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.
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.
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.
Our lunch stop brought us to Animas Forks, one of the largest and best preserved ghost towns in the area and a gateway to the Alpine Loop. An eerie presence might be felt as you walk through some of the homes and buildings inhabited by men, women, and children of another era. Following our mid-day stop, the ascent up and over California Pass was another challenging section of this trail, which includes the remains of the Mountain Queen Mine. The mineshaft goes 400 feet deep to meet a quarter-mile-long tunnel going back to lower California Gulch.
Our afternoon drive brought us to Silverton, a location with bragging rights among Colorado towns as having the most historically significant buildings and areas designated as historic districts in the National Register of Historic Places, as well as a number of properties named as National Historic Landmarks. It also has the distinction of being the only place in Colorado with three overlapping National Historic Landmarks: The town itself;the Shenandoah-Davis Mine; and the Durango-Silverton narrow-gauge Railroad. Jagged mountain peaks flank this historic mining town, which appears perilously placed between two rugged San Juan passes. Leftover mining roads are fun fourwheel routes (such as the Alpine Loop, which crosses two passes to Ouray-23 miles away-and Lake City). Silverton is also the infamous location where Butch Cassidy and his gang launched their bankrobbing career, when they robbed the San Miguel County Bank in 1889.
As our Ouray Jeep Jamboree came to a close, we had also been able to evaluate many attributes of the new Grand Cherokee diesel. Our Overland model had heated seats in both rows, perfect to mitigate the climate in this region's high elevations. We also appreciated the 3.0L turbodiesel's 376 lb-ft of on-tap torque for the steep uphill climbs and loose-rock descents. Outfitted with Quadra-Drive II, this new Jeep combines a two-speed transfer case with electronic limitedslip differentials, giving nearly instant response to wheel slippage. We made a pledge to come back at the same time next year. This time, we plan to enjoy the same fall-colored vistas, but drive another Jeep vehicle along new trails.
In 2007, Jeep Jamboree USA scheduled more than 30 backcountry adventures in many of the nation's most challenging and scenically stunning areas. Designed to coincide with drivers' various skill levels and budgets, Jamborees include a full two-day, family-oriented four-wheel-drive trek over a variety of trails. Tow hooks are mandatory for wilderness journeys on trails rated 4-7. Registration fees cover all necessary permits, experienced guides for the entire trip if needed, three meals on both Friday and Saturday ("Just Trails" adventures include evening meals only), continental breakfast on Sunday, and an official Jeep Jamboree T-shirt. For more information about the 2008 Jamboree schedule, go to www.jeep jamboreeusa.com or call 530/333-4777.
The Alpine Loop encompasses some 65 miles of old mining roads between Lake City, Ouray, and Silverton. Most sections can be easily navigated in a two-wheel-drive vehicle with high ground clearance. A few sections have rock shelves and sandy, uphill tracks that require high ground clearanceand four-wheel drive. When not 'wheeling, you can tour the Bachelor-Syracuse Mine, experiencing what it was like to be a miner, while admiring the many original historic buildings that were spared fires that swept through many other similar 19th-century mining towns.
Black Bear Pass is rated a 5 out of 5 (or a 10 on a scale of 1-10) because of its steep track, three-point turns, and the need for four-wheel drive and low gears. Access is by navigating the picturesque and serpentine Million Dollar Highway to the top of Red Mountain Pass, which requires that you go up and over Black Bear, an elevation of 13,000 feet. Highlights include seeing Ingram Falls and the great Bridal Veil falls, with Telluride seen off in the distance. After a visit to Telluride, you can take a gondola ride to the summit for more views of the area, and hop back on the Million Dollar Highway using the Ophir Pass.
Jeep Rental Companies
San Juan Scenic Jeep Tours & Historic Western Hotel: 970/325-4645; 888/624-8403.
Colorado West Jeep Tours, Rentals: 800/648-JEEP (5337); 970/325-4014.