Sometimes the worst decisions make for the best stories…such as driving from Telluride to Ouray over Imogene Pass.
Telluride to Ouray
Sitting in the hostel in Telluride, CO The Husband (really he was The Boyfriend at that time) and I were mapping out our route from Telluride to Ouray. The Husband convinced me that taking a “short pass”, which was only 11 miles would save us SOOO much time and allow us to be in Ouray longer. I was all for saving time but a mountain pass from Telluride to Ouray sounded like a difficult drive. I wasn’t into hard. Easy was the name of the game; I didn’t want to do any more work after that days hiking excursion.
“It would be much simpler to get to the other side by taking the 11 mile pass instead of going all the way back around the mountain. And you’ll get to pass through some old mining ghost towns,” I vividly remember him saying.
I should have been like the chicken and just stuck with getting to the other side. But, he was convincing. He always is and I was interested in seeing the old mining town… That was just the beginning of the ride from hell.
The pass is Imogene Pass. Familiar with it? If not, let me enlighten you a bit. Imogene Pass has an elevation of about 13,000 feet. In other words, it’s a very HIGH mountain pass in the San Juan Mountains. It crosses a ridge connecting Ouray with Telluride. (Legend has is that Telluride got it’s name from miners who called it To Hell You Ride. Just to give you a little more context.)
Imogene Pass is the HIGHEST mountain pass in the San Juan Mountains, and the second highest vehicular mountain crossing in Colorado.
When we read about Imogene Pass in our trusty little Colorado guide book we were told the pass is accessible by four wheel drive vehicles. Well that did it for The Husband. He had to test out the new Subaru and it’s four wheel drive. Having recently moved to Colorado from Texas, where most people don’t have four wheel drives we thought all four wheel drive vehicles were created equal. They’re not. I later learned if stock SUVs wanted to attempt this drive they need to have low-range gearing, four wheel drive, high clearance and skid plates. Our little Subaru had two of the four.
The road on Imogene Pass is rocky, steep and very narrow. It’s also unpaved and does not have the safety rails most mountain passes that cars drive on have. Why? BECAUSE CARS SHOULDN’T DRIVE ON IMOGENE PASS! That became very clear to me as The Husband came to a sharp switch back (aka turn in the road) about a mile into the drive and said, “Perhaps we should turn around. This may not be a good way to go.”
I opened the car door to step out and see just where we could turn around but realized I would fall down the mountain if I did. No joke, there were maybe three inches from the tires and the edge of the road. At this point we were stuck. There was no way we could turn around. And so we kept going. Up. Up and up our little silver Subaru climbed. All the while praying we’d just get to the other side, alive. Frankly, I wasn’t so sure we’d make it to Ouray.
We passed a few burnt out cars that had been abandoned and pushed off the road. Once we made it to the summit we could have turned around but that meant going back down what we just climbed. No thank you. We made it that far so we decided to just keep going.
In hindsight, I really should have seen the signs that were right in front of us to avoid the whole mess. Not big yellow or red warning signs saying don’t drive your new Subaru up here. But rather the five different sets of hikers and two mountain bikers we passed who looked at us like we were insane. The waiter at breakfast who thought he heard us wrong when we told him what we were about to do. And the one BIG road sign marking the entrance to the pass stating vehicles had to be four wheel drive.
I have to admit it was a pretty cool drive and our little Subaru was amazingly tough. It got us up and down the mountain safely without a scratch (on it). The views on the drive from Telluride to Ouray over Imogene Pass were out of this world amazing. When we reached Savage Basin and passed through Tomboy Townsite – the old mining town that sold me on the drive in the first place – I got the history lesson I had come for. What once was one of most active mining towns in Colorado, is now just a lot of mining debris scattered about. Rather sad if you think about it.
What The Husband thought would take “maybe an hour”, took more than four hours. Yes, four hours to go 11 miles! So much for saving time and enjoying Ouray longer. My visions of soaking in the hot springs had been left on the summit. I can’t even recall our stay in Ouray I was so drained from the hike the day before and stressed from the drive through Imogene Pass.
Have you been to Telluride? Hiked Imogene Pass?
Sip In More of Colorado…
Elaine Schoch (pronounced the German way – Shock) is the editor and founder of Carpe Travel as well as an award-winning travel writer, wine judge, certified by the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) Level 2 and certified American Wine Expert. She is married to The Husband and has two kids, Princess One and Two – who’s interest and knowledge in wine is quite extensive. Not to mention the stamps in their passports.