Independence and Loveland Passes

Long delayed, here’s the final post about my trip to Snowmass for the RMVR race there. At first it was delayed because I was busy, then it was just a matter of inertia.

Tuesday, September 18

Having determined that a trip to Hanging Lake was not going to happen, I was back to my original plan of returning home over Independence Pass and Loveland Pass. I don’t entirely avoid I-70 this way, but it is arguably the most interesting route from Aspen to Denver.

I was out of the hotel fairly early and found myself in Aspen’s weekday morning rush hour traffic. I hadn’t considered that such a thing existed, but so it goes. I had several minutes of stop-and-go traffic that broke up by the time I made it to the center of town.

The drive from Aspen to the foot of Independence Pass climbs slowly through the upper valley of the Roaring Fork River. This is a particularly scenic valley at this time of year, with the turning of the Aspen. The town of Aspen was originally called Ute City. It’s easy to see why the name was changed.

I stopped the car well before the official start of the pass so I could mount the camera. Unfortunately, it was a bit too early to get good footage of this part of the drive. I was hoping that much of the road would still be in shadow, but the sun was peeking over the mountains still low enough to be directly into the lens of the camera, so much of the footage is blown out. In any event, the road snakes along the bottom of the valley, through alternating aspen and pine forest with plenty of clearings giving nice views.

Independence Pass is only open a few months of the year. It’s the highest paved crossing of the Continental Divide in the U.S. Most highway passes in Colorado have, over the years, been improved to the point where they’re no longer particularly interesting. This is not true of Independence Pass. Not only is it open only during the summer, no vehicle over 35′ in length is allowed. I don’t think it’s because of the switchbacks – Red Mountain Pass has more and tighter switchbacks – but there are a few short sections on the west side that are too narrow even to stripe as two-lane road.

It was originally called Hunter’s Pass and crossed below – but not much below – the top of Mount Elbert (Colorado’s highest peak). Hunter’s Pass was “a revolting thing to get over, summer or winter, with cliffs to climb on both sides, and a rock-bound top so mournful that even the ravens stayed away.” When silver was found near present-day Aspen, the Independence Pass trail was improved so that horses could use it. At this point, some men in Leadville formed the Twin Lakes and Roaring Fork Toll Company and started collecting tolls for traveling over the pass.

Adventurous motorists began driving their Model-T’s across Independence Pass as early as 1913 and by 1916, Colorado maps showed it as an auto road. After World War I there was a period of frantic road building in the Rocky Mountains. For the most part, a six percent grade was used so that “no motorist should suffer the indignity of shifting gears.” I don’t know… some of us enjoy shifting gears.

I made a short stop at the summit to get out and walk around a bit. It’s not the mournful place it once was. The Continental Divide Trail goes through here, and there are bathrooms and a short walking loop that motorists can use to take in the views in a leisurely manner.

As I said earlier, my video from Aspen to the summit of the pass didn’t turn out. Also, I spent a fair amount of the time stuck behind slower traffic. The rear end of a Nissan doesn’t make for the most interesting video. I did manage to get something a bit better going downhill on the east side, so I put together a bit over eight minutes.

I stopped across the street from the little general store in Twin Lakes. This store serves as a reprovisioning spot for the hikers on the Colorado Trail. This is the third time I’ve been through here in the last five years. There’s been a county sheriff’s car parked here the whole time with a mannequin behind the wheel. I guess it fools the tourists.

The clever observer will note that Twin Lakes is on the east side of the Continental Divide. The same observer will also note that I intend to cross Loveland Pass from west to east, and that Loveland Pass is also on the Divide. That means I’ll need to cross the Divide between here and there. The obvious choices are to go to South Park and cross Hoosier Pass into Breckenridge or to go through Leadville and cross Fremont Pass. I chose the latter.

The highway from Twin Lakes to the foot of Fremont Pass more or less follows the Arkansas River. The Arkansas is the sixth longest river in the US and is a major tributary of the Mississippi. Before it drains onto the plains, its mighty waters carved the Royal Gorge and upstream of that it features some nice white-water rafting opportunities. Here, above Leadville, it’s not so much a mighty river as a minor stream that one could easily wade across.

Fremont Pass is named for John Charles Frémont. He was a noted explorer of the West and the first Republican candidate for president. He didn’t get elected president, and he never crossed Fremont Pass. As a lieutenant, he was in the neighborhood in 1844, near present-day Dillon, and was more or less chased out of the area and across what is now Hoosier Pass by a band of Arapahoes, thus finding South Park. About 1880, William Palmer, a founder of the Denver and Rio Grande Western railroad came to Leadville with a construction crew larger than the US Army and put a narrow gauge railroad over Fremont Pass.

It is now the site of the Climax Mine, which at one time supplied three quarters of the world’s molybdenum. Although the pass clocks in at 11,318′ above sea level, it’s not a very dramatic road. The southern end is a gentle climb from Leadville and much of the road is multi-lane for the uphill traffic. The most striking features of the pass are the mine itself and the giant tailing ponds on the eastern side of the Divide (actually to the north of the pass).

After a few miles of I-70, between Copper Mountain and Frisco, I worked over to Swan Mountain Road to join US 6 for the trip over Loveland Pass. This used to be a very busy road but it sees much less traffic since the Eisenhower Tunnel was built in I-70. Now it’s just a relative few tourists and the hazardous cargo that’s not permitted to go through the tunnel. Because of this, there hasn’t been the need to add passing lanes to the road and it’s pretty much unmolested for the last forty or fifty years.

Loveland Pass is named for William A. H. Loveland. He was another railroad magnate, owner of the Colorado Central Railroad. Although no rail line was ever built over Loveland Pass, the “High Line Wagon Road” was hastily put over it during the winter of 1878-9. About a hundred men with teams, dynamite, scoops, and chuck wagons did the work. They were fortunate to have little snow impede their progress over the winter and on June 4 fifty wagons made the crossing.

It’s a lot easier now. This video is the ascent from the west, reaching the summit, and the first views of the eastern side. In spite of appearances, I didn’t exceed the legal speed limit by that much.

All in all, it was a pleasant late summer drive. After crossing Independence Pass I had the top off and took in the sunny day and the hillsides dotted with golden aspen.

Colorado Good 5

Sorry this post is a bit late, I’ve been otherwise occupied.

Saturday, September 21

LoCo’s three day fall drive included a night in Gunnison and a night in Crested Butte. The route looked interesting, but we just have too much to do to join them. Day one, though, featured Independence Pass. I haven’t been over it in the last thirty years or so and Genae has never been over it. So we figured we’d join the group for the drive to lunch in Carbondale.

We met at a gas station near Golden and headed west on I-70. The trip up I-70 to Frisco is pretty scenic as far as interstate highways go, but not exactly a “Lotus road”. We weren’t a big group yet, missing a couple of Denver folks and not yet met with the Springs group. Even so, I was second to last in the string and lost sight of the Henrys behind me. I last saw them before Georgetown and they didn’t catch up until we exited the interstate at the junction with Colorado 91. By now we had two additional cars, both orange Elises.

Fremont Pass isn’t much twistier than I-70. On the northwest side of the highway there are a couple of large tailing ponds where there once was a mountain. And near the summit you can see another mountain being erased. At its peak, the Climax mine was the largest molybdenum mine in the world, producing three-quarters of the world’s output. It was idled in 1995 but put back into production last year, yielding over twenty million pounds per year.

We made a quick stop in Leadville before continuing on to Twin Lakes to meet the Colorado Springs contingent. There we found a patrol car parked on the side of the road with a mannequin in the drivers seat. After a short break we headed up the pass.


Rinker Peak (13,783′)

One of the objects of the drive is to see the turning of the aspen. We were a bit early, but still quite scenic.

Independence Pass tops out at 12,095′ above sea level. Twin Lakes, on the eastern end, is at 9,200′ and Aspen on the west is more like 8,000. It has a reputation for being hair-raising, and I’d say that would have been how I’d described it the first time I crossed it when I was maybe ten. At the foot of the pass, Genae said she’d compare it to Red Mountain Pass. My feeling, nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. I didn’t find it particularly thrilling. For Genae, Red Mountain is still the standard setter.

Summit Pano

I did enjoy the narrow parts on the western side. I’d forgotten all about those. There are three or four sections where the road isn’t wide enough for two way traffic. Cars on one side or the other have to wait for oncoming cars. I bet it’s loads of fun in a motor home.

We blasted through Aspen pretty much without stopping. Hit one red light, perhaps. The road snakes through town, right, left, right, left. At one turn, three or four kids had their phones out, getting us on video. Once through town, onto the superslab – not interstate, but damn close, down to Carbondale for lunch.

I didn’t plan the day very well. I considered making a side trip to Maroon Bells. It would mean going back to Aspen, which meant back over Independence to go home. Quite a long afternoon. Instead, we decided to come back to the area and spend a night or two, have a nice dinner in Aspen, take a short hike at Maroon Bells. Perhaps next spring.

So we headed up to Glenwood Springs and I-70 for the return to Denver. A lot more interstate driving than is ideal, but a pleasant day nonetheless. Glenwood Canyon is always interesting. It was recently repaired and all lanes are open both directions.

The Colorado Grand was finishing up in Vale. When we got there, we saw some transporters along the frontage road being loaded up with some of the cars. After Vail is the quick run up Vail Pass. I don’t remember what this one was like before the interstate went through. In any event, most cars make it up at 70 mph. Not exactly a Lotus road.

We stopped to fuel up in Silverthorne for the final blast back through the tunnel, and the run down to Denver. I’m curious what sort of fuel economy we were getting. It’s about 70 miles, which would normally be about two gallons. But the gauge still indicated nearly full. If I burned a gallon and a half, I’d be surprised. Which would mean something like 45 or 50 mpg. (And also means I probably only got 20 or 25 going the other way.)

I had the camera running from Twin Lakes to Aspen, but it’s bad. Within a few minutes of heading out, the lens fogged up. I’ve never had that happen before. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

The Passes

Fremont Pass (11,318′) CD

Named for 1856 Republican presidential nominee John Charles Fremont although he never crossed it. Two narrow gauge railroads were built over the pass in the 1880’s, the Denver and Rio Grande and the Denver and South Park. The most dramatic scenery here is the mine. Entire mountains have been erased, with one undergoing the process.

Independence Pass (12,095′) CD

The town of Independence was named for the ghost town of Independence, founded July 4, 1879. Before that, it was known as Hunters Pass. It’s the highest paved crossing of the Divide but it’s only open in summers.

Vail Pass (10.663′) CD

This pass had no particular use prior to US 6 being put there in the 1940’s. Appropriately, it’s named for Charles D. Vail, chief engineer of the Colorado Department of Highways. Now it’s I-70, pretty much just another stretch of interstate highway.

Eisenhower Tunnel (11,158′) CD

Okay, this is cheating. The tunnel is not a pass. When the project was started it was called the Straight Creek Tunnel. This is two bores, one named for Eisenhower and the other for Edwin C. Johnson, a governor and senator who advocated for the interstate to cross Colorado.

I had a plane ride seated next to the guy who built much of the tunnel’s duct work. He was about ninety and missing a couple of fingertips. Quite an interesting character.