Four wheeling around Ouray!

Activity Date: 
06/29/2009

Today we rented a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon and had a blast on some of the 4WD trails around Ouray and down to Silverton. The weather was perfect, and the scenery fantastic!

While our Honda CR-V may be more capable on rough roads than many passenger cars, it is by no means an off-road vehicle. It has full-time all wheel drive, but only several inches of ground clearance and no real low gear range for the tough, steep stuff.

Over the years, we've learned that there are a lot of trails in the national forests that require a lot of miles on forest roads to reach them. These roads vary greatly in quality, and it also depends on the time of the year. We are often frustrated by our inability to get to those places, or avoid trying assuming the roads will be too bad for us. It does not take a lot either. A road might be 99.9% great, but that one real rough section can force us to turn around and give up. Or, if we're close enough, we just start hiking from that point.

Around Ouray and Silverton are lots of Jeep trails. We've been told that parts of some of them are do-able in 2WD passenger cars, but we wanted to strike out more into the back country. So, we walked around town and checked out several Jeep rental/tour companies. At first we thought about just taking a tour with others in the back of a 4WD truck or large ATV, but then decided we'd rather set our own pace, in our own Jeep.

We chose Switzerland of America (SOA) in Ouray, which is just literally down the street from our RV park. Not being big Jeep experts, we simply took one of the two 2009 2-door Jeep Rubicons they had left. The Jeep had only about 200 miles on it. The operating mode for the rental companies is for you to pick up the Jeep around 6pm the day before your trip and then drop it off that day at 5pm. All the Jeeps come with a soft top you can put up or down as you like.

Here's our Jeep parked on a flat spot on the trail. This is not from a Jeep brochure. :)

Jeep side view

Being relatively rank beginners in off-roading, we got guidance from the SOA staff on where to go. Our main criteria was to get up into the mountains and valleys not reachable by regular cars. We wanted great scenic vistas; ghost towns and old mines were lower priority. And, we did not want our trail to be too easy either.

From Ouray, our route took us south down highway 550 to the Ironton turn off where we picked up the Corkscrew Gulch trail, which took us up to Hurricane Pass. From there, we continued on California Gulch to California Pass. Sign to start of Corkscrew Gulch Then, we proceeded into Animas Forks to checkout the ghost town. After that, we returned the way we came a bit to pick up Placer Gulch and continue our 4WD fun. At Treasure Mountain we picked up Picayne Gulch which ultimately ends at county road 2, which is largely a dirt road navigable by regular cars so they can reach Animas Forks. This road goes all the way down to Silverton, where we picked up 550 again and returned to Ouray.

Starting in the morning, we kept the soft top up since it was pretty chilly at 8am. Also, the first leg was on highway to reach Ironton. This was also a good opportunity to generally get myself comfortable driving the Jeep. This stretch of 550, is relatively slow due to its frequent turns and switchbacks, lack of guard rails and cliff edges you could easily drive over! Even with its higher center of gravity, the Jeep handled great. Good thing, huh? That's real nice when in the outside lane.

After taking the Ironton turnoff and passing by a large mine tailings pile, we arrived at the start of Corkscrew Gulch. The road looks positively tame in some spots, like here:

Jeep on smooth road

But then things start to get a little rough. Still not a problem for a robust SUV, but it's already getting scary for our Honda CR-V.

rocky water crossing

From this trail, there are great views of the backsides of Red Mountains 1-3. We caught up with a Jeep tour group at the outhouse. They have about 12 people loaded into an open air Jeep tour truck, on 3 rows of elevated bench seating. That would be tight quarters if you were squeezed in the middle of a row; one reason we wanted to have our own Jeep. Nothing like pulling up to a bathroom in the middle of nowhere and waiting in line to use it!

How's this for an outhouse with a view?

scenic outhouse

Up until now, I've had the Jeep in 4WD high. Looking ahead, I could see steep switchbacks leading up the mountain side on the way to Hurricane Pass. So, I put Jeep in to 4WD low and it charged on up the steep trail. It was very sure footed.

steep uphill grade

On the way, it looks like we're getting to be about the same altitude as the Red Mountains. Way at the bottom you can see where that outhouse is located. We've come up quite a ways!

higher view to Red Mountains

Well, heck, before getting up to Hurricane Pass, we must go down quite a bit again. Talk about a spectacular mountain view!

down from Hurricane pass

A nice valley opens up.

verdant valley view

But, then it's back to going uphill again. You can see some mining ruins straight ahead.

heading uphill to California Pass

Approaching the pass, there is a fun snow canyon along the road.

snow walls on both sides of trail

And then we arrive at Hurricane Pass. A good name, since it is extremely windy at that spot! Time for a jacket. Down below is Lake Como, which, oddly, has a tropical ocean hue despite its accompanying snow and ice.

overlooking Lake Como and mountains

Now, walking back across the road and looking the opposite direction from the pass: more majestic mountain views.

view in opposite direction at Hurricane Pass

California Pass sign, elevation 12,930 feet

At some point, perhaps at the Poughkeepsie Gulch turnoff, Corkscrew Gulch turns into California Gulch, which takes us to California Pass. From California Pass you can look back to Hurricane Pass and Lake Como. It is not nearly so windy at this pass. We chatted with a couple of lost ATVers up here. They were a bit off course as they were looking for Engineer Mountain.

You can see part of the road we just traveled to get here snaking across the mountain.

view toward Lake Como from California Pass

Now, looking the direction we are heading next, along California Gulch toward Animas Forks, there seems to be generally more snow around.

descent toward Animas Forks

And here's some of that snow close up. Quite a bit in late June.

snow on both sides of trail

There are also beautiful valley views. It's a shame we're a few weeks early for the peak of the summer wildflower bloom. Maybe we can catch some that of that elsewhere in the state later in July.

green valley view

Even though it was around mid-day, it still would have been nice to see some Elk, or at least a deer. Oh well. However, we did manage catch a marmot on a lichen covered rock.

marmot on rock

We skipped the turn off to Placer Gulch in order to visit the ghost town of Animas Forks. Not a great deal remains. There is another outhouse in the area though.

Animas Forks ghost town

We turned around and headed back toward Placer Gulch to continue our trip! Along the way there were quite a few mining ruins. It also seemed the wildflowers in this valley were a little further ahead in blooming. You can see the switchbacks of our road ahead. We'll be going right up and over that mountain pass.

mine ruins 1 and vista mine ruins 2 mine ruins 3

We stopped to take in the view.

Jeep and trail view

Still no sightings of larger game, but we did see another marmot.

attentive marmot by rock marmot lying on rock

Seen from above, you can see Placer Gulch is largely devoid of trees.

treeless valley of Placer Gulch

But, in some places, the wildflowers are starting to bloom a little more.

blue and yellow wildflowers

From our hight spot, we can see the way down into Picayne Gulch.

green somewhat treed Picayne Gulch

Picayne Gulch ends at county road 2, which is a dirt road, but of good quality so that regular vehicles can reach Animas Forks. There is quite a bit more traffic here. We came down from the road on the right. The road in the middle is the 2WD dirt road leading back down to Eureka. The SUVs arriving were lining up to drive back and forth across the river to the left. Just for kicks.

Other Jeeps at intersection

This first part of the drive down to Silverton is pretty scenic, but it gets a little long after passing through Eureka. Then there's the trip back up to Ouray on 550. But, we really like that stretch of road.

We left the top down on the return trip. Heck, we had all that sunscreen on anyway. In one stretch I got the Jeep up to 60 MPH on the pavement and it felt steady. The off-road tires were a bit noisy on the highway, but not too bad at all.

We've got the Jeep bug now! A four door Wangler Unlimited hardtop would be very handy for us, since we actually store a lot stuff in the tow car. Running more 4WD trails would be a lot of fun, as well as just being able to conquer pretty much any forest road to get to trails and other attractions we cannot reach in our CR-V.