To Hell you ride!

Dropping in on Telluride can be a daunting adventure

2
1981
Continental Divide
Even more daunting than the situation in the photograph is the descent through Black Bear Pass down into Telluride, Colorado, but we were so busy driving that we didn't take photos. These images were supplied by Land Rover from its previous drive along the spine of the Continental Divide in Colorado | Land Rover archives

One of my favorite cover photographs during the dozen years I spent as an editor at AutoWeek magazine was shot by Bill Delaney and showed a Jeep Wrangler being winched up a vertical cliff face adjacent to a waterfall. Mark Vaughn had that adventure, in a place called Surprise Canyon.

Closest I ever came to a similar experience, though it was a descent rather than an ascent, was the feeling that I was driving down a waterfall on an adventure during which I learned just how much fun you can have at 6 miles per hour.

The occasion was the 10th anniversary of Land Rover’s original Great Divide Expedition, the 1989 event in which the British off-road vehicle producer took its Range Rover vehicles down the spine of Colorado, using trails that ran as close as possible to the Continental Divide.

A decade later, the event was repeated, this time, as I recall, going south to north, and using a fleet of new 1999 Range Rover 4.6 HSE 4x4s, each of them on original-equipment tires at normal pressure, though with each also equipped with a winch, rally style axillary lights, and an extra spare tire carried on the roof rack, just in case.

This wasn’t my first Land Rover rodeo. I think that would have been on a trip to England, where I was driving along with one of Range Rover’s Camel Trophy veterans who pointed to what appeared to be a SUV-sized mud bath — a steep sided hole, maybe 50 feet or more across, and deep enough that… 

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No time to contemplate depth as I obeyed — hey, it wasn’t my vehicle — and I drove in and, much to my astonishment, across and then — even much more to my amazement — up and out the other side. 

I got to partake in maybe three or four such Land Rover adventures during my time at AutoWeek, and to this day — and you can ask my 15-year-old grandson to verify this — every time I turn off pavement I repeat the off-road driving mantra I heard every time I spent any time with one of the Land Rover instructors:

“As slow as possible, as fast as necessary.” 

And I repeat:

“As slow as possible, as fast as necessary.” 

The idea is that while you need to maintain enough momentum not to bog down or stall out in certain off-pavement situations, you should drive slowly enough not to make a mistake that might break something and leave you stranded. 

Most off-pavement driving is not a race across Baja, but time spent enjoying and exploring and hoping not to damage the environment (or your vehicle) in the process.

And there are places where driving at anything more than a crawl might result in something worse than being stranded. You might topple over a cliff, or even down a waterfall.

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Trail map | Alltrails.com

Case in point is Black Bear Pass, a slit in the mountains above Telluride, Colorado, apparently cut by Bridal Veil Creek and feeding a waterfall twice as high as Niagara.

“To Hell you ride,” is what those heading down the mountain were told in the late 1800s when Telluride was a gold and silver mining town where Butch Cassidy robbed his first bank.

The rocky trail down the mountain is so daunting that when it came time to put in a paved road to the mining-turned-resort community, they had to go the long way around, up through Ouray to Ridgway, and then turn west to Placerville, and then back east through Sawpit and finally on to Telluride, where the pavement ends. 

Of course, there’s the shortcut over Black Bear Pass, provided you have the right equipment, which means a couple or more vehicles and friends who can walk ahead and then give you hand signals about where to place your wheels as you negotiate rocks — boulders and loose shale and such — while hoping to avoid the drop offs.

Consider, however, that the book, 4WD Adventures Colorado, notes, “Stock vehicles are likely to be damaged and may find the trail impassable,” adding, “It can be dangerous and has claimed many lives during the past thirty years.”

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Nonetheless, the authors conclude, “We think this is one of the great 4WD roads of Colorado.”

The driver has to trust spotters to make sure each wheel is properly placed. If not, you might tumble over the cliff to your death

And the fun is just beginning. Once you’re through the pass, there’s the narrow descent down a series of switchbacks though which you’ll likely need to do 3-, 5- and even a 7-point turn to reach the town on the valley floor.

It may be “to Hell you ride,” but it is, indeed, one helluva ride!

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2 COMMENTS

  1. I’ll bet the 2500 or so people who call Telluride their home would just love that old quotation that you’re repeating in your title here, Larry.

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