Colorado Backroads 2000 (Part 1)
by K
en Womack

 

This was a trip that we had planned nearly a year in advance, ever since we heard the SWFWDA Summer Meeting and Run would be there. I was really ready to go again since it had been since 1997 that I had been there, 1996 for Evelyn and Andy. Although several SHR members had planned to go to Moab and Ouray, we wanted to try some different places, since we had been to Ouray 3 times prior. From reading 4WD magazines, I knew there were 4WD Roads near Crested Butte and Gunnison as well as Buena Vista and Salida (the site of the SWFWDA Run). I ordered Charles Wells Guide to Colorado Backroads & 4-Wheel Drive Trails from 4x4 Books.com. This book is great! It was informative and easy to use, never failed us, (if I read it correctly, that is!)

 On Saturday July 15, we headed for Colorado with an overnight stop in Amarillo and again in Gunnison. On Mon. the 17, we set up camp at Lake Irwin at elevation 10,300 ft. This campground is beautiful! Lake Irwin is a high mountain lake that is glass smooth and stream fed. Lake Irwin campground is primitive, no showers or flush toilets, but its clean and well kept. We enjoyed our stay very much. Chilly at night, to the 40s, we had a fire (in a fire pit), every night and every morning, just to stay warm. Such a pleasant change from the steamy hot mugginess of Houston! 

 Lake Irwin is 10 miles outside of Crested Butte up Kebler Pass Rd. and excellent if youíre on a budget, as we were. Crested Butte is a fairly neat little Fru-Fru Village, but it is very expensive to spend any time at all there. Whatís more, their local City Guide refers to all the 4x4 Roads as hike and bike trails! Evidently the Greens have infiltrated city government. To deny the existence of Jeep Roads then have the audacity to call them footpaths is ludicrous! Because of this, I decided to spend as little money as possible here, except for absolutely necessary items, such as ice and gas. (The most expensive in Colorado, $1.99 a gallon for mid-grade 87octane.) We bought our food in Gunnison. Gunnison is a cool town that isnít Fru-Fru and even has a 4x4 Shop and Jeep Rental. The prices are lower and still isnít that far from the trailheads. Stay there, or at Almont, not Crested Butte.

 From Lake Irwin we ran Gunsight Pass, Schofield Pass, Taylor Pass back and forth, Italian Creek Road, Goat Mtn. (not on map), Splains Gulch and Daisy Pass.  From Buena Vista we ran Iron Chest, Hancock Pass and Tincup Pass. We also went white-water rafting for a half-day. From Salida, we ran with Southwest: Chinaman's Gulch and the Holy Cross City Road ( the best was last!) It was a fine 2-week trip. We were blessed with good weather and good luck. Our only mechanical problems were occasional dying of engine due to altitude (which was momentary), a starter, which began dragging, and locking up (which I replaced one morning ), and a broken valve stem on a rear tire. Not bad considering the many miles of wheelin and the hard-core trails of Iron Chest, Chinamanís Gulch and Holy Cross.  Actually I was very lucky.

 There is no way I can write about all these trails in one newsletter, so I will split em up in probably 3 or 4. I hope You All enjoy them!  Ken...

 

GUNSIGHT PASS

On Monday the 17th, we had just set up camp at Lake Irwin and Evelyn wanted to take a nap, so Andy and I headed off to do a short trail called Gunsight Pass. We saw another Jeep with 3 guys from Texas. We asked them to join us, and off we went. We went up the Slate Road 6 miles to the signed turnoff, aired down then crossed the river next to the old bridge (not safe).  Up and up we climbed via switchbacks. The scenery was awesome as the road climbed steeper and steeper. The road was easy, but rough, and the switchbacks were sharp. I cussed my front locker as it hindered Jeep Thrills turning radius. Lockers just get in the way on these kinds of switchbacks. I yearned for a front ARB or even (shudder the thought) an open front diff.!?! It was 5 miles to the remains of the Daisy Mine and the view was breathtaking!

Daisy Pass Mine

We were high in the Alpine Tundra, way above the treeline. From here we could see over some of the other mountains to snow-capped 14íers. It was windy and cool, and I thanked God that I made it again to Colorado! Andy was exploring mines, and I just took in the scenery, unable to climb up to the mines. The air was thin, and I certainly wasnít used to it yet. Andy took some great pics.  This was a run I had heard about in 4-Wheeler magazine several years ago in an article called Ghost Towns of the West. It intrigued me ever since. It told of the trip from Schofield Pass down the Devils Punchbowl and into the ghost towns of Crystal and Marble. I just had to go someday, and this was the day.

This was our first full day run in Colorado, and I was more than ready.  We traveled up Slate Rd. (easy dirt road, 2wd) out of Crested Butte and up to The Paradise Basin. This place was marvelous!  A nice little high mountain lake greeted us as we paused for a short break. We continued down into a valley and then back up again. The scenery was breathtaking. Back down into another valley we went through a nice tree lined road and up again to Schofield Pass at 10,000 ft. Here we turned towards the Marble sign and down into Crystal Canyon.

Crystal Canyon

We went down again til we were at parking lot for hikers; several sport utility vehicles were parked there.  We went on down next to Crystal River thru some holes that were pretty dry. Then we came to a crossing with a Toyota Rav-4 parked there. The couple was thinking about crossing Crystal River.  They asked me if I thought they could make it. I told them that I had never run it, but my book said it was a serious trail. The water was nearly 2 feet deep and would be bumper deep on Jeep Thrills. I told them that the rocks were very sharp and that if he cut a tire, then another (a real possibility with the street tires he had on), that no one would have a spare tire that small on the trail. I also told him he had no low range gears and that he would need them, as well as some ground clearance.

Well, that would be enough warning for most people, but he was a hard head. He asked, but do you think I can still make it?  I suggested that he read the trail description in my book, but his wife said, thatís ok, we better not try. Wise woman. We crossed the creek with water over the hubs and dropped down into a rocky road with a couple of cabins there. On down the road was the warning sign that read:  Narrow Steep Road recommended only for very experienced drivers & small high clearance 4WD.

  Devils Punchbowl Entrance 

This was the entrance for the infamous Devils Punchbowl. The road started very rough and dropped into a steep downward canyon with the roaring Crystal River deep below. I had told Evelyn and Andy that this was a little scary, but they were still shocked at the narrowness of the road, with the VERY long drop into the canyon. The next 1/4-mile was very intense. There was as little as 6 inches to the edge of the road in some places (and thatís with Pizza Cutters Folks!) and tire placement was critical! I would hate to have to back up on this stretch!

 Upward rock outcropping had you picking lines, too, with not much choice, due to the narrowness of the road. And it was steep! Pucker Factor was high on this one!  We even drug on one spot. After easing down the road, we had to cross a 100 year-old narrow iron bridge that crossed the fast-running river.  Wow!  After crossing this bridge and parking the Jeep, we got out for video and pictures. The twin falls here were roaring and so pretty. One of the most beautiful and exciting trails I had ever run!

Ken & Evelyn @ Twin Falls

Truth is, you could do this road with a Jeep or other small rig with 31in. tires and a limited-slip or locker, but you can be scared easily, itís that kind of trail. Very intense, indeed, but the sheer thrill and beauty of the trail makes it worth it. This was only the beginning of the trail; there were several miles to go. We went thru some more narrow sections. One particularly narrow spot had a late model sport-utility vehicle at the bottom of the canyon, wrecked. It had fallen off the road. I hope they survived.

We drove several miles thru nice, cool forests with the awesome river to our left. We passed the Lead King Mine Road and I knew we were close to the town of Crystal. Crystal is a ghost town where some descendents of the settlers had moved in and fixed up the cabins to live there. We passed The Crystal Club, an all-male club where only ladies of the shady type were allowed many years ago, an old General Store still in great shape, and then on to the Crystal Powerhouse, a well-preserved electric generating station built right into the stone on the side of the river canyon, awesome! This is said to be the most photographed spot in Colorado. We took several pictures and some video while taking a break.

      The Crystal Club

                            The Crystal Powerhouse

From here we passed into Marble, where marble was mined and transported all over the country, some to make the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  There were large chunks of marble left over here. I wish we could have explored further, but we decided to eat lunch at Beaver Lake and then take the paved road back to the Kebler Pass and back to camp.

 The original plan was to take the Lead King Mine Road back to The Devils Punchbowl (Fruitbowl as Evelyn called it), but Evelyn said she was NOT going over that way again uphill! I reluctantly agreed. It was scary, and would have taken quite a while, and it was just the 1st day! 

 Ken Womack