My name is Richard Wright and you’re reading the 2nd installment of my dirt road tour of the Western United States during the summer or 2013. My steed for the journey was a 2006 Dodge 2500 Diesel truck equipped with a Carli Dominator 3” Suspension System, Torsion Sway Bar, Control Arms, and Toyo 35 inch Mud Terrains. In addition to the Carli System, I installed a limited slip rear differential, E-locker front differential, and various other goodies to ensure the rig was prepared for the journey ahead. During the second installment, I was joined by some friends to explore the beauty and desolation of Canyonlands, Utah and our northbound route following the Rocky Mountains. This region offered exciting new terrain challenges while testing the durability of the Carli components.
The San Juan Mountains, in southwestern Colorado, were a pleasant and welcomed departure from the heat of the Utah desert. Along with an eagerly awaited drop in temperature, we were introduced to new scenery, topography, and trail surface conditions. Trails in the San Juan Mountains were access roads roughly hewn into the steep mountainsides by the miners who made the area famous during the late 1880’s. Unlike the relatively smooth sandstone rock formations found in Canyonlands and Moab (Utah), the roads here are tire gougers—often taking their pound of rubber as a toll of passage. We planned a three day visit to the Alpine Loop between Telluride, Ouray, and Silverton to explore the trails, see remaining mining equipment, and hopefully do some mine exploration. Here is the portion of the map that covers this area:
We first took Ophir Pass from the west and it was here we caught our first glimpse of the incredible views that the glacial valleys of the western slope had to offer. A quick jaunt up the “Million Dollar Highway” brought us to Black Bear Pass, the notorious trail that descends a 1,400-foot cliff face into Telluride, CO. The trail has an incredible view of Bridal Veil Falls, the original source of power for the area’s mining operations, and the Telluride valley if you’re brave enough to look out over the cliff. Many trails I have run post short wheelbase, “requirements”, but this trail has serious repercussions for long wheelbase vehicles with inexperienced drivers—as the sign below explicitly conveys. As soon as we started the descent, it began to rain, heightening the sense of urgency. The slippery rocks helped us remember just how close we were to the long fall just off the trail.
After we arrived in Telluride, BBQ and booze was in order—both to celebrate and to calm some frayed nerves. The drive had been intense, but my Carli- equipped Dodge had disproved the naysayers and the warning signs on the route. The shorter wheelbase of the YJ in my group made easier work of the tight turns; although, even the Jeep required three point turns to maneuver many of the switchbacks. The steel bumpers on the Dodge allowed me to drive by Braille and make use of every inch of each corner.
The next morning, we set off from Telluride on Imogene Pass. This route took us to the ceiling of our off- road elevations in Colorado, 13,114 feet. The ascent of the pass afforded a fantastic view of Black Bear Pass, numerous mine sites, and even the remnants of a mining town complete with an ore processing site. The descent took us through expansive alpine meadows surrounded by jagged, glacier carved peaks. Two side trails worthy of mention allowed further exploration of Governor and Yankee Boy Basins. Finally, we cleared Imogene Pass at the eastern end through Million Dollar Highway just south of Ouray.
After an afternoon of exploring the food, drink, and culture of Ouray, we ventured south toward the western entrance of the Alpine Loop – a trail system that contains Engineer Pass and Cinnamon Pass. The western entrance proved challenging with difficult lines and unpredictable elevation changes. We spent the night near the ghost town of Animas Forks after venturing up to the summit of Engineer Pass to survey our surroundings and admire the beauty of the high alpine sunset. Unfortunately, the following day I crushed my DSLR Camera as a result of helping some unprepared explorers and lost my sunset photographs.
I was very impressed at the composure of the Dominator system while climbing uphill, even over large rocks that would surely unsettle a lesser equipped vehicle. It became clear that the research and development at Carli is thorough—suspension tuning and performance proved as composed on steep, loose ground as it had at high speeds on hard-packed terrain.
The next day we took Cinnamon Pass toward Lake City and explored the ruins and mines of Carson Ghost Town. From the valley floor, we spotted an epic hill climb that summited a nearby hill. As we neared the top, I watched the Jeep’s passenger rear leaf spring snap in half during an extended period of wheel hop. Somehow, he still managed to reach the summit. Sitting at about 13,000 feet, 12 miles up a trail and 30 miles from any real auto parts store, we realized we had a dilemma. This fix would not be as easy as when he had sheared the front main leaf in Utah (which was still holding together after we drilled through the spring steel and used a couple half-inch, grade 8 bolts to create a new, shorter, main leaf). Here, we strapped the axle to the bump stop and made the slow, now very rough (for the Jeep), journey back to Silverton.
Once back in town, we decided to survey our equipment to ensure everything was in good working order before going to Durango to acquire parts. During this inspection, I discovered that my roof rack was in poor shape. The “1000 Pound” rating couldn’t stand up to the bouncing, torsion, and vibration of the Ram while exploring the rough terrain at high speed. The suspension was a different story; spring and damper combination kept the chassis intact and the vibration and transmissions to the passenger compartment to a minimum during both high and low shaft speed situations. In hindsight, trying to keep up was likely the reason the YJ experienced two leaf spring failures. Our damaged equipment put further exploration on hold for two days while waiting for parts to arrive.
To maintain morale and pass the time, we opted for some local mill and mine tours. We took a close look at the famous Silverton coal powered steam train and indulged in many local craft beers and whiskeys. Some of our dirt road shenanigans in the Dodge attracted the attention of a local sheriff’s deputy who required me to find the charming county court and make the acquaintance of the sheriff and the county clerk, but that’s another story all in itself.
The delay from acquiring and installing parts forced my compatriots in the Jeep to return west before they had explored all that the San Juan’s had to offer. After their departure, I returned to Lake City via Cinnamon Pass in the dark, during a thunderstorm, and, of course, at a very high rate of speed to try and make up for lost time. “The hurrier you go, the behinder you get”; turns out my mother can be right from time to time. The load in the Dodge didn’t appreciate my haste over a road comprised mainly of softball sized rocks and decided to attempt a mutiny. The tailgate was forced open and, one bin at a time, my belongings tumbled out along the trail. After discovering the carnage, I spent the next few hours retracing my path in search of the various contents of my truck bed over a 15 mile stretch of dark mountain pass punctuated by frequent lightning strikes and soaked to the bone from rainfall.
The next series of historic and challenging off-road trails were Hancock and Tincup Passes in the mountains between Gunnison and Buena Vista. Along the trail rarely attempted by full-size rigs, as my paint began to prove, were a number of worthwhile historical sites. The Alpine Tunnel and St. Elmo Ghost Town are more remnants of the golden age of mining in Colorado when men cut and blasted their way into remote areas with extreme climates in search of the same thing men have hunted since Columbus and Cortez, gold. Unfortunately, I was still without a quality camera, and my Go Pro was all I had to try and document the scenery for the next few days.
The next bit of the trip took me through Summit County, Denver, and Fort Collins. On the agenda were brewery tours and then some hiking and exploring in the Flat Irons and Rocky Mountain national park with some friends. After hitting the highlights—O’Dells, New Belgium, Fort Collins, and a number of other breweries, it was time to say goodbye and burn more miles. My planned route took me through the beautiful Poudre Canyon toward Steamboat Springs. After a relaxing stop at the Strawberry Farms Hot Springs, I headed into a network of forest service roads that took me north into Wyoming. Turns out my map of this area was a bit old. My chosen route quickly turned unmaintained requiring dead timber removal to avoid innumerable twisted trunks and branches determined to wrinkle the Dodge’s sheet metal. I ended up escaping into a timber harvest area much to the surprise of the local lumberjacks. Apparently, the “Road Closed” sign I had passed miles ago was not a joke and the trail I had randomly selected had been closed for a number of years. That is what we call an “Oops.”
The next dirt stretch on my “America’s best back roads” route carried me to Jackson, Wyoming. This pristine stretch of dirt known as La Barge Creek Road provided continuous scenic meadow views, and the surface conditions were perfect for excessive speed and some LONG corner drifts. From the looks I received, I don’t think the locals are accustomed to seeing such a large truck handle that way. This road followed the La Barge Creek, headed from the southeast to the natural spring and lake that sit atop the divide of two watersheds. The lake also marks the headwaters of Grey’s River which descends and swells on its way toward Jackson to the northwest. At the outlet of the lake that spawns Grey’s river, there is a sign that states, “Grey’s River Road – Watch it Grow.” The sign doesn’t lie; what begins as a humble stream a foot wide, grows as you continue down the watershed and becomes a 25- foot- wide, rock- eroding torrent.
The next installment of the blog will follow my route through the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, Glacier, the Canadian Rockies, and a dirt road route that brought me down through the Cascade Range and along the Northern California coast. Stay tuned!