Breathtaking Beauty With A Caveat
Open up and say, "wow." No joke, say it! Notice the way your lips are puckered by the time you're done uttering the word? That's the San Juan pucker factor, and attendees at this year's Jeep Jamboree in Ouray, Colorado, know all about it. If you look up at the San Juans, you'll say, "wow, that's beautiful." If you look down from the trail, you'll pucker up and say "wow, that's a helluva long way down." Either way, you're puckered. Sometimes called "the Switzerland of America," Colorado's San Juan Mountains offer premium Alpine scenery for those willing to make the trip and deal with the pucker factor.
Two thousand eight was the 21st time the Jeep Jamboree made its way to Ouray, but no doubt '08 was one of the few times participants had to contend with snow during September. The night before the festivities began, a storm deluged Ouray and nearby Telluride with hours upon hours of heavy rain. Heavy rain in town meant an equal amount of snow at the higher elevations. The Ouray Jeep Jamboree's centerpiece is the collection of high mountain passes just outside of town. Would it be safe to traverse them?
The Jeep Jamboree program begins with a breakfast meeting on Friday morning. Ouray Jeep Jamboree coordinator, and our emcee, Chris Timmes, told us about the snow situation. "We're going to leave it up to the trail leaders," he said. "We want to make sure everyone is safe, so your trail leader has some alternate routes in mind if there's too much snow at the top of the passes." Chris then introduced the group to its trail leaders. There were half a dozen trails on the adventure menu, and each trail run had its own leader. Chris offered some driving advice: "None of the trails you'll be going on are extremely difficult. As long as you're paying attention to the trail and stay on the route, you'll be okay." Loosely translated, this meant "if you stare at the scenery instead of keeping your eyes on the trail, you'll go off the edge."
Full of good old-fashioned American breakfast food, we left the Ouray Community Center and piled into our respective Jeeps. A journalists' group, of which the author was a part, had our own trail run and trail leader, Bob Arnett. As soon as we hit the highway en route to Engineer Pass, the scenery beckoned for attention. Every direction visible resembled a post card; absolutely gorgeous! Even on the highway, there was that ever-present precipice on the edge of the road. A few miles out of town, we left the pavement behind and began the traverse to Engineer Pass. The "wow" factor increased with every mile. Waterfalls abutted the trail, as did mining ruins with their heavy iron equipment, a rusting monument to the tough people who came here seeking their fortunes in ore. Then we hit the snow.
We got lucky. While snow blanketed the upper reaches, it wasn't hard or deep enough to make the trails impassable. Tire contact pressure punched through the white stuff into hard, solid ground. Each passing vehicle had a successively better surface on which to drive, as long as the same tracks were followed. In the end, the snow only served to enhance our visual feast of the Engineer Pass area. We bypassed the turnoff for the Alpine Loop. While the complete 63-mile Alpine Loop wasn't on the menu, we got a glimpse of what awaits further into the high country for those with a couple of days to spare to run the complete Loop. Later that day, we drove over Ophir Pass to the same tune: a bit of snow, but nothing that curtailed our adventure. A wonderful Friday on the trail.
Saturday's run was no less spectacular. This time, Bob took the lot of us journalists to Imogene Pass, the highest pass in the area at 13,114 feet above sea level. The trailside snow didn't surface until we'd reached the ghost town of Tomboy, and then it turned us back. Snow held the top of Imogene Pass in a frigid grip, and it just wasn't safe or feasible to continue. Instead, we took the opportunity to check out what was left of Tomboy mine.