Lost Trail Ranch was established in 1877 as a way station and resupply spot along Stony Pass Road from the San Luis Valley to the mining camps of the San Juan Mountains. Located at an elevation of 9,800 feet along the Rio Grande, the way station served travelers until the early 1880s, when traffic declined after the first railroad reached Silverton. The area became a popular summer cattle pasture site before being developed in the early 1920s as a dude ranch. Since then the property has offered guest lodging and outdoor recreation while continuing to be used for summer livestock grazing.
Main Road to Silverton
Serious mining activity started in the San Juan Mountains in the early 1870s. The Treaty of 1868 had established the area as Ute land, but whites drawn by rumors of rich mineral deposits explored the mountains in violation of the treaty. In 1871 gold was discovered at the base of Arrastra Gulch along the upper Animas River, and in 1872 Major E. M. Hamilton built the first primitive road from the San Luis Valley to the San Juans. From Del Norte, Hamilton’s Stony Pass Road followed the Rio Grande nearly to its headwaters before crossing the Continental Divide at Stony Pass and descending to the upper Animas River valley via Cunningham Gulch.
Illicit mining activity in the San Juans led to the 1873 Brunot Agreement, which officially opened the region to white mining and settlement. Mining camps sprouted throughout the upper Animas River valley, while ranches and way stations took shape along the increasingly well-traveled Stony Pass Road between the San Luis Valley and the bustling mines around Silverton.
Lost Trail Station
In the spring of 1877, John Barber established Lost Trail Station along Stony Pass Road where Lost Trail Creek met the Rio Grande. Previously the site had been used for summer cattle grazing because it had good water and an open meadow. Barber and his wife, Frances, provided lodging and meals to travelers, offered shipping and packing services, and cared for livestock. As part of his operation, Barber built a rough log cabin and a more substantial hotel and barn. The log barn measured about nineteen feet by seventy-three feet. Clearly built by someone skilled in log construction, the building used square-notched corners and required minimal chinking because the logs were so straight and similarly sized.
Stony Pass Road remained the main route between the Front Range and the San Juans until the early 1880s. Machinery, supplies, men, and minerals flowed along the road as the San Juan mining camps developed. Lost Trail Station gained additional significance as the spot where the route changed from a wagon road to a pack trail. Travelers headed west had to break down their wagons at Lost Trail and switch to a pack train for the trek over the Continental Divide, while travelers headed east got to climb into a wagon and ride the rest of the way down to Del Norte.
In 1878 a post office opened at Lost Trail Station, with Barber as postmaster. That year Barber also expanded his accommodations and improved his facilities in anticipation of increased traffic starting in 1879, when the road was improved for wagon travel the whole way from Del Norte to Silverton.
After the Railroad
Just as the improved wagon road was completed over Stony Pass, developments elsewhere signaled its demise. William Jackson Palmer’s Denver & Rio Grande Railway had its sights set on reaching Silverton from the San Luis Valley. The railroad’s engineer thought the proposed San Juan Extension could follow the existing wagon road up the Rio Grande, but in 1879 railroad officials decided that the line would instead head south to the lower and broader Cumbres Pass before curving through the Southern Ute Reservation and reaching Silverton via the Animas River. This decision spelled the end of Lost Trail Station and the Stony Pass route more generally.
Traffic along Stony Pass Road continued for a few more years, but it declined precipitously after the railroad reached Silverton in July 1882. Some freighters and travelers who could not afford the railroad continued to take Stony Pass Road on foot or horseback, but other traffic largely dried up. Soon most settlements along the route were abandoned. Lost Trail Station stayed in operation longer than most. The post office closed in 1883, but the hotel remained open until at least 1885. By that time the Barber family was long gone; in 1883–84 a man named Eugene Hamilton operated the stage station.
In the early 1890s, Stony Pass Road experienced a brief revival with new mining activity in the Bear Creek drainage, which entered the Rio Grande several miles above Lost Trail Station. Miners brought new traffic to the area, and the Lost Trail stage station and post office reopened. But soon the Panic of 1893 brought the nascent Bear Creek mining district to an end. The Lost Trail post office closed for good, and Stony Pass Road fell into disuse.
Cow Camp and Dude Ranch
After the 1890s, ranching took over from transportation and mining along the old Stony Pass route, and the area around Lost Trail Station reverted to its earlier use as a high-elevation summer cattle pasture. Lost Trail Station was especially popular as a cow camp because it had a barn and cabin where cowboys could stay while their cattle grazed nearby.
In 1921 Susan Jackson Tice and her son George acquired 160 acres at the former Lost Trail Station and established a seasonal dude ranch called Lost Trail Ranch. In 1937 Carroll Wetherill acquired the property and developed it into a working dude ranch. He built a residence for himself, repaired and remodeled the barn, and added a second cabin, which probably used materials from the former hotel. He rented the cabins to guests and offered seasonal pack trips, hunting, and fishing. The nearby meadow continued to be used as summer pasture for livestock from lower elevations.
In 1937 the old Stony Pass wagon road was improved for use by ore trucks heading to and from Bear Creek mines, but mining activity ceased during World War II and the road quickly deteriorated. By the 1950s, the road was starting to see a growing number of recreational users. Wetherill asked the US Forest Service to move the road, which was relocated about 100 yards north of the ranch. At the same time, the road was regraded to make it passable to Lost Trail Ranch for standard automobiles and beyond the ranch for four-wheel-drive vehicles.
The Getz family—Wetherill descendants—owned and operated the ranch into the early twenty-first century. They built several new rental cabins close to the Forest Service road, and in 2011 they got the historic section of the property—including the barn and two older cabins—listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today the barn at Lost Trail Ranch is the oldest log barn in Hinsdale County. The Getzes still live at the ranch, but in the mid-2010s they sold the rental cabin business to a new owner.