Black Bear Road

Colorado, July 2009


This is another of Lil Willy's Trip Reports from Dave and Ruth in Wyoming.

Black Bear Road LPWho doesn't remember the pop and country hit song Convoy by C.W. McCall in 1975? Coming out less than two years before I could legally drive, this was a new kind of song; I loved the stuff. Convoy was just my introduction. Then I heard Wolf Creek Pass, Old Home Filler' up and Keep on Trucking Café, Crispy Critters, Aurora Borealis, and Roses for Mama. But none had the effect on me of the title song of C.W.'s first album, Black Bear Road.

Black Bear Road (the road, not the song) is a steep, narrow, one-way four-wheel-drive road descending nine switchbacks from the Black Bear Mine and Pass area west of Silverton, Colorado, down into Telluride, in the San Juan Mountains.

I was somewhat familiar with the area, and I knew where the Black Bear Road turned off from Hwy. 550 just south of Red Mountain Pass. I had taken a highway road trip with my Dad years ago over the "Million Dollar Highway," among other places. Another time through the region was when "me and Ruth and the kids was on a campout in the mountains" (C.W.'s lyrics) during which trip I had bought some Jeeping maps of the area. And of course, there was always the map study itself, one of my favorite pastimes.

A coworker from years ago in Wyoming, originally from Connecticut, while living in Colorado, had Jeeped those San Juan Mountains. He told me of a ghost town above Silverton called "Animas Fox". After some confusion looking at the maps, and listening to his tale, I finally realized this easterner was actually saying "Animas Forks!" His talk just added fuel to the fire attracting me to the area.

Black Bear signIn July 2009, Ruth and I finally made our maiden voyage to four-wheel the beautiful San Juan Mountains of Colorado, often referred to as the Switzerland of America. Of course we took Lil Willy.Now Lil Willy is in great original condition. We don't really care for extreme four-wheeling, and we definitely don't want to tear up our classic vintage piece of machinery. Besides, we don't have a roll-bar or seat belts, so we try to keep our wheeling in the "easy to moderate" category, even though the Willys is quite capable of many "difficult" trail situations. So I was still uncertain if we would actually try to drive the Black Bear Road as it's rated a Class 5 Difficult.

We left home early in the day on July 28 and overnighted at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park north of Ouray, Colorado. The next morning we saw some of the sights in the park and then turned south. We made another side trip to the Box Canyon Falls above Ouray before continuing south on Colorado Hwy. 550 (see a map of the area, 100K GIF, in a new window.) This is a beautiful paved drive through gorgeous country. We passed through a snow-slide shed and maneuvered through several switchbacks before stopping at the overlook to view the west slope faces of Red Mountains #2 and #3, and the operations of the Idarado mine.At the overlook we met a woman who, seeing our Jeep up on the trailer, told us how her Dad had probably installed our windshield at the Willys assembly plant in Toledo, Ohio 55 years previously. After a delightful conversation we continued on and turned left at Silverton.

We stopped at the Visitor Center and enjoyed another nice visit with a couple of lady volunteers who helped us plan our camping and four-wheel drive activities for the next few days. We learned the large camping area at Eureka, east up from Silverton, has become an ATV staging location on weekends so we we're glad we had arrived mid-week. Once at the Eureka campground we found it still held too many people for our tastes, so we located a nice secluded camp spot on a side road just to the west and south.

Animas ForksWe made camp and unloaded the Jeep, then took an evening drive up to the Animas Forks Ghost Town site. Here we found quite a number of original structures (150K JPEG) in various stages of stabilization and repair. The site is managed by the United States Federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), but successful through the vigilant efforts of many fine people and organizations. When you visit Animas Forks, or any of the mines and buildings in this region, remember to treat what you find with respect. Help those of the future to have as much enjoyment of this wonderful place as you are having yourself.

After visiting Animas Forks, and taking lots of pictures, we made our way back down the road to our camp site below Eureka, had dinner, made our plan for the following day, and retired for the night. The next morning we were up early, had coffee and a hearty breakfast, and then began what would end up being a 70 mile double loop route, including seven mountain summit crossings, each near or well over 12,000 feet! We packed a lunch.

Picayune GulchAbove Eureka and before Animas Forks, we turned left on the Picayune Gulch Road and took off the top. It was still too cold to lay flat the windshield, but we had it folded within another hour, our view unrestricted. Once on Picayune Gulch Road, we immediately began a steep ascent. The scenery on this stretch was perhaps the most magnificent of our entire trip, consisting mostly of steep, wide open mountain slopes, stands of evergreens, and covered with a variety of wildflowers and grasses.

SummitThe sky cover was scattered cumulus hinting at the storms that would come later in the day, but at the moment allowing sun shafts through to patchwork illuminate the surrounding views. It was simply stunning! Except for a one other vehicle, and a string of about 8 or 10 dirt bikes and ATVs traveling politely in a widely spaced single file, we had the road, the mountains, and a couple of hours to ourselves.

We topped out from Picayune Gulch on the summit west of Treasure Mountain Peak (12,723 feet) and began the descent into Placer Gulch.

Sound Democrat MillNow into the detritus covered slopes on the other side, we descended several switchbacks to a side road leading to the "Sound Democrat Mill". We turned right and drove a short distance to its small parking area, where we could leave the Jeep and walk over to, and through, the mill. As we pulled up, a tour Jeep with the driver and several paying customers was just getting ready to leave, so we chatted with them for a minute and then had the site to ourselves.

Back in the Jeep, continuing our descent eastward, we intersected the California Gulch Road just above and north of Animas Forks; we turned left and started up hill again. In this area we found more vehicles driving the road, many going the opposite direction on their way from Ouray to Engineer Pass via the Alpine Loop.

California PassStill high in elevation, it was just a short distance up to California Pass (12,930 feet) where we took our place in line for a photo op with the sign, viewed turquoise colored Lake Como, and chatted with fellow trail riders, who were admiring our classic iron. One man on a nice ATV, referred to Lil Willy and said, "You must have a lot of money tied up in that thing". I replied, "Probably not as much as you have in your ATV." He was surprised.

Eventually we mounted up and descended toward Lake Como. We turned left and traversed between the lake on our right, and Hurricane Peak to the left, and drove over Hurricane Pass (12,703 feet). Parallel to Cement Creek, we made another descent, checked the maps and planned the remainder of the day. It was early afternoon, and we had not yet stopped to eat our lunch. The sky had continued to get heavier from late morning until now, and we had been debating about raising the top for at least the past hour.

Red MountainWe got out and put up the top, just as a heavier sprinkle hit. We could go south from here through Gladstone and on into Silverton and back to camp, or we could continue west and through Corkscrew. We chose the latter. Climbing steeply again we drove over the saddle south of Red Mountain #1 (12,216 feet) and a grand vista spread before us.To the west, the back and east sides of Red Mountains #2 and #3, the front and west face of Red Mountain #1, where we stood, including the four switchbacks below us on the road we were about to take, and the canyon to the northwest called Corkscrew Gulch. Descending the rocky switch-backed west face of Red Mountain #1 was a tremendous thrill. At the bottom, heavier rain threatened so we put on the doors and finally ate our lunch.

After lunch we continued down Corkscrew Gulch toward Ironton and Hwy. 550. This is a really fun descent through forest, interesting soils, dips in the road, and mud pits. Rain had just come through this stretch and we were glad we were heading down trail instead of up because, in more than a few places, the road had the appearance of easily causing a "stuck" if vehicle momentum was lost.

By the time we reached the blacktop highway, we were in a pretty steady rain and glad we had a Jeep with a top over our heads, instead of an ATV or dirt bikes. We ran Lil Willy up the highway in the rain with the other traffic and topped out over Red Mountain Pass (11047 feet). Just south of the summit we turned off the highway to the west, and onto the upper Black Bear Road.

TellurideFor most of the day, I had subconsciously been heading toward this spot. Now that we were here, we decided to at least go to the top at Black Bear Pass where we understood the one-way road and difficult section began down into Telluride. We could easily turn around at the top and back-track this trail, avoiding the Class 5 Difficulties of the Black Bear Road, the terrifying switchbacks, and the likely vehicle damage we would suffer. We could also avoid such discomforts as spending the night on the mountain, and the exorbitant costs of a tow truck charge on a remote mountain road. Every local we talked to, had warned us of these legitimate concerns.

Additionally, it was late in the day, and I figured it would be a late night getting back to camp on our side of the mountain. I remembered C.W.'s lyrics stating that Ouray was 50 miles away from Telluride, by way of the regular highway, jokingly adding that the Black Bear Road was a shortcut. I was not all that excited to return to camp in Lil Willy, in the dark, on a 55 mph highway at 40-45 mph, which is just about the most he likes to do. And I knew the Imogene Pass 4X4 Road, also a Class 5 Difficult, was not something I wanted to do in the dark after an already long day.

The one ace I was holding was my map knowledge of the Ophir Pass 4X4 Road, one mountain to the south, and it was rated "easy to moderate". That was an acceptable return route, and of course there was always the "buy lodging" option that always just seems to hang there below our tight-fisted horizon. In the back of my mind I was still thinking we could do the Black Bear Road.

Black BearSo again the top came off and we drove on up to the Black Bear Pass (12,840 feet) and from there could see most of the way down into Telluride. We never did come to the one-way road sign, and believing vandals had removed it, we decided to keep going as we could always turn around when the road got too difficult and use the excuse that we didn't know it was a one way road. Besides, there was no point in it being a one way road, as there was still plenty of room to get around an on-coming vehicle.

SignWe left the pass and started our descent. Rain threatened in most quadrants, but especially to the west where we had to go. We crossed the long scree-covered slope of Trico Peak and dropped into Ingram Basin, finally coming to a stop on the west end of the basin at a sign (150K JPEG) reading "ONE-WAY DOWN HILL ONLY BEYOND THIS POINT". So there it was, and now for a final decision. Neither one of us wanted to turn around, but I was still concerned with vehicle damage and the relatively late hour of the day.

Ruth spoke up and said that this narrow, steep, tight switch-backed road was made back in the day, before "after-market" add-ons, probably for, and by, the exact type of vehicle that we drove, our Lil Willy. Ruth's wisdom prevailed and she convinced me. Back on went the top and we rolled past the sign just as the rain began to fall.

TellurideWe dropped through a few easy turns and came to the edge of a mountain where we could look right down into Telluride. Rain shafts fell all around us. We used the wipers and driving slowly, crawled over the stair-steps, making three-point turns on each of the nine switchbacks (300K JPEG). We hung right on the edge of the steep slope and thrilled at the experience.

As the descent continued, we came closer with each turn to what appeared to be somebody's house (280K JPEG), built right on the edge of a cliff perhaps two thirds of the way down. A lovely ribbon waterfall began right beside it and fell unobstructed for several hundred feet. We came to learn this was "Bridal Veil Falls", and the building is apparently a private home, and electrical generator, providing about 25% of Telluride's current electricity supply. The trail was very tight in spots, and I was happy for our small narrow vehicle. But we never scraped bottom, or a side panel, even keeping the driver side rear-view mirror intact.

At the lower switchbacks the road became wide and easy, and we blew by the parking area at the bottom of the trail. The rain was falling pretty good now and we motored into Telluride. We thought about stopping for dinner, but nothing really popped out at us. Stopped at a light in downtown, we saw another CJ-3B parked across the street. We pulled into a gas station and fueled up, used the facilities, checked our on board food and water supplies, took a gander at the map and hit the road.Pavement to the west and south, with a left turn at Ophir, once again got us on dirt.

Now heading back east we drove though aspens and pines. The rain ended and as the sun on the western horizon peaked out from underneath the overcast sky, our eastern view turned into a spectacular yellow and orange painting. Up and up we went, finally breaking out of the trees onto the rocky west slope across the long steep face of Lookout Peak. We drove right across the face on a narrow road and before we knew it, we were at Ophir Pass (11,808 feet) and once again back on our side of the mountain.

Ouray MistThis next descent, through a steep canyon shared with Mineral Creek, was a beautiful after-the-rain drive with very large patches of rising mist and fog condensing in the mountain air after evaporating from the rain-soaked earth. The scent of the air was a combination of cold, clear freshness, mixed with the pungent, warm, moist, well-composted mountain soils. There were few other vehicles, but one of the perhaps three we passed, stopped along side us, and the driver, the "bumper sticker man", gave us two of his creations, along with a friendly salutation, and we continued on.

WindowsIn short order we were back on Hwy. 550, and into Silverton. Looking for a memorable place to sit down and eat dinner, we were disappointed to find our preferred dining spot already closed. So we headed back to camp, climbed into the camper, and Ruth made another fine camp meal.The next morning we started out again on another big day, albeit with fewer passes. The country was just as beautiful as on the previous day. We rolled past Animas Forks and continued north to Engineer Pass, enjoying the gorgeous views to the west and southwest as we climbed. It was colder today so we kept the top on and the windshield up, although we did roll down the windows.

Engineer PassThere were quite a few more vehicles today, especially over Engineer Pass itself. Once over the pass (12,800 feet) and now on the sunny side, we removed the top. Descending to the east we lost over 4000 feet and drove about 20 miles, stopping for lunch in Lake City, Colorado.

After lunch we continued south through Lake City and came across a small gas station where a banner sign (200K JPEG) stretched across an old truck read, "Michael Martin Murphey Concert." Well now that really caught our eye. We had the pleasure of making Murph's acquaintance when our son promoted one of his Wyoming shows. We spoke with the Lake City show promoter and he said Murph had either taken a Jeep up to Engineer Pass, the very road we had just come down, or was in town at the moment and hadn't yet left!

I had come to learn Murph is an old Jeep lover (although not as much as he loves horses) and he had never seen our Willys. I still had Murph's phone number, so we gave him a shout. We left a voice mail, hoping we could get in a hello, and perhaps he could see our Jeep before we left town. When he called back a couple of hours later, he invited us to his show that night, but by that time, we were back up in the mountains heading for Cinnamon Pass and, due to poor mobile phone coverage, we never got the voice mail until the following day when we were back down in Ouray.

We left Lake City and drove pavement again for awhile on Hwy. 149, and then turned right for Lake San Cristobal. Driving lakeshore for a few miles along this beautiful body of water, we left the lake and continued west to the Wagner Gulch turnoff and the Carson Ghost Town. This began a very enjoyable side trip with a quiet, peaceful drive though the beautiful mountains on a steep two-track. We gained 2000 feet of elevation in only four miles, then parked and viewed one of the best restored ghost town sites in the area.

Cinnamon PassAfter the Carson side trip we continued west for Cinnamon Pass. Climbing once more through spectacular scenery, we switchbacked up the mountain, over the pass, and back down into the Animas Forks area. Another long and exhilarating day was finished as we reached camp, had dinner, and relaxed a bit before bed.

Pulling up stakes the next morning, we loaded Lil Willy back on the trailer and made the drive back down to Ouray from Silverton and Red Mountain Pass. We stopped in Ouray for a walk up and down the streets, and a successful attempt to find an area-related sticker for Lil Willy's side panel. In one shop visit, there on the counter of the general store, was a small selection of music CDs. Right in front was C.W. McCall's album; the same one I had come to love on cassette tape as a kid over thirty years ago. We forked over the cash.

Back in the truck and northbound on the highway heading toward Grand Junction, we were taken back in time as we listened to: Convoy, Wolf Creek Pass, Old Home Filler' up and Keep on Trucking Café, Crispy Critters, Aurora Borealis, and Roses for Mama, and of course Black Bear Road. We had driven the Black Bear Road; another lifelong desire completed. Thank you Lil Willy, our venerable CJ-3B.

And thanks to Dave and Ruth for the wonderful story and photos. The map of the area (100K GIF) is courtesy of Ouray Jeeping, which has information you should read if you're thinking of driving these roads. -- Derek Redmond

See more of Lil Willy's Trip Reports on CJ3B.info.

Also on CJ3B.info, see photos of a 1959 Jeep Caravan in the San Juan Mountains, from LIFE magazine.

Elsewhere on the web, see another map and more stories at 4X4 Adventures in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado.

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Last updated 10 July 2010 by Derek Redmond redmond@cj3b.info
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