There is a large array of...
There is a large array of warning signs as the road starts to drop into Crystal Canyon. While the signs are accurate and not to be taken lightly (there have been fatalities in the canyon), the road can be an enjoyable 4WD experience. Be careful and stay within the limits of your vehicle and driving skills.
We had reached the final approach to the 12,705-foot pass. The road climbed steeply up the north facing ridgeline. It was easy to see why snow blocks Pearl Pass until late in August in most years. Some years, the large snow cornice lasts all summer and the road stays closed into the next winter.
Unfortunately, it was raining, sleeting, and blowing by the time we reached the saddle. Low clouds and rain blocked the long views north and south that are usually enjoyed from this lofty perch. Reluctantly, we started the long, steep, and rocky descent toward Crested Butte. The road surface made for really slow-going and it was already mid-afternoon by the time we finally reached pavement just south of Crested Butte.
We once again topped off our gas tank and were soon scooting along the dirt road up Slate Creek. Our next destination was Schofield Pass. Well…sort of.
Schofield Pass was still blocked...
Schofield Pass was still blocked by an avalanche field (in mid-September!) just south of the summit. We bypassed the blockage by routing up Slate Creek and over Paradise Divide to access Crystal Canyon on the north side of the pass.
Schofield Pass itself was still blocked by an avalanche south of the pass. We knew from experience that we could bypass the south approach by heading out of Crested Butte by way of Slate Creek and Paradise Divide. We weren't really interested in Schofield Pass itself anyway. We were seeking the north side of Schofield, which descends via the infamous road through Crystal Canyon. Evening was rapidly descending on us and we found an ideal site just above the drop into the canyon. We enjoyed the rapidly improving weather and once again fell asleep to the sound of water rollicking over the rocks in the nearby creek.
Morning dawned bright and clear, but the sun was soon blotted out as we entered the narrow confines of Crystal Canyon. The road down Crystal Canyon was one of those 4WD mind games we play with ourselves. The road was no narrower, steeper, or rockier than many other roads in Colorado.
Peering over your hood into...
Peering over your hood into Crystal Canyon can be an intimidating experience as the road is steep and narrow. Be forewarned that there is also a large rock in the middle of the road (and it has been there for many years). Vehicles will fit around it but it is a tight squeeze.
So what was it about the place that always made the hairs on the back of my neck prickle? Maybe it was the foreboding feel to the dark shadows that reside in the deep, narrow canyon. Maybe it was the Crystal River pounding down through the boulders far below the road. Or it was the fatal accidents that occurred in years past in the canyon?
Whatever the reason, the blood pumps a little faster, the senses are heightened, and very close attention was paid to every move. Slowly…carefully…the truck crept down past the infamous Devil's Punchbowl, around the big rock in the middle of the road, finally reaching the bridge at the "bottom" of the canyon. At that point I remembered another reason why this canyon bothered me. The "bottom" was a deception — the narrow section of road continued for what always seemed an interminable distance beyond the bridge. Eventually, the road widened a bit and climbed away from the river. Why do I always feel relief?
We were presented with a choice: the usual route down the Crystal River, past the always-photographed mill, and directly into Marble, or right into Lead King Basin. We turned right at the fork and pointed the Jeep up into Lead King Basin. It had gotten rave reviews for scenery from friends, but we had never taken the time to experience it in person. Our friends didn't steer us wrong. The views in the basin were outstanding! All too soon we were approaching Marble, the pavement, and the end of our tour.
After the bridge is crossed,...
After the bridge is crossed, the road in Crystal Canyon is on the right (in the downhill direction). This helps the driver better judge where the edge of the road is relative to their tires. The road remains narrow with a long drop to the rocks and river below.
Four days, six high mountain passes, and many miles of dirt road through some of the best scenery in Colorado — our "Return to Dirt" tour had been an unquestioned success. We had been reacquainted with the Jeep, the rock and dirt roads, and the backcountry that we love so dearly. On the long drive home, we were already planning our next off-pavement foray and it wouldn't be so long in coming!
About the Author
Mark Werkmeister is a long-time contributor to 4WHEEL DRIVE MAGAZINE and has completed many project builds and adventure articles in that time. After a hiatus spent in China, he is back in the United States and back to finding and exploring unique and fun dirt trails to travel, along with his companion, Joanne Spivack.
The road eventually climbs away from the river and widens a bit. Drivers are faced with a choice: continue down the river past the most photographed mining building in all of Colorado, or take a right up into Lead King Basin. Both routes are beautiful and end in the historic town of Marble.