Trans-America trail trip report: part 4 (Colorado)

April 02, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

Welcome to Part 4 of my TAT trip report blog!

Just to recap briefly, in past blog entries I've covered the TAT from its start in North Carolina through to Westcliffe Colorado. That's about 9 days driving time for a Jeep, without many photo stops and in relatively dry conditions. In this installment, I cover the mountains of Colorado through to Monticello, Utah. Instead of heading directly north to Moab from Monticello, I spent several days in the Needles area so next blog will just be about Canyonlands region. 

I needed a little suspension work on the front end, so went into Colorado Springs to have the work done (great service and very reasonable price, so I would recommend Perkins if you need any maintenance). 

The TAT heads north from Cotapaxi and does a leisurely loop up over Badger Creek and then reconnects with the highway at Salida, which is really the entry point to the Rockies. I had hoped to get well past Marshall Pass, but was a little slow getting out of Colorado Springs and then took a leisurely lunch along the way. At Poncha Springs the TAT veers south and gets onto forest service roads quickly. The TAT itself does not run up the main Marshall Pass road but follows Poncha Creek in a more direct route to the pass. There are many camping spots along Poncha Creek, increasingly more isolated as you get higher. 

It was getting quite late as I worked my way up here and eventually I started to hit snow in the forest, and then on the road. I managed to punch through a few drifts but had to do a tight turnaround as there was solid snow cover to the pass, which was only 200 ft elevation higher. Poncha Creek is really in a dark hollow, so don't be surprised to find it snowy quite late in the spring. My consolation for not getting over the pass before dark was a wonderful campsite right on Poncha Creek, high up the valley all by myself. 

The next morning dawned clear and I was soon off to divert around onto the main Marshall Pass road. As I came up the road nearing the pass, I came around a corner to find a herd of mountain sheep on the road, eating holes in it. Whatever was in the base of the road, salt presumably, they quite liked it and were not too shy about vehicles, so I was able to pull out the tripod and big telephoto for some nice pictures.

I arrived at the pass shortly after that only to find the road down the other side closed and completely covered in snow where the road cut down. As I was about to turn around, two guys randomly wandered out of the forest and asked if I had any beer (this was 8 a.m.!). It turns out it was two Spaniards who were hiking the Great Divide Trail, travelling very light through the high passes already having come from the Mexican border. I later found out Marshall Pass opened fully a couple of days later but I had to divert all the way back down to Poncha Springs and take the main highway 50 until I was able to pick up the TAT again just before Sargents. Given this was the first pass, on the lee side of the Rockies, and not in the main core of mountains, I was quite concerned about the balance of the Colorado drive.

The TAT wanders for a ways on gravel and a few paved roads to the McDonough Ranch, where the road gets washboard and you get into an area much less traveled. There's a remote and very nice informal campsite at Killdeer Creek (N 38.127 W 106.905) if you are running into this area in the evening. There's more good campsites about another hour plus down the road as well but there aren't that many sites and could be full. 

I should add in a tangent option here. On my TAT backwards trip I came through this area west to east, went past the McDonough Ranch and then diverted south on secondary highway 114. My destination was Great Sand Dunes, and I went through Saguache, where there was a great collection of vintage jeeps for sale. From Great Sand Dunes, it's possible to take trails through to Muddy Creek, bringing you out to the TAT at Gardner Colorado. If I did the TAT again east to west, I'd really consider cutting off Westcliffe, Salida, and Marshall Pass and taking this route instead. It has more country highway but brings you through Great Sand Dunes (Great is in the name for a reason) and directly towards the more interesting section of the TAT in Colorado. If you stop at the dunes, I'd say you should allow 90 minutes to get from the parking lot to the top of the highest dunes and get set up. 


Back to the TAT, the next good photo stop is at a ranch entrance beside country road 45 (N 38.093 W 107.030) (infrared shot below). Past here, the TAT goes through some gorgeous canyons and ranch land, then up till it intersects the Silver Thread Scenic Byway (highway 149). There's some really nice campsites but the farther the go, the more people you see. If you don't plan to stay at Lake City or continue up to Cinnamon Pass, I'd recommend the prior informal campsite I mentioned, not the ones along this section of road as they may well be full. Note that the larger campsite at the highway intersection is now closed - it was seriously damaged by forest fire sometime over the past few years. 

Colorado barn (infrared)Colorado barn (infrared)A peep of sunlight was just catching the barn wall and skull at the top on a cloudy, showery afternoon in a remote part of southern Colorado. 2 June 2017 while on the Trans-America Trail.

Lake City is a good food and gas stop. There's a variety of restaurants and a good bakery on the main street, to the left of the highway as you drive into town. From Lake City, you are back out on gravel roads very quickly heading for Cinnamon Pass. Engineer Pass was still closed with snow when I came through, so I had no option on the route over to Ouray. 

Cinnamon Pass was to be, I had the impression from YouTube videos, a gravel highway. But it was not! It went above 12000 ft,  was wet, occasionally muddy and rutted, sometimes quite steep, and had a very committing feel to it early in the season (i.e., first week of June). There was still snow on the pass when I came back through on the TAT Backwards trip in late-July. I hustled over as quickly as I could and then dropped down to Animus Forks. From there, I took the road south to Silverton as I was not sure if the other passes on the TAT were open.

Below: Cinnamon Pass in mid-July on the TAT Backwards trip. 

Cinnammon Pass, Colorado, on the Trans-America Trail, photo by Murray Rudd, Tendrel Images, 3648x5472.JPG


In the waning light of evening I hustled north of Ouray for a highway bypass to Telluride as Ophir Pass was also still closed. I arrived in Telluride just as it got totally got dark and continued on to the next gravel section of the TAT to find a great mountain campsite (along Meadow Creek, at the start of the Lizard Peak trail, N 37.797 W 108.038), just past some old cabins to the right of the road. The section out of Telluride was quite remote and had very little traffic for the first 30 miles (I saw 2 vehicles, one of which was a bulldozer repairing slide damage) in June (it had more on the TAT Backwards trip). I spent time at the cabins in both directions of my trip to shoot some color and infrared photos. There is also a good official campsite just a little further on at Burro Bridge. 



On my TAT backwards trip, all the mountain passes were open. I did do Ophir Pass to get to Ouray (easy, you just need to watch for traffic coming down from the pass as there is single lane only for about a mile with no passing spots) and then Corkscrew Gully and Hurricane Pass (the official TAT route) to get to Animus Forks. This section took much longer than I expected (it was quite steep in parts and had some blocky rocks and cobble) and by the time I got to Animus Forks it was totally dark and raining. I spent a short night there, got up super early in the morning to shoot some of the mining ruins (it cleared overnight) and then was back up and over Cinnamon Pass to a short stop in American Basin.

Pre-dawn mountain lightPre-dawn mountain lightUp early this morning to do some light painting on decaying mining buildings at Animus Forks, Colorado. On the Trans-America Trail, 21 July 2017.

I had not realized it, but American Basin (just on the east side of Cinnamon Pass) is one of America's premier photo locations for wildflowers. I didn't have time to set up (and it was 9 a.m. by the time I got there and well light - see picture below), after my morning shoot and breakfast, but there were a lot of photographers there. Camping is a little sketchy there, so for a good dawn shoot it would be necessary to camp lower down the valley and drive up in the dark. There's also some great waterfalls in the forests - I did not set up properly but the waterfall shot below gives a feel for the opportunities. In July, the Cinnamon Pass road was just stupid busy, bumper to bumper with jeeps, trucks, ATVs, and an occasional rental car, and you need to be careful navigating the traffic (not something I would have thought of on the TAT!).

Back to the TAT westbound... From the Meadows stop, the TAT heads west on mainly gentle forest roads past Black Mesa Pass (more snow here but it had just opened early June) and down to Groundhog Lake. From there, there's more easy roads through forests and ranchland to the Dolores River and the Colorado border just beyond. Down to the Utah border was a real interesting drive, and included one bear sighting. The image below is an infrared from that area.

Colorado backroads (infrared)Colorado backroads (infrared)A photo stop near the Colorado / Utah border. On the Trans-America Trail, 03 June 2017.

Once into Utah, you are in ranch land and there are again abandoned farmhouses, so it seems more like Oklahoma than the rest of Utah. It's a short trip to Monticello from the Colorado border and also close to Moab, so it is easy to get by highway to Moab. Many of what had been gravel country roads between Monticello and La Sal have recently been paved, so I'd suggest just taking the highway up to La Sal and then either do the mountain roads into Moab or head straight in on the highway to allow more time for Moab's other sites. 

In general, it looks like up to early June there will be a high probability of being blocked by snow. Even in late-June, some passes were still closed in Colorado (and beyond in Idaho and Oregon). There are websites available where you can check if passes are open.

Overall, the Colorado section of the TAT ventured through diverse and interesting country and the roads have certainly made me curious about re-visiting the area to try some of the high-country routes in the Ouray area.

You should allow two full days driving time for this section, and it would be easy to spend an extra 2-3 days exploring mining town ruins, taking pictures of mountain scenery, and/or doing some of the more difficult jeep trails. 




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