The Cunningham Gulch is a fantastic backcountry camping option for those visiting the Silverton area, whether for off-road excursions or hiking. Ideally located at the trailhead to the Highland Mary Lakes, one of the premier day hikes in the San Juan Mountains, the Cunningham Gulch offers a plenitude of backcountry campsites, including those right at the Highland Mary Trailhead, and old mining sites to explore.
The Cunningham Gulch has long been ranch and mining land, and the Bureau of Land Management initiated a conservation program in 2002 to restore the creek. Camping here is free from a nightly fee. As such, those looking to complete the Cunningham Gulch loop, which includes the Highland Mary Lakes Trail to pristine alpine jewels above treeline and the surrounding peaks, will enjoy a convenient and easy camping option here.
Like much of the San Juan Mountains, the area has a strong mining history. Perched high above Cunningham Gulch on Galena Mountain is the Old Hundred Boarding House, built in the first decade of the 20th century by Reinhard and Gustave Niegold, German prospectors of the Midland Mining Company. The musical brothers—Reinhard a pianist and Gustave a professional opera singer—eventually sold their interests to the Old Hundred Mining Company in 1904, which expanded the mining infrastructure in the area. The Old Hundred Mining Company built tramways and bunkhouses throughout Cunningham Gulch, but the area was never particularly productive, and mining ceased in 1908 at a loss. Neither mining nor oil drilling was ever productive in Cunningham Gulch, but the framework of structures remain to this day.
There are two “tiers” to the Cunningham Gulch: a lower, which includes a loop adjacent to the road for camper vehicles and campsites, and an upper, which includes the Highland Mary Lakes Trailhead. A four-wheel drive, high-clearance vehicle is required for the road to the upper tier, and the road here is rough. Two-wheel drive is not recommended for the lower portion.