On the third day of our Telluride trip, we explored the Telluride area further. We wanted to accomplish two main things: one was to hike to Bridal Veil Falls and the other to try an off-roading adventure. Telluride Outside offers several such 4WD tours that involve driving along old mining roads, like the Imogene Pass, Black Bear Pass, Ophir Pass, and Sunset drive. Since we visited early in the season, there was still much snow left on the ground and the mountains. As such, Ophir Pass was the only one that could be cleared sufficiently of snow to be passable at that time. The others would not be open for a month or more.
For our trip, we chose the 8 am to noon tour to Ophir Pass. That way, we could have enough time to make the hike to Bridal Veil later in the day without having to rush back. The lady at Telluride Outside mentioned that the guide would know what areas were open and take us accordingly. At a minimum, the trip would include a drive to Ophir Pass (provided the road was open) and to Alta Ghost town. The company has customized Chevy trucks with an open cab window and passenger seating in the back of the truck. Seats are installed in a U shape, with two facing each other on the truck’s sides with another parallel to the back. The passenger area is kept open except in inclement weather when the guide can rig up plastic covering to protect the occupants.
Mike, our guide, showed up shortly before 8 am to pick us up from our hotel. Another family of two, a mother and a daughter, also from Texas, accompanied us on tour. Mike told us that masks were optional since we were going to be outside the entire time. We drove down to Telluride to pick up another couple who were visiting from Florida. And then, we set off for four hours of fun!
The open seating in the bed of the truck meant that the cool air rushed all around us. Anticipating this, we had dressed in layers. Despite that, I was happy to use the blankets that Mike provided us for extra warmth. The seats were padded and comfortable; there was an area to store handbags and other small items on the back wall of the cab. We learnt that our guide had moved to the area from Chicago for the off-roading opportunities that Telluride provided. An avid outdoorsman and adventurer, it only seemed fitting that he chose to live in this beautiful part of the country. He was also a good storyteller and laid out the history of the land as he drove us around.
On the road, Mike talked about Wilson Peak and the vast tract of land that Telluride has left open for preservation. He pointed out the San Miguel Trail, an easy hike along the river in Telluride that the whole family can enjoy. Although river rafting on the San Miguel is available, it was not open during our trip. He told us about the bike path that follows the main road into town and halfway disappears into a tunnel only to open up on the other side of the street. Once again, we saw free-ranging mule deer on either side of the main road into town. He showed us the affordable housing for low, middle, and moderate-income residents that the San Miguel Housing Authority provides. Given the attractiveness of Telluride to non-resident homebuyers, the availability and affordability of local housing to full-time residents is becoming a huge issue.
Having picked up our last guests, we headed back to Mountain Village and made our way to Ophir Pass Road (also called forest road 630). This road connects the town of Ophir with US 550, north of Silverton. After passing through Ophir, it climbs high towards Ophir Pass before descending towards Red Mountain Pass on the east side. Ophir Pass is at an elevation of 11,789 feet. A section of road about half a mile long is too narrow for two vehicles to pass. Although you can drive any vehicle, the Forest Service recommends high clearance, 4-WD vehicles along this road. Ophir Pass Road is rated a moderate difficulty off-roading trail. We had thought of driving this road the previous day but lucky for us; it had been closed. I don’t believe we would have managed to drive this road on our own!
As we joined Ophir Pass Road, we saw the Ophir Post office on the left, the second smallest post office in the US. Not surprising, given its size! Just past the post office is the Ophir Wall, where climbers from all over come to learn and experience rock climbing. The Wall is over 700 ft tall, made of granite, and offers the perfect training ground for serious climbers. Rock climbing has been an ongoing activity since the 1970s in this area, and the tradition remains alive and robust to this day. Our guide mentioned that expert climber Antoine Savelli and his wife, who live at the base of the Wall, offer rock climbing courses. We saw the tiny figure of a rock climber holding on determinedly to the sheer Ophir Wall as if on cue.
The tiny hamlet of Ophir, with a total population of 180 and situated at an elevation of 9625 feet, is a historic mining town. Our guide pointed out areas where avalanches had decimated the tree line and structures from previous mining activities were left behind. As we left Ophir to reach the backcountry road, Mike told us that it was the first day the Ophir Pass Road had been opened for the season. We had chosen the right day to take the trip. Aspen groves surrounded us as we drove past the alpine tundra. The path was narrow and gravelly; the sky was a bright blue. There was a nip in the air as we went. We saw areas near small streams, close to the mines, that were rust-colored from the leaching of minerals. As we climbed higher, we could see the valley below us surrounded by towering peaks with a teal blue lake on the valley’s floor. It reminded me a lot of our time in Alberta, Canada.
Soon we reached the narrow section of the road, carved into the cliffside, with a sheer drop to the right and the looming cliff wall on the left, climbing upwards. As we jostled along, our guide told us how enterprising and fearless mine owners had, over time, helped create these routes. Indeed, for the people who lived here and used these roads, it must have been commonplace to drive them in all weather. But for us, it was pretty thrilling! Our guide mentioned that Ophir Pass was the easiest of all three passes.
Climbing higher, we were above the treeline and snaking our way to the top of the Pass. Here we could see a narrow strip of the road about 10 feet wide that had been cleared between walls of sheer ice on both sides. The sun was shining strongly on the landscape of ice and craggy rocks that surrounded us. There was hardly any noise at this elevation beyond our voices. Nothing moved except for us, creating a sense of both peace and eerie stillness, an otherworldly feeling! We spent a quarter of an hour here enjoying the warming sun and the beauty around us. Soon, it was time to head back to Ophir. Given the narrow road, there wasn’t enough space to make a U-turn.
Our guide had to back the truck until he reached the end of the road, and then he had to reverse the truck slowly. Over a narrow switchback on the road. In my opinion, that would require nerves of steel, of which he seemed to have plenty, while the rest of us hung on and watched in awe. I can only imagine how much more challenging such a maneuver would be with an approaching vehicle in the opposite direction. Soon, he had us fully reversed and looking down once again into the Ophir Valley. The red and black faces of the surrounding mountains, the snow bands, the alpine treeline below, the lake in the distance, and the cloudless blue sky formed an exquisite scenery. We filled our eyes with this picture and took in huge lungfuls of the pristine air before setting off on the downward trip.
Once out of Ophir and on Hwy 145, we quickly took the exit to Alta Lakes Road. It was the road we had attempted two days prior and turned back after about a mile. Mike drove onwards, and the road seemed to improve a bit. Soon, we stood at the Alta ghost mining town. Situated at about 11800 feet, this had been a vibrant mining town housing a few hundred people in its heydays. A couple of original shacks, the manager’s home, the general store buildings remain standing. As in many such towns, life for the miner would have been hard. But each day, they were fortunate to wake up to fantastic views of the surrounding valley and peaks. Standing outside the erstwhile general store, we took in the fantastic views around us.
The Alta-Gold King mining area had been active between 1877 and 1948. It made history as the first mining town to use (Tesla’s) AC electricity from the Ames hydroelectric power plant situated in the valley below. Westinghouse Electric built it for LL Bean, who owned the mining business in Alta. The electric plant survives to this day and is operational. Although we take electricity for granted today, what an astounding feat of science that must have been for the locals then! To witness the implementation of the power plant and its transmission lines, and to use electricity for the mining operations! And so much more efficient than the wood-powered steam mills
Leaving the ghost town behind, we drove upwards towards Alta Lakes. Although the high clearance vehicle took us further, the road was blocked by heavy layers of snow at one point. Mike stopped to survey the area on foot and reported that the road was unpassable, even with our vehicle. And that ended our hopes of seeing Alta Lakes, which lay a reasonable distance ahead. To soften the disappointment, our guide took us to see another lake nearby. We drove through a different route, passing several camping sites for visitors who attend Telluride’s many festivals. At one point, he asked us to dismount, and we walked a short distance to see Clear Lake. (I think that’s the name he used). It was not big, by any means, but the tall trees surrounding it with the mountain framed in the background gave it a picturesque quality. Mike said he spent some of his days off climbing that mountain. He would start early in the morning and summit by afternoon, giving him enough time to ski down and try again. A test of endurance, especially in the snow! I doubt that would be something I could accomplish in a day’s work!
Back in the truck, Mike sped along Hwy 145 to do one last bit of sightseeing. He took us to a spot above the Ames Valley to view the Ames hydroelectric plant. It was built in 1890 and has been operational since 1891. He recounted a story about a group of Cornell engineering students working here when heavy flooding happened. Since there was not enough time to escape the area, they made some quick calculations to see how high they needed to climb the wooden posts outside and clambered onto them, just in time for the water to reach the area. Luckily, their calculations worked to their advantage, and they survived the incident without loss of life. No wonder my parents always insisted I learn math and science! It could help save a life or two!!
Our entire tour was four hours, and we were just a little past that time. The couple we’d picked up in Telluride had another appointment they couldn’t miss. So Mike quickly drove us all to Telluride to drop them off first. Then we made our way back up to Mountain Lodge. We had spent just over four hours enjoying the beautiful scenery, lots of fresh air, the balmy sunshine, all while learning about the history and culture of the area. And we had an enjoyable time doing so! Next time around, I would plan to visit later in the season when Black Bear Pass is likely to be open. The way Mike tells it that would be quite an adventure!!