As much fun as road-testing our UACJ-6D with the Cummins R2.8 Turbo Diesel crate engine in Colorado was, all those paved road miles were about to push us over the edge. Here we were in some of the most beautiful country in the U.S. with thousands of dirt roads, trails, and mountain passes all around, and we had almost zero dirt miles under our 38-inch mud tires. We had a Jeep, a dog, a tent, some food and drink, and a need to explore. So we did what any sane off-roader would do: grabbed a map, veered off the tarmac, and hit the dirt. Our plan was to hit a few new-to-us passes, a few oldies-but-goodies, and slowly head back to our home state of Arizona.
After parting with the folks from Cummins we hit the road towards Mosquito Pass near Alma, Colorado. We turned off the road, locked the hubs, and aired down the Falkens to run the pass westward into the town of Leadville. From there we set up camp near Turquoise Lake, cooked dinner over a camp fire, and relaxed in the cool mountain air before a restful night of sleep.
The next day we drove south to Buena Vista, where we met up with a few friends and then headed uphill towards the town of St. Elmo, Tincup Pass, Mirror Lake, and the town of Tincup. After that was Gunnison and on to Lake City, where we set up camp for another campfire and a cool night in a tent.
The next morning we hit part of the Alpine loop, running Cinnamon Pass, cruised past the ghost town of Animas Forks, down Mineral Creek trail, and on to the small town of Ouray. There we met up with our pals Mike Tarvin and Joel Swedberg, both tour drivers for Switzerland of America Jeep tours. We also hooked up with off-road legend Ned Bacon and his wife, Kat. Being the off-road nuts we are, all decided to head toward Imogene Pass for a quick up-and-back trip. After a rainy night in Ouray we headed south over Ophir Pass and finally back towards home in the low desert of Arizona. We covered a lot of ground both on-road and off- in the UACJ-6D. Check out the photos, and start planning your Colorado off-road trip.
Once in the town of Alma, Colorado, we headed west towards Mosquito Pass, the highest pass road open to motorized travel. The trail is stunning on the way up, at the breathtaking summit of 13,185 feet, and on the way down. The pass is fairly easy in a 4x4 with low range, but like all these passes you pay a high price for any mistakes. Also, Mosquito Pass is frequently blocked by snow well into the summer, so check with locals before attempting it.
Here’s the UACJ-6D at the summit of Mosquito Pass. Just east of this sign is an historic marker for John L. “Father” Dyer, a true Colorado pioneer who crossed this pass on foot using skis and snowshoes several times a year carrying mail back and forth while preaching in Leadville and the town of Buckskin Joe.
Near Turquoise Lake, just west of the town of Leadville, we found a spot to settle down for the evening. We made a small campfire, set up our tent, and got to cooking some vittles for supper.
The UACJ-6D goes down the road much like a 2015 JKU (with a diesel and old sheetmetal attached to the top) and we didn’t get passed by many vehicles on our trip to Colorado. We were, however, happy to yield to a vintage Ferrari and then enjoyed the smells of unburnt fuel after the car buzzed past. We also got passed by what sure looked like a Porsche 550 Spyder between Leadville and Buena Vista. Later we would see the same Ferrari and other vintage sports cars in Ouray. We like to think that the UACJ-6D caught the eye of the vintage car nuts like they caught our eye.
Near Buena Vista we visited with a few old friends and their people, including this electric-powered M38. From there our human friends recommended heading up to the partial ghost town of St. Elmo, over Tincup Pass to Mirror Lake, and on to the town of Tincup. There’s a bunch of cool-looking camping spots on the eastern side of the pass just west of the town of St. Elmo. You can bet we’ll be back!
Tincup Pass is at 12,154 feet elevation and is also part of the Continental Divide. Water from one side flows to the Atlantic Ocean, while water from the other side flows towards the Pacific.
Just on the West side of the pass the trail splits. To the north is the more difficult “Old Tincup Route” and to the South the newer more tame version. Being who we are and driving what we were driving, we headed down the Old Route portion of the trail. We got the UACJ-6D all flexed out and wished we were running this part of the trail from west to east. You cannot take those lines in a vintage Ferrari.
The old mining town of Tincup is now part ghost town, part summer vacation home town, and for a few tough souls a year-round residence. Tincup was apparently once a fairly large town known for violence. In the 1860s, Indian attacks were prevalent, and later (the 1880s) two town marshals were killed. The Tincup Town Hall was built in 1903 and is still in great shape.
After a brief stop in Tincup we hit the road to Taylor Reservoir, down to Gunnison, and on to Lake City, where we set up camp near the eastern end of Engineer Pass.
The next morning we woke, broke camp, headed into Lake City for some breakfast, and then hit Cinnamon Pass towards the Ghost town of Animas Forks, down Mineral Creek Trail, and on into the town of Ouray. Cinnamon Pass is one of our favorites. At the summit are tons of cinnamon-colored rocks and mine tailings.
The western end of cinnamon Pass overlooks the ghost town of Animas Forks. This ghost town has been stabilized by the Bureau of Land Management, and you can enter many of the buildings. It’s a great way to get an idea of what life was like for Colorado’s miners and pioneers. From Animas Forks you can turn left towards Silverton, or head roughly straight to California Pass and turn right to meet up with Engineer Pass (which will take you back to Lake City), or Mineral Creek. We headed down Mineral Creek Trail towards Ouray.
Mineral Creek Trail is a beautiful section of trail that accesses the end of Cinnamon Pass and Engineer Pass (as well as Poughkeepsi Gulch). This image is stark but serves as a good reminder that this is not your average off-road driving. The trials are fairly light on technical driving, but if you make one wrong move you and everyone in the vehicle could easily die. Humans make mistakes, so always take your time and be extra careful on any and all of Colorado’s trails and passes. Way too many folks die or are severely injured every year.
In Ouray we met up with a few friends and decided we had time to run up to the summit of Imogene Pass. The pass runs between the towns of Ouray and Telluride and has amazing views, some technical spots, and a few creek crossings. In our group were our longtime pal Mike Tarvin driving a stock 2000 Jeep Cherokee, off-road legends Ned and Kat Bacon in their well-equipped 2015 Ford F-250 (4WOR cover truck, Aug. 2016), and our buddy Joel Swedberg and his buddy Lance in his 2015 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon JKU. The Bacons were on a vacation just passing through Colorado. Tarvin, Swedberg, and Lance are drivers for Switzerland of America Jeep Tours.
Yet another reminder that one simple mistake can cause great injury and death on these high mountain passes. Take everything slow and easy.
Imogene Pass has beautiful vistas. The trail up to the summit (just shy of the highest at 13,114 feet) is one of our favorites because it is a bit more technical. You can follow the trail past several old mines and down into the town of Telluride. We had dinner plans in Ouray, so we headed back down the way we came. Those black clouds were an ominous sign of things to come. As we descended, the weather changed and a clear day turned into heavy rain. The weather in this area, like in the rest of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and elsewhere, can change quickly.
The next morning we hit the road south back to our home in a suburb of Phoenix, Arizona, but not before hitting one more pass. Ophir Pass could literally be driven in a car with decent ground clearance (if the conditions are right and you know how to drive off-road) but it’s still one of our favorite passes. The views are breathtaking, and you pass through the idyllic town of Ophir.