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Colorado’s Marshall, Tomichi, and Napoleon Passes

Posted in Events on May 1, 2012 Comment (0)
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Photographers: Joanne Spivack

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.

The view back down Quartz Creek just kept getting better and better as we climbed higher toward the top of Napoleon Pass. We had the world to ourselves as we saw no other vehicles along the entire route.

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.

The steady 4-percent grade, the sweeping turns, and the extensive cut and fill make it readily apparent that the Marshall Pass road is following an old railroad grade. The narrow gauge rails were removed in the mid-1950s after the line was abandoned.

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.

The Denver and Rio Grande’s water tank is still standing in Sargents on Highway 50. Sargents was the site of a “helper” station on the rail line. Extra helper engines were required for the long pull up the Marshall Pass grade.

Passing through White Pine, we climbed north out of town and headed toward the second “high point” of our trip, Tomichi Pass. The long and sometimes rocky climb up the Tomichi Creek drainage passes a small cemetery. This final resting place is about all that is left of the silver camp of Tomichi. The town reached a population of 1,500 in the 1880s, but the silver crash also doomed this camp. The road continues to climb and breaks out of the trees just south of the pass.

Tomichi Pass doesn’t quite cross the Continental Divide (which lies just to the east) but the road does reach nearly 12,000 feet. The view from the top of the pass is terrific. Brittle Silver Basin is spread out below. Across the basin to the northeast, the road from St. Elmo crosses Hancock Pass. The road accessing the west portal of the Alpine Tunnel (another very historic railroad crossing of the Continental Divide) is also visible to the north.

Tomichi Pass is an excellent 4WD adventure offering moderate difficulty, lots of history, and stunning scenery. The route is moderately challenging due to some rocky stretches and the very narrow shelf road descending the north side of the pass.

Passing through White Pine, we climbed north out of town and headed toward the second “high point” of our trip, Tomichi Pass. The long and sometimes rocky climb up the Tomichi Creek drainage passes a small cemetery. This final resting place is about all that is left of the silver camp of Tomichi. The town reached a population of 1,500 in the 1880s, but the silver crash also doomed this camp. The road continues to climb and breaks out of the trees just south of the pass.

Tomichi Pass doesn’t quite cross the Continental Divide (which lies just to the east) but the road does reach nearly 12,000 feet. The view from the top of the pass is terrific. Brittle Silver Basin is spread out below. Across the basin to the northeast, the road from St. Elmo crosses Hancock Pass. The road accessing the west portal of the Alpine Tunnel (another very historic railroad crossing of the Continental Divide) is also visible to the north.

Drink in your fill of the view from the top, because the north side of Tomichi Pass is a very narrow shelf road that requires undivided attention. We crept down the pass, past the Hancock Pass intersection and the turn-off for the Alpine Tunnel, and down Forest Road 839 toward the town of Pitkin.

The north side of Tomichi Pass requires careful attention by the driver. The shelf road is narrow and suffers from gravel sloughing off the hill on the up-hill side. This erosion keeps the inside wheel track higher than the outside, resulting in an off-camber position.

The Thin, Cold Air

It was now time to think about finding a campsite for the evening. Autumn in the mountains of Colorado requires seeking lower elevations for the night as the temperatures would be falling dramatically. Our goal was to get below 10,000 feet each night. Not only would it be somewhat warmer, we would sleep better as our bodies were still adjusting from our yearlong sea level elevation in China. We found the site we were seeking near the junction of the road that would lead our dirt tour further north on the morrow.

We spent a cold, but fortunately dry, night with the sound of Quartz Creek in our ears. Nothing like the white noise of a mountain stream to induce a sound night’s sleep! The morning dawned bright, clear, and crisp.

The top of Tomichi Pass offers a superlative Colorado four-wheeling vista from the 12,000-foot perch. Across Brittle Silver Basin, the road from Hancock Pass can be seen dropping into the basin.

After a short detour into the town of Pitkin (we were seeking Oreo cookies), we headed north to our next high-country crossing. The route, Napoleon Pass, was a new one for me despite more than 30 years of Colorado four-wheeling. We found the unmarked left off the Cumberland Pass road via GPS and got ready to see some new territory.

A chance discovery on the Internet had led me to seek further information on Napoleon Pass. While the Web information implied that the pass had been used almost exclusively by motorcycles and ATVs in recent history, the Gunnison National Forest Motor Vehicle Use Map showed it as legal for full-size vehicles. We were seeking new vistas and challenges, so up we went.

At the Top

The road was steep and rocky and even included a few small ledges but was still easily passable via 4WD. As we cleared timberline and the top of the pass slid into view, we stopped purely to soak in the view. And what a view! A broad grassy meadow bisected by the road was framed by Napoleon Mountain and Fitzpatrick Peak. In the distance, the road disappeared north over the saddle. Behind us, the Quartz Creek valley stretched far to the south. Overhead, the bright blue Colorado sky was punctuated with clouds streaming in from the west. Below, our wheels (and feet) were on glorious dirt and rocks. This is what our “tour” was all about!

The nature of the road changed somewhat at the top of Napoleon Pass. The width and camber of the road made it clear that the route was utilized only infrequently by 4WDs. We very gingerly descended north into the trees. The north side of the pass was much wetter than the relatively dry south approach. We slid carefully down over tree roots and around muddy potholes. The challenge was to keep the quarter panels off the bark as we carefully twisted back and forth among the numerous trees.

Although most of the current usage of Napoleon Pass appears to be by ATVs and UTVs, the south side is a typical high-altitude Colorado rocky two-track through incredible scenery.

We eventually emerged from the trees into a broad meadow at the New Gold Cup Mine. We de-trucked to wander among the remaining buildings and equipment of the site, including a large steam-operated pump. Purportedly more than 1.5 million dollars of ore was removed from the mine before it closed permanently in 1917.

It is only about two and half miles from the mine into the town of Tin Cup. Home to more than 6,000 souls in the 1880s, the town had dwindled to a mere ghost before its location on the edge of beautiful Taylor Park revived it as a summer-vacation community.

We continued through to the Taylor Park trading post where we finally found our Oreo cookies. We also topped off the gasoline tank. With our current consumable needs satisfied, we turned north across Taylor Park for the second half of our Return to Dirt tour. Check back next month for the conclusion of our journey.

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About the Author

Mark Werkmeister is a long-time contributor to 4WHEEL DRIVE MAGAZINE and has completed many project builds and adventure articles in that time. After a hiatus spent in China, he is back in the United States and back to finding and exploring unique and fun dirt trails to travel, along with his companion, Joanne Spivack.

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