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|September 2020 — Colorado Backcountry Discovery Route|
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Copyright © 2015 - 2022 Larrie Easterly
It was 2:00 am when I awoke and felt like I could not breath. I calmed myself by chanting HU an ancient name for God. Reaching for the oxygen bottle next to my sleeping pad in JR, my Jeep Rubicon, I took three deep drafts and felt somewhat better. After a few minutes of chanting I took another three drafts from the oxygen bottle. The blood oxygen sensor showed me my level was at 89% after taking the oxygen. It must have been well below that before the oxygen. I guess I was not as adjusted to camping traveling above 9,000 as I thought.
Smoky Drive — Photo Galley
When Frenchie posted that he was going to lead a trip traveling the Colorado Backcountry Discovery Route (COBDR) on the Expedition Portal Forum I immediately signed up. Spending 12 days traveling through the Colorado Rockies at elevations between 8,000 and 13,000 feet sounded like a fun adventure. While I never suffered from altitude sickness in the past, I took the precaution of getting a blood oxygen sensor and some supplemental oxygen bottles from Amazon.
The COBDR was originally developed for dual sport motorcycles and has since become popular with the four wheel drive enthusiasts. The 675 mile route travels mostly dirt and gravel roads starting at Four Corners on the Navajo Nation Lands and then heading north to end near Savery Wyoming. The route goes through towns like Telluride, Buena Vista, Gypsum, and Steamboat Springs as well as many smaller towns like Ophir, Tin Cup and Clark. The route winds it way through the Colorado Rockies and over 11 mountain passes ranging in elevation from 10,000 to 13,000 feet.
JR — Photo Galley
Instead of taking the van on this trip I decided to take my new to me 2015 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon, affectionately called JR. After doing a few minor upgrades to the electrical system so that I could charge my electronic devices and run my refrigerator it was ready to go.
Smoky Drive — Photo Galley
The week before I left the wildfire smoke invaded Western Oregon turning the sky orange. Heading east it took me untill Pendleton Oregon (about 250 miles) to get clear of the smoke. I was very glad to be out of the smoky haze and breathing clean air again. The three day run to Cortez Colorado was on pavement. The first night was spent in Mountain Home Idaho, then it was on to Salt Lake City Utah where I met up with Mynor and Curt, at Chuck’s house.
Starry Night — Photo Galley
We met the rest of the group on the following day at a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) campground near Cortez. Most of the group knew each other from traveling together on previous trips. The sky that night was clear and free of smoke allowing us to see the stars and Milky Way in all their glory. Do to the smoke from the Colorado wildfires we would not see the stars this clearly again for the rest of the trip.
Due to the Corona Virus the Four Corners Monument was closed so we started out adventure in Cortez. The first day found us slowly winding our way on a narrow overgrown track in the San Juan and Uncompahgre National Forests. For some reason ideal camping sites were hard to come by on this trip. As a result our first night was spent at a wide spot next to a forest service road. The only saving grace to the location was Deep Creek, a babbling stream that ran right next to our camping spot.
We were in bear country so we needed to keep all our food and food waste in our cars. Frenchie told us to hit the panic button on our key fobs if a bear tried to get into our vehicle in the middle of the night. At 2:00 am I needed to answers natures call. Unfortunately my Jeep has a safety feature that I was unaware of. When you lock it with the key fob and then open a door from the inside or with a key from the outside the alarm goes off. Hearing my car alarm go off and thinking I was bring attacked by a bear the other six members or the group hit their panic buttons as directed. I was throughly embarrassed as I walked around to each vehicle and told them it was a false alarm.
The next day we drove about ten miles to Telluride 8,750 feet (2,667 m), a former silver mining town founded in 1878. In 1875 gold was discovered and the town boomed. The town sits in a box canyon with tree covered mountain slopes on three sides. There are several reclamation projects that are working to clean up the tailings piles and pollution left over from the gold, uranium, lead, silver and other mineral processing that took place over the years. Most of the town is listed as a National Historic District.
Bridal Veil Falls — Photo Galley
Driving through town and past the Liberty Bell Mine the paved road turns to a rutted and potholed four wheel drive road up to the base of Bridal Veil Falls at 9,880 feet (3,011 m). PHOTO Bridal Veil Falls is one of the tallest free falling waterfalls in the Rocky Mountains. Water from the Bridal Veil Creek10,370 feet (3,274m) drops 300 feet (91 m) in a single plunge. It is an impressive sight when standing at the base of the falls and looking up to the top at. The views of the Telluride canyon on the way down from the falls are fantastic.
Telluride Valley — Photo Galley
After getting fuel and supplies in Telluride we headed for the semi ghost town of Ophir at 9,695 feet (2,955 m). The post office was established in the old mining town in1878 and is still in operation today. There is a mix of historic old cabins and new summer homes. The population was counted at 159 in 2010 census.
We wound our way through the narrow dirt streets following the track that would lead us up the west side of Ophir Pass 11,743 feet (3,579 m). The road is a bit deceiving as it starts out as a nice road through the forest and then turns into a one to lane wide rocky shelf road with a sharp 200 foot drop on the right and a vertical cliff wall on the left. You definitely need to pay attention to where your tires are.
Ophir Pass — Photo Galley
Coming down the east side of Ophir Pass we connected with US 550 for a few miles before turning off gravel to our campsite, west of Silverton. We would spend the next two nights at the Golden Horn Campground, elevation 9,960 feet (3,036 m).
The following morning we backtracked on US 550 to visit the well preserved Idarado Mine ruins. During World War II the mine was a major producer of lead, silver and zinc, with lesser amounts of gold and copper. In 1896 to reduce the shipping distance, 60 miles, between the mines and the processing mills in Telluride a five mile long tunnel was dug under the 13,000 foot (4,000 m) tall Red Mountains. The tunnel connects many of the mines of the Red Mountain area with Telluride. It is estimated that 80 miles of mining tunnels were dug into the Red Mountains. The Idarado Mine was shut down in 1979. Is the 1980s reclamation started on the tailing piles and settling ponds.
Idarado Mine — Photo Galley
Tuning off of US 550 on to a dirt track we worked our way up the west side of Corkscrew Pass at 12,240 feet (3,730 m), then up Hurricane Pass at 12,730 feet (3,880 m), and finely California Pass at 12,960 feet (3,950 m), on our way to the Animas Forks Mine and Ghost Town.
Animas Forks — Photo Galley
Animas Forks at 11,200 feet (3,400 m) is a well preserved ghost town that is visited by many people each year. Founded in 1873 the town became a busy mining community by 1876. In 1883 450 people lived and worked in the area. The Animas Forks Pioneer newspaper was published from 1882 to 1886. Every winter all the residents would migrate the 12 miles down the mountain to the warmer town of Silverton at 9,200 feet (2,804 m) to await spring.
The ruins of the Columbus and other mines can be see across the valley from the town site. The mines in the area produced gold, silver, lead and zinc. Mining ceased in 1917 when the processing mill was moved to Eureka. The last resident left in the 1920s leaving Animas Forks a ghost town. After visiting the town we headed down the mountain like the former residents to our campsite near Silverton.
Columbus Mine — Photo Galley
I was grateful to the Holy Spirit for the nudge to bring along some supplemental oxygen and a blood O2 sensor. Waking up at 2:00 am feeling like I could not breath was no fun at all. This was not the only night that I woke up feeling this way on the trip. Luckily the rest were no where near as bad. Singing HU helped take away the fear so that I could think clearly and focus on taking some oxygen and relaxing.
We packed up our camps the next morning and backtracked to Animas Forks on our way to the Alpine Loop. Along the way we saw an unsettling site. A severely damaged four passenger side by side all terrain vehicle (ATV) was laying on its side next to the road. We do not know for sure how it happened or if anyone was hurt. We heard an unsubstantiated rumor that two of the four passengers were flown to a local hospital by helicopter. Seeing the wreck was a sober reminder to all of us to be careful and pay attention to the road and our surroundings.
Wrecked ATV — Photo Galley
Turning right at Animas Forks on to the Alpine Loop we worked our way up to Cinnamon Pass 12,640 feet (3,853 m) then past Lake San Cristobal, and on our way to our goal of ice cream in Lake City.
Lake San Cristobal at 9,003 feet (2,744 m) was formed about 700 years ago by a natural landslide that damed the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River.
Lake San Cristobal — Photo Galley
Incorporated in 1873 Lake City at 8,661 feet (2,640 m) served as a supply center for the miners that were working the many mines in the area. The mines were not very productive and by 1879 the boom was over. In 1889 mining resumed when the railroad came to town reducing the shipping costs of the gold and silver ore to the smelters. The railroad also shipped sheep and cattle into the area for summer grazing in the high alpine meadows. By 1905 the mining era was over. Today the Lake City Historic District is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
After relaxing and enjoying the ice cream in the town park we continued along the Alpine Loop until we found the Hidden Valley Campground at 9,700 feet (2,956m). There was just enough room for our vehicles a short distance from the Cebolla Creek. That night we had the first campfire of the trip. Due to the fire restrictions we could only have fires in designated campgrounds that had fire rings. Hidden Valley was the first place we camped that had the fire rings.
After a good nights rest we continued on the Alpine Loop over Los Pinos Pass at 10,520 feet (3,206 m), to the small town of Pitkin at 9,216 feet (2,809 m). Founded in 1879 Piktin is said to be the first mining town in Colorado. There are many old and some new buildings in town. The 2010 census reported 66 people living in town.
Our plan for the afternoon was to drive up to the Alpine Tunnel. Built between 1880 and 1882 for a narrow gauge railroad the tunnel crosses the Continental Divide at an elevation of 11,523 feet (3,512 m). The 1,772 foot long (540 m) tunnel is the highest and longest narrow gauge tunnel in North America. The tunnel was abandoned in 1910 and is now sealed shut. There are historic displays on the way up to the tunnel including a track section, a couple of water towers and interpretative displays. That night we camped just north of Pitkin at Quartz Creek Campground 9,880 feet (3,011 m). PHOTO
Zigzagging our way up multiple switchbacks the following morning we reached Cumberland Pass at 12,015 feet (3,668 m). The view from the top was stupendous. Cumberland Pass road connects the mining towns of Pitkin and Tin Cup. Constructed in 1882 the road was used by wagons to ship ore from the mines around Tin Cup to the rail head at Quartz Station. Once the Alpine Tunnel was completed the ore was ship by rail.
Tin Cup — Photo Galley
The downhill side of Cumberland Pass leads to the town old mining town of Tincup or Tin Cup, depending on your source for spellings, at 10,157 ft (3,096 m). In 1859 miner Jim Taylor found gold in nearby Willow Creek. He carried his find back to camp in a tin cup and named the valley Tin Cup Gulch. In 1878 rich veins of metal ore were discovered in the surround mountains. In 1879 the town, then named Virginia City, was laid out. In 1880 the population was 1,495. The town was renamed to Tin Cup in 1882 due to confusion with two other towns called Virginia City. Violence was common in Tin Cup. Two town marshals were killed in gunfights in 1882. In 1918 the postoffice closed. Today the community is made up primarily of summer homes with few year round residents. There are many well preserved historic buildings still standing.
Leaving Tin Cup we headed east and crossed Tin Cup Pass at 12,240 feet (3,730 m) on our way to Buena Vista. Just astthe town of Saint Elmo we found a place to wild camp in the San Isabel National Forest.
Beaver Lodge and Dam — Photo Galley
We had a leisurely drive through some beautiful country side the next morning to Buena Vista at 7,965 feet (2,428 m). Settled in 1864 due to plentiful water from the Arkansas River and the wide valley that was suitable for agriculture. “BV,” as it is know by the locals, was a jumping off point for miners headed up the valley to Leadville. The railroad arrived in the 1890s. The areas agriculture helped to smooth out the boom and bust mining cycles.
Continuing northward we and camped just below Weston Pass at the Weston Pass Campground at 10,250 feet (3,124 m). Around the campfire that night we had a lively discussion about the route we would take the next day. We had agreed to meet two of our friends who left the group a few days before due to problems adjusting to the altitude. It looked like it was going to be a bit of a mad dash to drive the mostly unpaved 110 miles to the modern day mining town Gypsum and meet them at the agreed upon time.
Leaving the campground the next morning we worked our way up Weston Pass at 11,921 feet (3,634 m) then past the beautiful Turquoise Lake and over Hagerman Pass at 11,925 feet (3,635 m). Then over Crooked Creek Pass the last of the high passes at 10,000 feet (3,048 m).
Winding Through the Forest — Photo Galley
Even through we were on a time constraint the drive turned out to be one of the most picturesque parts of the trip. For much of it we were on a narrow dirt road that wound its way through aspen groves and pine forests of the Pike and San Isabel National Forest. The aspen leaves were just turning from green to yellow or orange and were incredibly beautiful.
We got back on pavement and worked our way around Sylvan Lake State Park and then into Gypsum pretty much on time. Established in 1911 Gypsum at 6,477 feet (1,924 m) was named after the large gypsum deposits in the area and is home to the American Gypsum drywall plant and mine.
Colorado River — Photo Galley
After meeting our friends and picking up a few supplies and fuel in Gypsum we all continued north to the Colorado River. Following the river north as it wound its way through the mountains we eventually found a nice campsite on its banks. Several of us took the opportunity to get wet and wash off some of the grime we had collected over the past few days.
By now we were two days from the end of the trip. With all the high mountain passes behind us we looked forward to a more relaxing drive on the dirt and gravel roads. We continued to follow the Colorado River to State Bridge. Leaving the river we headed towards Stagecoach Reservoir and the resort town of Steamboat Springs at 6,732 feet (2,052 m).
The town got its name from early trappers who heard the chugging sound made by the hot springs in the area and thought it was a steamboat coming down the Yampa River. The trappers decided to name the hot spring Steamboat Springs. Colloquially the town is called “The Boat.”
After picking up supplies in Steamboat Springs we continued north to Clark at 7,260 feet (2,213 m). We found a beautiful place to camp just south of Clark in the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest at 8,520 feet (2,597 m). Our final day dawned sunny and clear. We headed north past Steamboat Lake State Park and on to Savery Wyoming and the end of this part of the trip.
Traveling Companions — Photo Galley
We said our good byes at in a gravel parking lot. Most of the group were going to travel west to Utah and California. Frenchie and I did the 5 hour drive south to Moab Utah. Frenchie was going to stay with friends before heading back to New Mexico. I was in Moab to pick up my wife Ann who would be joining me for the the leisurely trip home to Oregon. But that’s another story.
We all had a great time on the trip. The timing of the trip could not have been better. We saw lots of wonderful fall colors and the weather was perfect although we did get some snow showers on some of the passes.
I hope you enjoyed our adventure as much as we did. Thanks for reading.
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