There are sections on Pearl...
There are sections on Pearl Pass that are steep, ledge-infested, and slick with water (or ice). Lockers and some added clearance are very helpful for a safe and careful transit.
From the top of the pass, there are two routes available. One can stay high and head for Aspen via the ridge-hugging Richmond Hill Road, or plunge down the north side of the pass and drop down Express Creed toward the ghost town of Ashcroft.
Since our planned route continued on to Pearl Pass, we dropped the hood toward Ashcroft and started the descent. The descent goes through some of the most beautiful aspen forests in all of Colorado. This trip was a bit early to catch the color change, but to traverse this road during the peak of the fall color was truly an amazing experience.
The clouds started rolling...
The clouds started rolling in as we traversed the tundra on the north approach to Pearl Pass. The pass is the lowest point on the horizon. Since the road climbs the ridge on the north face, the snow is deep and very slow to melt out.
We reached the bottom and were again confronted with a paved road. We turned left up the valley and were shortly back on the dirt as we turned up the Pearl Pass Road. It was, once again, getting late in the afternoon and we needed a campsite. The Forest Service restricts camping to a mere seven sites on the lower portion of the Pearl Pass road and we were fortunate to find a site that was available. We settled in as the clouds gathered and a light rain started to fall. We were hoping for better weather the next day as we challenged the terrain of Pearl Pass.
It was sunny when we pulled out of camp the next morning, but low clouds were soon scudding across the sky and obscuring the ramparts of towering Castle Peak. We continued the slow, rocky but uneventful climb until we reached the turn-off for Montezuma Basin near timberline. There was a sign to the left announcing that the Pearl Pass road continued.
Pearl Pass was originally...
Pearl Pass was originally built as a toll road between the booming mines at Aspen and the railhead at Crested Butte. When the railroad reached Aspen only five years later, the road was all but abandoned. Much of the original stonework for the road is still in place on the north side of the pass.
At this point, the road's character changed, and the challenge got a bit more interesting. Instead of a loose, cobbled rock surface, the road featured sections of a solid rock. Many of these areas were interspersed with ledges. As luck would have it, the largest and steepest of these sections also had a stream running across it, guaranteeing that the surface was always wet (and covered with ice if it is cold enough). Even with both ends locked, it took us several attempts to find a line that allowed us to creep upward.
The ledge-ridden fun continued for about a quarter mile or so of this, as the road switchbacked up into the upper basin. The road mellowed out again as it entered an area of alpine tundra. Free of any obstructing trees, the views in this section were fantastic! The road was closed under the turreted ridgeline of Castle Peak and the bright green carpet of tundra stretched out across the basin. In season, this area is also replete with a gorgeous array of wildflowers.
Pearl of the Mountain Pass
The road from the top of Pearl...
The road from the top of Pearl Pass to Crested Butte is a long one but the views down the long Brush Creek valley help shorten the miles. We emerged from the rain and sleet as we dropped lower and were enjoying sunshine by the time we arrived in town.
Soon the road left the tundra behind and entered the rocky moraine sliding down Pearl Mountain. This was a sparse, barren land as even the minimalist tundra gave way to acres and acres of nothing but rocks. The rocks have been pushed, piled, and shaped by the glaciers pushing down from the heights above.
As our luck would have it, a solid overcast moved in and the lack of light and color gave the landscape a somber, almost sinister, tone. In this desolation, the early road builders' handiwork is easily visible as the numerous gullies are spanned with intricately hand-stacked rockwork causeways.
Pearl Pass was constructed in 1882 by a group of men from Aspen, Ashcroft, and Crested Butte as a route from by-then booming Aspen to the nearest railroad at Crested Butte. The main advantage of the new road was that it made the railroad 50 miles closer than any of the previous routes. Until the rails reached Aspen in 1887, Pearl Pass was the main route to and from Aspen. The 1885 version of Crofutt's Gripsack Guide of Colorado promised daily service via a "coach and four" between Crested Butte and Aspen.