High Mountain Descent

High Mountain Descent

Getting back down in a Ford truck

Lest I bore you with tales of spectacular scenery and cool old stuff, the Cinnamon Pass trail grew steadily more entertaining as I rolled beyond the ghost town of Animas Forks. At this point, I'd eclipsed the 11,370-foot mark and the Animas River, again, scrambling up a series of mild switchbacks along the canyon face in an easterly direction. Past the second switchback of this climb is where I encountered the big less-than-level rock I wrote about in the first part of my trek. Beyond that, there weren't too many hair-raising slices of trail to be concerned with.

Colorado's highway department clears the snow in the spring with big off-road dozers, and local off-road clubs keep an eye on trail conditions, so if it's bad, someone will know. High-mountain roads like this are frequented by locals who use them as shortcuts, and by off-road adventurers who flock to Colorado for these exciting back-door passages. Likely, the reason I saw only one vehicle after Animas Forks was due to the late time of year, when only the most adventurous people would go where there was supposed to be several feet of snow. There wasn't much of it.

Friends in High Places

That sole vehicle was a Jeep Cherokee piloted by a family of four and a big basset hound. Oddly enough, I recognized the dog before I realized that I'd met these people before. Two days earlier, on an equally desolate high-mountain hiking trail following Lime Creek, they'd been hiking upward as I and one of my pals from Durango were descending from the lake at the summit. How weird is that? They'd run Cinnamon Pass to Lake City earlier in the day and were now returning, and it was their tracks I'd identified as freshest. They'd taken the second of two vehicles from their family convoy (I'd seen a SuperCrew F-250 at the Lime Creek trailhead). The Jeep was unfamiliar, thus the surprise. After a few minutes of happy banter and their assurances as to the great trail conditions beyond, we parted with a wave.

Most of the Cinnamon Pass trail could be run with a Subaru. Really. But I said most-for there are a few spots where big ground clearance makes things simple. An all-wheel drive rig like a Subaru or any of the other big station wagon/truck-like crossover like the Toyota Highlander, Honda CR-V and Mercedes M-Series could probably do a pass like Cinnamon if approached cautiously and with an appropriate set of tires (an aggressive snow tread would be enough). The mere presence of four- or all-wheel drive makes handling 95 percent of this trail simple. The main truck-only consideration is the Ford's low-range transfer case. It made potentially offish moments move in slow motion, and it's not even an option with many poseur SUVs. Its big ground clearance didn't hurt either.

The F-250 I'd brought with me was appropriate for this sort of fun. I'd have liked a more aggressive tire (the OEM units were great for the freeway but slipped at a few high-pucker moments that I'd have rather they'd not). Something knobby like a BFGoodrich Mud-Terrain would have proven exponentially reassuring. The F-250's granny-gear was the primary plus that made the act of crawling over and around big, unwieldy trail elements far less spooky. For such a large truck (17 feet long), the tight switchbacks required occasional backing, but again, the truck handled that with aplomb. It's key to note, though, that all of the truck's capabilities would have proven void had there not been an experienced wheelman. If you've never driven a real off-road trail, bring along a veteran who can show you the ropes.

Alpine Loop

Upon reaching the high point of the trail and Cinnamon Pass itself, I hopped out of the truck and counted tire tracks. It had dawned that on the way up that there'd been an awful lot of traffic before Animas Forks. Before it, a rental-looking Pontiac Grand Prix passed going downhill, a few beat up pickups passed going downhill as well, and a local tow truck drove past in the same direction I'd been heading while I shot some pictures of Animas Forks. It must be noted that these off-road passages are thoroughly interconnected with others throughout the Colorado highlands. It's probable the tow truck was heading to Ouray via the North Fork Cutoff, and the Pontiac coming from the same. The pickups looked well worn and were full of kids. Hanging out in the woods? Hunting? Headed from a bonfire and beer? This series of passages was originally known as the Alpine Loop and with reason. They interconnect the towns of Ouray, Lake City, Telluride, Silverton and Animas Forks, and do so effectively enough that people still use them.

From up high, I saw so much. My sight was unlimited, the sky was a blue that stung my eyes. Several trails led away from the pass further uphill along trails I would qualify as marginally passable on foot. Just thinking about the potential for adventure discovered adjoining this trail alone that I'm seriously considering a move to Colorado. For a laugh, I checked my mobile phone for a signal. No Service. I hadn't planned to spend the night here (not in the winter), but knowing how well I'd prepared myself for that eventuality helped soften the prospect.

All Downhill from Here

Rolling downhill after Cinnamon Pass, some technical switchbacks showed up about a mile along. Two of them required backing up (again, the F-250's length was a hurdle; a shorter vehicle like the Cherokee probably didn't need reverse at all). One of the 'backs had a mammoth rock clogging its apex-bigger than the lump I'd traversed on the way up-and I had to reconnoiter the turn out of the truck. Creeping across and down was done as slow as could be mustered. Hanging up on the thing would have meant spending the afternoon playing leverage games or a cold walk to Lake City in search of an off-road tow. The thought of this thrilled me very little. The F-250 4x4's ground clearance saved the day, in effect countering its full-size length with full-size ride height to cleanly straddle what it couldn't avoid. An important rule to note: if there's a pointy chunk of something in your path, or an obstacle you aren't sure you can clear without bottoming out, put a tire on it. The risk of severe mechanical damage is far weightier than a scuffed sidewall or the half-hour it'll take to mount the spare.

So where's it end? Past the switchbacks, the trail meandered generally downhill and east toward Lake City, a charming little town with a big lake formed after a landslide 700-some years earlier. Turned out there was only limited risk to the adventure beyond the decision to make the trip at all, once I'd mapped out my route over the toughest lumps and bumps. This wasn't about crazy precipices and mind-boggling drop-offs. Those are there and can be found in greater number on other trails, but they were inconsequential if I kept my head and enjoyed the run with an even keel. Got a stock 4x4 or an SUV you've been meaning to test for real off-roadability? Need a new place to run your tried and true trail rig? The lure of Colorado's backcountry cannot be overestimated, and with a little preplanning and forethought, you too can park yourself a day's walk from anywhere. Haven't done that before? Here's your reason.

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