Walking to stretch out my legs and breathe in the cooler air, I was really happy to be here. The night passed without incident, except for one, loud rumbling, rambling truck that flew by late in the night. Over breakfast I looked more thoroughly at the map, seeking some alternative routes. Elwood Pass leaps up from the map, and it’s even though it’s marked “Jeep Trail” the road leading TO it is the same solid line that I’m currently riding, so it appears to be worthy of exploring. Loaded up and turning towards the sun, the road rises gradually and the canyon narrows and winds and then opens into to another high alpine meadow, that spreads eight to nine miles further east, and what I can only imagine as Elwood Pass looms in a break in the sun rise. I find the “High Clearance Vehicle” sign and take that as my cue to turn around and resume my highway journey. The forest road has presented its own set of obstacle in the form of ruts, sandy bottom and rocky bottom water crossing, and more than one substantial mud hole. My tires have already seen 8,500 miles of road, so the already road-bias tread of the stock tires were well on their way out. I wasn’t going to take a chance, I wasn’t going to push my luck. Scooting back down along the stream with an easy cadence, I passed my campsite and found Highway 160 quickly enough, hoping to make a stop for coffee at the Pagosa Bakery.
While this isn’t a story about bakeries or food, I decided in my motorcycle travels that if I’m supposed to be on the road, taking in new sights and generally “enjoying” myself, then park of that experience would include little moments like this. Relishing a fresh made pastry, listening in on other people’s conversations, going over my maps or a local newspaper a little more slowly, just to take it in. Pagosa Bakery is one of the places that offers this. This wasn’t my first stop here, and it won’t be my last. Pagosa Springs also has a vast hot springs resort, that bubble up along the banks of the San Juan as it flows through town. The hotel at the resort offers 24 hour access to the pools, which is pretty spectacular. I cold, April night is a perfect night to stay and enjoy it all.
Highway 160 continues west towards Durango, running along a topo line that mostly separates the high desert to the south, and Ponderosa forests to the north. There are many turns and elevation changes, but overall it is a relatively “straight shot” between the two towns. Pagosa seems to trickle on for longer than it should, but once you’ve passed the last stop light, the roadway becomes a place to really practice and think about your riding. The pavement is newer, and smoother. Shoulders are generous and sight lines extend well into the 30 to 45 second range. No “target fixation” here, just lots of places to figure out the next passing lane, all while counter steering to your own beat.
One site that does stand out is a formation called Chimney Rock National Monument. It is a protected site that isn’t always accessible. The rock spire that gives the site its name is an “astro-calendar” site. It was used by the people who inhabited the region a thousand years ago to mark the summer solstice, and the spring and fall equinox. The area surrounding the spire contains religious and living sites, as well as evidence of farming. Fortunately, this place has a “next trip” designation on it, I just need to figure the timing of that next trip?!
The highway rolls along and soon enough the traffic begins to thicken. About 20 miles east of Durango the small ranching community of Bayfield has turned into a legitimate suburb of Durango. Not wanting to get “caught” in traffic I turned north at the junction for Vallecito Reservoir. I didn’t intend on go to the lake, but rather wanted to take a back route into Durango that would keep me out of the summer congestion and crowds that would surely be lurking there. My oldest son Andrew had spent his first two years of college in Durango, and close family friends have lived in the area for close to 15 years, but I’d just never had the chance to explore this route, and yes, this ride was about exploring routes! My destination wasn’t Durango, and I wouldn’t need to eat for sometime. This “backway” to Durango offers some really great riding of it’s own, first skirting the Los Pinos River as you head north, then the Florida River as the route along County Road 240 turns west. Speeds are slower as you ride through real residential areas, but it is cooler, and there is much less traffic than on 160. And, as promised, I find myself on Highway 550 just north of the downtown of Durango, crossing over the Animas River, which will lead me north to Silverton.
Having spent all of yesterday on the eastern flanks of the San Juan Mountains, I was ready to dive into their heart! Even though now dormant, the San Juan Mountains were once very much alive with volcanic activity. Many different types of rock and rock formation exist in this massive range, which unlike the majority of Colorado’s mountains doesn’t run in a particular north/south, or east/west trajectory, the San Juans just “sit!’ The entire range is more than 70 miles north to south, and 100 miles east to west. It includes four different groups of 14’ers, Colorado’s 14,000 foot peaks, and the Highway 550, which traverses north to south, holds three separate passes and when it was built, one section alone was dubbed “The Million Dollar Highway!” Ghost towns, abandoned mines, 4 wheel drive treks and double-black ski routes. To say the area has EVERYTHING that is the best of Colorado isn’t really an understatement. I’ve often lamented that had I know Durango actually existed when I first moved to Colorado, that’s where you would find me today.
The first miles of Highway 550 are flat as you drive north. This portion of the Animas river has settled into an alluvial valley, and its course is a very predictable zig-zag. On either side of the valley are steep, cathedral-like walls that welcome you to this new landscape. This doesn’t last long as we roll into the first evidence of this lands fractured past. Just beyond Hermosa, the road starts to ascend the western wall of this valley, and the various colors of granite, shale and sandstone create the strangest effect. THIS is what the Great Unconformity looks like?! In the text books and roadside “Point of Interest” signs, you can read about this “angular-discordance,” the violent crushing and pushing of rock from one of the earth’s layer into another. But THIS is what it looks like?! So many different layers and strata that it’s hard to keep them straight each turn forcing the observant passer-by to wonder, “did I actually see that?!” The variety of hues is bewildering, and as you climb a large “hot-pot” sits playfully on the side of the road. This is a simple reminder that you are still on a living planet! A few miles more and Purgatory, now Durango Mountain offers a spot for a break. But, I don’t want one yet, I want to see Silverton. Getting there will take me over first Coal Bank, then Molas Pass. The roadway at this point also leaves behind the narrow gauge railroad that runs between Durango and Silverton. There is an annual mountain bike race that pits riders against the steam train, and that track has stops that service the Chicago Basin, with Mt. Eolus, Windom, North Eolus and Sunlight. Road hasn’t changed much by the time you reach Purgatory Mountain, but soon after the Great Unconformity starts to reveal more.
A large chasma on the east side of the highway verifies that you have in fact been climbing for the last 20 miles. The landscape begins to soften, there are no sharp peaks immediately around you, just large find trees giving way to tundra like vegetation. The road gradually sweeps left, then a hairpin turn to the right presents you with the Coal Bank Pass Scenic overlook. The view is really to the east, with Eolus, Windom and Sunlight serving as the backdrop. Highway 550 doesn’t retreat at this point. It dips a little, before continuing its next climb to Molas Pass. This section of the road is more stark than any other. It is higher, and more windswept, and the vegetation just doesn’t hold at this high of an elevation. The course is much more interesting. Big turns, steep drops and climbs, Molas Pass finally stands out and went to descent begins, Highway 550 shows why it is such a treacherous route. The drop, and it is a literal drop, into Silverton from this direction gives you a close-up of the sheer drops that can exist at this elevation. The valley that Silverton is nestled in also contains the headwaters of the Animas River. Following the valley to the north and east will lead you to Engineer Pass, which drops you back down into Lake City and the rest of the Alpine Loop. All of that route is Jeep trail or four-wheel drive, but it is “big-bike” doable, I just hadn’t done enough research to verify that. I did ride up the valley, but turned to scout of the site of the Silverton Mountain Resort. It contains some of the most extreme skiing in Colorado. Your first day of skiing there REQUIRES a guided tour, and no one can ski there without an avalanche beacon. Yeah, it’s that intense. This extra hour out and back to Gladstone proved worthwhile, but the DL wasn’t going to tackle any of the route beyond. It was too steep, and there really aren’t many “outs” in case you get in trouble. PLUS, it was mid-day, and this was not time to start on that adventure.
Making my way back down the valley and into town, it was obvious that the lunch crowd was in full swing, and I was aiming for Ouray, with the thought of some time at the hot springs before dinner and a campsite. Red Mountain Pass is the next obstacle, and this is where the REAL Million Dollar Highway begins. The climb out of the valley here is gradual, first skirting the east side of the valley created by Mineral Creek as you head north. Eventually the road crosses over the creek, and after only one significant switch back the 11,000 foot summit of Red Mountain Pass is reached. The pass itself seems a bit anti-climactic after all the height you’ve gained, but it IS the highest point on Highway 550, and all of the elevation that you’ve gained in the last 57 miles, you will lose the vast majority of in the next 13. Ouray is about 1,000 feet higher in elevation than Durango is, but the sheer effect of dropping 4,000 feet in just over 10 miles is really what makes this Million Dollar Highway so spectacular. Once you passed over Red Mountain, a quick set of switchbacks bring you the Irarado Mine. The road actually cuts through this abandoned site, and if you stop at the scenic overlook, you can get a close look at the miner cabins, ore house and conveyor belt that are still standing. Looking north along the valley, Red Mountain Creek and Crystal lake at the far edge remind you of just how much water is secreted away this high up. It’s easy to forget this when you are looking up towards the mountains, but water really is trapped in hidden stashes all over the high country.
Once past Crystal Lake, the real drop begins. The first set of three, quick switchbacks seems to drop you 500 feet. Now, with the highway hugging the east wall of the Ouray Canyon, it’s hard not to marvel at the effort it took to carve this traverse out of solid rock, nearly 140 years ago. Today it is no less spectacular as it points you down hill. The uphill traffic is stuck out on the edge, and when the is a guard rail, is seems more like it’s there to mock you then protect you. Again, I’ve had mostly open roads today, and I’m content to sink into a very lazy, easy pace. There is absolutely no reason to push the pace, just enjoy the expanse that keeps opening up in front of me. I’ve passed the turn out for Ophir Pass, which would ultimately lead me to Telluride, but I’m scouting out for the other entrance to Engineer Pass. I do spot it, but think better about turning around to attempt it. It is later in the afternoon, again I don’t have a firm plan for a meal or where to set my tent up. I know there are campsites close to Ouray, but they may be full, and I know of the state campground at Ridgway, but I don’t know if I’m ready for the crowds. The box canyon that I’m riding in is so impressive. Sheer walls shooting up, sheer drops if you were to go over the edge. I pass the memorial site where a snow plow driver was killed when his road grader was swept over the side of the canyon by an avalanche. Tacit reminders of why this road requires that much more respect. I am hungry, and I’ve been riding non-stop for six hours, I really need to sort out my evening’s plans, and I’m relieved to make the curve out of the canyon and descend the final switch back into Ouray. I was wishing at that point that I’d planned ahead for a hotel, but this was supposed to be a camping trip, so enough remorse. Ouray Brewing Company would be my stop, and with the bike parked outside, I made my way to the upper patio to take in the views. Mt. Sneffels dominates the skyline, as does the Box Canyon and the route up to Imogene Pass.
Ouray is a never-ending paradise in and of itself. Not only is there Engineer Pass to explore, the Box Canyon Falls shows the best evidence of the Great Unconformity, and Telluride can be reached by Imogene Pass, out of Sneffels and the Camp Bird Basin. I made a quick run up to the Basin after my late lunch, looking for a place to camp for the night. I was probably being pickier than I should have been, but the sun was still high in the sky and it had turned into a beautiful summer evening, it was just a perfect light to be exploring in, chasing waterfalls and finding new meadows to view. Not having the confidence or full knowledge, Imogene deterred me as well, I really was trying to error on the side of caution this trip.
Skipping the hot springs once back in town and heading north towards Ridgway, I was thinking something obvious would just jump out at me. It didn’t, so I pressed on to Ridgway and topped off with fuel. Looking over the map I found Owl Creek Pass. The turn off was just a mile or two north of town, and it was hard to gauge, but it looked like 15 miles of dirt road to reach the pass and the surrounding National Forest.
Light was getting scarce and I really didn’t want to pull the “setting up camp in the dark?!” thing that so often happens here. The road out to Owl Creek Pass, eventually gets tagged as Forest Road 858. The spires that stand over the top of Owl Creek are some of the most unusual in the area. I don’t know enough about their geology, the look more suited to the Badlands, than to the Central Rockies?! The last three miles the road finally climbs back into the trees, but it also takes the term “twisty” to a new level! This is not a route to ride at night, after a long day of riding, especially when it is your first time on it! I was really grateful for the light that was out. I had been on dirt for the better part of this stretch, and was feeling especially sensitive to the dirt and to the curves that were present.
The camping sites I’d passed so far were larger, with corrals, this area must get a lot of cattle pressure and a lot of pack-hunting pressure. I hadn’t seen any of the smaller, undeveloped sites that start to pop up. I turned to the right after summitting the Pass and found myself in a high valley on Forest Road 858 heading south and gaining more elevation! I wanted remote, and I was going to have it here. The smaller, undeveloped sites started to appear and there were more places occupied than I’d anticipated. I was actually relieved a bit as I was definitely off the beaten path. It seemed that the better spaces along the creek were taken, so I veered right one more time into an open field and found myself nestled in with views of some truly spectacular peaks. This portion of the Uncompahgre National Forest was one place I hadn’t anticipated putting myself in. But, I was elated to have such a wide open sky above me and peaks I’d never visited of as my sentries for the night. The campsite was close to 11,000 feet, and the sun was behind the ridge to the west. I was hopeful in setting up the tent that the morning rays would reach me early, as it was getting cold tonight.
With tent and bedding in place, I grabbed my water bottle and snacked as I warmed up in my sleeping bag. Content that the stars were coming out above me, and that I had taken in even more sites today, sites that just shouldn’t be missed. I wanted a full nights sleep because tomorrow I would be taking on the Dolores Canyon, following Highways 145 and 141, riding out the Unaweep Canyon. I had not idea where the end of tomorrow would find me. I wasn’t ready to end this trip, but I was feeling the pull of my own bed, and a hot shower. I just didn’t know what was pulling me more, one more night the open, or the comforts of my apartment. I fell asleep without a worry, content at what I’d seen so far, and what I would discover tomorrow.