I think the Rocky Mountains, particularly in Colorado, are
even more awe-inspiring than the Bighorn Mountains we just left. This is about
my 20th visit to the state. I love the western half of the state, the part with the
majestic mountains. If it wasn't for all the snow for eight or nine months of
the year, Jim and I probably would have retired here instead of Virginia.
We got a taste of "colorful Colorado" (that's what the
welcome signs call it) on our drive today from Denver to Silverton, deep in the
San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado: Mountains in every shade of
green you can imagine, a few with patches of snow at the top. Bright blue lakes
and skies. Billowing white clouds. Flowers in every color imaginable . . .
. . . and those colorful red rocks for which the state is
famous - early Spanish conquistadors called the state "colorado,"
which meant "the
I hope you don't tire of the gorgeous scenery I'll be
showing you the next two months! Along the way I'll tell you a little about the
history of the areas we visit and try to entice you to vacation here soon. If
you're an adventure-seeker, this is a great place to be.
ON THE ROAD AGAIN
We had three main choices for routes from
southwester Denver to
The longest but easiest for
pulling a camper would be to go south from Denver on I-25 through Colorado
Springs and down almost to New Mexico, then west on two-lane Hwy. 160 to
Durango, and north on Hwy. 550, coming into Silverton from the south. This would
avoid the white-knuckle section of Hwy. 550 between Ouray and Silverton, 24
miles of incredible beauty and sheer terror pulling a camper.
The fastest route, according to our mapping
software, would be heading west on I-70 to Grand Junction, almost all the way to
the Utah line, then south on Hwy. 550 through Montrose and Ouray to Silverton.
The most scenic route on state highways would
be Hwys. 285 and 24 southwest to Buena Vista and Poncha Springs, west on Hwy. 50
through Gunnison and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP area, and south from
Montrose through Ouray and that narrow, twisty mountainous route to our
destination in Silverton.
After much deliberation, we chose Option #3. Friends we
trust said semis and campers bigger than ours travel the road between Ouray and
Silverton all the time, so we decided to give it a shot. In hindsight, I'm glad
we did. It was a beautiful drive through areas of the state not far from several
sections of the Colorado Trail.
"CRS" seemed to affect both of us, however. Even though
we've been on almost all of this route previously, we couldn't remember a lot of
it. That actually made the drive more fun! Ain't memory loss great??
One reason for heading out Hwy. 285 was to scout out
possible boon-docking opportunities when we return to run Colorado Trail
segments 3, 4, 5, and maybe 6 at the end of August. I mentioned yesterday that
we didn't have time to do them now, so they will be the last sections we run.
I'd seen this sign on Hwy. 285 when we were returning from
Segment 2 on the CT, and snapped a shot of it today. You don't often see signs
for bighorn sheep crossings!
Too bad we haven't seen any of those
magnificent sheep yet on our trip.
We soon came to the beautiful Kenosha Pass area. The 10,000-foot pass is one of the CT trail heads (end of
segment 5, beginning of 6). It's located south of Mt. Evans and east of
We parked the camper and walked around the campground to
determine if we want to stay there later (yes). I took this photo of the CT sign
and the beginning of Segment 6, the longest section of the trail (33 miles)
without road access. I'm a bit intimidated by it because 33 miles at high
altitudes is a whole 'nother thing than 33 miles on the Appalachian Trail. But I
figure by the time I do this section, I'll be well-trained and acclimated to the
Segment 6 starts through this pretty aspen
grove. I wonder if the leaves will be turning their gorgeous yellow color by the
end of August?
There are attractive signs here that explain the importance
of Kenosha Pass in the development of the West. Ute Indians used it to access
huge herds of game in nearby South Park, a wide-open grazing area between the
mountains. It was a portal for fur trappers in the early 19th century, then
miners seeking riches from silver and gold. The rough trail from Denver widened
into a wagon road, and then the Denver, South Park, and Pacific Railroad was
built. It was a gateway to both riches and hard luck for those seeking their
Hwy. 285 beyond the pass was easy to drive and the scenery
was beautiful. This photo through the South Park area highlights the snow-capped
mountains in the distance:
Between Gunnison and Montrose drivers are treated to miles
and miles of national park lands through the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. I
took the photos below from the truck. The lake photos are a bit fuzzy at the
bottom but I think they show the beauty of the canyon area and the Blue Mesa
Check out this cloud drama over the reservoir:
We started seeing cyclists - literally hundreds of 'em -
near the reservoir. They were spread out for about fifty miles from there to
Montrose. We passed several "aid stations" and saw a sign with the initials BTC
pointing the way left off Hwy. 50 in town. We assume it was a cross-state ride
similar to BRAG (Bicycle Ride Across Georgia) that isn't competitive but more
like a start-and-end-when-you-want type of stage ride with a certain number of
miles per day.
I got a chuckle as we were driving past an elk farm between
Montrose and Ouray on Hwy. 550. So far we've seen no elk in the wild, although
they are prolific in rocky areas of the Bighorns and in Colorado. On this trip, it was ironic
that the first ones we saw were on a farm where they are being raised!
"I'M SWEATING A BIT"
Then we got to the town of Ouray, a nice little oasis
sitting at 7,700 feet between towering mountains. Ouray is famous for its
therapeutic hot springs and the fortunes miners made from its silver and gold in
the late 1800s. Now it's a scenic summer tourist destination for hikers and
4-wheelers who love to play in the San Juan and Uncompahgre national forests.
All of Hwy. 550 between Ouray and Silverton is dubbed "The
Million Dollar Highway," although the term technically applies to only the
six-mile section that follows the roadbed of Otto Mears' original toll road. AAA
calls the road one of the nation's most spectacular scenic auto routes. Believe
This is a white-knuckle ride, a takes-your-breath-away
thrill-seeker's dream. There are numerous 10 and 15 MPH hairpin and
Guard rails are practically non-existent. The road is
narrow and the drops down into the canyons are precipitous - hundreds of feet or
more. One wrong move, or an approaching vehicle coming over the line too
far, can spell death. Literally. Just look how close the edge is in the photo
below, taken as we were driving:
Going south, I was right next to the cliffs. I mean, RIGHT
next to the cliffs. I'm not usually afraid of heights in a vehicle or on a
trail, but I was tense with fear and very quiet. Jim did a great job handling
the camper up and down hills and around all the tight curves, but we had no
control over oncoming traffic that sometimes took the curves too fast. And as
the passenger, I had even less control. I know I got a few gray hairs
during that ride. Halfway through I mentioned to Jim how scared I was, and he
admitted his hands were sweating.
That was reassuring!!
The drive is beautiful, though. The next photo shows Red
Mountain, named for the iron oxide that colors it:
This scene is closer to Silverton:
I'll show more photos of Silverton in a few days. We
haven't determined which way we'll be leaving Silverton, north or south. It
depends on the closest road access to the sections of the Colorado Trail that
we'll be covering between here and Leadville in late July.
We stopped at the visitor center first to ask about camping
at three free national forest areas about which we'd gotten information from
friends. We quickly found out that the best option for our circumstances would
be off South Mineral Creek Road. The dirt road is very smooth for about five
miles off Hwy. 550 so it won't tear up our rig and the area is very scenic. We
found the perfect spot in one of the designated campgrounds:
So far, there is plenty of room in the campground but we
hear it gets very crowded over the July 4 weekend. Although the campground is
free, it is overseen by the Forest Service.
This is a view of South Mineral Creek about fifty feet from
our camper, looking upstream:
The dogs love to play in the creek, and the water sounds so
relaxing all hours of the day. Bear Mountain (12,987 feet) is to the left, on
the other side of the creek, and U.S. Grant Peak (13,767 feet) is just up the
The fella who's camped next to us said last year at this
time the surrounding mountains still had a lot of snow on them and it was piled
up along the road. The San Juans got less snow pack last winter and, like
Wyoming, the area is warmer and drier than normal this year. The flowers are
about two weeks ahead of schedule.
All this creates a higher danger for fires, but it is good
timing for us to run the southern end of the Colorado Trail. It means there will
be very little snow at the higher elevations and the flowers should be
spectacular. In a normal year, parts of the trail in the Silverton area are difficult for hikers or runners to do
this early in the season and the flowers aren't
blooming much yet. I consider myself very fortunate in this regard.
Now we have to get a little bit acclimated to 9,700 feet of
elevation (at our campsite) before heading out on the CT. Most of it is over
11,000 feet in this vicinity. Yow! Our first run will be on South Mineral Creek
Next up: Sue's view of the differences between the
Appalachian Trail and the Colorado Trail.
Snug in Silverton (it could get really cold here tonight!),