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Colorado’s Marshall, Tomichi, and Napoleon Passes

Climbing Quartz Creek
Mark Werkmeister | Writer
Posted May 1, 2012
Photographers: Joanne Spivack

The Return To Dirt Tour: Part I

Dirt! I needed dirt under my wheels! It had been far too long since I had enjoyed the dirt and rocks of an unimproved road.

An incredible year of working in the People’s Republic of China had provided plenty of adventure, but of an entirely different sort. Living in a 17-floor apartment in a city of 6-million people didn’t provide opportunity to lock in the hubs, turn off the pavement, and explore the backcountry that I so love.

Now I was back home in the United States and had some time off to enjoy. It was September and the Colorado mountains beckoned. It was high time for a return to the dirt. A map was spread out and possibilities considered. This was to be a point-to-point camping trip where we would camp wherever we happened to be when evening approached. Pavement was to be avoided and high-country routes with challenge got extra consideration. A route that minimized pavement and maximized high mountain passes was selected. I packed the truck with several days’ worth of food and our gear, and we were off.

At the Pass

We followed Highway 285 north into Colorado until reaching the turn-off for Marshall Pass at Mears Junction. Marshall Pass hardly qualifies as challenging. A 2WD sedan could drive the entire route, but the road was dirt. It also linked up with the rest of our itinerary nicely, maximizing the length of our route that avoided pavement.

Marshall Pass is a highly historic route, especially for railroad buffs. It was a key part of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad’s initial transcontinental route, providing the vital link between Denver and Salt Lake City. (Now it’s called the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad.) The tracks were completed in 1881 and crossed the Continental Divide at 10,845 feet. The narrow gauge route was used until 1953.

Today’s county-maintained road follows the abandoned railroad grade almost exclusively. This results in a steady 4-percent grade up and over the pass. The road is very easy, but the views are impressive.

We reached a short but necessary stretch of pavement when the Marshall Pass road reached Highway 50 at Sargents. A right turn, a short jaunt down the pavement, and a left turn put us on County Road 888 (and then Forest Road 888) and on our way toward White Pine.

Ghost Towns

White Pine was founded in 1880 on the west side of Tomichi Creek after prospectors found rich ore on nearby Lake Hill. By 1884, the boom was on and the town boasted a population of more than 1,000. The silver panic of 1893 had its injurious effect and the town was deserted by 1894.

A smaller boom occurred when the Akron Tunnel was driven into Lake Hill to mine lead, zinc, and copper during World War I and World War II. After the war, the town once again drifted toward “ghost” status. The beautiful locale along Tomichi Creek is responsible for the current “boom” of summer residents.

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