San Juan Mountain Adventure Ride – Sept 2014

Sept. 1-6, 2014

For several years, some of my work colleagues have planned a multi-day adventure motorcycle ride each summer. Now that I have a means to carry my camping gear on my dirt bike, I decided to join them this year. This year’s trip included:

  • Ross Vellinga (trip lead) (KLR650)
  • Scott Connors (KLR650)
  • Bob Dawson (KTM 525)
  • Dee Gardiner (KTM 350)

This year’s destination was the San Juan Mountains in Colorado. Our objective was to ride over as many high mountain passes as we could in six days. We considered many alternate routes, but finally settled on a plan that gave us 1.5 days of easy warmup, the hardest stuff in the middle of the week without our luggage, and an easy last day before our 7 hour drive back home.

We lucked out with weather, as there was a massive rain storm in the area the week prior to our trip, and again the week following our trip. We only had one day with rain, which is unusual this time of year. We managed to ride over all of the mountain passes in our plan, and all but one of our side spur routes. The mountain passes included:

  1. Owl Creek Pass (10,114’)
  2. Last Dollar Road (~10,600’)
  3. Ophir Pass (11,789’)
  4. Black Bear Pass (12, 840’)
  5. Red Mountain Pass (~11,100’)
  6. Imogene Pass (13,114’)
  7. Corkscrew Pass (~12,200’)
  8. Stony Pass (12,650’)
  9. Lost Trail Creek (~12,300’)
  10. Cinnamon Pass (12,640’)
  11. Engineer Pass (12,800’)
  12. Blue Creek Pass (~11,400’)

Our side spurs included:

  1. Clear Lake (~11,900’)
  2. Kendall Mountain (~12,300’)

We left home early on Labor Day and made the drive to our starting point near Montrose Reservoir.

Packed and ready to go

Our planned route circled around the San Juan Mountains in a counter-clockwise direction, as shown in the following GPS map. Each day’s journey is shown with a different color. Our camps, fuel stops, and passes are also shown.

Our GPS track

Day 1 – Monday, September 1: Cimarron Road & Silver Jack Lake

Ross found a nice staging area near Montrose Reservoir. We quickly unloaded our bikes and got ready to start our adventure. We left the staging area and headed south on a very nice dirt road (P77 Rd), which eventually tied into the Cimarron Road, which leads to Silver Jack Lake.

We made good time, stopping occasionally to take in the scenery and take a few photographs.

Our first glimpse of the San Juan Mountains

Our plan was to camp somewhere near Silver Jack Lake so Ross and Bob could do a little fishing.

Silver Jack Lake

There are three campgrounds near the lake, but we wanted to do primitive camping rather than use a full featured campground. We found a secluded spot in the trees near the inlet to the lake.

Before setting up camp we decided to ride part of the ATV trail on the west side of the lake. This was a good test to see how our bikes handled while loaded down with gear. Those on the larger KLRs found it pretty challenging, but Bob and I enjoyed the ride out to the end of the trail and back.

Our lowest camp – at 9000′

Upon returning we quickly set up camp and enjoyed a nice dinner of steak and potatoes.

Day 2 – Tuesday, September 2: Owl Creek Pass, Last Dollar Road & Ophir Pass

After breakfast we packed up camp and headed up the road to Owl Creek Pass. This road was very easy and is well suited for larger adventure bikes. It was a relaxing and scenic ride.

Chimney Rock

Owl Creek Pass

The road turns west and comes out on Hwy 550 just north of Ridgway. When we arrived back within cell phone coverage, we learned that our friend and colleague Michael Makarczyk passed away the day before. This was sad news and impacted us throughout the trip. Mike had ridden some of these same trails earlier this year and gave us suggestions that helped us finalize our plan.

After checking in with our spouses, we continued west and then turned south on Last Dollar Road – another easy but scenic ride.

Along Last Dollar Road

Nearing the end of this trail I noticed that my rear tire had gone flat. I was the one that wasn’t going to have to change a flat because I use TUbliss tire inserts and carry tire plugs. But it turns out that my TUbliss high pressure insert was faulty (which Nuetech replaced under warrantee). I had to remove the TUbliss system and borrow a tube from Scott. His tubes were a different size than I needed, but we were able to eventually make it work. We pinched the tube on our first attempt, but Ross had a repair kit with glue that had not gone dry. It took us about 2 hours to make the repair, but we finally got underway again. I had to run higher air pressure than I like since my tire did not have a rim lock in place. Thus, my rear tire was fairly squirrely for the remainder of the trip.

My first flat tire

After fixing the tire we dropped down to the highway just west of Telluride. Because we were now running behind schedule, we did not ride in to town. We gassed up and rode along the South Fork of the San Miguel River (63L Rd). This brought us back to the highway right across the street from the turnoff to Ophir.

Approaching Ophir

We rode up to the small community of Ophir, and on to the pass at 11,789’. This road was much steeper and rockier than we expected. We thought it would be one of the easier passes, but it turned out to be one of the most challenging – especially with fully loaded bikes. It wasn’t too bad, but with the steep side hill and extreme exposure, it made you pay full attention.

Looking back towards Ophir from the pass

Going down the eastern side was much easier and faster. Upon reaching the bottom we buzzed down Hwy 550 to the South Fork of Mineral Creek and found a nice place to camp at Golden Horn. This would be our base camp for the next two nights.

Our camp for nights 2 and 3 (elevation 9700′)

Day 3 – Wednesday, September 3: Engineer Pass, Imogene Pass, & Corkscrew Gulch

Our base camp was at 9700’ elevation, so it got rather chilly at night. We awoke to a layer of frost on everything.

We awoke to a coating of frost

We decided to stay at this camp for two nights so we could travel light over Black Bear Pass and Imogene Pass. The following map shows our day’s travel.

A close-up of day 3

We left camp after breakfast and rode Hwy 550 north to the trailhead for Black Bear Pass. When we arrived at the trailhead we noticed a sign indicating that the one-way section of the trail going down to Telluride was closed for repairs. This threw a wrench into our planned route.

We decided to at least ride up to the pass and back. I was disappointed that we were not able to see the “steps”, the switchbacks, or Bridal Veil Falls.

Heading up to Black Bear Pass

The road up was rocky in spots, but not overly technical. It did offer some spectacular views up and down the canyon through which Hwy 550 travels.

Looking towards Ouray

Scott, Ross, Bob, and Dee at Black Bear Pass

We rode down the western side until we came to the closed portion of the trail, but then had to retrace our route back to the highway.

Above Telluride

The road down to Telluride was closed for repairs

At the base of the trail we met another group of dirt bikers and exchanged trail information. They suggested that we take a few minutes to see Yankee Girl Mine.

We rode further up the highway, over Red Mountain Pass (~11,100’), and then took the dirt road to Yankee Girl Mine.

Yankee Girl Mine

We continued up the dirt road until it rejoined Hwy 550. This enabled us to ride the fun twisty portion of Hwy 550 again.

We continued on to the town of Ouray, where we stopped for lunch.

After lunch we started up towards Imogene Pass – the highest pass on our route at 13,114’.

The road up to Camp Bird is heavily traveled and is a bit wash boarded in some sections. We made good time and turned off towards the pass. We had hoped to also explore Yankee Boy Basin, but we didn’t have enough time.

The road to the pass is fairly technical with a few steep climbs. It was fun on our unloaded bikes, but it probably would have been a challenge on the KLRs if they were fully loaded. I think it could be done, but it would have been a challenge. Even unloaded the KLRs struggled in some of the loose sections due to their dual-sport tires. The KTMs did much better, being lighter and having more dirt-worthy tires.

Heading up to Imogene Pass

My fuel injected bike ran perfectly all the way to the pass, while the other bikes started to struggle above about 12,500’. They all made it okay, but they were running poorly and lacking in power. Other parties were having the same issues.

The highest pass on our trip at 13,114′

Red Mountain

On our way back down we stopped by a stream to do a few minor bike repairs, and then continued on our way.

Taking a break and doing some minor repairs

On the way back to camp we decided to ride up Corkscrew Gulch, which was highly recommended by our friend Mike. When we arrived at the trailhead we found a local school foot race was under way. The race was almost over, so we stayed and cheered on the racers as they crossed the finish line.

The finish line at the Corkscrew Gulch race

Corkscrew Gulch was really fun. It was probably my second favorite trail of the entire trip. It got steep in a few places, but it was mostly a fast paced cruise with lots of twists and turns as it climbed to the pass at about 12,200’.

The pass at the top of Corkscrew Gulch

From the pass we rode down Cement Creek to Silverton, where we bought more food, and then returned to camp.

Our ride didn’t go entirely on plan, but it was still and enjoyable day.

Day 4 – Thursday, September 4: Clear Lake, Kendall Mountain & Stony Pass

It was a cloudy morning and it looked like it would rain later in the day. Our gear was once again coated with frost. We decided to let our tents dry out while we rode up to Clear Lake. The trail to Clear Lake is a constant climb to about 11,900’ and is fairly rocky. Bob and Ross tried, without luck, to catch a few fish.

Fishing at Clear Lake

We returned to camp and packed up our gear. We then headed down to Silverton and attempted to ride up Kendall Mountain to enjoy the views above the town. The trail was much steeper and rockier than I expected, so we abandoned our plan. We figured we better move on before the storm hit.

On the way up Kendall Mountain I happened to spot a Bobcat or some form of small cat. If you look very closely in my helmet camera video you can see him scramble up the hill into the brush. I think that is the first cat I have seen in the wild.

Silverton as seen from the road up Kendall Mountain

We ate lunch in Silverton and then gassed up our bikes before heading over Stony Pass. It started to rain lightly as we started up the road, so Ross put on his rain gear. This proved especially useful for the upcoming stream crossings!

The road starts off easy but gets a little rougher as we climbed. We made good time with very few stops since we wanted to get over the pass before any lightning storms moved in. It rained pretty steadily all the way up, but at least it wasn’t a downpour.

Rain on Stony Pass

Stony Pass is on the Continental Divide. As we started down the other side we were following the headwaters of the Rio Grande River. The river steadily grew in size as we moved down the canyon. Luckily the rain let up while going down the south side.

Looking back towards the headwaters of the Rio Grande River

Most of the road was pretty easy, but there were several long, rocky downhill sections. We were hoping to not have to turn around and go back up these stretches. Other sections were very fun ATV-type trails that twisted and turned through the trees with numerous small stream crossings and rolling bumps.

While filming Ross, I spun out in one of the stream crossings and suffered my only crash of the trip. I fell fairly slowly, but I was glad to be wearing protective gear and a good helmet. I then learned that I am too weak to pick up my bike when loaded with camping gear. So, I sat down and rested until Bob came back to find me.

We found a place to camp just above Rio Grande Reservoir. It started to rain again while we were setting up our tents, so we timed it almost perfectly. It rained steadily all evening, so we all huddled under Ross’ rain tarp and cooked our dinner and discussed options for the following day. We were worried that the trails would be slippery and muddy with all of the rain. Everyone was wet and cold, so we went to bed early.

Rio Grande camp and Ross’ rain shelter (9500′)

Day 5 – Friday, September 5: Lost Trail Creek, Cinnamon Pass, & Engineer Pass

It stopped raining at about 2:00 AM and the skies cleared, making it a very cold night. But for me it was the warmest night of the trip. I think the layer of ice on my tent offered some insulation from the cold and the wind.

Everything was coated with ice

It was brisk in the morning and everything was coated with ice. We waited for the sun to rise and warm things up.

Waiting for the warmth of the sun

After breakfast we decided to split into two groups; Bob and I wanted to try our original route up Lost Trail Creek, while Ross and Scott wanted to take the easy way around on their KLRs. We agreed to meet at the base of Wager Gulch between noon and 1:00 PM.

Bob and I worried that the trail would be too muddy, but the conditions were perfect! This was a really fun trail as it moved through the trees and up multiple small valleys. There were a few steep and rocky climbs that would have been difficult on the loaded KLRs, so Ross and Scott made the right decision to go around.

Lost Trail Creek was my favorite trail of the trip. We made really good time, riding up to the Continental Divide in about 40 minutes.

Bob at the top of Lost Trail Creek

While going down Wager Gulch we stopped at the Carson ghost town. We then proceeded down to our designated meeting spot, arriving at 12:04 PM. Ross and Scott arrived about 20 minutes later.

Carson Ghost Town

From there we rode up to Cinnamon Pass (12,640’). This road was a little rougher than I expected, but it wasn’t difficult.

Cinnamon Pass – 12,640′

After taking a group photo, we headed down the western side towards Animas Forks, and then up to Engineer Pass.

Animas Forks

We talked with some folks at Cinnamon Pass which told us that Engineer Pass was much more difficult than Cinnamon Pass. That may be true in a Jeep, but it wasn’t very difficult on a dirt bike.

Just prior to reaching the actual pass we came to an overlook that had a spectacular view in almost every direction.

Dee near Engineer Pass

Engineer Pass – 12,800′

After taking a few photos we headed down the east side to our target camp location near Nellie Creek. We set up camp and enjoyed a relaxing afternoon and evening. Scott and Dee collected firewood while Bob and Ross did some more fishing.

Enjoying our last camp (at 9200′)

Day 6 – Saturday, September 6: Blue Creek Road

Since we had a long drive ahead of us, we decided to break camp early and head in to Lake City and buy breakfast. We had a wonderful breakfast at the Tic Toc Diner.

After breakfast we had a pleasant ride north on Hwy 149 to the turnoff for the Blue Creek Road. The Blue Creek Road was a very pleasant dual-sport road. It was easy and scenic – a very relaxing ride. We were surprised that this road climbed to almost 11,400’ in elevation. In fact, it was rather chilly up there.

This brought us out on Hwy 50, which would return us to our truck. The traffic on Hwy 50 was heavier than I expected, and I don’t enjoy riding my small bike in traffic. I had a big scare just a few hundred yards from the truck when I hit a nail and got another flat on my rear tire. I was doing about 50-55 mph when the tire blew. The rear end immediately started sliding out to the side. I counter steered to try and keep the bike upright and staying in my lane. Luckily I was able to maintain control and safely bring the bike to stop off to the side of the road.

My second flat – ~100 yards from the truck

After regaining my composure, we loaded up the truck and started our journey home.

We were able to ride most of our planned trails and even a few side spurs. We will need to go back another time and try to complete the Black Bear/Imogene loop. We concluded that next time it would be better to have a base camp near the center of this region and do day trips without heavily loaded bikes.

About gardinerfamilyadventures

A really great family!
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5 Responses to San Juan Mountain Adventure Ride – Sept 2014

  1. markbabcock says:

    Great report and videos. Planning on heading to Colorado in Aug. 2015.

  2. deven says:

    yeah you missed the best roads on the range, down black bear and up the Telluride side of Imogene. Best alpine jeeping in America. Cool trip report!

  3. Roy Shadbolt says:

    Dee, thanks so much for taking the time, effort and energy to put this together. I linked in from ADVrider, but I have followed many of your travels from MotoUtah. In your opinion which of these passes/trails could be done on a big bike (Moto Guzzi Stelvio)? I would probably take my 450, but at some point in the future would like to ride over on the Stelvio.

    Thanks again,

    Roy Shadbolt
    Utrider1 on Advrider

    • Roy,

      I am glad you enjoyed my report. It was really a fun trip.

      I have never ridden a big bike, so I can only guess which trails you might enjoy. I think the following would enjoyable, assuming they are dry:
      * Hwy 550
      * Cimarron Road
      * Owl Creek Pass
      * Last Dollar Road
      * Rd 625 or Hwy 145
      * Bolam Pass (I have not done this, but I think it is big bike friendly)
      * Blue Creek
      * Hwy 149

      I would think you could put together some nice loops – at least with the first set of roads. If you can find a way around the east side, that would make another loop option.

      I also wanted to go explore Black Canyon of the Gunnison, but we didn’t have time.

      There is a new thread on AdvRider called “Silverton Colorado/San Juan Mountains in pictures – September 2015” by DYNOBOB that includes some incredible photos that will help you get a better sense for the trails – including Bolam Pass. He also has some great video of the steps on Black Bear.


      • Roy Shadbolt says:

        Super!!! Yeah, that was the report I linked to your ride from 😉 I think yours is EVERY bit as good as that one, however that guy has amazing pictures.

        I rode through Lake City last summer on street bikes, with some friends and was thoroughly smitten with that town!

        Right now our plan for the ride this year is late August first of Septemberish, we will probably base out of Ouray or Silverton with a motorhome and do day loops. None of my crew is hearty enough to tent it.

        Thanks again for all of your hard work and effort,


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