View north from Hope Pass in Colorado


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Map from the Colorado Trail Foundation's poster.






Runtrails' Rocky Mountain Journal
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". . .  Surrounded by a circle of peaks, you'll feel small yet invigorated.
John Denver could only describe the oxymoronic feeling as a
"Rocky Mountain High" - a humbling yet empowering drive to find a place
for yourself in the midst of such bold surroundings . . ."
- description of Colorado's lofty mountains in the
AAA Tour Book for Colorado and Utah, 2003 edition, p. 34


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 color red."

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.


We had three main choices for routes from southwester Denver to Silverton:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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 Breckenridge.

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 elevation.

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 fortunes.

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 Reservoir:

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!


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 'em.

This is a white-knuckle ride, a takes-your-breath-away thrill-seeker's dream. There are numerous 10 and 15 MPH hairpin and double-hairpin turns.

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 road.

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 Road tomorrow.

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!),

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and Tater

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2006 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil