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Govenor Basin 4X4 Road, CO
mini location map2005-07-26
33 by photographer avatarTM1ssKDMac
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Govenor Basin 4X4 Road, CO 
Govenor Basin 4X4 Road, CO
4x4 Trip avatar Jul 26 2005
4x4 Trip4.00 Miles 1,800 AEG
4x4 Trip4.00 Miles   4 Hrs      1.00 mph
1,800 ft AEG
 no routes
1st trip
Linked none no linked trail guides
Partners none no partners
Governor Basin 4X4 Road

Governor Basin is a dead end leg off of the Camp Bird road and lies just southeast of Yankee Boy Basin near Ouray and Telluride Colorado. The road up into Governor Basin is narrow, with a few tight switchbacks and it climbs steeply up into the upper reaches of the basin. This road has some spectacular drop offs and gives you a great birds eye view of the lower end of Yankee Boy Basin. Once there, they say you are halfway to heaven! I know the views are heavenly.

The road was originally constructed to access and service the Governor Mine near the bottom of the basin, the Mountain Top, the Humbolt and the famous Virginius mine. The Virginius was started in 1876; one year after the first cabin was built in the town of Sneffels. The mine was located at an elevation of 12,500 feet and boasted a small store and its own post office to provide service to the miners that worked this high altitude shaft mine year around. This post office laid claim to being the highest post office in the United States. During the short summer season huge quantities of food and fuel had to be hauled in to keep this rich mine producing year around. Often the snow was so deep that virtual tunnels in the snow were dug between buildings to allow the movement of the miners and supplies.

Deeper and deeper the Virginius shaft was sunk, following the extremely rich deposits of silver, lead and gold. As in most mines, water from the surrounding rock strata would seep, drip and sometimes pour into the shafts and drifts of the mine. Ever larger pumps were required to keep the mine from flooding and continuing to produce from the seemingly never ending veins of high grade silver ore. The Virginius however suffered from a problem that only served to exacerbate this never ending battle with the water. Due to the specific composition of the surrounding rock strata, the water that was constantly accumulating within the Virginius had a high concentration of naturally occurring sulfuric acid which contributed to a severe reduction in the lifespan on the very expensive pumps required to dewater the mine from depths approaching 2,000 feet.

This water problem, combined with the continuing rich nature of the Virginius deposit was largely responsible for the decision to start drilling the Revenue Tunnel at the town of Sneffels at an altitude of 10,500 feet. This tunnel and the Virginius Mine were estimated to have employed over 600 miners at its peak and pushed the Revenue 7,500 feet into the side of Mendoza Peak and the Saint Sophia Ridge to merge with the Virginius shaft at the 2,000 foot level. The Revenue Tunnel was completed in 1895, allowing the Virginius to drain the constantly pooling water from a level 2,000 feet lower than the opening of the shaft, high on the side of Governor Basin. This cost savings combined with the ability to remove the rich Virginius ore from this lower level as well, contributed to a huge savings in the cost of producing the silver, gold and lead that the mine was producing. As a plus, the $600,000 cost to drill the Revenue Tunnel was more than recouped in processing the rich silver deposits that the tunnel passed through en route to the bottom of the Virginius shaft. Completion of the Revenue Tunnel allowed the closure of all operations at the Virginius shaft site at the 12,500 foot altitude level in Governor Basin and compounded the savings while significantly increasing the safety of miners not exposed to the extremes of nature at the higher altitude of Governor Basin.

Another famous mine located just across Governor Basin from the Virginius and at nearly the same altitude is the Mountain Top Mine, This mine lay in the direct path of the regular avalanches that would thunder down off of Saint Sophia Ridge during the winter. The uniquely designed and placed, combination boarding house / dinning hall / offices of the Mountain Top Mine took advantage of the shielding effect of a very large boulder on the side of the mountain just below and to the left side of the mine portal. It was hoped that this large boulder would split an avalanche and shield the building from the destructive forces of the tons of snow roaring down the mountain. It's success cannot be argued with as the Mountain Top boarding house continues to die the slow decaying death of exposure to the extreme elements rather than having been wiped off the mountain 100 or more years ago as was the fate of many other mines in the area such as the Ruby Trust Mine which had several milling facilities wiped out by avalanches as late as the late 1970's, all built on the same ill fated location. The Mountain Top Mine only had one boulder to hide a building behind and needed a mill facility to process the ore into concentrates that could be hauled to Ouray. In an extremely unusual plan of action the mine owners hollowed out a cavity inside the mouth of the mine which accessed the mountain via a tunnel, versus a shaft like the Virginius. Inside this cavity a small milling facility was constructed to process the ore as it was mined. A great idea, however it never really worked properly. The Mountain Top mine has been worked as recently as the late 1970's and a couple of newer buildings that evidence this work are located near the mine adit. I have a photo from a trip the previous year of my daughter Morgan lounged out on a cot in this new building that was left by the more recent miners of the Mountain Top.

If you are looking for an incomparable view of the terrain that has given the San Juan Mountains the reputation of the "Switzerland of America" Governor Basin is not to be missed. Plan your trip for an arrival during the month of August or early September. August is prime wildflower season for this high alpine ecosystem and offers the best chance of the road being clear of snow from the previous winter. In this trip on the 26th of July we were blocked by a snow drift across the road about a ¼ mile below the Virginius Mine. The previous year we had arrived in August and were able to access the entire Basin. The San Juan Mountains are famous for their huge winter snow accumulations and many of the higher passes and basins are open only briefly for about 2 months or less and often would not be open at all in heavy snow years if it were not for the efforts of local entities paying to have routes cleared by bulldozer to pave the way for summer 4X4 tourist dollars to flow into the local economies of the San Juan's.

While we were disappointed in not being able to access the Virginius and Mountain Top Mines on this trip, we had a great day in what could be argued as one of the most beautiful locations on earth. We were indeed privileged and blessed!
foliage observationfoliage observationfoliage observationfoliage observationfoliage observation
Autumn Foliage Observation Substantial
wildflower observationwildflower observationwildflower observationwildflower observationwildflower observation
Wildflowers Observation Extreme
Kelly D. McLaughlin
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