Going to Calamity Camp, Historic Site
Sixty seven miles Southwest from Grand Junction lies a hidden gem. Many of the stories this place has to tell have already been lost to the passing of time and the passing of those who lived the rugged existence of being a Calamity Mesa miner.
From 1913-1971 mining on the Calamity Mesa claim experienced three phases. Carnotite ore was first mined for Radium which was first used in medicine and for self luminescing instruments like watch dials and aircraft gauges. Vanadium was next in the series of mining booms and was used to strengthen steel including the chassis of the Ford model T. The final boom for Calamity Camp was Uranium which was originally used for glass and ceramic tinting and coloring.
According to Western Colorado Historian Kathy Jordan, Calamity Mesa got its name when a prospector’s burrow ate all his food, leaving him without provisions for four days, until he made it to Gateway.
To get to Calamity Camp, part of the GJ Lifestyle team was hosted by Travis Lindley who owns Element Outdoors and supplies Overland Adventure Vehicles to vacationers who want to rent a 4x4 that has all the gear to hit the road for a few days or a few weeks.
Our outfit for the trip was a Jeep Gladiator Rubicon and a ¾ ton Ram Power Wagon. Both are equipped with truck mounted tents and with a tire pressure adjustment shortly after leaving the pavement, the ride was remarkably soft on rugged, rocky, washboard roads.
Our route followed Divide rd. from Hwy 141 and our first stop was atop the plateau at Big Creek. After a few hours attempting to fish in high wind and getting pictures of some paddle boarders from Montrose, we moved on toward our destination.
Our guide, Travis had mapped out a few other points of interest for us to explore so we took a couple of side tracks. The “top of the world” view from one potential campsite was inspiring and seemed to be the kind of experience that could inspire songs and stories. Songs like John Denver's Rocky Mountain High, which shares the official state song spot with the original Where the Columbines Grow. The terrain was just what should be expected in the back-country. We even lost a hubcap on one hairpin turn and found it on the way back.
Our next leg of the trip would take us to Calamity Camp. Due to free range grazing, we encountered a herd of cattle that stayed right in the road ahead, slowing our progress for a while but thankfully that was it for our own “calamities”. In fact our wilderness dining was great. More about that in a bit.
Arrival at Calamity Camp
More than a decade ago Zeb Miracle was the Director of Mesa County Museums and his team worked closely with BLM officials to establish and improve preservation efforts for the Calamity Mesa area. Today the original housing area and the old mine workings are included in the Calamity Camp Historic Site. The tunnels that go underneath Calamity mesa from both sides of the Calamity Creek gorge can be seen from the Camp on one side and from the roadway to the winch-works on the other side.
Our exploration of the “Camp” happened in three stages. First we spent a couple of hours looking through the “footprints” of a few dozen cabins, dugouts and lean-tos concentrated in the main camp area. We found old cook stoves, broken glass and electric insulators, a core sample dump and an old outhouse that lacked the proper “quarter moon” window. We also found the can dump - a spot over the cliff edge where thousands of metal cans that mostly held food for the workers, were simply dropped off the cliff to their final resting place. Stage two was after dark when we had our own waning quarter moon to accompany the symphony of brilliant stars out among the cedars, coyotes, lizards, snakes, rabbits and rocks where “light pollution” is not to be found. Things really take on a different view in a ghost town at night. We even wondered if there are a few lingering souls who were so committed to this place that a piece of their energy still roams the place from time to time. Stage three was the next morning where the light of daybreak gave an additional perspective and revealed nearly a hundred dwelling “footprints” within the fenced historic “camp”.
Dining in the field that night couldn’t have been better. Our host broke out the camp stove and served up bacon cheddar burgers, followed by italian sausage brats and believe it or not, Ben and Jerry’s for dessert. That’s right, the rig has a fridge/freezer for your favorites far off the beaten path.
There’s so much more to say about what we saw but maybe the best way to share it is to encourage you to go see this amazing place for yourself.
Even though this was just an overnighter, it could just as easily have been a week or three weeks. “Self-contained” sums up the outfit nicely and it’s an experience we highly recommend. It’s also one we’ll be planning again for a different destination. Who knows, maybe even another ghost town.