The Jeep Capital of the World (but Broncos are allowed)
Updated: Sep 25, 2022
After anticipating our trip to Ouray, CO for most of 2022, we finally packed up the Jeep and headed east. My Uncle Mark and Aunt Mary were already en route from Minnesota with the plan to meet up in Gunnison, CO before making our way to Ouray. Our trip to the Jeep Capital of the World was upon us!
We left on a Saturday morning and our first day on the road took us from home to Ely, NV. We chose Ely as our first stopping point because it was the closest town of any real size to Great Basin National Park, where we planned to hike on Sunday morning. You can read about our hike here. Most of our travel east (and home actually) was on US Highway 50 which is known as "The Loneliest Road in America". I haven't been that many places but the road is definitely lonely and I'll take the folks that named its word for it.
After our hike we made out way to Moab, UT. Moab is well-known for a lot of outdoor activities, including Jeeping and mountain biking. However, our order of business was a quick hike in Arches National Park, some sightseeing in Canyonlands National Park, and then on to Colorado. Both parks were amazing, with the the Delicate Arch being the highpoint of the visit for me. You could spend days visiting and hiking in both parks, but we were just trying to make our cross country drive more enjoyable, so our stops were quick. You can read about our visit to the Delicate Arch here. Travel was pretty easy from Ely to Moab. US Highway 50 overlaps Interstate 70 for a stretch of the drive, so that part of the route was busier than what we experienced in Northern Nevada. The part of our route between Salina, UT and Green River, UT was amazing. Wide open views, amazing geological formations, canyons, and redish colored rocks. We stopped at just about every wayside rest between Salina and Green River, because the views were so amazing.
From Moab we made our way to Gunnison. The further east we made it, the closer the towns were to one another and eventually they were 10-15 miles apart, and much larger than Ely and other towns on the The Loneliest Road in America! As we left the Grand Junction, CO area I read a text from my Mom that suggested we visit the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park if we could. So we did! It's an amazing place with incredibly tall canyon walls and vista points that are not for the faint of heart. Well, it's not like they're going to fall into the canyon, but walking out a narrow rocky point, even with a fence around it, is intimidating when you're hundreds of feet above the ground. It was worth the stop! Eventually we made our way to Gunnison where Mark and Mary surprised us at dinner because, you know, in a small town when your friends or family drive by and sees your vehicle at a restaurant, well they stop and visit.
We left Gunnison on Tuesday morning after a stop for groceries. The drive from Gunnison to Lake City, CO started out in high desert but ended in an amazing river valley. From Lake City we headed west toward Ouray and our Jeeping adventure began.
What did I learn?
Sway Bar Links - With two 18mm wrenches and some zip ties, I had my front sway bar links disconnected and zip tied to the upper shock mounts in under 10 minutes. I did this at the same time we aired down after leaving Lake City, so it wasn't even an extra stop. The added articulation softened the ride and kept our tires in contact with the terrain the whole trip. In short, disconnecting the sway bar on a solid axle vehicle is well-worth the time, both for ride comfort and traction. We left it disconnected our entire time in Ouray.
Road Trippin' the Jeep - We have taken the Jeep a few different places but never on a 1000+ mile "road trip". The Jeep did an outstanding job crossing through Nevada and Southern Utah in 90 degree weather, which are both primarily mountainous. At 70mph the Jeep travels smoothly like any other vehicle we've owned. When you get up over 80mph, the solid axle tracking from left-to-right is more noticeable and requires attention. Driving 80 is doable, but 70 was much more enjoyable for us. As for the engine and transmission, I continue to consider them well-matched and each did great job on the highway and Jeep roads. The Jeep's comfort is average for extended periods. Of course it's not as nice as our 200 Series Land Cruiser, but better than many basic cars. The AC worked well in our black Jeep in upper 90s temperatures.
Group Outing - It was a lot of fun to have my aunt and uncle on the other end of the radio as we traveled the roads and trails around Ouray. Having another rig along definitely adds to the fun of Jeeping, even if it's a Bronco.
Cinnamon Pass (Tuesday)
After leaving Lake City and driving past Lake San Cristobal, the road started getting gradually narrower. The views were amazing from the get-go and we even saw a moose cow and calf as we left the lake area. It was only a few miles in the direction of Cinnamon Pass that we decided to find a road to turn off onto and air down our tires. I also took this opportunity to disconnect my sway bar links, since we had 3 days of Jeeping ahead of us and I knew some of the routes would require everything our Jeep could offer. Eventually we started climbing and climbing. We crossed through forested areas, meadows, and eventually made our way above the tree line. A lot of the route was on shelf roads, like you'd expect. We eventually stopped for lunch at the Grizzly Gulch Trailhead which was popular with all types of trail users. There were people hiking 14ers, driving SXSs, riding motorcycles, camping in overland rigs, and of course Jeeps and one Bronco. This part of our trip easily had the most SXS traffic on it, and everyone used good trail manners and etiquette. Eventually we reached the pass, took some fun photos, and started down toward Animas Forks, a ghost town left by the mining industry of Colorado's past.
Lake San Cristobal in the background - a beautiful start to our trip over Cinnamon Pass.
It wasn't long before we were on a shelf road.
There were plenty of people at the pass to take some photos of us. They arrived in Jeeps, SXSs, and trucks. And one Bronco...
The drive from Cinnamon Pass down into Animas Forks.
A beauty shot of Mark and Mary's Bronco, in Animas Forks.
California, Hurricane, and Corkscrew Pass (Tuesday)
From Animas Forks there were multiple ways to Ouray, some longer than others, some more challenging than others. I picked an easy and moderate route that took us over 3 named passes and showed us a top-down view of Como Lake. This section was rockier than the Cinnamon Pass part of the day, but was still passable by vehicles with some degree of clearance. I personally wouldn't take a stock Subaru on these passes, but I am sure some folks would. The greatest challenge with many SUVs and Crossovers would be the lack of a low gear range. Much of the climbing and descending on these passes was done in low range, to stay slow and in control.
A view of California Gulch from California Pass.
Looking down on Como Lake from California Pass.
We stopped to walk up to the top, the views went for miles every direction and the air was thin!
Making our way from Hurricane Pass to Corkscrew Pass. We even saw a Unimog built for overlanding traveling this road. It was pretty top-heavy, to say the least, and came within 6" of us as we passed it. Google Unimog once, you'll see what I mean by top heavy!
Black Bear Pass (Wednesday Morning)
This is probably the most well-known pass in the area, and definitely the pass Mark and I spent the most time reviewing YouTube videos of to make sure we were ready for the route. The route is only 10 miles long with the most exposed section of the road being one way traffic only. This means most folks start on the Ouray side and head over the pass, like we did. Aside from a few key obstacles and features, including a couple rock ledges that required careful tire placement, "The Steps" which are known as the most exposed part of the trail), and the switchbacks, the road is very enjoyable and easy to moderate in terms of difficulty. The route requires a modestly equipped Jeep or similar vehicle. We're running open differentials, 33" tires, and a 2.5" lift. We didn't encounter anything the Jeep wasn't ready for and I don't think we hit our undercarriage once. Traveling down the ledge, which a kind soul volunteered to spot us on, and the steps, made for an exhilarating experience as we approached Telluride. For that part of the road we're on uneven rock, next to a drop-off into a creek, overlooking the town below. It was the most nerve wracking part of the road. This is a pass that I would I do again, but probably only with a group that hasn't gone over it before.
Some shadows, some trees, creeping up those colorful mountains.
It doesn't actually take too long to reach Black Bear Pass from The Million Dollar Highway, and this part of the route is open to two-way traffic.
This picture does a good job of showing perspective, and how small we really are in these huge mountains. Think of the workers that built these roads - what a task!
A lot of Black Bear Pass looks like this, which gives you a sense of comfort until it's disrupted by the more challenging and exposed parts of the route.
Crazy Texan, didn't stop for anything, wheels were frequently the air. This is the first part of the route where you can see Telluride below us.
Pictures never capture the feel, but this "feels" real close to the edge.
Mark and Mary coming down part of The Steps.
Just squeeze on by that big ole boulder...
As we got lower, things kept getting greener.
Bridal Veil Falls, even for late summer the falls were flowing enough to be enjoyable, though I am sure they rage in the spring time. The top of the falls is the highest you can travel the switchbacks uphill. Beyond that point, it's downhill traffic only.
Telluride the ski area, in the distance.
Imogene Pass (Wednesday Afternoon)
The weather pattern in Southwest Colorado seems to include afternoon storms. I guess that's fairly common in the mountains, especially during the hotter days of summer. After our hike to Bear Creek Falls, which you can read about here, and a short rain storm while we visited downtown Telluride, CO, we chose to return to Ouray via Imogene Pass. Imogene doesn't have the exposure that Black Bear Pass has on "The Steps" and the switchbacks, but it climbs higher than any other pass we took on the trip. The drive from Telluride to Ouray was probably easier than the reverse, but each direction is doable with a modestly equipped Jeep like ours. This pass is definitely worth the drive if you're in the area.
As you climb out of Telluride toward Imogen Pass you get a view of the switchbacks coming down from Black Bear Pass.
A lot of the route on the Telluride side is narrow like this. We had to maneuver around several downhill traveling vehicles within the first couple miles out of Telluride. Most didn't yield for uphill traffic, some did.
The group in front of us, which was from Wisconsin by the way in-laws, lived on the edge and took every challenging offshoot they could spot (at least the last guy). They were fun to watch. Whether we needed to or not, I climbed most hills like this in low range, to give the Jeep enough mechanical advantage to go slow over the rougher parts while avoiding bogging the engine down.
I think this is the highest the Jeep made it, and might ever make it!
Plenty of room on top!
The Jeep feels small in this part of the country, that's for sure!
A water crossing before headed for Ouray.
Ophir Pass (Thursday)
After hiking in the morning (see Bri's Ouray Perimeter Hike blog, coming soon) we went into town for a "real" lunch instead of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches out of the back of the Jeep, and then took a drive down The Million Dollar Highway from Ouray to Silverton. Silverton is a beautiful small town with plenty of shops and stores, so we had ice cream and Uncle Mark visited the local hardware store, something he makes a point to do in the towns he travels through. After our visit to Silverton we made our way back to Ouray but took a short drive up to Ophir Pass on the way. The drive up to the pass from the east was pretty easy, even a sedan with limited clearance could do it with careful tire placement and slower speeds. We saw 3 moose far below us in the valley as we made our way up to the summit. I didn't actually take any pictures, but the pass is just as beautiful as the others we saw around Ouray and Silverton. We'll have to see the western half of Ophir Pass on another trip.