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.
Tomboy was a tough place to live. Perched at the top of Savage Basin just below the summit of Imogene Pass, Tomboy produced prodigious quantities of gold in the late 1800s. The ore eventually played out, closing the mines for good in 1927. Long, fierce winters, disease, and conflict between the mine owners and the mine workers ensured that life was never boring, and that it was often too short. Today, massive concrete and wooden footings give a hint at the scale of the buildings and machinery they once supported.
Our group parked at Tomboy and began munching on our boxed lunches. Mining ruins further up the trail beckoned, hinting at the photos that could be taken from a higher vantage point. Two-foot transportation was the easiest at that point, so off we (the author and his camera) went. A few minutes later, a red Rubicon motored up and a "get in" sailed through the thin Alpine air. Jeep staffers Tony Brenders and Jiyan Cadiz were also feeling the need for a grander view. The Rubicon's 4:1 low range and locked front and rear differentials took the three of us several hundred feet higher through progressively deeper snow and ever-steepening slopes. We got to 12,393 feet before we decided to turn back and re-join the group waiting below. The views from higher up were indeed more rewarding. Up high, a previously obscured basin came into view, revealing additional mines perched in its upper reaches. It was September and our group all wore jackets to ward off the chill. Imagine working and living year-round in a place like this! Yep, Tomboy was a tough place to live.
Winding our way back into Telluride, we were treated to a view of the San Juans' most notorious trail: Black Bear Pass. Black Bear's "steps" section is one-way-only and no doubt pins the San Juan pucker factor way past most Jeepers' comfort zones. Black Bear would have to wait for another trip, though.
From Black Bear to Ophir to Engineer to Imogene, all of these trails are open to public access. Why attend a Jeepers' Jamboree? In a nutshell it's the convenience and camaraderie. Meals are provided, trail guides are friendly and knowledgeable, and you'll be in the company of scores of other like-minded Jeepers. Jeep Jamboree USA offers about 30 Jamborees each year in all corners of the country.
As for Ouray, we'll be back. There's just no way to experience scenery of such caliber once and be satisfied. Should you choose to partake in the Ouray Jeep Jamboree, be prepared with a Jeep, warm clothes, a camera, and the ability to say, "Wow." Once you experience the San Juan pucker factor, you're bound to need more.
The Jeep Corporation invited journalists of a wide spectrum to be a part of the Jeep Jamboree. It was surprising to be the only member of an off-road magazine in attendance. Journalists from the New York Sun to the Robb Report to Car and Driver Radio to Automotive Rhythms were part of the group. This shows both the broad appeal of the Jeep brand, and Jeep's willingness to reach out to average members of the driving public instead of sticking exclusively to dirt enthusiasts. What does this mean? It only takes a Jeep and a yearning for adventure to become a Jeeper.