Getting Lost in the San Juans of Southwest CO

If there is ONE secret spot in Colorado, a place that is hidden and distant yet I couldn’t recommend it HIGH enough, a part of the state I wish I had spent more time in during my year of living here, a location you should definitely visit at least once in your lifetime (or maybe you should live there for a bit…) it would be the San Juan Mountain Range in Southwest Colorado!

The San Juans are extremely remote, with fickle weather, and rugged, challenging terrain. Summer lasts only 3 months and snow can fall as late as May and as early as September. Peaks tower over 14,000 ft, high with mostly rocky alpine terrain (read: scree fields). The area is so isolated and so hard to navigate that a few of the mines in the late 1800s were deemed inoperable due to inaccessibility.

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad and the toll roads cut in the rock by miners eventually made the area accessible to miners, goods for the mining camps, and nowadays tourists. Those toll roads are now mountain passes and every story of the San Juans Mountains should start with reveling the indescribable beauty of the “goat paths” that lead to the towns!

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Red Mountain Pass (Hwy 550) also known as Million Dollar Highway is known as:

The most perilous road in America which gets 300 inches of snow a year, features 70 named avalanche paths, and has almost no guardrails.

It is the most avalanche prone mountain pass in the lower 48 (states of the USA), followed by Berthoud Pass (25 avalanche paths) and Monarch Pass (19 avalanche paths). #beentheredonethat Learn more about how the pass gets maintained in the winter from the person who plows it on snowy winter nights.

Found guardrails!!! (for a picture 😉
Notice no guardrails and vertical drops! This is not a tunnel but an avalanche barrier…

Having mastered Red Mountain Pass, my co-pilot decided to show me another “local attraction” – Black Bear Pass – Colorado’s most dangerous jeep trail / mountain pass. As the saying goes “You don’t need to be crazy to drive this road, BUT it helps…” Black Bear Pass starts at the top of Red Mountain Pass and ascends over the mountain only to descend on the other side of the peak in Telluride. That’s if you want to cover the distance from Ouray to Telluride in 10 miles 🙂

Black Bear Road to the summit of Black Bear Pass, a notorious off-road route in the mountains high above Telluride, is one of the most dangerous drives in Colorado. This road was originally cut by miners and is only for the MOST experienced off-road drivers, as there is a very slim margin of error. If you don’t believe me, JUST LOOK at the pics!

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Do you see the road carved in the rock face on the Telluride side?
Did only the very start of Black Bear Pass with the skull and bones sign 🙂

If you thought Red Mountain Pass had the most beautiful scenery you had ever seen, wait till you continue to Molas Pass. Even though the distance between Ouray and Durango is less than 100 miles, you have to go over 3 mountain passes and the views will take your breath away (and so will the elevation – over 10000ft)!

I’m not usually the camping type of person but it would be an honor and a privilege for me to spend a week at Molas Lake, exploring the high alpine terrain, taking in the views, hiking, AND sleeping in a tent! #THATbeautiful

Having covered the beauty of the mountain passes of Southwest Colorado, let’s drop into the towns that surround them (and were the reason for the passes to be built 🙂

Silverton is a former mining camp situated above 9,000ft with about 500 inhabitants and the architecture and town have preserved that Wild West mining camp feel. In 2002 Silverton Mountain opened up, catering to extreme skiing, heli skiing, and backcountry guiding ONLY! #asgnarlyasitgets #noIdidntgo

Notice the old brothel (bordelo) #minershadtheirprioritiesright

 

 

 

Jail is next to the bar #easierthatway
Make your own judgement how much snowfall they get if the roofs are SO steep!

Ouray, CO (pop. 800) is the filming location for my favorite Netflix show “The Ranch” so I was determined to visit that small piece of paradise, take in the landscape, and find the “bar” where the scenes were shot! Being surrounded on 3 sides by 14,000 ft mountains and looking like it was pulled directly out of a snow globe in winter, Ouray is known as “Little Switzerland of America”.

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Opening scene of “The Ranch”

Ouray is also Ice Climbing Capital of the US in winter and there is a FREE ice climbing park inside the river gorge!

Ouray was established in 1875 and at the height of the mining boom had more than 30 active mines and more horses and pack animals than people. Now there are less then 1000 people and the whole economy is powered by tourism. There are 2 bars in town but one closes at 10pm 🙂 Hope you like the other one! #gotnochoice #toughluck

We stayed at Bridal Veil B&B – a super cozy and comfortable Airbnb right outside of town with the most amazing breakfast ever! #picturesoritdidnthappen

Ouray is only 10 miles NE of Telluride as the crow flies but the drive is over 50 miles and takes over an hour on scenic roads! 20171008_12463920171008_14462620171008_082020

Views from Orvis Hot Springs are plentiful, clothing is optional 🙂

Durango, CO is the largest town in Southwest CO and the administrative and business center of the area. How bustling the town was came as a huge and pleasant surprise to me! Double the size of Steamboat with a population of just under 20,000 and the home to Fort Lewis College, Durango boasts plenty of outdoor and sightseeing opportunities, wonderful cafes, eateries, breweries, and very lively and young population!

Durango is best known for the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, a heritage railway, which travels from Durango to the historic mining town of Silverton on steam-powered trains with rolling stock dating back to the 1920s and before.

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Image courtesy of madography.com

Mancos, CO is a lovely little town about 30 min west of Durango outside Four Corners area and at the base of Mesa Verde National Park. Known as “The Gateway to Mesa Verde”, Mancos is so much more than that – the town is full of arts and crafts, wonderful people, yoga, massage, and various outdoor activities!

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Mancos valley as seen from Mesa Verde viewpoint

In Mancos I stayed at Mancos Inn & Hostel (leave it to me to find the hostel) – it was very well appointed, nicely kept, clean, comfortable, and warm!

Being mad about waterfalls (and mines) my co-pilot ensured we got to see plenty of both each day! Even our camping location on Red Mountain Pass had a mine AND a waterfall!

Bear Creek Falls outside Ouray – instead of seeing them from above like normal people do, my co-pilot decided we should approach them from below by canyoneering up the river bed over cascades and waterfalls…without proper gear…#nufsaid

Cascade Waterfalls in Ouray – no we didn’t climb to the top, thank God… #buthewantedto

Animas River Falls – deep into the river canyon by a deserted mine in Silverton Mining District (yes, canyoneering up the river bed may have happened).

No, we didn’t climb that crevice to reach the damn ladder…
…but just think about the miners who worked in such conditions!

After a long weekend in the backcountry, I saw the need to establish a hiking/camping vocabulary so the plans and expectations of Colorado mountain men can be translated into a language that I understand.

“If a man can’t blaze his own trail up a mountain, what kind of man is he?” – my co-pilot’s thoughts on freedom and hiking. #luckymeNOT

  • Hiking = walking up a packed dirt trail (or paved) with signage of where we are going and how long it will take and markings where to turn
  • Bush wacking up an overgrown mountain side or canyoneering up river beds and over waterfall cascades is NOT hiking.
  • Obstacles on the trail (never mind there was no trail to begin with) are NOT “features of the terrain”
  • Camping – putting up a tent in a campground, staying in an RV, camper, trailer, outfitters tent, or truck DOESN’T count
  • How about climbing up a dirt road NOT with a 4WD vehicle, setting up a tent in the wilderness with NO running water, ONLY the light of the moon and the warmth of a campfire, sleeping out in the open with 2 sleeping bags and using heated stones from the campfire on both sides of the covers for extra warmth #liketheindians
  • Yes, above 11,000ft on Red Mountain Pass. Yes, temperatures got down to below freezing. Yes, sleeping naked, because #YOLO

 

 

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