So. CO Trip Day 6 – Jeeping on “Smokey” Black Bear Pass

I had a lengthy list of activities planned for our week-long southern Colorado trip this past summer and hubby was down for any adventure I signed us up for, with one caveat — we add Black Bear Pass to that list. Black Bear Pass is a scenic, but technical dirt road that goes over the mountains from Silverton to Telluride and is only meant for four-wheel drive vehicles and their very experienced and brave drivers. It is notorious in the 4WD community for being one of the most difficult roads in all of Colorado.

Hubby had been obsessed with doing this pass ever since we had purchased our Jeep earlier in the summer. We had watched countless YouTube videos with other people driving this difficult pass, and after every video, my conclusion was always the same — I couldn’t think of any road I desired less to be on than Black Bear Pass.

The pass is actually pretty tame most of the way, and most of the shelf roads on it are no more frightening than ones we had been doing all summer, but the route does have one particular, well-known and terrifying obstacle called “the steps” — a series of steep, cascading rock features, that if descended incorrectly, can easily result in a vehicle rollover. As if this isn’t scary enough, this narrow section is also perched right beside a steep drop-off into a stream, so your vehicle won’t just rollover on its side, but likely rollover off the road altogether. The scary part of the trail doesn’t end there either, as that section is followed by several narrow switchbacks that descend into the town of Telluride. This route is not to be taken lightly, as rollovers have happened even as recently as October 2020 and July 2019.

Don’t even bother asking me why this is some people’s idea of a fun activity because I can’t answer that question.

Even as we were in the middle of our So Co trip, I still hadn’t decided if I wanted to oblige hubby’s request to tackle this dangerous road. Unfortunately, by the sixth day of our trip, the wildfire smoke could not have been worse; and I know I kept saying that each and every day, but this day was so bad, that the entire sky had an eerie orangish, foggy tint to it.

Side note: I had talked about the smokey skies so much in text messages and social media, but it wasn’t until this exact day that I finally realized the reason I kept getting autocorrected on my spelling of the word “smokey” was because it’s actually spelled “smoky.” “Smokey” is how you spell the name of the famous U.S. Forest Service bear in wildfire prevention campaigns and is otherwise not a word. At least I learned one good thing from the season of nonstop wildfires. I digress.

We didn’t have much of a choice of what activity we would do on our smoky sixth day, but to do an activity where we wouldn’t be taxing our lungs in the thick smoke — driving Black Bear Pass and being inside a vehicle where we were somewhat filtered from the outside air. Besides, hubby had agreed to all of my crazy adventures thus far, so he was well overdue to call the shots for a day.

Before we did Black Bear Pass, we had to figure our how we would get to the start of the route, which was an adventure in and of itself. Black Bear Pass is right outside Telluride, but because of how tricky and narrow some of the obstacles are on the Telluride side, the pass can only be driven one way, starting from the other end of the route near the town of Silverton. To get to the starting point, we had three options:

  • Drive alllll the way around from Telluride to Placerville to Ridgway to Ouray to the Silverton trailhead via paved roads: approximately 60 miles and 1.5 hours of driving
  • Drive from Telluride to Ophir to the Silverton trailhead via Ophir Pass (a moderately difficult 4WD road): approximately 20 miles and two hours of driving
  • Drive from Telluride to Ouray to the Silverton trailhead via Imogene Pass (a very difficult 4WD road): approximately 30 miles and four hours of driving
Route options to get from Telluride to the start of Black Bear Pass off of US-550. Don’t @ me for my rough illustration!

It was hubby’s day, so of course he chose the most adventurous option, Imogene Pass — a road equally as terrifying as Black Bear Pass (in my opinion) that we had done earlier in the summer and I swore I would never agree to do again. Great.

On the way to our first 4WD route of the day, we made a stop at Cornet Falls, which was just a few blocks away from the start of Imogene Pass. The winter version of this 80-foot waterfall is phenomenal and hard to beat, but we had to check out the waterfall’s grand beauty in the summer, too.

The hike to Cornet Falls is less than half a mile, but what I thought might be a quick activity, ended up being quite an ordeal as I was reminded how horrifyingly narrow and steep the trail is. It was a good thing we had our adventurous little dachshunds on leashes because with their sturdy, low center of gravity, they seemed to have no issues hanging nervously close to the edge of the slanted, loose, dirt trail as they waited for their slow-poke mom to crab-crawl her way towards them.

After our waterfall detour, we started the first of our two tough 4WD routes for the day. Our drive on Imogene Pass wasn’t much different than our previous trip in July. The pictures cannot do it justice to show how terrifyingly steep and close to the edge the entire trail is from Telluride to the top of the pass. I had a tiny bit of optimism that I would have overcome my fear of heights after doing off-road trails with hubby all summer, but this trail had proved that my feelings about this trail hadn’t changed.

As if I wasn’t feeling anxious enough, at the start of the road, we had a quick view of the final switchbacks of Black Bear Pass that we would tackle later. I winched. Hubby cheered!

After reaching the top of Imogene Pass, I could finally relax a bit, as the rest of the trail down the other side of the mountain headed to Ouray had far fewer shelf roads, several fun water crossings, and incredible mountain views. Unfortunately for the driver, the other side of the mountain is a bit more technical in some sections and by this “late” in the season, the road is also a bit rutted out from the season’s rain and mud.

The smoke was especially thick on the morning of our sixth day. It even caused an eerie, orange tint in the sky for the first few hours of the day.
View on the start of Imogene Pass of the final switchbacks we would go down from Black Bear Pass at the end of the day.
Our drive on Imogene Pass

After tackling Imogene Pass without incident, we grabbed a quick to-go lunch in Ouray and headed out for a few scenic stops before starting Black Bear Pass, including visiting a roadside hot spring, followed by another roadside hot spring complete with a clawfoot tub and flowing faucet (such an odd thing to find in nature!), and finally, an emerald-colored waterfall. Southern Colorado truly has all the best sights!

It wasn’t until 6 pm when we finally started our much-anticipated drive on Black Bear Pass. Apparently our late start in the day allowed us to have the road all to ourselves because we ended up never seeing another vehicle during our entire drive!

Between our FunTreks Off Road Trails guidebook and the dozens of videos we had watched of other drivers trying Black Bear Pass, hubby felt as prepared as he was ever going to be for the challenge ahead. Most off-roading drivers have the help of a “spotter” who gets out of the vehicle and directs the driver on exactly which way to turn the wheel to get over, down, or around difficult, rocky obstacles, but hubby was out of luck when it came to having a competent spotter. I misjudge (and freak out at) every tiny bump we have to go over and always think we are going to tip over, so I gave hubby the forewarned disclaimer that if we did Black Bear Pass, he wouldn’t be able to rely on me for trustworthy help spotting.

The top of Black Bear Pass. Now we head back down and hit the tricky sections!

Fortunately, hubby handled the difficult sections like a rockstar all on his own, and I took photos while quietly having half a dozen heart attacks. Apparently the anxiety felt while driving this trail was not mutually shared because after successfully descending down the most challenging section, hubby confidently flashed a thumbs up. Banana, too, who co-piloted above his shoulder for most of the drive, didn’t seem fazed by the bumpy ride either.

After the difficult sections, drivers are normally rewarded with stunning views of Telluride as they descend the final sections of Black Bear Pass, but it was so smoky during our drive that we could barely breathe or see. It was certainly an unusual and memorable experience to see such a smoky view, but we hope this type of view remains unusual and isn’t the norm for future seasons.

We ended up completing Black Bear Pass in two hours and 45 minutes, which felt like a long time to be stressed out in the passenger seat of a vehicle without a margarita to calm my nerves. You can bet our first mission after spending an entire day in the Jeep was to get some bevies in our hands to unwind with for the evening.

Our drive on Black Bear Pass

Although our feet were not tired from our day’s adventures, our minds and lungs certainly were! The next day, we finally decided to take a break from big adventures, with the assumption that the smoke would be even more intolerable! As luck would have it, the next day could not have been clearer! It was one of the most clear days of our entire trip, but we still enjoyed the option of sleeping in and finally having a lazy day, because the next day after that, we had another very long hike planned.

Stay tuned to see us chasing waterfall after waterfall on a 13-mile hike with our dachs… our last adventure for our So Co trip!

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