Stopping in at a local visitor center is the perfect way I like to start exploring a new area. The first time Al and I camped at Ridgway State Park was the first time we experienced this part of western Colorado, and I couldn’t wait to dive in and explore.
And by diving in and exploring, that meant taking the roads less traveled. One of the activities that is super popular around the town of Ouray, Colorado, is 4×4 back country travel. If you don’t have your own 4×4, there are several businesses eager to rent you a Jeep, ATV, or UTV or you can sign up for a guided tour. Free maps are available noting these back roads with a designation from easy to difficult.
This is another reminiscing post about our travels to western Colorado. Although, I will truly miss a Colorado excursion this summer, new adventures await here in Arizona.
Roads less traveled
It was July 2013 …. Al and I review the atlas and peruse all the information we picked up at the Ridgway State Park visitor center. From the state park to the mountain ski town of Telluride should be about a one hour drive if we stay on the main roads. Al and I talk about it, and contemplate our route. “Hmm, we have all day. What’s the hurry?” one of us asks.
This southwest part of Colorado was a buzz of mining activity in the 1800’s. Even Telluride’s logo is that of a miner’s pick. This mining activity created a multitude of back roads throughout the picturesque San Juan Mountains.
Today these back roads are available for Jeeps and OHV (off highway vehicles).
Some of these back roads are assessable by regular automobiles, but most require high clearance, and others demand four-wheel drive capabilities. The roads might be gravel, dirt, rock or any combination of the three.
The back way to Telluride
My little red four-wheel drive Toyota Tacoma should be able to handle most of the roads we were interested in and researched. Al and I err on the side of caution and pick a couple of “easy” roads to explore …. one of which is called the “Last Dollar Road”. As far as mileage goes, this is a shorter traveling distance to Telluride than taking the main roads. However, time wise it would be double. Obviously, we won’t be driving this road at 60 miles per hour.
For the most part, it was an easy drive even though there were some mud puddles from the storms the day before. The visitor center publication was informative, spot on, and we were glad to have read it before hand. Some of the ruts, mud, and water would definitely present a problem for a vehicle without a high clearance. We encountered no problems, and the drive presented some amazing scenery complete with wildflowers.
It was the end of July and the wildflowers were starting to wane, but I was still thrilled with the tufts of color here and there.
The drive from Ridgway State Park to Telluride took us about two hours and that included all the photo-op stops. I didn’t think that was too bad considering the slow speed that the road necessitated. It was a beautiful drive that I would do again in a heartbeat. Plus it wasn’t too challenging of a drive and was relatively easy to navigate.
I might venture to say, mid July and mid September would be the two most perfect months to explore these back roads. Wildflowers in mid July are at their peak and fall colors mid to end of September are at their peak.
Once in Telluride, we stopped at the visitor center in town to gather up some local information. Al always likes to ask locals for lunch recommendations.
We found ourselves at a kind of sports bar housed in an old house off a side street. It appears to be a favorite with locals. Lunch was good, but nothing special, and I’m not sure I’d return, especially with so many other restaurants to try.
After lunch we headed over to the gondola station for a ride up and over the summit to Mountain Village. The folks at the visitor center highly recommended this. Pretty cool that the ride is free considering other mountain towns in Colorado charge upwards of $25 per person for their gondolas. The Gondola here in Telluride operates year round free of charge and is a common form of public transportation for workers, school children, mountain bikers, hikers, and of course, tourists. Oh, and it’s pooch friendly too.
On the way to the gondola, we encountered a farmer’s market and quickly took notes as to some potential purchases we should make before heading home. A grocery list quickly formed in my head!
Once we arrived at the gondola, we noticed all the mountain bikers and hikers. The Telluride side of the mountain is pretty steep while the Mountain Village side appears to be more moderate. That’s where these two young mountain bikers were heading. They’ll disembark at the summit and ride their bikes back down toward the town of Mountain Village. We also saw quite a few hikers doing this as well. There appeared to be very few hiking or biking down on the Telluride side of the mountain. Too steep perhaps!
With our ‘tourist’ day coming to an end, we picked up some goodies at the local farmers market held on Friday mornings during the summer months, and promised each other future visits to this beautiful mountain town would be a must.
For our return drive to the RV, we took the highway back to Ridgway State Park and arrived about an hour later. I’ll admit, even the scenery via the highway was lovely, although not quite as beautiful or adventurous as taking the Last Dollar Road but lovely just the same.
It was a great day exploring amongst some breathtaking scenery and we couldn’t wait to tackle another back country road.
Another back country road
From our campsite at Ridgway State Park, I had an unobstructed view of unique rock formations known as Courthouse Mountain and Chimney Rock. My curiosity was piqued and I once again scoured the maps and information that I’d picked up at the visitor center. The map indicates there’s a back country road labeled as easy that will take me closer to this mountain range.
We catch County Road 10 just a couple of minutes south of our camp at Ridgway State Park and head east toward Chimney Rock. The road is wide and gravel and no four-wheel drive is necessary. We pass some of the most beautiful ranches with unbelievable views.
Somewhere along this stretch is the field where they filmed John Wayne taking on the bad guys in the movie “True Grit”…. reins in teeth and guns a-blazing.
We continue our trek up and over Owl Creek Pass toward Silver Jack Reservoir. Although the road is gravel, it’s in great shape and easy to negotiate. This is the perfect drive for anyone who has a problem with altitude because it doesn’t go much above 10,000 feet in elevation and there aren’t any sheer drop offs for those with a fear of heights.
It’s a great excursion easing oneself into the remote countryside. However, the views aren’t nearly as spectacular as the other mountain passes. Much of this road meanders through forested land.
Silver Jack Reservoir and Campground is about a 21 mile drive from Highway 550 and not the preferred route for RV’s. The easier route to take for campers would be from the town of Cimarron off Highway 50.
The Silver Jack Campground sits in a forest of Aspen and Pine trees in the Uncompahgre National Forest. Some of the sites are large enough to accommodate our 31′ Fifth Wheel, but there’s no internet service. We couldn’t even get one bar on our phones 😦 We didn’t find the reservoir to be easily accessible, finding only one road leading down to the water’s edge. There were, however, numerous hiking trails.
This was another great driving excursion offering us some beautiful scenery and solitude.
Still on my list
Our time in the area was over before we knew it, and I still had a few more back country excursions on my list. Unfortunately, those roads will have to wait for another time…. there’s Imogene Pass and Engineer Pass, but the Yankee Boy Basin Road remained at the top of my list. It’s classified as moderate and four-wheel drive is highly recommended. We shouldn’t have any trouble driving Yankee Boy Basin with the Tacoma, but it would be a more challenging drive than Owl Creek Pass or Last Dollar Road.
Mid July, when wildflowers are blooming, would be the perfect time to visit and do a little high country hiking at the end of this out and back road – that is, if I think I can handle the high altitude.
For those of us looking for an “extreme” Colorado adventure, check out this video of Black Bear Pass. This is the one pass vehicle rental companies will not allow you to drive with their equipment. If you do not have your own Jeep/UTV or you don’t feel experienced enough to negotiate this treacherous pass, but are still interested in experiencing this adrenal filled excursion, there are tours available in the town of Ouray – something that’s on my bucket list.
Black Bear Pass is a one way single lane road starting from just outside of the town of Ouray and traversing up and over the mountain into the town of Telluride. The road is only open starting sometime in July and closing sometime in September. Because there have been fatalities, (ya know – folks rolling off the side of the mountain) there are talks of closing off access to this high country pass. So knowing that, would you be interested in such an excursion? I’m game, if you are!
Another glorious day, the air as delicious to the lungs as nectar to the tongue – John Muir
Hiking Colorado’s Western Slope (Falcon Guides)