson Mine

Henderson Mine near Empire, Colorado

As we drove the road towards the trail head, we came upon a gate to the mine complex, indicating it was closed to the public, and directing traffic to the trail head via a dirt road to the right.  This was my first indication that this was something more than some old defunct mine.  As we parked at the trail head, we saw a very modern complex with what looked like a large concrete tower, a modern office-type building, and incredibly large vents coming out of the hillside.  We could hear whooshing sounds, as well as the sound of some sort of machines running.  All of this on what was deemed a federal holiday, so whatever was going on, it was a 24/7 operation.

My curiosity awakened, after we came back from our hike (which was stunning) I started researching this Henderson Mine via the Internet.  What I found amazed me.  The Henderson Mine is not only still active, but an incredibly large producing mine of molybdenum , otherwise known as “moly”, a silver-gray metal used to alloy steel.  I had known of a mine in Leadville mining moly, having read about it several years ago, but didn’t realize another mine, much closer to where I live, was the largest producer in North America.  In fact, the Henderson Mine, which has been in production since 1976, has mined over a billion pounds of moly.  In 2007 alone, the mine produced over 40 million pounds of moly, with a value of over 1 billion dollars.

The mine is actually much more complex than what I had thought upon seeing it.  Mining is done via block caving, a unique method using gravity to mine by undercutting the rock so the ore will cave, quite different from conventional open pit mining. Then the rock is shipped via a 15-mile conveyor belt (the world’s largest) through a tunnel under the mountains of the Continental Divide to a mill near Kremmling, Colorado.    Apparently, the company that runs the Henderson Mine, Climax, is a major employer for the tiny towns of both Empire and Kremmling.

Our hike was wonderful and peaceful, the view were stunning, and as hoped and expected, was uncrowded (we only saw two other people).  It’s a beautiful wilderness area that is mainly accessed by the Continental Divide Trail (more on that later this week).  But yesterday’s revelation was more about discovering that mining is still a thriving industry an hour away from my home town that was founded on the same industry a century ago. You never know what history lesson will be revealed while taking walk in the wilderness.