Colorado Rocky Mountain Bonanza

Bagging passes in Southwestern Colorado

By Lee Klancher, Photography by Lee Klancher

It was drop-dead gorgeous. The road, snaking along a deep canyon, is a sinuous piece of pavement, with some wonderful 10 and 15-mph curves. I was on a bone-stock 2009 KLR, which has wonderful ergonomics and deathly soft front suspension. No matter-the road was so good I could play apex-strafer for a few miles.

That night, we sat in Pete's kitchen and laid out a GPS and a Colorado atlas. Warren had several rides in his Garmin that he'd done in the past, and they gave us a nice starting point. We then began stringing out routes that ran from pass to pass, avoiding pavement if possible. We also avoided the roughest pass trails. Our KLRs would be loaded with gear, so singletrack and boulder-climbing was not in the program.

The next morning, the thermometer at Pete's house read 33 degrees. Leadville is the highest town in America at 10,200 feet, which means even summer temperatures can be cool. The air still felt sweet, as the sun was surprisingly warm.

I put on a couple of extra layers under my Darien, and headed out. I wired up my electric vest, but as usual, didn't need it. I love electric vests, but the only time I really used one heavily was in Alaska-in the pouring rain, in dirt bike gear. When you have a solid jacket and good clothing, I just don't think electric vests are necessary.

I moved over to the 2005 KLR, which worked well, thanks to some judicious engine and suspension upgrades-plus it had electric grips. Those, on the other hand, are tremendously useful. Just a touch of warmth to your fingers makes a huge difference on a cool day.

We wound our way out of Leadville, through Buena Vista, and up toward Cottonwood Pass. According to the wonderfully informative book, The Passes of Colorado by Ed and Gloria Helmuth, Cottonwood Pass was the mid-1800s route of choice to access the Taylor Park area and Aspen. The pass was kept open all winter long with a snow tunnel at the top, and the natural hot springs on the east side provided a wonderful rest stop.

The hot springs are still a pretty nice stop, but we had miles to go. Up the pass we went, with a mandatory stop at the top to soak in the view at 12,126 feet, on top of the Continental Divide.

The road heading down the west side of Cottonwood is a snaky little piece of gravel that twists onto itself under the shadow of the 14,000-plus-foot tips of the Collegiate Peaks, with the dark blue waters of Taylor Park Reservoir below.

The gravel begs you to hang it out a bit, a temptation I mostly avoided lest I be schooled in the art of lowsides by a heavily-loaded KLR. Not to mention highsides....

We wound past Taylor Reservoir, and then cut south to the tiny village of Tin Cup. The old mining town is a favorite of off-roaders, and has a great café and a little store with water, gifts, ice cream, and snacks.

We ran into a traveler on a Kawasaki Versys, who came over to lament the fact that he'd sold his KLR. He had the Versys tidily outfitted, but said the suspension wasn't as plush as the KLR on the rocky trail up to Tin Cup Pass.

After filling with water and talking travel with the Versys pilot, we headed south to Cumberland Pass. A road through this pass was first built in 1882 by miners hauling ore to the rail station in nearby Pitkin.

From Cumberland, we wound our way down to Lake City. Warren's realtor friend, Diane Bruce, had hooked us up with a cabin at The Texan Resort. The resort was first founded in Lake City in 1946, and now has a mix of small, older cabins with 1950s charm and larger log cabins built more recently.

The proprietor of the resort is Dan, who rolled up in a Willys Jeep to explain the lay of the land. He made some suggestions for places to photograph the sunset. That night, we sat on top of the hill above the resort and watched the sun sink into the night.

By Lee Klancher
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