Pass Hoppers Trip

by Adam Mehlberg
photo by photos by Adam Mehlberg, Ray Comeau, Karla Harmon

We bid farewell to the Redcone and Radical Hill group at the upper junction of the Middle Fork of the Swan River and North Fork of the Swan River roads. It was a quick trip down to Swandyke where I stopped to check out a squeak in the drivers side front. After jacking up that side and spinning the tire it sounded like a brake squeak. Ray Comeau, Richard and Karla Harmon and I headed on down to the Parkville Road to connect with the Georgia Pass road.

Swandyke Cabin

Toward the top of Georgia Pass the navigation got a bit tough due to the number of braided routes and a few side roads that dead ended. Twice I was deceived by the roads (not lost mind you) and we had to back track and pick out the actual road again. Once at the top we started down the south side of Georgia pass on the graded gravel road. Just before coming out near Michigan Hill by Jefferson, Colorado Ray has to pull over. His alternator had been spiking, something was not right. Under the hood he found his positive winch cable had shorted to the tie down bold on his battery and melted the insulation on the cable while arc welding the tie down bolt. This was easily fixed and luckily his alternator regulator was still functional. That's two for Ray and one for me.

We hit Highway 285 and blew on through Fairplay looking for a forest access road near Trout Creek Pass so we could find a camp site. My access road was a pull off into a pasture, so we headed to the top of Trout Creek Pass and then south on a County road to Mushroom Gulch where we snagged a nice camp site for the evening. After the sunset and the stars came out we could see the Milky Way. It was a mild night only interrupted by the pack of coyotes that came through the gulch at 2:00am.

Next morning we headed down to Johnson's Village and fueled up before making our way to St. Elmo. The old ghost town was full of visitors and even has a new building. Our adventurers went through town and turned on the Tincup Pass road heading for less traffic. All along Tincup Pass there are now campsites that were full of campers so traffic on the pass was just as busy as town. Ray was having trouble with his CB, and Greg wasn't even on the trip? Ray could hear on one CB, but could not talk, and could talk on the other one he had, but it's speaker was pointed to the floor so he could not hear it very well. Ray also had to tighten the suspension link nut that was coming loose again.

Tincup Pass

At the top of Tincup Pass we stopped and braved the wind to look for a geocache. I used my GPS and the printed coordinates to find the longitude, then the latitude. Ray, Richard and Karla were following along. I said this is it, the cache is right here. Everyone started looking around and Karla asked if it could be under a rock. I said "Sure". She reached down and picked up a rock and there it was. Talk about excited. Karla said "I found it!" and grabbed the ammo can to see what was inside.

We read the log a few pages back and Karla added a paragraph about us and what we were doing on our trip. We left a Trailridge Runners 4WD club card in the cache and put it back in its hiding place for the next geocacher. Oh ya, Ray tightened his suspension nut again.

Old Tincup Pass

Just below the pass on the west side is the intersection of the old Tincup Pass road and the new road. We decided to take the old road down and do the challenge. It was not too back coming down through the boulders. With some spotting and of course picture taking our band of three jeeps was back on the main Tincup Pass road heading for Mirror Lake. It was about lunch time so we stopped for lunch at the small parking lot by Mirror Lake. Ray tightened his suspension bolt again. Still lots of traffic and people running around. After lunch we worked our way down to Tincup and headed out of town to the south toward the county road to the Tincup Cemetery. We continued on the county road past the cemetery heading for Napoleon Pass, our second pass for the day.

Gold Cup Republic mine steam engine

On the way we stopped to explore the Gold Cup Republic mine and the "new" Gold Cub Republic mine. I was impressed with the remains of a 1880 single piston steam engine with a large bull wheel. It had a wooden pulley for running a belt. Though the remains were scattered you could see where the boiler had been located next to the engine. We found the smoke stack and the two halves of the front facade lying in the grass.

Richard looking at the steam engine

New Gold Cup Republic Mine

Just past the mine we had to cross a large mud hole. Sometimes it sucks being the leader. I started into the mud and water feeling the vehicles traction as I went. The mud hole got deep and the traction was a bit soft, but I still had forward momentum. I kept going with the water at the belly of my jeep I was hoping I didn't find a deeper hole in the middle. Finally I pulled out the other side. Whew! Ray followed with less concern due to his taller tires, then Richard and Karla drove through a bit fast and put some water on the engine fan.

Richard and Karla in the mud hole

We continued on through a gate and then climbed through the trees until we came out above timberline and could see the pass up ahead. The wind was blowing at the top, Karla lost her hat and sun glasses, but we got our obligatory picture with some scenery in the background. Ray tightened his suspension nut again.

Napoleon Pass

Time to move on and connect with the graded road that would lead us back north over Cumberland Pass. This part of the trip was uneventful. It was windy on Cumberland as well.

Cumberland Pass

We headed down the north side looking for my shortcut (distance, not time) that took us to Union Park. The start of the short cut was a graded county road that then turned into a two track forest service road FR764. When we came into Union Park we were a bit confused as to our location due to the interconnects we made to get to the park and the fact that we had been traveling through Slaughterhouse Gulch, same name but not the same route as in Charles Wells book. After a bit of confusion we took the main road to the center of the park and then headed west toward some buildings that turned out to be the Union Park Cow Camp. It was getting late and we still had to finish the short cut (distance, not time) to get back out to pavement. Fortunately we only had three miles to drive down Karla's new favorite canyon.

Lottis Canyon

The start of Union Canyon, FR752.2A, following Lottis Creek was narrow and dropped close to the creek passing through small openings in the trees with a rock cliff on one side. Further down, the canyon narrowed and Lottis Creek was dropping over some small waterfalls. As we neared the Taylor River Road, FR742, through the back of the Lottis Creek Campground we found a final obstacle to navigate. It looked like a Jeep size boulder had dropped between the creek and the road pushing your route up and around the boulder. This was not a fun obstacle for people with new paint jobs (me). You had to tip toward the boulder to make the turn around it and drop down past it.

Lottis Canyon Obstacle

Ray's suspension helped over the large rocks on the uphill side. Richard and Karla had a shorter wheel base but took a spotter to guide them around also. Out on pavement we high tailed it to Almont for gas and of course quick calls on the cell phones to let loved ones know we were still ok. Ray tightened his suspension nut again. Now that it was past 6:00pm we had to head up County 135 toward Crested Butte and find Forest Road FR740 up Cement Creek. We drove through a residential area, back onto public lands, past the Forest Service Campground, through two "your passing through private property, stay on the road" sections, and finally found a nice little place to setup camp in the waning light of the day next to Cement Creek. Over night there was some rain and wind, off to the east was the thunder and lightning. In the morning the clouds were gone and we packed up and hit the road by 8:30am. Today would be the hardest 4WD road over Reno Divide. Heading up FR740 I had placed a waypoint where FR759 would connect and start the climb up toward the Reno Radio Repeater. Where I turned had me looking up a narrow ATV trail. The GPS showed it as the old County Road. Richard and Karla, who have been on Reno Divide before said the intersection was further up FR740. We continued on and found the intersection. As we followed the new FR759 it crossed back and forth across the old road on the GPS. At a saddle we crossed through a gate and chose the upper road that was the old Italian Creek stage road. Ray tightened his suspension nut again. It was narrow running along the flank of Italian Mountain. At the turn where the road changed to rocks and talus we stopped and took a look at what had to be the obstacle.

Talus on Reno Divide before the obstacle

The blue Nissan Pathfinder crumpled below the rough section was a big clue. Turns out it had been there for almost a year and was probably stolen and pushed over the edge. After a bit of walking over the rocks and looking at the possible routes over them I got to go first, again. There was only a few ways to go without getting too close to the edge or high centering on the pyramid shaped rocks. Ray spotted me through the main obstacle and around a large rock. It probably wasn't that bad, but when you can't see the edge of the road and all you do see is a steep boulder strewn slope as you tip toward the edge, it made my clutch foot shaky.

Reno Divide Obstacle

Ray went next with Richard spotting him and Karla and I taking pictures. Richard was last with Ray spotting him. After getting past the obstacle us boys hiked down to the Nissan to see what was left of it. The airbags had not gone off, so it was probably not running when it went over. The top was crushed down to where the head rests on the seats were bent forward. The glass was gone and the front hood was pushed back. Looking back up toward the road it was hard to figure out the path this SUV took on its way down.

We passed some old mines and passed through some private property on our way down Italian Creek to Taylor Park We stopped for lunch near a small pond before hitting the main road in Taylor Park. Ray WELDED the suspension bolt to the frame and then tightened the nut. From here we just got in line with all the campers, 5th wheels, and ATV haulers heading over Cottonwood Pass to Buena Vista. It looked like a parade as we climbed up the pass.

The line at the Buena Vista Ice Cream Store was really long and I feared the gas stations would be the same. It wasn't too bad. We were on the road for home at about 3:00pm. We were making good time until about 5.5 miles out side of Fairplay. The highway stopped cold and became stop and go. I figured there was a huge pileup of 5th Wheel campers, motorhomes, and ATVs on trailers up ahead. After an hour we crested the hill and saw... the stop light in Fairplay on Highway 285. There was so much traffic that the light was backing up the volume. I guess we should have known with the herd of campers crossing Cottonwood Pass. At least that was over, so we thought.

As we came to Jefferson below Kenosha Pass there it was again, the backup. Oh crap. So for another hour or so we crawled over Kenosha Pass consoling ourselves that I-70 was worse. Finally as we came down into Grant the traffic just started moving again.

But wait, our adventure was not over. Heading toward Boulder from Golden we saw a large cloud. Strange since we had not seen a cloud all day. Ray was right, that was not a cloud. It was a huge smoke plume reminiscent of the Hayman fire plume. Karla was on the phone and confirmed that there was a fire in the foothills of Boulder. As I drove through the CU campus and north out of Boulder I could smell the smoke as I watched the plume roll out over the plains. I got home at 8:00pm.

What a weekend. We crossed Redcone, and part of Webster Pass, Radical Hill, Georgia Pass, Tincup Pass, Napoleon Pass, Cumberland Pass, Reno Divide and Cottonwood Pass. We found Karla's new favorite canyon, watched Ray tighten a bolt for two and a half days before welding it, and made my clutch foot shake, which had not happened since I first had my CJ7 in 1983 and slid off the Switzerland Trail near the Gold Lake road in the snow. It was my first attempt at four wheeling with my new used Jeep.