2010 RUNNING & TRAVEL ADVENTURES

 

   
 
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  SILVERTON → KENOSHA PASS

TUESDAY, JULY 13

 
"When we get to a level spot and you don't have to drive, could you
divide up the WalMart list so I'll know what I'm supposed to get?"
 
- Jim to me, as he's hauling our camper along
a white-knuckle section of the "Million Dollar Highway"
 
 
Jim has a way with words, doesn't he? That barely-veiled criticism immediately cracked me up and made me less tense in the passenger seat!

Oh, my. Have you ever driven this gorgeous 23-mile stretch of US 550 between Silverton and Ouray?? The paved highway cuts through the heart of the San Juan Mountain Range with steep, snow-covered peaks, deep gulches, and high-elevation passes. There are several 15-MPH switchbacks near Red Mountain and only a couple places you can get over 45 MPH in a passenger vehicle -- if you aren't following an RV or semi, which normally has to drive even slower.

The scenery is awesome. The road itself is awesome, too, a real engineering feat. Do a web search for "Million Dollar Highway Ouray Silverton" and you'll see what I mean.


A portion of the Million Dollar Highway south of Ouray; I took that photo in 2007.

It's also nerve-wracking if you're in the passenger seat on the outside lane on the curves of this narrow, winding highway . . . just inches from the edge of the pavement . . . where there are no guardrails or even a shoulder because erosion has eaten away the cliff . . .

Oh, and did I mention there is sometimes a yawning chasm several hundred, sometimes maybe even a thousand, feet down into the canyons??? 

Here's a 2010 photo I showed you in my June 22 entry, when we were going south from Ouray to Silverton on this road:

The arrow points to an unguarded edge that drops right off from the pavement.

This link will take you to a more graphic photo on the Wikipedia site that shows the narrow edge of the road through the Uncompahgre Gorge better than any of the photos I've taken.

Here's a different perspective of the road, looking down. I took it from the Bear Creek Trail during one of our Hardrock workdays in 2007:

Fortunately, it's not as bad driving or riding northbound from Silverton to Ouray on US 550, as we did this morning. We were on the inside lane for the scariest part a few miles south of Ouray and I was next to solid rock walls.

That doesn't bother me as much as being next to the drop-offs going south.  But there was enough of the cliff-hanging farther south near Silverton at the beginning of our journey this morning to make me hyper-alert -- and more of a "back-seat driver" than I usually am!

I don't think I'm a control freak, but I do admit to enough back-seat driving (from the front passenger seat) that sometimes Jim comes up with a zinger like the one above to remind me who's behind the wheel. At least we got a good laugh out of it and I tried to relax a little more.

Nice. Even. Breaths.

As dramatic as I make this sound, I've never needed a tranquilizer or other calming substance on this or any other mountain road. I'm not usually afraid of heights. This road is different, however, and it is almost as nerve-wracking to me when I'm driving as it is when I'm the passenger.


Red Mountain, near the 15 MPH switchbacks

Soon we were through Ouray, headed to Montrose, and on straighter, more undulating territory north of the San Juan Mountain Range. Ahhh. OK, now I can unclench my fingers and separate the WalMart list into two pages so we can get out of the store twice as fast . . .

TRAVEL NOTES:  SILVERTON TO KENOSHA PASS

It is with mixed feelings that we left Silverton this morning.

We love it there but three weeks is about enough time in any one spot before we get itchy feet and want to move on. Besides, most of our running buddies left town on Sunday or Monday after the Hardrock race wrapped up. Socializing with them is one of the main reasons we go to Silverton. We'll miss friends we may not see again for several weeks or months.


A view of Blue Mesa Reservoir going eastbound on US 50 east of Montrose

But it's on to another race now. Jim's running the inaugural North Fork 50-miler this Saturday in Pine, CO. Our choices for camping nearby are seriously limited so we're going to stay at a forest service campground at Kenosha Pass that we've used several times previously. It's a 45-minute drive to the race start/finish but it has its charms: low cost, great scenery, cool temperatures at 10,000 feet, and access to trailheads for two segments of the Colorado Trail that I really like -- almost right out our door!

When we left our campground near Silverton this morning a little after 8 AM it was sunny and 48 F. at 9,500 feet elevation. By the time we reached Montrose, sixty miles north and 3,700 feet lower, it was already 87 F. there! That was a shock to our systems after being in much cooler weather the past three weeks.


A shot of the reservoir I took from the truck in 2007, going west.

After stocking up on supplies and food at WalMart, filling the tank with diesel fuel that was 46 per gallon cheaper than in Silverton or Ouray (!!), and eating lunch, the rest of our 263-mile trek was scenic and pleasant in our air-conditioned truck. We knew Kenosha Pass, at 10,000 feet and farther north than Silverton, might be even cooler than Silverton has been. 

That's fine with us. We love the cooler temperatures (but not too cold).

Here's our route:

  • US 550 north from Silverton to Montrose (9,500 → 5,800 feet)
  • US 50 east past the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, huge Blue Mesa Reservoir, and Monarch Pass (11,312 feet elevation, a snap with our Dodge Ram 2500)
  • US 24/285 north from Poncha Springs to Buena Vista (7,965 feet)
  • US 285 northeast to Kenosha Pass (10,000 feet)

This is a fine route for both passenger touring and RV travel. It is about as scenic as you can get, the roads are in great shape, and we made good time on this weekday despite some road construction here and there. It's also a good route from the San Juan Mountain playgrounds to Denver, another hour east of Kenosha Pass on US 285.


A boat on Blue Mesa Reservoir (another 2007 shot)

There were lots of campers and boats enjoying the warm, sunny day at Blue Mesa Reservoir. We saw two Cameos on the roads today, which is fun since there aren't as many of them out there as some other brands of fivers.


Following a dump truck through a construction zone west of Monarch Pass on US 50

Along the way I decided I want to return to Poncha Springs for one or two nights if we go back down to Silverton in late August for Rodger's new fixed-time race on Kendall Mountain. Crossing the Colorado Trail on US 50 between Mt. Shavano and Marshall Pass reminded me of how much I enjoyed Segment 15 when I ran/hiked it northbound in June, 2007 -- well, except for post-holing through the snow below the pass. I'd like to do it again when there is no snow and go the other direction so I'm going up to the pass and not coming down from it (easier on my knees to hike up than down).

Above and below:  there's a 6% grade for 10 miles on the east side of Monarch Pass

When we reached Buena Vista it was a little odd to head east instead of remaining on US 24 to go north to Leadville. Sometimes when we consciously have to make a turn somewhere we joke about our vehicle being programmed to go the usual route. Ha!

We'll probably get to Leadville this summer but we've got other cool plans first. And we just might decide not to go there this year. A lot of this trip we're making up as we go.

CHILLIN' OUT AT KENOSHA PASS

We love driving the scenic section of US 285 between Buena Vista and Kenosha Pass through the huge South Park valley. The valley is bounded by the San Isabel NF and a mountain range on the west and the Pike NF and more mountains on the east.

We've gone westbound on this section of 285 more often than eastbound, so it almost seemed like new territory going the direction we went today.

Even though South Park is in Colorado and not Montana, it's definitely Big Sky country.

The ranches are huge, too. We saw one for sale that is 2,600 acres, then another that's 4,000 acres. That's a big chunk of dirt to call your own!

US 285 is a very busy road and it gets worse from Kenosha Pass to Denver. Been there, done that. The western portion we drove today wasn't as frenetic as we expect later this week when we check out the North Fork course east of the pass.

As we approached the pass, we saw our friend Bill H's RV at an overlook and knew he was already in the vicinity; he's also running the North Fork race. He can park his compact RV in camping areas closer to the course (and towns) but he knew we'd be coming to Kenosha Pass soon and wanted to run some of the trails and dirt roads near the pass while we were here. It'll be fun to spend more time with him.

KENOSHA EAST CAMPGROUND

High on Kenosha Pass are large parking areas on both sides of the road. On a summer weekend, they are full of vehicles whose occupants are out enjoying the Colorado Trail (CT) but on this weekday afternoon there were only a few cars, trucks, and RVs parked there. We turned right (east) onto a narrow gravel road and kept our fingers crossed that our favorite campsite would be available.

We know from camping here several previous times that there are only a few sites large enough for our rig in one of the two National Forest Service campgrounds at this location. No one can make reservations in the Kenosha East campground; it is first-come, first-served. We figured we'd better get here early in the week so we'd maximize our chances of getting our favorite site.

And we did. There were only two other campsites taken in this campground when we arrived. Yes!

Jim has to drive around the tight loop at the far end of the campground to approach this site with the door toward the woods. Then he can swing into this space and maneuver forward and back a little bit to get the Cameo straightened out.

Although vehicles drive by fairly closely on the "street side" (left side in picture above), there is an abundance of space on the other three sides:

Like just about everywhere else, there are some advantages and disadvantages to this campground.

On the plus side, it is fairly inexpensive: $12/night for most folks, half price if you have a National Park Service Senior Pass -- which we'll have in two weeks when Jim turns 62. The sites are well spaced out and nicely shaded. The campground has three clean pit toilets. It is adjacent to the trailheads between CT Segments 5 and 6; we literally run out the door to hit the trail a couple hundred feet away.

And for history buffs, there's lots of interesting information to read about Kenosha and Georgia Passes on interpretive displays. I wrote about the history in an entry when I ran the CT in 2006.


Blue columbines and red Indian paintbrush near the campground on Seg. 5

The downsides include no nearby stores or services, no Verizon cell service for our phones or computers, no TV reception, no hook-ups, no dump station, and not even any water spigots in the east campground.

As paid customers we can haul water from the campground on the other side of the road, which is guarded by a vigilant CG host. Our campground has no on-site host; the guy across the road comes over a couple times a day to say hi and check on things. I don't know how often NFS rangers come by.

For internet service, we can drive about 3/10ths of a mile down the northwest side of the pass (toward Fairplay) to the overlook where Bill's RV was parked and get online with our phone. For WiFi, fuel, and stores, we have to drive about twenty miles in either direction to Fairplay or Conifer.

There are quite a few free dispersed camping sites farther back on the east side of the road (see sign above) but we haven't wanted to haul our 5th wheel up or down either narrow, somewhat-rutted road (FSR 126 or 126A) to reach them. We intend to explore farther back both roads while we're here because we may return here for one or more nights if we head to Leadville.

Folks who camp in one of the free areas aren't permitted to get water in the west campground, a serious downside if we want to stay for more than four or five days. We plan to be in our current paid site for five or six nights.

ENJOYING THE HUMMERS

Not the kind you drive, the ones that fly!

One of the first things we did after getting settled in was to make new "bird juice" and set up the hummingbird feeder as we've done before at this site.

It didn't take long to attract some hummers, but I've discovered it's more difficult to take photos of them through the more-tinted Cameo windows than the less-tinted HitchHiker ones in previous years. These are a few of my best shots:


My computer monitor is on the left; feeder is outside the window, upper right.
There are at least three and maybe four birds feeding in that shot (can't see the far side).


Another shot with at least three birds feeding at once

We were surprised both by how fast the birds found the feeder -- and by how many would peacefully feed at once.

Often one hummingbird will ward off the others while it's drinking but we had up to four at a time perched on the ring or hovering just above the little "flowers" where they sipped the homemade nectar. We couldn't see four at once but as the feeder twirled around we could see there were indeed four of 'em on there sometimes.

Above: a little hungry bird; close-up below.

Talk about distracting! Watching hummingbirds is even more addictive than watching who's coming and going in the campground (fortunately, not much of that here). We had to refill the feeder with more liquid after several hours, the fastest ever. They're gonna keep us busy.

CHILLIN'?

So guess how chilly it was at Kenosha Pass this afternoon . . .

Unfortunately, it wasn't anywhere near chilly. It was close to 80 F. at 10,000 feet!! Colorado is  predicted to have quite a heat wave this week, with mile-high Denver getting up to and over 100 F.

Guess I'll quit whining about how hot it is at Kenosha Pass!

After a relaxing afternoon and evening we're looking forward to running and hiking on Colorado Trail Segment 5 tomorrow. I'll feature it in the next entry.

Happy trails,

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody the Ultra Lab

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2010 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil

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