"Passing" through Colorado
Colorado Mountain Passes
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Colorado is well-endowed with mountains and beautiful scenery. Although the mountains have their rugged corners and rise to lofty heights, for the most part they are highly accessible because of the many spectacular passes that wend their way though the cols and saddles of the high peaks. Hikers, backpackers, skiers, and even the “rubber” tourist, or those who sight-see by car, are within easy reach of Colorado’s mountains of which 54 peaks rise above 14,000’ and no less than 1,500 reach 10,000’ or more. There are two roads that climb above 14,000’ on Mount Evans and Pikes Peak the former the highest paved road in the nation, ending a hundred feet below the summit of the peak, at an elevation 14,160’. While these two do not qualify as passes they nonetheless make for an interesting destination; there are many passes in the state above 11,000’, or roughly tree-line in the Centennial state.
Of the mountain passes there are two broad categories: those that are accessed by paved highways; and those that have access by improved, or maintained, roads which can be anything from asphalt, packed dirt, or gravel. There are at least 49 passes in the state accessed by paved roads and a score more passes considered improved roads. Even these figures are moot, but a quick glance at the Colorado page in the Rand McNally Road Atlas will give you a good idea of the numbers and locations. The highest passes in the state are Argentine Pass and Mosquito Pass, both well above timberline. Cresting at 13,132’, Argentine Pass cuts a rough, unimproved, four-wheel-drive road through the Front Range below Grays Peak (14,270'). Mosquito Pass does the same in the Mosquito Range cresting at 13,186'. The highest paved highway is Trail Ridge Road at 12,183’. This road is, however, more for “rubber” tourist as it travels across the Rocky Mountain National Park. Commercial vehicles are not allowed. Needless to say, the scenery is stunning, and it is one of the most scenic mountain roads in the United States. Technically the highest pass in Colorado traversed by a paved highway is Independence Pass (12,095’) which crosses the Sawatch Range in central Colorado. The highest pass traversed by an unimproved highway is Cottonwood Pass (12,126’), also in the Sawatch Range, about 25 miles southeast of Independence Pass. Coincidentally, the Sawatch Range is the highest mountain range in the state with no less than fifteen peaks above 14,000’.
How did these passes originate? Were they built only as the automobile became a preferred mode of travel in the early twentieth century? While many passes such as Trail Ridge Road and the scenic byways up Mount Evans and Pikes Peak were built for that purpose, to develop and accommodate “rubber” tourism, other passes predate the auto and these older roads were built and used by the gold and silver miners in Colorado as early as the 1850s. Argentine Pass, for instance, got its start as a trail to a silver mine in 1864. Not long after the Colorado gold rush in the 1850s there was talk of railroad construction, and this mode of transportation, like roads, follows the path of least resistance, whether bypass or tunnel. The mining boom gave rise to railroad passes; at first by narrow gauge and then later standard gauge, of which Rollins Pass (11,670’) became the highest railroad pass in the country, completed in 1907. The railroad eventually abandoned Rollins Pass when the Moffat Tunnel was opened in 1928, but Rollins Pass is still used as an unimproved pass by high clearance vehicles in recreational pursuits. Today it provides excellent summer access to the high peaks in the vicinity. Tourism would eventually eclipse mining as the top economic activity in these mountain areas. This economic transition was quick as many people in the late 19th century sought the soothing waters of the many hot springs in Colorado’s mountains. When photography became more popular as a mass media format in the 1860s, people got their first glimpse of spectacular scenery in monthlies such as Harpers and the photos helped sell Colorado as a tourists’ destination. Today’s year round recreation keeps many of the roads open as skiers populate the passes in the winter and as hikers and nature lovers do in the summer. There are too many passes worthy of mention so the summary below is by no means exhaustive but hopefully provides a good cross section of some the better known mountain passes in the Rocky Mountain state.
Berthoud Pass (11,307’). A spectacular pass that has U.S. 40 traversing the Front Range and Continental Divide with access to ski resorts in the winter and hiking trailheads in the summer.
Boreas Pass (11,481'). Boreas Pass is a textbook example of how the passes in Colorado morphed from prospecters' roads to today's tourism gateways. It was originally built in the 1860s and known as Breckinridge Pass to provide a pass for gold miners heading from South Pass to the Breckinridge area. Numerous mine shafts and ghost towns are found along the road, now packed with gravel and passable in summer only. By the 1880s a railroad was built over the pass to facilitate the movement of a greater volume of traffic. Eventually that went the way of many other gauge railroads in the state, and the pass fell into disrepair and its towns abondoned. In 1942 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rebuilt the pass by widening and improving the road which now provides access to the mountains in the vicinity of Breckinridge. Most notable of the peaks in the area are Mount Silverheels (13,829').
Cameron Pass (10,276’). Cameron Pass is just north of Rocky Mountain National Park and affords good views and access to some of the beautiful alpine lakes and peaks, most notably Mount Richthofen (12,940’). There are also good views of the Diamond Peaks (11,820’) to the north of State Highway 14.
Chapin Pass (11,020). The hard-packed gravel surface is an uphill, one-way road that predates the Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. Highlights include Chasm Falls, hiking trailheads to the Mummy Range, and the spectacular alpine scenery that await at the summit. Take the Old Fall River Road and follow it for nine miles all the way to the Alpine Visitor Center where it meets up with Trail Ridge Road.
Dallas Divide (8,970’). The Dallas Divide along State Highway 62 in southwestern Colorado is famous for the iconic views of Mount Sneffels (14,150’) in all seasons. The pass is not particularly steep is located close to the town of Ridgway and other passes such as Red Mountain and Lizard Head.
Fremont Pass (11,318’). State Highway 91 traverses Fremont Pass in central Colorado. The Climax mine is along the way as well as tailing ponds from the mines. Now inactive, at one time the mine produced three-quarters of the world’s molybdenite. The pass goes through the Mosquito Range but has spectacular views of Colorado’s second tallest peak, Mount Massive as it opens to the south.
Guanella Pass (11,669'). A stone's throw from Denver, Guanella Pass just crests the timberline. Access from the north is via I-70 at the Georgetown exit. Packed gravel allows for a fair amount of passenger cars to pass in the summer and most of the motorists head for the hiking trails of the Arapaho National Forest. Mount Bierstadt (14,060') is on the eastern skyline and a trail leads from the pass.
Hoosier Pass (11,542’). Hoosier Pass traverses the Ten Mile and Mosquito ranges, which have a collection of peaks over fourteen thousand feet. This pass has great access points for hikers and Breckenridge Ski Resort is on the northern side of State Highway 9.
Independence Pass (12,095’). Independence Pass is the highest paved pass in the state and connects Aspen with Leadville via State Highway 82. It straddles the Continental Divide and there is great scenery which includes abandoned mines to great views of fourteen thousand foot peaks, most notably La Plata Peak (14,361’), the fifth tallest mountain in the state visible on the eastern side of the pass.
Lizard Head Pass (10,222’). Named for Lizard Head Peak (13,113’), State Highway 145 traverses this pass with moderate grades through the San Miguel Mountains in southwestern Colorado. Trout Lake on the pass’s northern side is especially scenic, but overall the mountain views are spectacular.
Loveland Pass (11,992’). Climbing over the Continental Divide along the Front Range Loveland Pass (U.S. Route 6) is open year round and is important because it shortens the drive to such ski areas as Arapahoe Basin and Keystone considerably. Yet it predates the 1.7 mile long Eisenhower Tunnel, opened in 1973, which allowed for the completion of the coast-to-coast Interstate I-70. Still, Loveland Pass, well above timber line, is a beautiful road with anumerous hairpins and an average grade of 6.7% in places and excellent views of a number of thirteen-thousand foot peaks, such as Lenawee Mountain (13,204’).
Milner Pass (10758'). Milner Pass lies on the same route as Trail Ridge Road and climbs up the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park along U.S. 34. The highlights of the beautiful section of the road include the Continental Divide and the clear Poudre Lakes which drain into the headwaters of the Colorado River.
Monarch Pass (11.312’). Monarch Pass has remarkable views from the crest as it traverses the Sawatch Range and the Continental Divide, most notably of Ouray Peak (13,971’) to the south and Shavano Peak (14,229’) to the north. U.S. Route 50, which traverses the pass, allows visitors to access the nearby ski area, Monarch ski area, during the winter.
Red Mountain Pass (11,075’). Red Mountain Pass is perhaps the most beautiful in southwest Colorado’s San Juan Mountain region, an area of 10,000 square miles of mountain peaks and high plateau. Steep grades make this pass, also known as the Million Dollar Highway, treacherous accompanied by dizzying drops. Known for red colored mountain slopes, caused by iron oxide, Highway 550 passes through Silverton before cresting at the pass to the north. The entire region is riddled with the former gold and silver mines. Most of these mines closed after the silver crash in 1893, but there are still some extant zinc, copper, and lead mines in the area. If you drive the entire length of Highway 550 between Durango and Ouray you will also cross Molas Pass (10,910’) which is about ten miles south of Red Mountain Pass. Rising almost 4,000’ directly above the road, south of this pass, is Engineer Mountain (12,968’), a favorite peak for photographers.
Slumgullion Pass (11,361’). Known for have the steepest grade of any paved road in the state at 9%, the Slumgullion Pass doesn’t have many switchbacks on the other hand. U.S. 149 traverses the San Juan Mountains and this pass is unique in the oddness of the formations along the road and on the mountain sides. The pass takes its name from the earth flow that slid down the mountain side about 700 years ago. Soft volcanic tuffa and breccia give it the odd coloring. The San Juan Mountains are volcanic in origin and these regions are characterized by dramatic steep sided peaks. The history of the region is rife with abandoned gold and silver mines, ghost towns, and old roads many only passable by high clearance vehicles.
Trail Ridge Road (12,183’). This stretch of U.S. 34 goes through Rocky Mountain National Park in what is arguably the most spectacular mountain road in the state. Although it is strictly not considered a pass because it climbs up and over a mountain, commercial vehicles are prohibited. Excellent views of Longs Peak (14,256’) and the Never Summer Mountains to the west.
Wolf Creek Pass (10,857’). Located in the San Juan Mountains in southern Colorado, Wolf Creek Pass allows U.S. Highway 160 to traverse the Continental Divide. Good views of Montezuma Peak (13,150’) to the southeast from the crest.
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