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Colorado: San Juan Mountains’ Black Bear Pass

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© Tony Huegel/Backcountry Byways

Colorado’s Black Bear Pass

LOCATION: This exhilarating old road links Red Mountain Pass (between Ouray and Silverton on U.S. 550) and Telluride, located in a box canyon far below the pass.

GOOGLE MAP: Colorado’s Black Bear Pass

HIGHLIGHTS: This is one of Colorado’s most spectacular 4WD roads, but it also can be dangerous due to narrow shelf segments and unnerving drop-offs. Perhaps as compensation for these dubious thrills, delicate wildflowers abound on the climb to 12,840 feet. And the view far below of the canyon occupied by Telluride is breathtaking indeed. You will cross Ingram Falls on the descent, then pass Bridal Veil Falls, Colorado’s longest waterfall at 350 feet.

DIFFICULTY: This one’s for experienced adventure drivers. It is moderate in difficulty for the first 6.4 miles from U.S. 550 through Mineral and Ingram basins, but difficult (due to the fear factor more than anything) and unforgiving (due to the potential danger) for the next 1.1 miles of narrow shelf road. There are many tight switchbacks with hair-raising drop-offs, so a short wheelbase vehicle is best. Snow can block the road on the east side, so inquire in Ouray or Silverton before setting out.

The road usually opens by mid-July. It’s one-way (westbound) for 7.5 miles from Red Mountain Pass to the top of Bridal Veil Falls. The section from Bridal Veil Falls to Telluride is easy (and two-way), making that leg a fun drive up from Telluride.

TIME & DISTANCE: 2.5 hours; 11.8 miles.

MAPS: Benchmark Maps’ Colorado Road & Recreation Atlas. p. 110 (C–D, 2–4). National Geographic/Trails Illustrated No. 141 (Silverton, Ouray, Telluride, Lake City).

INFORMATION: San Juan National Forest, Columbine West Ranger District; Grand Mesa Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests, Ouray Ranger District.

GETTING THERE: Take U.S. 550 (the San Juan Skyway/Million Dollar Highway) south from Ouray or north from Silverton to the top of Red Mountain Pass. Turn west at the sign [N37°53.816′ W107°42.793′] and zero your odometer.

THE DRIVE: A series of easy switchbacks climbs toward Mineral Basin, providing vistas of a meringue of 13,000- to 14,000-foot peaks. In Mineral Basin [N37°53.988′ W10744.238′], the road climbs gradually past small lakes toward a crest. There, look out over Ingram Basin, presided over by Ingram, Ajax and Telluride peaks and honeycombed by mines. From here the road angles left and then right as it descends along Ingram Basin [N37°55.128′ W107°45.251′]. There, it makes a series of switchbacks and crosses a talus field as it skirts the alpine tundra and goes around Ingram Lake. If you find these switchbacks difficult, turn back at this point even though the road is one-way. The road is very rocky in places by this point. After about 6 miles it parallels Ingram Creek, where you will crawl over rock outcrops. Note the steel cables suspended along the basin, remnants of the aerial tram that served the mines.