Ouray or the Highway: Jeeping in Colorado
Sunday, August 14, 2005
Jeep guide Keith Gerry has a system for classifying the four-wheel-drive trails around Ouray, Colo. It involves just two categories: "mellow scenic" and "gnarly scenic."
As the common denominator, "scenic" refers to crystalline waterfalls, multi-hued wildflowers, century-old mining ruins and 13,000-foot-tall ridges ribbed with snow -- stuff that comes standard in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado.
"Mellow" implies those views, plus some moderately big bumps.
"Gnarly" is what I chose.
As a consequence, I spent a July morning flouncing between my passenger's seat and its seat belt, watching the sky pitch violently up and down over our Jeep's hood and listening to Gerry narrate the bounces with statements as simple as "uh! uh! uh!" and as complex as "ooh-ah-eee-ah-ooh!"
One wonders: What about this place could prompt such eloquence? What could rocket Gerry -- a ponytailed rock-and-roll drummer cum ski-shop worker cum summer Jeep guide -- to such literary heights? More to the point, what could motivate me, an occasional off-road driver, to trek here from Atlanta, some 1,600 miles distant?
It is probably best to start from the beginning.
In the latter part of the 19th century, miners swarmed to the mountains near the towns of Ouray (pronounced YOUR-ay), Silverton and Telluride, Colo., lured by veins of ore containing gold and silver. Boomtowns sprang up in valleys and alpine meadows, and prospectors staked claims by the thousands. Many hit pay dirt, as ore poured out of the earth. But a problem remained: how to move the bounty out of some of the wildest, steepest terrain in Colorado.
Men like Russian-born Otto Mears -- nicknamed the "Pathfinder of the San Juans" -- offered an early answer, charting routes through the mountains and dynamiting rough roads out of sheer cliffs. The region's mineral economy proved fragile: An 1893 collapse in silver prices turned boomtowns into ghost towns almost overnight.
But even as the mining industry suffered a long, fitful decline, the old roads remained. Uneven and rocky, they follow river canyons and cross high-altitude meadows carpeted by tundra and speckled with wildflowers. They navigate snowfields and climb passes that hover around 13,000 feet. All along the way, they lead past weathered bunkhouses, half-buried gears and other reminders of a time when travelers came for business, not pleasure.
There are a lot of options to explore. According to Dale Tuttle, owner of a Ouray Jeep tour company called Switzerland of America, the mountains near Ouray contain about 500 miles of Jeep trails, most of them old mining routes or mule paths.
And so the silver crash had a silver lining. Jeeps replaced burros. Prospecting expeditions gave way to Ford Expeditions. Mill workers and miners morphed into Explorers and Pathfinders. Ouray, once a mining center, now calls itself the "Jeep capital of America" or, when feeling saucy, the "Jeep capital of the world." A tour is one way to experience the backroads.