This summer our family took a week long vacation to Colorado, looping through the San Juan Mountains in the souther part of the state. We spent a few nights in at a cabin in Durango, and then moved on to Ouray to spent a couple nights there before pressing on. For those not familiar with the area, this is right in the heart of all the old mining operations with small, old towns like Silverton, Durango, Ouray, Telluride. As the crow flies they are not far from each other but the tall mountains, deep valleys, and slow, twisty, precarious mountain roads space the towns much further apart than one would figure.
We weren't planning on renting a Jeep, let alone heading out on any 4x4 adventure, but when we stopped in Silverton for lunch (between Durango and Ouray) we noticed tons of rental Jeeps. Then, as we arrived in Ouray there were even more Jeep rental companies. We started asking around and found out that there are TONS of Jeep and 4x4 roads all over the San Juan Mountains in this area, in addition to ghost towns and abandon mines. So we made a spur of the moment decision and rented an Orange JK fitted with some mud terrain tires and made new plans to head out the next morning.
That night I poured over the map the rental company loaned us and did some quick research (bull****ted with the other Jeepers staying at our hotel) on routes to take. While the route over Imogene Pass into Telluride was very appealing, it sounded like a loop over Red Mountain, Hurricane Pass, and a visit to Animas Forks was a better bet for our family (and rental Jeep) and more promise of ghost towns and old mines.
The day started out nice and sunny with a scattering of clouds. My wife got some coffee as we bought provisions at a local cafe in Ouray early in the morning. Then we were off. Our start point was 8 miles south of town on Hwy 550. As soon as we pulled off the pavement the soft top went down for some open air wheel'n that day. Then a quick shift into 4Lo (the JK needed the extra grunt) and we started climbing up. And up, and up and up.
The first leg of the journey took us up to the pass at Red Mountain. The whole way up the views just got more impressive with each mile. Red Mountain looked sureal, as if someone dumped a bunch of paint on it. The peak and immediate downslopes were red (surprise) and barren, free of rock outcroppings or vegetation. As we crested the pass we got a great view back down the way we had come. And looking the otherway the moutains and valleys opened before us and we could see the Jeep trail threading off into the distance. Also visible down in the valley was an abandon mine. So we packed up in the Jeep and headed down there to investigate.
At the pass near Red Mountain (which is on the right) looking back down the valley
we had just come up.
At the pass at Red Mountain (on the left) looking off toward Hurricane Pass. It's hard to see
but there is an abandon mine down below that we explored.
The trail ahead. My son chucking rocks off the top of the mountain.
On the way down we ran into another couple out in another rental Jeep (the rental Jeeps were all over the place this day). They were a little lost and looking to get to Silverton but they hadn't bothered to get a map. So we showed them where we were on our map and I suggested to the guy that he take a bunch of photos of our map with is cell phone. It was better than nothing. Then we pointed them on their way, wished them luck, and continued on to the mine.
The old mine was definitely cool to poke around. The shaft was flooded with water and there was evidence of some "recent" activity there in the form of plastic pipes, an electrical panel, some kind of fiberglass water channel / generator(?) thingy, and a rubberized canvas plenum hanging from the wall of the mine. But who knows how long ago someone was working it. We didn't loiter long and set off again.
The trail down to the mine.
Inside the abandon mine shaft. We only poked our
noses in and didn't go any further.
We came over the pass near Red Mountain (upper middle of pic), but
if we continued down the valley toward the left it leads to Silverton.
With an eye on the time we set out again. The big destination was Animas Forks and we had another hour or two of bumpy mountain travel to go. We retraced our steps to the next intersection and pressed onward and upward to Hurricane Pass. On the way we drove past another mining site with some wooden chute perched above the road. Nearing Hurricane Pass we looked back down the valley with the mine and we were rewarded with yet another stunning vista. The whole day was like this, big open views out among the tops of the mountains. Being well above the tree line there was not much to obstruct views, either.
Hurricane Pass was a quickie stop to take a picture of the sign and look out over Lake Como. The pass was at 12,730 ft of elevation, more than 2 miles above sea level and we could all tell. Coming from Seattle with our elevation between 0 - 250 ft we definitely noticed the thinner air. We had been noticing it since the start of the trip as most towns were at ~6,000+ ft of elevation but it was particularly acute up at the tops of the mountains.
The mining chute next to the road up to Hurricane Pass.
At Hurricane Pass, 12,730 ft.
Lake Como below Hurricane pass as we look down Poughkipsie Gulch.
On the other side of the ridge on the right is California Gulch.
From here there was a split in the trails with a leg leading down Poughkipsie Gulch but we had been warned (recommended by the Jeepers) that it was a particularly challenging section of trail. Given we were in a renal Jeep, out solo, without recovery gear we kept to the easier routes. It was a very short half mile or so from Hurrican Pass until we crested California Pass at 12,960 ft. This dropped us into the beautiful California Gulch leading toward Animas Forks.
The weather was still bright and sunny as we met up with a bunch of other Jeeps coming down the pass, including another older couple we met in Ouray the night before. So we all convoyed down the gulch. Other abandon mine shafts dotted the hillsides on our way, Most had far less development than the one we explored so we simply watched them go by instead of stopping.
As we neared Animas Forks we came upon a huge old mining building. I'm guessing it was some kind of ore processing facility. A number of walls were still standing, some roof structure, and the concrete foundation. But much of the building was in ruins with piles of timber and wood planks with rusty nails in a jumble. It was a great place for the chipmunks to play as several poked their head out and scampered about. I had my wife and son wait in the Jeep while I spent about 5-10 minutes carefully exploring the building, going in through the "basement" and up a creaky stairway to the main level.
Motoring down the bucolic California Gulch with the other
Jeeps. Heading toward Animas Forks.
The old mine processing building outside of Animas Forks.
Inside the guts of the old building.
Not much left of the old mining structure. You can see a few cables
some preservation group has installed to keep the wall from blowing
out. I didn't touch a thing and moved slowly out of concern
for triggering a collapse.
Then on toward Animas Forks which we could see further down the valley. Animas Forks wasn't just an abandon mine, it was a whole ghost town. Back in the 1880's it had seen its boom with a substantial mining operation taking place. There were several buildings, several houses, and the foundation of what was once the largest processing facility in the area, the rest of the structure having long since been disassembled and hauled off for use elsewhere.
We stopped for lunch here, eating our sandwiches and chips beside the creek below a bridge. There were maybe 20 other rigs there, too, as Animas Forks was a popular stop for visitors. During lunch we could look down the valley at an oncoming wall of rain and storm clouds. By the time lunch was done the blue skies were gone. Some brief exploration in the old structures, including "the bay window house" and then we were packed up in the Jeep. I put the soft top up again as rain was threatening to fall and we set off, looping back to Ouray. It was early afternoon and we had a few hours to get the Jeep back to the rental company. And we just happened to have a few hours of travel ahead of us.
Up we climbed through another valley (or gulch as they are listed on the map) and over another pass with yet more spectacular view out across the mountain tops. We were just below Engineer Pass, up to this point the trails were actually county roads and while bumpy were in good condition. We passed another smashed mining operation, and then the trail got more technical. Several sections of trail bed had eroded down to the bare mountain rock and the Jeep would pitch out away from the mountain as I picked the best lines down to avoid tearing out the underside of the Jeep. There was much whimpering from the passenger seat and at one point my wife closed her eyes and put on her sunglasses. My son, on the other hand, was having a grand old time in the back seat. However, I didn't stop to take any photos.
Animas Forks, an old ghost mining town. We ate lunch on the bank of this stream
Another view of the old town of Animas Forks.
The "bay window house".
My wife and son exploring the old structure.
Panoramic of Animas Forks with all the rental Jeeps visiting. You can
see the weather changed quite a bit over lunch.
The road back to Ouray just over the hill from Animas Forks
and just below Engineer Pass.
The last of the old mine buildings we saw (from a distance) as we
headed down off the mountains back to Ouray. Shortly after this
we started all the switch backs.
Finally we were done with the switch backs and could relax a bit. The trail met up with the end of the Poughkipsie Gulch route and headed down the valley toward Ouray. Not long after we came upon a stalled out rig and had to stop. While stopped, the young couple who were lost earlier caught up with us. I guess they changed their mind about getting into Silverton. It took about 20 minutes to get the stalled rig running again. When they cleared off the trail we moved to the side as well as there were a couple of speed buggies itch'n to go. Then, as they zoomed ahead our now large-ish group set off back to town.
We had one more surprise in store as the trail cut across a cliff. Yes, that's right. It was nuts. There was a near shear vertical rock cliff several hundred feet tall. The face came straight down, then cut in several feet to make a ledge for the "road" before dropping another 200 ft straight down to the valley floor. There was about 2ft to the right before the rock went up and over the top of the Jeep. And about 2 ft to the left to the 200 ft sheer drop. And no guardrails. Fortunately, it was only about 400 ft worth of trail and given the solid rock base, it was probably the flattest and most stable 400 ft of trail all day. I kick myself now for not snapping a photo but I didn't want to mess around here and my wife would not have appreciated me not devoting all my attention to driving.
We reached pavement only a few minutes later and shifted back into 2WD and headed in to town. First stop was the car wash to get the Jeep cleaned up again for the rental company (part of the rental agreement). We got the Jeep returned with about 30 min to spare. It had been a full day and a great adventure. One I'd definitely recommend to everyone.
Waiting for the trail to clear of the stalled rig.
This whole drop down this side of the mountain was a lot more
interesting as far as the trail conditions went.
This was the young couple who were lost earlier.
They caught up with us at the stall.
For Those Interested: Info on the Rental Jeeps
Rental rates for the Jeeps run about $150 / day but ask around some places are higher, some might be lower. I opted for another $25 for no-questions-asked tire damage waiver. They also offer a damage waiver for another fee. Most rental agreements have a clause that if you break the vehicle you (obviously) need to pay to fix it, PLUS pay the daily rental rate for each day the Jeep is out of service. The extra damage waiver fee covers all this but we opted not to get it, instead our credit card that we used automatically included damage insurance.
The rental rates might sound high but these were roads and trails that most rental cars can't touch. Also, figure ~$80 for a white water rafting trip that lasts a few hours and the $150 for a 24 hr Jeep rental doesn't sound so out of place.
Good writeup on Corkscrew. I like that route and do it every time I go to the area, except I have always done it in the other direction. (start a Mineral Creek). If you have time, you can run up to Engineers Pass and Cinnamon Pass, but can make for a long day if you stop much.
And the orange colors of red mountain and area can be so vibrant.
I have attached a photo taken from the west of the Corkscrew climb. It is taken from an overlook just east of the summit of Imogene Pass, and you hve to look close to see the switchback of Corkscrew. The switchbacks are in the center of the photo, and in the lower right you can see part of HWY 550.
and another photo of a favorite spot along Mineral Creek (we are coming in where you went out.)
You had great photos and looks like your son enjoyed too.