Relief From The
Heat; Colorado Style
by Ken & Evelyn Womack (Pics By Ken and Steve Weinberg)
This is the final chapter of a 3 part series from our trip to Colorado last summer. We ran with Steve Weinberg on Monday, Tuesday and half-day Wednesday. On Wednesday Steve had to leave for home. Evelyn and I continued on exploring Wager Gulch, Carson and the Continental Divide above Wager Gulch before going to spend the evening in Lake City. After a great night’s rest we sought out a morning walk with our dog Blaze. We enjoyed walking along the river and met a lady out for her jog who was friendly and told us of a fine little place for breakfast. She said, “That’s where the locals go for breakfast”. She put us on the location, and because the morning was so nice, we walked down there to eat. Like she said, it was very good. We wanted to check out some local shops, but most weren’t open, but the one we found open was stocked with a wide variety of neat things from books to T-shirts and lots in between. The prices were very reasonable and we wound up buying several things including one of the books I used in writing these articles.
We found Lake City to be a friendly, reasonably priced place to stay and visit. By the looks of what they had outside, the local museum looked like a cool place to visit, but it wasn’t open yet and we had to get ready to go. We will definitely go to Lake City again, see the museum, and perhaps on a Stony Pass Trip sometime in the future.
We followed the signs to the Engineer Pass part of the Alpine Loop and headed out in 2-wheel-drive. We saw a concrete dam, then the buildings of the Ute-Ulay Mine. This mine was developed later than many others in the San Juans, and has a more modern appearance than many in the area. This area has been well-preserved and is pretty cool.
Our plan was to run the short side trip to the Nellie Creek Trail, a 4-mile trip up and back each way. It was a beautiful trip through the aspens. This heavily wooded area was cool and serene on the way to Nellie Creek Falls, where we paused to take in the scenery and enjoy. We later crossed Nellie Creek and got out to enjoy the cool water and stretch out a bit. Off we went up some switchbacks climbing into the pine forest and out of the aspens. We saw a side road that probably led to some cabins remnants and mines, but decided to pass this time and go on. We later got into some more rain as we climbed on up.
The trail ended in a hiker’s parking lot where a wilderness area begins. There were several P/U’s and SUV’s there along with a composting toilet. Shortly before that were some pretty nice camping spots. This is a fine side trip that I would recommend. The trail is easy and anyone with 4wd and low range could easily navigate. We drove back down in some more rain, but it quit about mid way down. When we returned to Engineer Pass and 2-wheel-drive, the sun had returned. On the way up we saw some fine camping and fishing spots that we hope to return to someday.
We ran on to the spot where 4-wheel-drive is recommended once again. Here is a beautiful mansion that wasn’t there on our last trip. It was built into the mountain with walking bridges from the driveway to the house. The strange part of it was that is was vacant and up for rent. Like many houses in the area, they are vacant. For most people, it is just too remote and the winters too extreme to live out a “normal” life. Even in August, a prime time to be in the mountains, many of these houses are vacant. Seems folks haven’t researched their history. The only folks who even attempted to live in this area mined for silver and gold, a very compelling reason indeed. Others have found it to be too remote and the weather too harsh to live for more than a short time.
We climbed up the switchbacks and out of the tree line into the rocky areas. On up we went to Engineer Pass. It was clear this time and we could see for many miles in all directions. Down the road and back to Animas Forks and the 11-mile drive back to Silverton. We got back to camp in time to prepare our meal, chill out and turn in early, as our next day would be our last full day of ‘wheeling, Black Bear Road and Imogene Pass into Ouray, then back via The Million Dollar Hwy. to camp in Silverton.
I woke up very early that morning, it was foggy, but the sun was coming up and poking through one spot right on the mountain behind us while all the rest of the sky blocked by dense fog. It was an awe-inspiring moment for me. Later the sun shone on the other mountain, where on the side is The Christ’s Shrine of the Miners. I thanked The Lord and the Miners that morning. I thanked God for allowing us to be alive and there in Colorado and the Miners for their contributions to making our country strong and free by mining the precious metals that back up our paper money.
I filled up the Jeep with gas, checked out the “Red Rocker”, loaded up our supplies, my lovely wife and our fine pooch. We left on Hwy 550 to Red Mountain Pass, where the turnoff to Black Bear Road is. Black Bear had been closed for over a week due to heavy rains and parts of the road being washed out. It had just opened back up Thursday afternoon after graders had done their job. We were lucky that we got to do it before going home and really lucky it was still a weekday.
Black Bear and Imogene is a must-do trail if you go to the San Juans. It has the finest combinations of scenery and good trails in the area. It is a long loop that takes all day (if you take time to explore, like we do). Plan on an early start, a full tank of gas, plenty of water, soda, ice and a good camera. We started up Black Bear Road taking in the pretty weather and the scenery. There are a few optional places on the way up that offer some mild challenges, like 2 foot ledges, but the idea is to stay on the main road. We did the optional spots because they had been there for ages and were indeed part of the trail.
Close to the top we heard some CB chatter, but didn’t spot anyone. This view is an awesome one indeed, and mere words or pictures just don’t do it justice. You just gotta see it for yourselves. A word of warning though, going to Colorado and seeing what’s there may change your life forever.
We continued on down the trail when a Jeep tour caught up with us from behind. We stopped and chatted briefly with them on one of their break stops. We went on past several mines and Ingram Lake. On the way down we heard the CB chatter more clearly and realized they were a small group of Jeepers coming down the trail. They had one Jeep with a flat tire cut on the optional spot we had just done. We waited for them and I asked them if we could join them. They agreed and we said our “Hellos”, they were camped in the same campground we were. Small world it is indeed.
Black Bear really isn’t a novice trail, nor is it one you should do alone if you don’t have to. No, it’s not a rock crawling trail, but it is very steep going down, and has some rocky sections and an extremely tight switch-back that for some folks may require a spotter. If you go there and are not experienced, try doing some of the other trails first, then find out if some other folks in town are going and join them if you can. If you rent a Jeep from any of the local towns in the area, they make you sign a paper stating that you will not drive Black Bear in their Jeeps, (as well as a couple others, like Poughkeepsie and Governor Basin). We went on down the road to the stairsteps. Here one of the rigs had a hard time, getting skewered on a ledge. IFS and its lack of wheel travel was the culprit here. The driver had some skills and simply backed up a foot or two, turned his wheel and bumped the gas; the Dakota caught traction and got over. The road is so steep here that engine compression doesn’t even come close to being enough. Good brakes are a necessity here. The view of the valley below and Telluride, is a fine one indeed.
After the stairsteps the trail eases up, but it still very narrow, especially as you pass Ingram Falls and the remains of a mine and mill. Past the falls is the bad switchback, it varies from year to year. I have seen this switchback extremely tight, then wide, then as it was this time, tight, but doable without a spotter. It is steep and tight, good articulation is needed for this one.
Past the switchback, the trails eases up considerably, with easier switchbacks till you get to the powerhouse and Bridal Veil Falls. Once a power plant that supplied electricity to the mines at Telluride; this powerhouse is now a private residence. There is a tramway that goes to the bottom so the owner can have supplies delivered there without doing the drive. Black Bear Road is a one-way down county road to this spot, where it becomes 2-way. During the weekend, locals drive up to the Falls, park their SUV’s and walk up the one-way down road. This would not be a problem except for the fact that they walk straight up the middle of the road without wanting to move to the side.
Being polite and patient, you just let them pass and go down. The other problem is the vehicles that block the switchbacks. It is harder avoiding the parked rigs than doing the trail itself. Almost all of these folks are locals and not real hikers, as most real hikers would use one of the many single-track hiking trails that are exclusively for hiking.
I would venture to guess that these folks are out to make a statement, perhaps saying that Jeeps are not welcome here. Now, if 4-wheelers were blocking a hiking trail or parking their rigs along a road, they would be towed and you would hear about it in every newspaper in the country. I don’t understand why this is allowed to happen on a county road that is one way going up. The hypocrisy of “green” people knows no bounds. We didn’t encounter this problem this time, because we ran it on a week day. This I would recommend if at all possible.
Our caravan continued into town, where we stopped at the city park to use the restrooms and stretch out. Later we drove onto Main Street and parked on Fir St., where we had to pay to park. We all ate at a famous bakery (vastly overrated). A very pricey lunch was consumed while we conversed with our group. We found out that our group was going to run a trail out of Rico and coming back through Purgatory and back to Silverton. Since we wanted to do Imogene Pass, we said our goodbyes and walked about town. We stopped at one place for a homebrew, (again very pricey at $ 9.00 for 2 beers), then left to shop. The stores are much more expensive than in the other towns nearby, I saw prices to be between 10 and 40 % higher than others in the area, and if you’re looking for a Jeep T-shirt, the variety is none to slim.
We left town down Fir St. made a left, then a right another left and another right onto the Tomboy Road, (that’s what the locals call it). This is the way to Imogene Pass and the Tomboy Mine and to Ouray, although there are no signs pointing the way. You just have to know. An unknowing visitor to Telluride might never know he could take a beautiful back road out of town and see some of the prettiest scenery in the world. Again, another “green” statement, or maybe they are just selfish and want to save it for themselves.
On the next trip to Telluride, I will make my own statement without having to say a word. I will fill up in Ouray or Silverton, pack our lunch and everything else we could possibly need for a whole day, do Black Bear Road., stop and prepare lunch, enjoy it and chill out in the park, drive our Jeep down Main Street once, turn onto Fir St. and take the zigzag, drive on up the way and tip my hat to the folks in town without having spent one single penny. Maybe the town will change before then, let me know if it does.
While most of the towns have capitalized on their history, the folks on the Telluride side seem content to let theirs die. The mines are falling down and all the cabins have fallen without any attempt whatsoever to save them. The other towns have realized the importance of the mining history and have tried to preserve it where possible, but unfortunately, this hasn’t happened on this side, and what a shame, too. In Savage Basin, lies the famous Tomboy Mine and Mill, which lay in total ruin with only an old sign marking the area. Not much to see, but I had a book with pictures of what it looked like, so we knew.
We left view of Telluride in the rain, while we climbed on to Imogene Pass at 13,154 ft. It was very cold on the pass and the view awesome to say the least. You can see The Manti-LaSal Mtn’s by Moab from here, beautiful… It began to rain on the way down. It’s very steep and rocky on the way down. Extreme caution should be used here, especially in the rain. It’s a long road from Telluride to Ouray, about 28 miles, and much of the road is rough, but not difficult. We encountered a couple in a Ford Escape on their way up and the driver stopped to ask us how far to the nearest gas station. He said his fuel light had come on as well as the check engine light. He said he thought he had over a ˝ tank. I told him that his car was talking to him, that he had a rough trail to do especially in the rain, and that he may not make it to Telluride. He told us a guy in Ouray said he could make it in the Escape.
I explained to him about the difference between all wheel-drive and 4-wheel-drive, and the inadequacy of street P-metric tires. I suggested that he turn around and follow us back to Ouray. We passed the turnoff for Governor Basin and wished we could run it, but high up in Governor Basin is no place to be late in the day, alone and in the rain. A good reason for a return trip another day we reckoned. We decided to do Yankee Boy Basin and the couple in the car stopped and told us all the warning lights were off and his gas gauge showed ˝ tank again. He said he might be acquiring a Jeep soon. We said goodbye and did most of Yankee Boy before turning around. Back through the town site of Sneffels and past the Revenue and Atlas Mills and Mines we drove.
The rain eased up and the road got much easier at this point and we wanted to get back to town to eat and air up before too late. We aired up at the start of pavement and eased in to Ouray. Ouray is a nice little resort town known as “The Switzerland of America”, but make no mistake it’s a genuine American town. Also known as “The Jeep Capital of the
World”, it is the home of the famous Ouray Jeep Jamboree. We stopped at the only restaurant open in town. We had driven a long trail and I was hungry again (4-wheelin’ does that to me big-time). Even though we got there 5 minutes before closing time, they served us and were very friendly about it. The prices were reasonable and the food- tasty.
We headed out at dusk for the Million Dollar Highway. Completed in the 1920’s and designed by Otto Mears, this curvy road rides precariously on the edges of cliffs carved out by man and dynamite. These roads have no guard rails in most spots, so great care must be used. Its 25 miles from Ouray to Silverton and on a dark night (no moon) and light rain, it took a long time to get back. We got back to our camp at about 10:30 p.m.
It was a fine trip indeed and a fitting end to our 4-wheeling adventures. We slept in late during the morning rain, and then got up to walk about Silverton. We shopped and got old-time pictures made, and purchased a replica 1873 Winchester rifle to put over the fireplace. A Railroad Festival was going on, and some folks were dressed like people would in the 1880’s. It was pretty cool. We had fun and relaxed away the day.
Sunday morning was time to pack up and leave we did about 9:30a.m. One week isn’t near enough time to stay in The San Juans, as I should have known from previous trips. Two weeks would be much better, 3, better yet. Anyway, it was time to go, and we’ll definitely come back for some relief from the heat…
Ken & Evelyn Womack