Category Archives: Colorado Mountains

Pearl Pass Part Two

North Side to Summit

North Side to Summit

In Part 1 I discussed the history of Pearl Pass and my family connection. I also covered the four wheel drive experience travelers have on the pass.  I have been rambling around the Rocky Mountains most of my life.  There is a lot of good country here.  I am fortunate to have spent time in some of the Rockies from New Mexico to Alberta.

Some of the best pieces of mountain country are the Elk Mountains. I have not spent much time there because of Aspen. A Western Colorado native, for many years I harbored a prejudice against ski area development.  Aspen is the ski town that started the Twentieth Century Gold Rush, this time mining tourist pockets.  The place is just too rich for a small town boy.  Over time I lost my bias, but still tended to avoid the Aspen area.  I have never been to the Maroon Bells.

Living along the Front Range influenced not visiting the Roaring Fork Valley as it is a four hour drive to Aspen from Denver. Rocky Mountain National Park and the Collegiate Peaks are a lot closer.  Recapturing my interest in my family history has drawn me to Pearl Pass.  If Grandmother Pearl could drive a wagon over the pass in 1887, I should do it as well.

Pearl Pass has seen no change in the last 130 years. Between Aspen and Ashcroft the road is paved and there is development, but once on the four wheel drive road it is as it was.  It goes between the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness and the Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness.  Together, they harbor the largest cluster of 14,000 foot high peaks in North America.



That huge area of high mountain wilderness means wild. Pearl Pass is one of the wildest places I have ever visited.  Up high, what you see is almost all above timberline.  To the east, the mountains are granite, what I am familiar with in Colorado.  To the west is sandstone.  Layered sandstone, capped with basalt.

To me, that layered rock seems wild, out of place. It is gray, with a hint of red.  When I see sandstone I expect red or tan.  The view is so striking and beautiful I am at a loss for words.  I have been trying for days to come up with a description that matches what I saw.  The pictures will give you an idea, but cannot portray the impact of so much wild space with little human influence.

One reason for the view is because the Elk Mountains are west of the central Colorado?????????? Mountains and get more moisture. The glacial cirques are huge, creating a series of basins surrounded by many high peaks 13,000- feet or higher.  The pass itself is 12,700 feet high, surpassed by Mosquito Pass for example, but unsurpassed in sheer majesty.

I am now committed to more exploration of the Elk Mountains. There are Taylor and Schofield Passes that are four wheel drive accessible.  A winter drive to the Maroon Bells is on my list.  I may even break down and get out and walk.  My backpacking days are over, but there are lots of day hikes.  Lots of people on the trails, but most of them are nice people.  The high passes are for solitude.

Pearl Pass Part One

Road to Ashcroft

Road to Ashcroft

On Wednesday, September 3, I drove over Pearl Pass.  Pearl is one of those four wheeling trips that have been on my list for a long time.  My grandmother, Pearl Willits Shanks, drove a team and wagon over the pass when the Willits family moved from north Texas to Colorado in 1887.  Pearl was 12 when she drove over the pass.  She may have been a Texas girl before Pearl Pass, but she was a mountain girl after that.

The road was built as a toll road in the early 1880’s from the railhead in Crested Butte to the newly discovered silver mining area in Aspen.  It was in use until the railroads came to Aspen in the late 1880’s.  The main use was hauling coal from mines at Crested Butte to Aspen.

Today the road is much like it was in the nineteenth century.  From the start of the four wheel drive portion until it drops into the valley on the Crested Butte side it has no dirt, just rock.

Pearl Pass

The Bad Ledge

Fist sized rocks, baby head sized rocks, rock ledges, big rocks in narrow places, and big rocks in the middle of the road. One can grow tired of rock.

It is also narrow, made for wagons a long time ago.  There is no room for error. In reading about the pass, most of the reports involving trouble were where a vehicle got too far to the side.  When that happens, there better be good help available, because it is a long way to the bottom if the vehicle rolls over.

I was able to drive over all those rocks with no real damage to my Toyota Tacoma other than losing a mudflap.  The forest ranger had suggested a Jeep Rubicon.  I find my Toyota does just fine, although I may add a limited slip differential someday.

The Road and a View

The Road and a View

At the Summit

At the Summit

This is probably the most difficult road I have driven.  Steep, narrow, and did I mention rocky? I will do it again.  The history is important to me, the story of my family.  I spent the afternoon on that road marveling that a 12 year old girl from flat Texas could marshal the courage to drive a wagon over that hill.

I don’t know how long the entire trip from Crested Butte to Ashcroft, 10 miles from Aspen, took the Willits family.  I do know that they misjudged the time it would take to get over the highest part and did not get off the hill into Ashcroft until 11:00 PM.

That road is scary enough in daylight.  At night?  It is good that horses are better at seeing at night than we are.  Once I got down into the timber on the Crested Butte side, the alternating sunlight and shadow made it hard to see any serious obstacles. I can just imagine what Pearl was feeling.

I have given you some history and road condition information about Pearl Pass.  My next piece will be about the other big attractions.  The Elk Mountains that the pass traverses are some of the most spectacular and geologically unique mountains in Colorado.  Next time.

Recent Entries »