High Times At 13,000 Feet
Some call Ouray "the Switzerland of America." Located southwest of Denver, it's surrounded by the snow-capped San Juan Mountains that rise 8,000 feet from the Uncompahgre River Valley with breathtaking views in every direction,year round 106-degree hot springs, and dozens of waterfalls. And, while this historic community has only a small population of hardy full-timers-854, at last count-it has an international flair.
Four-wheeling aficionados, however, call it by its other name: "Jeep Capital of the World." That's because it's one of the best jumping-off points for hundreds of miles of backcountry trails, and because there are a number of purveyors who will take you on guided tours to see some of the most majestic scenery in North America. Even better, there are a plethora of Jeep rental companies that will let you hire a Rubicon Wrangler to do the driving. That is, of course, if you don't come to town in your own rig.
Each fall, when the lowland cottonwoods are colored yellow, the highland aspens turn golden, and traces of orange and red foliage dot the evergreen forests, Jeep Jamboree USA leads its annual adventure along a selection of the hair-raising trails that have precipitous drops and which wind among jagged cliffs high into the mountains. Despite the elevation of almost all the trails in the region, there is a variety of trail ratings ranging from extreme to easy, allowing those less familiar with four-wheeling technique to practice in a safe setting, with a trail guide's instruction.
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We came to Ouray, because we love the town and its history. This former mining town, named for the Ute Native American Chief Ouray, churned out $20 million in shiny nuggets during the Gold Rush era in the late 1870s. As a result, Ouray, along with other nearby towns such as Telluride and Silverton, was all at one time a supply town for high-mountain mining operations. The result is a labyrinth of interconnected trails that we love to visit and revisit for great four-wheeling. And the best season is fall.
We also came to evaluate the all-new 2008 Jeep Grand Cherokee Diesel, to check out its on-road ride and off-road prowess. We knew the 450-mile fuel range of this powerplant would give us ample opportunity to explore this scenic and historic region, without searching for fuel along the way-and it did.
Ouray is the headquarters for this Jamboree, and after a hearty breakfast, we joined our trail guide and preselected group, snaking the roadway that leads out of the town's colorful box canyon to the trail head. The view was picture-postcard perfect, as we twisted our way up dirt tracks that took us along the majestic Imogene Trail, rated a 4 out of 5 in terms of difficulty.
The famed Imogene Pass, between Ouray and nearby Telluride, brings drivers to a perilous and windy elevation of 13,114 feet, with views of Telluride, Ingram Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, and Black Bear Pass-an infamous trail, a true "black diamond" of diffi culty, and not for the faint of heart.
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Named for a prospector's wife, Imogene Pass links two old ghost mining towns- Camp Bird and Tomboy-where stops allow for history lessons that become part of the adventure. Another reward is seeing the spectacular peaks of Red Mountain from the top of Imogene Pass, where the vistas are as thrilling as surviving the small dirt tracks across and along some areas with precipitous drops. At the end of the trail, we descended to the town of Telluride, nestled in a canyon born out of the glacial age at the base of the San Juans. This town leaves an indelible impression on all who enter, including celebrities, skiers and artists, and others who live there.
The next day we joined a group ride on the Picayune and Placer Gulch trails. Located northeast of Silverton, there are a number of fun and scenic short-loop trails that are interwoven and give a wide variety of views and diverse terrain for four-wheeling. Rich in ghost towns, mines, and 360-degree scenery, the Picayune Gulch portion of this trail system is extremely steep on the lower sections. One must-see stop is the Treasure Mountain mine, where you can check out the mine's out-buildings, boarding house, mill, and a number of auxiliary buildings. The 13,000-foot pass has views into Placer Gulch, the Needles, and ranges of mountains to the southeast.