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The Return To Dirt Tour: Part II

Posted in Events on June 1, 2012
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Photographers: Joanne Spivack

We had embarked on a personal celebratory journey upon returning to the USA after a yearlong hiatus in China, and had taken to calling it the "Return to Dirt" tour. Marshall, Tomichi, and Napoleon passes had already appeared in our rearview mirror and we had three more backcountry jewels left on our planned itinerary. Now we were cruising the dirt of Forest Road 742 across Taylor Park in central Colorado. The Elk Mountains form the northern rampart of the Taylor Park area and we were headed directly toward the imposing range.

The road through the basin below Pearl Pass offers both jaw-dropping scenery and a modicum of challenge. Pearl Pass ranks near the top of our list of favorite Colorado routes but it is only open a few weeks during the late summer. In years of heavy snowfall it often doesn’t open at all.

After miles of high-speed graded dirt, we finally reached the trailhead for the road over Taylor Pass. We turned up Forest Road 761 and the nature of the road changed immediately and dramatically. No more gravel, no more maintenance, no more high speed. It was strictly 4WD low range with the hubs engaged. The operative word for this road was "rocky."

Big rocks, little rocks, firmly anchored rocks, loose and rolling rocks — the Taylor Pass road has them all. All of the rocks successfully prevent any attempt at speed. We took a deep breath, settled into our seats, and let the truck crawl forward. The vast expanse of Taylor Park dropped away as we ground slowly and steadily upward.

A mile and half into the Taylor Pass road, we came to the signature section of this delightful 4WD adventure. There was a 200-yard stretch where the roadbed runs directly up Taylor Creek. The challenge was directly proportional to the amount of water cascading down the creek. During the height of the summer snowmelt, the section can be quite a challenge. The Taylor Pass rocks are even more plentiful in the streambed and the more water flowing, the harder the rocks are to see. Our passage was easy. Our September date meant the water was low, visibility was good, and we progressed up the creek without delay.

Taylor Pass is a slow, rocky 4WD crawl, but that is what we were seeking on our “Return to Dirt” tour. There is nothing like the sound of a T-case in low range to make a four-wheeler smile after a long deficiency.

Slow Pace, Rich History
The single most challenging spot on the entire Taylor Pass route was the exit from this submerged road section. We engaged the lockers, deftly steered our way around and over the boulders and had no issue as we crept slowly and carefully up the exit. Once free of the creek, the slow upward grind over even more rocky trail resumed. The slow pace gave us time to ponder the history of the road.

As rough as Taylor Pass is today, it is a veritable "super slab" when compared to the original route. With nearby towns accessible via the network of modern transportation, it is hard to visualize these roads as major routes of commerce.

In the early 1880s, these roads were all there were. The town of Aspen was completely isolated when the silver boom first hit the area. The only access to the burgeoning mining camp was trails laboriously hacked out of the wilderness over Independence, East Maroon, or Taylor passes. Just because a road existed didn't mean the trips were easy. The first wagon trip over Independence Pass was said to have taken a full month. The initial route over Taylor pass included a 40-foot drop. Wagons were disassembled, lowered on ropes, and reassembled to continue the trip.

For a short section of the Taylor Pass route, the road goes straight up the middle of the streambed. Passage is not difficult in September but is a lot more challenging earlier in the summer during the snow melt.

Why go to so much effort? Wealth was powerful motivation, and there were potential riches to be made in the valleys, peaks, and gulches of this part of Colorado back then.

Soon we were approaching the top of the pass. Once on top, we paused to soak in the incredible view. Taylor Park spread out behind us with beautiful timberline Taylor Lake almost directly below us. To the east, the Collegiate Range with its many 14,000-foot-plus peaks beckoned. The Elk Range in all of its rugged majesty marched off to the west and countered with several of its own "14ers" easily visible.

The rocky exit from the Taylor Creek section of the road is the single most difficult challenge on the whole length of Taylor Pass. A properly equipped vehicle reduces the challenge and we had no issue with the lifted and locked Comanche.

The Descent
From the top of the pass, there are two routes available. One can stay high and head for Aspen via the ridge-hugging Richmond Hill Road, or plunge down the north side of the pass and drop down Express Creed toward the ghost town of Ashcroft.

There are sections on Pearl Pass that are steep, ledge-infested, and slick with water (or ice). Lockers and some added clearance are very helpful for a safe and careful transit.

Since our planned route continued on to Pearl Pass, we dropped the hood toward Ashcroft and started the descent. The descent goes through some of the most beautiful aspen forests in all of Colorado. This trip was a bit early to catch the color change, but to traverse this road during the peak of the fall color was truly an amazing experience.

We reached the bottom and were again confronted with a paved road. We turned left up the valley and were shortly back on the dirt as we turned up the Pearl Pass Road. It was, once again, getting late in the afternoon and we needed a campsite. The Forest Service restricts camping to a mere seven sites on the lower portion of the Pearl Pass road and we were fortunate to find a site that was available. We settled in as the clouds gathered and a light rain started to fall. We were hoping for better weather the next day as we challenged the terrain of Pearl Pass.

The clouds started rolling in as we traversed the tundra on the north approach to Pearl Pass. The pass is the lowest point on the horizon. Since the road climbs the ridge on the north face, the snow is deep and very slow to melt out.

It was sunny when we pulled out of camp the next morning, but low clouds were soon scudding across the sky and obscuring the ramparts of towering Castle Peak. We continued the slow, rocky but uneventful climb until we reached the turn-off for Montezuma Basin near timberline. There was a sign to the left announcing that the Pearl Pass road continued.

At this point, the road's character changed, and the challenge got a bit more interesting. Instead of a loose, cobbled rock surface, the road featured sections of a solid rock. Many of these areas were interspersed with ledges. As luck would have it, the largest and steepest of these sections also had a stream running across it, guaranteeing that the surface was always wet (and covered with ice if it is cold enough). Even with both ends locked, it took us several attempts to find a line that allowed us to creep upward.

Pearl Pass was originally built as a toll road between the booming mines at Aspen and the railhead at Crested Butte. When the railroad reached Aspen only five years later, the road was all but abandoned. Much of the original stonework for the road is still in place on the north side of the pass.

The ledge-ridden fun continued for about a quarter mile or so of this, as the road switchbacked up into the upper basin. The road mellowed out again as it entered an area of alpine tundra. Free of any obstructing trees, the views in this section were fantastic! The road was closed under the turreted ridgeline of Castle Peak and the bright green carpet of tundra stretched out across the basin. In season, this area is also replete with a gorgeous array of wildflowers.

Pearl of the Mountain Pass
Soon the road left the tundra behind and entered the rocky moraine sliding down Pearl Mountain. This was a sparse, barren land as even the minimalist tundra gave way to acres and acres of nothing but rocks. The rocks have been pushed, piled, and shaped by the glaciers pushing down from the heights above.

The road from the top of Pearl Pass to Crested Butte is a long one but the views down the long Brush Creek valley help shorten the miles. We emerged from the rain and sleet as we dropped lower and were enjoying sunshine by the time we arrived in town.

As our luck would have it, a solid overcast moved in and the lack of light and color gave the landscape a somber, almost sinister, tone. In this desolation, the early road builders' handiwork is easily visible as the numerous gullies are spanned with intricately hand-stacked rockwork causeways.

Pearl Pass was constructed in 1882 by a group of men from Aspen, Ashcroft, and Crested Butte as a route from by-then booming Aspen to the nearest railroad at Crested Butte. The main advantage of the new road was that it made the railroad 50 miles closer than any of the previous routes. Until the rails reached Aspen in 1887, Pearl Pass was the main route to and from Aspen. The 1885 version of Crofutt's Gripsack Guide of Colorado promised daily service via a "coach and four" between Crested Butte and Aspen.

We had reached the final approach to the 12,705-foot pass. The road climbed steeply up the north facing ridgeline. It was easy to see why snow blocks Pearl Pass until late in August in most years. Some years, the large snow cornice lasts all summer and the road stays closed into the next winter.

There is a large array of warning signs as the road starts to drop into Crystal Canyon. While the signs are accurate and not to be taken lightly (there have been fatalities in the canyon), the road can be an enjoyable 4WD experience. Be careful and stay within the limits of your vehicle and driving skills.

Unfortunately, it was raining, sleeting, and blowing by the time we reached the saddle. Low clouds and rain blocked the long views north and south that are usually enjoyed from this lofty perch. Reluctantly, we started the long, steep, and rocky descent toward Crested Butte. The road surface made for really slow-going and it was already mid-afternoon by the time we finally reached pavement just south of Crested Butte.

We once again topped off our gas tank and were soon scooting along the dirt road up Slate Creek. Our next destination was Schofield Pass. Well…sort of.

Schofield Pass itself was still blocked by an avalanche south of the pass. We knew from experience that we could bypass the south approach by heading out of Crested Butte by way of Slate Creek and Paradise Divide. We weren't really interested in Schofield Pass itself anyway. We were seeking the north side of Schofield, which descends via the infamous road through Crystal Canyon. Evening was rapidly descending on us and we found an ideal site just above the drop into the canyon. We enjoyed the rapidly improving weather and once again fell asleep to the sound of water rollicking over the rocks in the nearby creek.

Schofield Pass was still blocked by an avalanche field (in mid-September!) just south of the summit. We bypassed the blockage by routing up Slate Creek and over Paradise Divide to access Crystal Canyon on the north side of the pass.

Fearsome Four-Wheeling
Morning dawned bright and clear, but the sun was soon blotted out as we entered the narrow confines of Crystal Canyon. The road down Crystal Canyon was one of those 4WD mind games we play with ourselves. The road was no narrower, steeper, or rockier than many other roads in Colorado.

So what was it about the place that always made the hairs on the back of my neck prickle? Maybe it was the foreboding feel to the dark shadows that reside in the deep, narrow canyon. Maybe it was the Crystal River pounding down through the boulders far below the road. Or it was the fatal accidents that occurred in years past in the canyon?

Peering over your hood into Crystal Canyon can be an intimidating experience as the road is steep and narrow. Be forewarned that there is also a large rock in the middle of the road (and it has been there for many years). Vehicles will fit around it but it is a tight squeeze.

Whatever the reason, the blood pumps a little faster, the senses are heightened, and very close attention was paid to every move. Slowly…carefully…the truck crept down past the infamous Devil's Punchbowl, around the big rock in the middle of the road, finally reaching the bridge at the "bottom" of the canyon. At that point I remembered another reason why this canyon bothered me. The "bottom" was a deception — the narrow section of road continued for what always seemed an interminable distance beyond the bridge. Eventually, the road widened a bit and climbed away from the river. Why do I always feel relief?

We were presented with a choice: the usual route down the Crystal River, past the always-photographed mill, and directly into Marble, or right into Lead King Basin. We turned right at the fork and pointed the Jeep up into Lead King Basin. It had gotten rave reviews for scenery from friends, but we had never taken the time to experience it in person. Our friends didn't steer us wrong. The views in the basin were outstanding! All too soon we were approaching Marble, the pavement, and the end of our tour.

Four days, six high mountain passes, and many miles of dirt road through some of the best scenery in Colorado — our "Return to Dirt" tour had been an unquestioned success. We had been reacquainted with the Jeep, the rock and dirt roads, and the backcountry that we love so dearly. On the long drive home, we were already planning our next off-pavement foray and it wouldn't be so long in coming!

After the bridge is crossed, the road in Crystal Canyon is on the right (in the downhill direction). This helps the driver better judge where the edge of the road is relative to their tires. The road remains narrow with a long drop to the rocks and river below.

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.

The road eventually climbs away from the river and widens a bit. Drivers are faced with a choice: continue down the river past the most photographed mining building in all of Colorado, or take a right up into Lead King Basin. Both routes are beautiful and end in the historic town of Marble.

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