The Needle Mountains of southwestern Colorado form the heart of the rugged San Juan massif. Located in the southeast corner of San Juan County, the Needle Mountains extend southward into La Plata County. The range consists of a large cluster of towering peaks centered around Mount Eolus, and a western outlier known as the West Needle Mountains. The main portion of the range and the West Needle Mountains are separated from each other by the Animas River. Indeed, the Animas River is virtually the only portal into the nearly impenetrable Needle Mountains.
The eastern or main portion of the range is dominated by some of Colorado's highest peaks. These include Mount Eolus (14,083 feet), Windom Peak (14,082 feet), and Sunlight Peak (14,059 feet). The West Needle Mountains are not quite as lofty as the main portion of the range. The West Needles basically consist of two major peaks, Snowdon Peak (13,077 feet) and Twilight Peak (13,156 feet).
The Needle Mountains comprise the uplifted Precambrian core of the San Juan massif. This awesome range of mountains consists of stark alpine peaks and rugged, brush-filled canyons and ravines. The flanks of the mountains are cloaked with a thick cover of heavy forest. It is extremely difficult country and is indeed some of the most rugged terrain in North America.
An aura of mystery and intrigue surrounds the Needle Mountains. The ancient granite peaks enticed the early Spaniards with the promise of gold and silver. Spanish prospectors found little gold or silver but they did leave evidence of their passing. When American prospectors entered the area during the 1870's, they were astonished to find signs of ancient Spanish mining activity. Nestled between Lime Creek and the Animas River, the West Needle Mountains still beckon the modern-day prospector. At least two well-documented lost mines are located somewhere in the area. The Lost Carson Mine is said to be located somewhere along the northern slopes of the West Needles in a brush-filled, boulder-choked ravine. The second mine is rumored to lie somewhere along the southern flanks of the range. It consists of an incredible 8-inch thick seam of sylvanite ore found by a man named Tom Estes in 1893.
Tom Estes had been prospecting the mountains of southwestern Colorado for a number of years during the early 1890's. In 1893, his efforts were finally rewarded with a fabulous discovery in the West Needle Mountains. Somewhere on the southern slopes of the West Needles, Tom Estes stumbled upon a rich vein of sylvanite ore. That first summer, Estes took out 2 sacks of extremely valuable ore. The following summer, he returned to the mine and recovered an additional 7 sacks of ore. 1895 would see his last visit to the mine. His third and final trip netted him 5 more sacks of rich ore. He sold those 5 sacks of ore for $2800!
Tom Estes died the following winter without ever revealing the location of his mine. A number of local ranchers and cattlemen had seen samples of the rich ore and were tempted to search for the lost mine. But no one ever found it. It remains hidden to this day.
The San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado have a rich mining history extending back to the days of the early Spaniards. In 1765, a prospecting expedition led by Don Juan Maria de Rivera journeyed north from Santa Fe into the rugged San Juan Mountains. This was the first official incursion into the awesome range of mountains that the Spaniards initially called "Sierra de las Grullas" (Mountains of the Cranes), but later renamed the San Juans. The Spaniards returned eleven years later. In 1776, the famous Escalante-Dominguez expedition penetrated the southern and western portions of the San Juans on their way to California. Part of the trail blazed by Escalante and Dominguez later became known as the "Old Spanish Trail". The Franciscan fathers never made it to California but they did manage to map and explore much of the Colorado/Utah border region.
The 1776 expedition of Escalante and Dominguez was the last official Spanish entrada into the San Juan Mountains. Occasionally, small groups of Spanish prospectors would journey north from Santa Fe, vanishing into the mountains in search of gold and silver. Old Spanish mine workings have been reported in many sections of the San Juans including the Dolores River valley, the headwaters of the Animas River, the La Plata Mountains, the upper Piedra River, and the Needle Mountains. It appears that Spanish prospectors were almost certainly working the San Juans prior to Rivera's 1765 expedition.
In 1843, a member of John Fremont's 4th Expedition spotted some gold nuggets in the stream near present-day Lake City. This was the first discovery of gold in the San Juans by an American. There would be many more. In 1860, the first significant discovery of gold in the San Juans occurred in the Silverton area, along the headwaters of the Animas River. 1860 would be a watershed year for mining in the San Juan Mountains. The following four decades would see a multitude of fabulous strikes, of both gold and silver.
In 1864, the Dolores River country was opened up by the famous pioneer and prospector Robert Darling. Five years later, the rich Pioneer Lode was discovered near present-day Rico. The following year, rich strikes were made near Rico, Silver Creek, Baker's Park, and Summitville. The Summitville strike was the first discovery of gold in the southeastern part of the San Juans. In 1872, the fabulous Sunnyside vein was discovered at the head of Eureka Gulch. Rich beyond belief, the Sunnyside vein would prove to be one of Colorado's greatest bonanzas.
During the late 1870's, the Needle Mountains were finally penetrated by American prospectors who discovered small deposits of gold and silver in Columbine and Chicago basins. For a couple of years, the mines did extremely well, churning out several thousand ounces of gold. Unfortunately, the veins quickly petered out and production virtually ceased. The late 1870's also saw a revolution in mining as the "Carbonate Craze" hit the San Juans. Rich silver ore similar to the famous Leadville ore was discovered near Rico! Miners had finally noticed that limestones intruded by igneous bodies frequently harbor mineral deposits. Rico became known as the "New Leadville".
Several more bonanzas were still to come. In 1881, the Red Mountain District was opened up by John Robinson. Then, in 1887, it was Rico's turn again. During the summer of that year, the fabulous Enterprise "blanket" deposit was discovered on Newman Hill. The following year, the famous Tomboy vein was discovered high in the mountains above Telluride. Then, in 1889, the first spectacular strikes of silver were made by Nicholas C. Creede and George L. Smith in the Creede area. Consisting of native silver in amethyst, the ore was both rich and strikingly beautiful.
In 1893, the Beartown sylvanite deposits were discovered at the head of Bear Creek, near the Continental Divide. Although the ore was incredibly rich, the veins were small and the ore difficult to extract. Two years later, the fabulous Camp Bird lode was discovered near the headwaters of Imogene Creek. The Camp Bird Mine turned out to be one of Colorado's top producers of gold.
As late as the 1930's, rich mineral deposits were still being uncovered in the San Juan Mountains. The extraordinary Red Arrow Mine on Parrott Peak is a case in point. Huge masses of gold the size of hen's eggs were recovered from the Red Arrow Mine when it first opened.