My family has been vacationing in SW CO for over 60 years now (not sure exactly when it started, but the earliest solid record carved into an aspen by my grandmother was in 1955). More roads are paved now, but most roads never will be. I've known the main roads all of my life, and I've always wondered where some of those side roads lead. My parents were practical and always had a 2WD station wagon in which to haul their 5 kids to the mountains every summer. I think almost all of us took our DL test in a '76 Chevy Malibu (it was a boat but had a 350!). But, it wasn't capable of exploring many of those side roads. Over the years I drove that Malibu, a '65 Mustang I was "transporting" to California from Texas, and a rented Dodge Dynasty over the more tame roads (sorry if you bought a used Dynasty with trashed suspension -- but it was a rental and you should know they come with baggage).
Fast forward 30 years or so, and I finally overcame that practicality. I am on my fifth Toyota truck, but it's the first one with 4WD. I finally just said, "Fuck it, I deserve this!"
A couple of weeks ago I left my wife and daughters at home and met an old friend for a week in the mountains. Now, I am not a crazy "wheeler" like a lot of you folks, and the trip below is tame compared to what most of you do. But, it couldn't have been done without 4WD, and I finally got to see some of what I had been missing.
Our first day there we drove almost to the top of Bristol Head. A storm was coming through, and Rugged Trails aren't going to be great in mud, so we turned around before we got ourselves into trouble. This trail is not heavily used (we saw absolutely nobody the entire way), and we didn't bring our camping stuff, so we played it safe. Not to mention I am new to the 4-wheeling thing. Here's a panoramic shot near the top with the coming rain in the distance.
STA_2282 Stitch by MrTenBeers, on Flickr
We spent most of the week hiking, backpacking and camping, and on the last day decided to do the Alpine Loop from Lake City. This 40+ mile loop starts and ends in Lake City and crosses 2 high-altitude mountain passes, Cinnamon Pass and Engineer Pass. Most of it is a decent 2WD road, but once you get near either pass, and especially the connector between the two, there are some tricky spots and some steep climbs and crazy switchbacks. There's no real deep mud, but a lot of rock, and it was pretty wet for our trip. A good driver in a high-clearance 2WD might be able to make the trip if it is dry.
We started by Lake San Cristobal, heading clockwise on the loop (recommended) toward Cinnamon Pass to the west. You can see the road on the other side of the lake.
IMG_2349 by MrTenBeers, on Flickr
Like most mountain roads, this one follows a creek until the last few miles. Once you get to the Sherman Ghost Town (which is little more than a sign and a couple of cabin ruins, not even worth stopping unless nature calls), the road turns up a valley to the right/northwest. This is looking back down toward the fork at the ghost town.
IMG_2357 by MrTenBeers, on Flickr
And this is looking up to where we are headed. We've already climbed a good ways, nearing tree line. The road is still in great shape, although rocky and rough in spots. Cinnamon Pass is up in the gap on the left below the cloud.
IMG_2360 by MrTenBeers, on Flickr
The road continued to deteriorate and once it started to really climb it was kind of hairy in spots. Tight, steep switchbacks more suited to Jeeps, but plenty of room to back up if you need to. I had to back up on one of them to correct my line and avoid a clearance issue due to large rocks and ruts. This picture is looking back down toward the toughest part of the climb. If you follow the road back, you can see one of the double-switchbacks in the distance. There were a couple before that down in the trees.
IMG_2366 by MrTenBeers, on Flickr
Getting close to Cinnamon Pass. At this altitude you have a true alpine tundra landscape -- plants only grow for a few months, and only short grasses. It's quite beautiful and peaceful looking, and I imagine this is a beautiful playground for snowmobiles in the winter.
IMG_2367 Stitch by MrTenBeers, on Flickr
Almost in the clouds at the top of the first pass, looking over the other side. It was breezy, cold and moist. The air was pretty thin otherwise.
IMG_2370 by MrTenBeers, on Flickr
Dropping down the other side you reach the old ghost mining town of Las Animas down to the left. Apparently this is a hub where trails from lots of different directions connect -- there was a lot of 4 wheel activity going on down there.
IMG_2372 by MrTenBeers, on Flickr
But that's not where we are going. We are headed back up over the next pass, up the valley to the right into the clouds.
IMG_2373 by MrTenBeers, on Flickr
The road to the left is what we came down. The camera flattens things a bit, it is rougher and steeper in person.
IMG_2374 by MrTenBeers, on Flickr
Almost in the clouds, looking back down the valley where we came from.
IMG_2380 by MrTenBeers, on Flickr
And finally way up in the clouds at the pass. We stopped and waited for the bundled-up kid to finish his video of himself. Not sure he was all there, but he was happy.
IMG_2381 by MrTenBeers, on Flickr
On the way down the other side, we had to pass through some sheep. We stopped for a moment to scope them out, but they were all ugly. So we just kept going.
IMG_2382 by MrTenBeers, on Flickr
Some nice sights on the way back toward Lake City, like Whitmore Falls . . .
IMG_2387 by MrTenBeers, on Flickr
. . . and the broken dam at Yellow Medicine Mine.
IMG_2391 by MrTenBeers, on Flickr
Headed back toward home base in the Rio Grande Valley we stopped at an overlook and I got a picture of the mule.
IMG_2395 by MrTenBeers, on Flickr
Picture from the overlook back towards what we just drove through. The top of the peak to the right is actually LOWER than Engineer Pass.
IMG_2398 by MrTenBeers, on Flickr
Pretty dang cool. Not extreme, but the mule made it seem easy and it was a lot of fun, made getting 4WD worth every penny.