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Colorado’s Poughkeepsie Gulch and More

Posted in Features on September 16, 2016
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Photographers: Mike Tarvin

You’ve heard us talk about Moab, Utah, the Rubicon Trail, Johnson Valley, and other well-known off-road hot spots. These get the lion’s share of attention when it comes to wheeling places. The fact is there’s a ton of other places all around the nation that keep us up at night thinking about four-wheeling.

One state we would really like to spend more time in (like weeks or months) well away from paved roads is Colorado. This state has tons of dirt roads and trails that take you back in time and through beautiful high-elevation passes both on public and private land. With beautiful trees, rocks, creeks, rivers, lakes, and the evidence of man’s attempts at taming her, Colorado in the summer has a lot to offer anyone who likes to go four-wheeling. While several books could be written on trials in the state (and a few have), we occasionally get to head to Colorado and enjoy a trail or two over a couple days’ time.

Poughkeepsie Gulch is difficult to spell and nearly impossible for the uninitiated (or out-of-towner) to pronounce at first. Pronunciation aside, Poughkeepsie Gulch is a fun trail that mixes and mingles with at least a few other prominent off-road trails near the town of Ouray, Colorado. Early in August we headed up to Colorado to spend as much time as possible in the dirt enjoying the mountain vistas and cool mountain air. Together with our pal Mike Tarvin, we headed south out of town, started up the entrance to Engineer Pass, and turned south up Poughkeepsie Gulch. From there the trail runs up a beautiful and pristine valley meandering with a creek, past a few former mining operations, and on up above the tree line.

As you gain altitude the trail becomes more and more rocky, eventually leading to an obstacle known as The Wall and a few other technical sections of trail. The trail then crawls on up past the beautiful Lake Como. Beyond this we took a fork in the road to the right towards Hurricane Pass and on to Corkscrew Gulch with the left heading towards California, Gulch. This allowed us to stay on dirt as we headed back towards Ouray.

In all, it was a very enjoyable drive that pretty much anybody with a mildly modified 4x4 could do without any worries. So get out there and git you some exploring done!

A few miles south of Ouray, Colorado, a left turn off Highway 550 at a sign for Alpine Loop leads to the beginning of Engineer Pass and Poughkeepsie Gulch. With a right turn a few miles up the trail we started Poughkeepsie Gulch following our friend Mike Tarvin in his 1947 CJ-2A. Summer in the mountains of Colorado is beautiful, with wildlife and flowers all around. We hit the trail on an overcast and rainy August day.
Poughkeepsie Gulch is probably not the hardest trail you’ll ever run, but it is fun. The rocks require low-range and driver skill. Add in a little weather and things get tougher. Also, the vistas are breathtaking. We got a fairly early start and saw several deer along the way as well as a marmot or two, plenty of birds, and even a pika.
This steep and long climb is all loose rock. A locker will help but is not necessary for the entirety of the trail (there is a bypass on the hardest section of the trail where lockers and a winch are more than a good idea . . . you’ll see why in a minute).
Just below The Wall the trail splits. The Wall and more technical obstacles are to the right, with an easier bypass to the left. This area is pretty well marked if it’s your first time, but there are a few less-traveled and unmarked branches off the main trail. We stayed right at this fork and headed for The Wall. The trail quickly becomes more rocky and off-camber, but we are betting just about anyone with 4WD could make it to the base of The Wall. Getting up The Wall may be another story, depending on the conditions.
With a little rain The Wall was slick. Tarvin played around on a few different lines, but traction was an issue and it didn’t look good for us climbing this obstacle without a winch.
No surprise, Rosco P. Drivetrain’s tires didn’t want to grab the rocks either. We decided to pull down off the obstacle in hopes that the rocks would dry a bit more and we could make the climb. There are a few winch points at the top of the obstacle, but we weren’t quite ready to resort to that.
As we waited for the rocks to dry, another group caught up with us. The first rig winched up The Wall after trying a few lines. With little warning and a few tries at different lines, Vanessa Popik made all of us look pretty silly by driving up the far right side of the obstacle with a bit of wheel speed. Her 2004 TJ Rubicon Wrangler is a manual, and from what we saw on The Wall, this girl can drive!
With the correct line in mind, Tarvin (pictured) and Rosco (not pictured) drove right up The Wall without winching but with two lockers engaged for each vehicle. Reportedly if the trail is dry this obstacle becomes much easier, but the puddles and mud on the trail packed everyone’s tires with a natural lubricant this day. Rain in the summers is common in the area.
This beautiful, recently finished Bronco belonging to Mike Allibone made several valiant attempts at The Wall, but open diffs and a stubborn carburetor meant the Ford had to use a winch to get to the top of the precarious climb.
Just above The Wall the trail continues to have a few smaller climbs and descents that are fun. There are a few different lines if you want to play. We posed Rosco as the rain started to fall . . . because we’re off-road poseurs and the dog isn’t a great action photographer.
Uphill from The Wall area and bypass is Lake Como. The water is a beautiful blue and plenty cool. Beyond the lake is a fork in the road. To the left is California Gulch, and to the right is Hurricane pass and then Corkscrew Pass. We stayed right and took this shot near Hurricane Pass.
From here on down Corkscrew Gulch is an easier trail than Poughkeepsie Gulch leading back to pavement and Ouray, Colorado. Corkscrew is no less scenic, with views of Red Mountain and several fields filled with wildflowers and even wild strawberries. For more information on these trails and others we recommend the Fun Trek’s third edition of “The Guide to Colorado Backroads & 4-Wheel-Drive Trails” by Charles A. Wells and Matt Petersen.


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