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Miners Basin – Changing Seasons
by Marcia Hafner

If you’re in a hurry, don’t take the road into Miners Basin. Even though it has been greatly improved since the construction started on the original road in 1897, it is still a steep, jolting three-mile drive. It is accessible to high clearance vehicles but motor homes and trailers are advised not to go this way for good reason. Sharp switchbacks make it difficult to negotiate and when the going gets tough which doesn’t take long, good luck finding a spot for a large rig to turn around in.

Squeezed in a narrow mountain canyon in the northern range of the La Sal Mountains, this rubbly rock road is vulnerable to avalanches and spring run-off. Consequently it stays closed eight to nine months of the year. The first heavy snow in the fall buries it and not until the winter’s accumulation has melted off usually by mid-June is it navigable again.

It is slow going but finally there’s the combo of parking lot, outhouse and forest service kiosk. I get out on rubbery legs and take a deep breath of cool, fresh air. I’ve been here before and it all looks familiar: the small stream-fed pond that is so clear the fish are easy to see along with the majestic peaks staring down from the north, south and east with the flank of Mineral Peak stretching out to the northeast.

The Trans La Sal Trail goes north to south through Miners Basin and my hiking partner and I head north up towards Bachelor Basin. Crossing the road we came in on, there’s a red gate and this section of the trail begins here.

The weather is still warm but the seasons are changing. In the high country it comes early and there are unmistakable signs that it is time to get ready for fall. As the many switchbacks wind us through the aspens, fir and spruce, we find lots of columbine but their glorious blooms are long gone. A few flowers are still in bloom and we savor the yellow daisies, hairy golden aster, lavender asters and blue flax. Before long their colorful fling will be over, too. Much of the vegetation is just starting to take on a brown-yellow tone and there’s even a faint glimmering of yellow in some of the aspens. If we have a good year, in a couple of weeks they will be blazing in golden colors. The snow plant still has a few white berries left but the berry picking time for the Oregon grape is over and their leaves are turning a bright red. I sampled those berries once and found them bitter but the birds seem to relish them.

Equally noticeable is the lack of bird song but we do occasionally hear the mutterings of Steller’s jay, mountain chickadee, red-breasted nuthatch and Clark’s nutcracker.

The trail hasn’t been maintained and many trees are down as we straddle over, under or around them. A dry stream crossing comes just before a talus slope and we finesse our way across a short passage of rocks. Now the trail improves as we follow a long, straight stretch through a green meadow with views of peaks to the south and glimpses of the once-upon-a-time town below. Back then it was referred to only as “The Basin,” when the lure of gold had created a short-lived mining boomtown. A few of the old buildings have managed to survive, just enough to spark the imagination of what must have been. By July 1899, the population had exploded to almost 70, with twelve of them being women. At that time this bustling town had 27 cabins, a grocery store, two restaurants, two saloons, a hotel and boarding house where dances were held, livery and feed stable, shoemaker’s shop, mining office, recorder’s office, deputy sheriff, post office, Dr. Richmond’s office and a Sunday school. The gold discovered in 1897 turned out to be low-grade ore and with an economic downturn in 1907, the bust had hit. By 1910, probably less than a dozen people remained.

Back in the trees we lose sight of Miners Basin. We have two more dry streambeds to cross and then several switchbacks that wind back and forth along the edge of a meadow filled with the wonderful scent of mint. There is the unmistakable evidence that both bears and turkeys have passed this way, too.

One more dry stream crossing and a sign asking hikers to respect private land and structures in this area and we’re on the road that goes from Miners Basin to Bachelor Basin. Now just a few more steps and we’re at the pass where we stop for a refreshing break. While eating our munchies we watch a red-tailed hawk land in a tree. This is also a favorite hangout for elk and years ago in the twilight of the day I watched them come out into the meadow that we’d just walked through.

We choose to walk up Horse Mountain rather than go into Bachelor Basin where a lot of the mining activity took place. Following a distinct trail west through the firs and spruce to a rock monument, we experience the explosive flush of a blue grouse. After that the faint trail to the top is hard to follow.

After returning to the pass we take the road down to Miners Basin, which is now closed to vehicles. With only one wide switchback it is steep and gets us down at a quick pace. Near the bottom of the road, we stop at the Dillon Tunnel where a stream lined with petite yellow flowers gushes out of the tunnel. We wander around inspecting the compressor building and other decaying wooden structures.

Almost at the end of our hike there are two streams to cross before we get into town and meet up with Bob Sherman, caretaker of the property who is a walking encyclopedia of the area. He’s been here since 1971 and loves to talk about the history of Miners Basin and the importance of protecting the few buildings and properties that remain.

A hike in Miners Basin is a favorite of mine because it is an outdoor experience that is steeped in history.

With bridge construction on the La Sal Loop Road, the best way to get to Miners Basin is to go north on highway 191 about two miles out of town. Turn right on to highway 128 and go approximately twenty miles. Shortly past Red Cliffs Lodge, take the right hand turn for Castle Valley. Follow the Castle Valley Road to the intersection of the Gateway and La Sal Loop Road. Turn right on to the La Sal Loop Road and go seven more miles to the sign to turn left on to Miners Basin Road. The sign doesn’t make it clear which road to take so look for the “motor homes and trailers not advised” sign at the beginning of the road.

Cryptobiotic soil garden
Cryptobiotic soil garden

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