The road through the basin...
The road through the basin below Pearl Pass offers both jaw-dropping scenery and a modicum of challenge. Pearl Pass ranks near the top of our list of favorite Colorado routes but it is only open a few weeks during the late summer. In years of heavy snowfall it often doesn’t open at all.
We had embarked on a personal celebratory journey upon returning to the USA after a yearlong hiatus in China, and had taken to calling it the "Return to Dirt" tour. Marshall, Tomichi, and Napoleon passes had already appeared in our rearview mirror and we had three more backcountry jewels left on our planned itinerary. Now we were cruising the dirt of Forest Road 742 across Taylor Park in central Colorado. The Elk Mountains form the northern rampart of the Taylor Park area and we were headed directly toward the imposing range.
After miles of high-speed graded dirt, we finally reached the trailhead for the road over Taylor Pass. We turned up Forest Road 761 and the nature of the road changed immediately and dramatically. No more gravel, no more maintenance, no more high speed. It was strictly 4WD low range with the hubs engaged. The operative word for this road was "rocky."
Big rocks, little rocks, firmly anchored rocks, loose and rolling rocks — the Taylor Pass road has them all. All of the rocks successfully prevent any attempt at speed. We took a deep breath, settled into our seats, and let the truck crawl forward. The vast expanse of Taylor Park dropped away as we ground slowly and steadily upward.
Taylor Pass is a slow, rocky...
Taylor Pass is a slow, rocky 4WD crawl, but that is what we were seeking on our “Return to Dirt” tour. There is nothing like the sound of a T-case in low range to make a four-wheeler smile after a long deficiency.
A mile and half into the Taylor Pass road, we came to the signature section of this delightful 4WD adventure. There was a 200-yard stretch where the roadbed runs directly up Taylor Creek. The challenge was directly proportional to the amount of water cascading down the creek. During the height of the summer snowmelt, the section can be quite a challenge. The Taylor Pass rocks are even more plentiful in the streambed and the more water flowing, the harder the rocks are to see. Our passage was easy. Our September date meant the water was low, visibility was good, and we progressed up the creek without delay.
Slow Pace, Rich History
The single most challenging spot on the entire Taylor Pass route was the exit from this submerged road section. We engaged the lockers, deftly steered our way around and over the boulders and had no issue as we crept slowly and carefully up the exit. Once free of the creek, the slow upward grind over even more rocky trail resumed. The slow pace gave us time to ponder the history of the road.
As rough as Taylor Pass is today, it is a veritable "super slab" when compared to the original route. With nearby towns accessible via the network of modern transportation, it is hard to visualize these roads as major routes of commerce.
For a short section of the...
For a short section of the Taylor Pass route, the road goes straight up the middle of the streambed. Passage is not difficult in September but is a lot more challenging earlier in the summer during the snow melt.
In the early 1880s, these roads were all there were. The town of Aspen was completely isolated when the silver boom first hit the area. The only access to the burgeoning mining camp was trails laboriously hacked out of the wilderness over Independence, East Maroon, or Taylor passes. Just because a road existed didn't mean the trips were easy. The first wagon trip over Independence Pass was said to have taken a full month. The initial route over Taylor pass included a 40-foot drop. Wagons were disassembled, lowered on ropes, and reassembled to continue the trip.
Why go to so much effort? Wealth was powerful motivation, and there were potential riches to be made in the valleys, peaks, and gulches of this part of Colorado back then.
Soon we were approaching the top of the pass. Once on top, we paused to soak in the incredible view. Taylor Park spread out behind us with beautiful timberline Taylor Lake almost directly below us. To the east, the Collegiate Range with its many 14,000-foot-plus peaks beckoned. The Elk Range in all of its rugged majesty marched off to the west and countered with several of its own "14ers" easily visible.
The rocky exit from the Taylor Creek section of the road is the single most difficult challenge on the whole length of Taylor Pass. A properly equipped vehicle reduces the challenge and we had no issue with the lifted and locked Comanche.