Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Around the West in 95 Horsepower: Exploring Colorado's San Juan Mountains

The Teal Terror in California Gulch - Around the West in 95 Horsepower

By Andy Lilienthal; photos by Mercedes Lilienthal

In part four of Around The West in 95 Horsepower, Mercedes and I had run the famous trail over Imogene Pass, as part of our first day in Ouray, Colorado. 

The one thing we wanted to do in Ouray while we were there was the Imogene Pass and Last Dollar Road route, and we had competed that. If we had time and the weather would cooperate, I wanted to take Mercedes to the ghost town of Animas Forks, I wanted to visit Silverton, and if possible, visit the incredible abandoned Buffalo Boy Tram House. All of these places are nestled in uniquely scenic parts of Colorado's San Juan Mountains, which provide amazing vistas and fantastic terrain for hiking, biking, and four wheeling.

Before leaving camp we made a quick pitstop for a coffee in Ouray and a check of the forecast. It turns out the weather looked like it might hold out for the first part of the day, so we decided to go for it. Once again, I found myself brimming with excitement, not only to go exploring, but to bring Mercedes with me on this adventure.

We hopped on the legendary Million Dollar Highway towards Silverton with all of its twists, turns, sheer drop offs, and lack of guard rails. It’s a sight within itself. They were actually doing construction on part of the road, which looked like a feat of civil engineering. There were excavators on the cliff, people tied in with harnesses and ropes, and the whole thing looked as if it were cantilevered out over the canyon. I hope those workers got hazard pay.

Million Dollar Highway to Silverton, CO
Driving the Million Dollar Highway outside of Ouray, CO. Most stretches do not have any guard rails.
I had planned to go to the ghost town of Animas Forks, then to the incredible Buffalo Boy Tram House, then head into Silverton, and back to our camp (in that order). However, we missed the turn to the ghost town and ended up in Silverton first. This is OK, but it did throw a bit of a monkey wrench into our plan. Plus, I was a bit lost. I mean, I knew we were in Silverton, but even our map wasn't showing a good way to get to the Buffalo Boy Tram House.

We ended up going into the historic Grand Imperial Hotel, located on the dusty main drag in Silverton. The hotel was opened in 1882 and offers Victorian-style charm and tons of history. We asked a very helpful woman behind the front desk for some directions, and she happened to be well versed in the area’s trails. She recommended a full day's route that went up to Buffalo Boy, over to Animas Forks, and then to California Gulch back to the highway to Ouray. I was unfamiliar with California Gulch and the other passes around it, which include California Pass, Hurricane Pass, and Corkscrew Pass, but she said the drive was great, and as long as we had a capable vehicle, we’d make it. With this plan set, we hit the road.


Tram supports
Tram supports on the way up to Buffalo Boy Tram House
We headed northeast on the unpaved County Road 2 toward the turn to Buffalo Boy, which isn't terribly well marked. Once we found the turn, the trail up to the upper Buffalo Boy Tram House is narrow, steep, and has a host of switchbacks tight enough that I was glad to be in our subcompact Sidekick. I had done this trail in a four-door Jeep Wrangler JK in the past, and remember it being quite nerve wracking. And, unlike the well-traveled Imogene Pass we’d run the day before, there was absolutely no one out here.

The trail winds through aspens, making regular 180-degree switches up the steep grade. Stunning valley views complete with wildflowers and occasional abandoned cabins dot the stunning landscape, and you eventually begin to see support poles for the tram, which is located at 12,650-feet in elevation. The combination of steepness and width make this trail a white-knuckle affair which requires your full concentration. Add to this the fact we're really having to work the Sidekick's engine and can detect that "hot smell" of coolant, and we can can see what looks like an impending thunderstorm, this trek was definitely exciting.

We reach the tram and there’s still no sign of anyone else up here at all. Other than the breeze, it’s dead silent, and then we hear thunder. It looks like it’ll be a quick visit to the tram house. We grabbed the camera and started exploring. In fact, here's quick video shortly after exiting the truck:

The tram was used to send ore down the mountain for processing. Carts would dump the ore from the top of the tram, which would go into a chute, which would be loaded in to buckets, and sent down the tram. It was built in 1929, and must’ve been quite the undertaking to construct considering the rough terrain and elevation.

Buffalo Boy Tram House
Buffalo Boy Tram House
There are little bits of history all over the area; pieces of ceramic resistors, radiators, and cables all left over from when the mine was active. Speaking of activity, the lower tram house and 18.83 acres of land are actually for sale. I’m not sure if that includes the upper tram house or not.

Top of Buffalo Boy Tram Hosue
The top rails at the Buffalo Boy Tram House
We spent about a half hour at the upper tram house and the only thing we encountered was a marmot.

A marmot popping its head out from a hole in the ground at the Buffalo Boy Tram House site.
With more thunder in the distance, we decided to pack it in and head down the trail; we wanted to make it down before the rain came in and made the trail slick. On the way down we did encounter two ATVs, and at the lower portion of the trail, there was a tour vehicle carrying people to other historic mining sights in the area. Just as we exited the trail to the unpaved country road, the skies opened up—we got down just in time.


Buildings at Anamas Forks, Colorado
Some of the abandoned buildings in the ghost town of Animas Forks.
Thunder and lightning boomed and flashed all around us, and the rain poured down making County Road 2 a bit slick. The road also went from being fairly smooth to a rocky, bumpy affair. After some time, we reached Animas Forks, which had coating of small hail from the storm.

Once a thriving mining town, Animas Forks, located at 11,200 ft., was established in 1873. At one time it had a hotel, general store, saloon, and even a newspaper. However, now all that’s left are a handful of former dwellings and some mining ruins.

The people that lived here must’ve been extremely hearty, as the area can get feet of snow at a time. And back when the town was buzzing, people would be home-bound for months at a time. It wouldn’t have been an easy life. In fact, in 1884, there was a 23-day blizzard that dumped an astounding 25-feet of snow.

When the mines were depleted, the town was abandoned, and by the 1920s, the place was deserted. Nowadays, Animas Forks brings in nearly 100,000 visitors a year. The structures that still exist are maintained just enough to make them relatively safe for people to walk through, although you'd best watch your step. It’s a pretty incredible place.

Frisco Mine building outside of Animas Forks.
Another shot of the Frisco Mine building
So far, I’d been to all of these places in 2014 when I was here with the Jeep Jamboree. But now it was onto uncharted territory, at least for us. Luckily, our 4WD guide book showed these trails and gave us an idea of what to expect. But nothing could've prepared us for the astounding beauty we were about to encounter.

The Teal Terror headed toward California Gulch
En route to California Gulch in the Teal Terror.


We headed west on Country Road 9, passing a few other abandoned structures. After some time, we met up with County Road 19 and entered California Gulch.

California Gulch
California Gulch, with its winding trail, was one of the most beautiful places I'd ever been. 
This has to be one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever set foot. This vast valley looked like it was coated in a perfect covering of greens and browns from top to bottom, almost like it was wearing a soft coating of moss. At points, the valley seemed so immense you couldn't really put it into scale. At other times, the valley walls felt like you could reach out and touch both sides. The grandeur of this valley is simply astounding and must be seen to be believed. It was definitely one of my favorite places on earth.

We continued down the trail, ascending several steep switchbacks until arriving at California Pass, which sits at 12,960-feet.

San Juan Mountain Panorama
Click to for larger view of California Pass panorama
From here we could look down at alpine lakes, other dirt trails, and mountain peaks as far as the eye could see. We could’ve spent hours up here just listening to the deafening silence and occasional breezes in the mountain-top sanctuary. Despite the fact we could see others in the distance, this place had a feeling of solitude. And as much as we'd liked to have stayed, we had to press on.

Toyota FJ Cruiser on California Pass
One of the few 4x4s we saw on California Pass.
In the far-off distance, we noticed a couple of vehicles headed up the single-track path. And rather than encounter them and then decide who had to move to the cliff's edge, we waited for both vehicles to come up before descending.

We headed down the twisty trail, which clung to the mountainside and felt more like a mountain goat path than a vehicle path. A few of these turns were extremely sharp and required three-point maneuvers to negotiate—even in the Sidekick.

We eventually came upon Hurricane Pass (12,730-feet), and soon found ourselves on the aptly named Corkscrew Pass. With twists, turns, and stunning views of rust-colored mountains, Corkscrew Pass was an unexpected treat.

The rusty San Jan Mountains
These peaks in the San Juan Mountains were filled with a myriad of color.
There was miles of winding trail on Corkscrew Pass, and we only encountered one other person all day, which was a good thing on these narrow trails. In fact, the gentleman coming up the other way on Corkscrew Pass stopped us and asked if there were other people up there, since he didn't want to have to pull over multiple times to let people by. We informed him that we'd only seen a couple of other vehicles, and they were already up at the top of California Pass. We wished him well, eventually exited the trail, and hit the pavement again, taking the Million Dollar Highway back to Ouray for the evening.

Man, what a day.

The Million Dollar Highway en route to Ouray, CO
With a lack of guardrails, you've got to pay attention on the Million Dollar Highway.


This would be our last of three nights in Ouray, and we decided to head downtown for a last meal. After chatting with some locals (and finding the place that I had wanted to eat was no longer in business), we settled upon what we were told were the best burgers in the town, found at a place called Maggie’s Kitchen.

Maggie's Kitchen Ouray, CO
The graffiti-covered walls of Maggie's Kitchen in Ouray, CO
You walk in and immediately noticed something very different about this place. Nearly every surface in the joint has been written on with markers. Travelers and tourists from all over the globe have left their mark on the walls, the tables, and the chairs, and this graffiti is encouraged.

Food at Maggie's Kitchen in Ouray, CO
Fantastic burgers, fries, coleslaw, and beer (From Mr. Grumpy Pants Brewing) at Maggie's Kitchen.
The burgers were some of the best we’d ever had, and the fries and slaw were top-notch. We walked next door to Mr. Grumpy Pants Brewing for a pint of stout, and eventually headed back to our campsite to settle in for a campfire, another beer, and talks of our day’s treks. During dinner, we ran into another couple, who overheard Mercedes and me discussing the forecast. We ended up talking to her and her husband about alternative routes to Moab, some of which were paved, some of which were not. We shared photos of our vehicles, to which the man responded, "You drove all the way out here in that?" when I showed him the Teal Terror. Best comment of the trip.

This day’s adventures were simply amazing. The weather held out (mostly), we saw what we wanted (and more), and ended up having more of an adventure than we ever could had anticipated. It's proof that even when things don't go as planned, they can end up being even better than expected. It was also a reminder about travel in general: You've got to be flexible in your plans.

The next day we’d depart Ouray for possibly one of the most famous adventure destinations in the U.S.: Moab.

Around the West in 95 Horsepower: Imogene Pass
Around the West in 95 Horsepower: Murtaugh to Ouray
Around the West in 95 Horsepower: Portland to Murtaugh
Around the West in 95 Horsepower: Intro and Preparation 

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