In 2016 we spent 10 days in Colorado, where we explored mountain trails in a Sportsmobile.
A Sportsmobile is an offroad-capable van, with kitchen, heater, bed, pop-up roof, solar power system and a full set of equipment. It could be called an RV, but we prefer the term “Expedition Vehicle.” Ours was the long version, at 20 foot. It was 8 foot tall, based on a Ford E350 van, with a v10 engine. The Sportsmobile has a tall suspension, locking front wheel hubs, an “Atlas Transfer Case”, for high- and low rate four wheel drive, and a “Tow/Haul’ setting that provides an additional 4x torque multiplier. In other words, this is a capable asset. Renting it involved a three hour briefing by John at Tonto Trails in Durango. The briefing was excellent, and we set out following the prime directive that is printed on the dashboard: “Protect the Asset.”
We spent the first two nights exploring Bolam Pass Trail, a trail that starts as a nice unpaved road leading to some creekside campsites and gradually turns into a gnarly offload trail over 20 miles. The gradual changes in condition provided a good training sequence for getting used to the Sportsmobile’s handling. The pass itself was still snowed in, and we made it all the way up to the snow bank.
Camping was a matter of picking a nice spot, leveling the asset by positioning leveling blocks under the wheels, and popping up the roof. In Colorado, back country camping, also known as “Boondocking” is legal and common. A few miles in from the trailhead, privacy is easily found. Most campers tow huge trailers, by means of which they confine themselves to well-maintained trail sections near the trailheads, and all trail traffic is daytime traffic.
Trail traffic consists primarily of Jeeps. In general, the Jeep is to Colorado what the Ford F-150 is to central Texas. Besides Jeeps, there are “Utility Terrain Vehicles”, which are single-, two- and four seater offload vehicles by brands like Can-Am or Polaris. Some of these look like bare roll cages with an engine, and others are full of yellow plastic fenders with cartoon-aggressive headlight configurations. Some of their open-air drivers and passengers wear helmets and cover their face in cloth, while others seem to happily eat the dust. UTVs go much faster than Jeeps or our giant. Most drivers behave considerately, but now and then one will find a group of a few of them who think they are on the Dakar rally. After half a day of peacefully exploring a mountain valley in solitude, encountering such a moron squad made me want to call in a drone strike once.
During most of the trip, the actual amount of traffic on the trails was quite limited, with an encounter every half hour or so. The Sportsmobile is usually the biggest thing any offroader has ever seen on a trail, so in the Sportsmobile we didn’t have to back up much for passing spots. Not a single time, actually.
After Bolam Pass Trail, we headed over to Silverton, and on to the southern part of the Alpine Loop, crossing the 12000-foot Cinnamon Pass, to camp at remote and beautiful American Basin. In the middle of the night, we woke up to the sound of something chewing or scraping on the van. We dissuaded the fellow by turning on our expedition floodlights and by revving the v-10. Later in the night, during an (outdoor-) bathroom trip, I met a suspect: a marmot, its eyes glowing in the flashlight beam.
On the way to the Basin from the pass, we had driven by numerous marmots, and by a doe with two fawns, nesting, near the trail. At the campsite in the Basin, Honoria spotted a moose with two young calves, about twenty meters across the creek from us.
We continued the southern Alpine Loop to Lake City, where we experienced the comforts that rented showers provide. Here, we also experienced rain, which stayed with us to Gunnison, prompting us to continue on to Crested Butte. This was a navigation snafu: my understanding, based on insufficient research, had led me to believe that from Gunnison it would be hard to reach the nearby Black Canyon of the Gunnison national park. In reality, we had passed not far from the park entrance when driving from Lake City to Gunnison. Note to self: study your maps, and not just your sometimes-lacking Google maps.
So we sat in Crested Butte after a rainy afternoon, and decided to spend the night in a hotel. Crested Butte is a quaint ski town: it’s small, and it’s all nice, well-maintained “cute” houses, with tourist trap offerings. It achieves its quaintness by offloading most of the actual tourists at night, to Crested Butte Mountain Resort, a collection of large concrete hotel fortresses, half a mile away on the hill.
From Crested Butte, we considered pursuing trails to Aspen, but the trails in question were all a degree of difficulty or two higher than advisable to us. I looked for evidence to the contrary, but in absence of such evidence, we headed south again instead.
Foregoing Gunnison Canyon, we headed through the Uncompahgre National Forest, taking Owl Creek Pass, and thus at least finding some semantic proximity to the colorado-local Hunter S. Thompson, while not making it to the Woody Creek area. Up on Owl Creek Pass, we decided to take a explore a muddy side trail and for rewarded with another wonderful mountain valley. This was also the only time we (slightly!) scraped the back of the asset while negotiating an obstacle, in a rougher then typical off-camber-diagonally-cross-a-ditch-on-a-shelfroad-over-a-big-rock type situation.
After Owl Creek pass, we boondocked on a trail overlooking the mountain town of Ouray. From here, we drove the very pretty Yankee Boy basin Trail, which connects to the tempting, but still-snowed-in Imogene Pass Trail over to Telluride. The Yankee Boy basin trail has a section where the shelf road is actually carved from a straight rock face, with the effect that the road has a rock overhang roof. We stopped a hundred meters before this section to photograph it. It was raining lightly. As I was taking pictures, hail started falling. We jumped back into the asset and hurried under the overhang.
Whenever we encountered a nice place in the middle of nowhere and had some time, I unpacked my drone, a 3DR Solo, to shoot a video or two, quickly programming a flight path and then capturing the footage. This was a new-to-me drone, and setting up an expansive, wide-ranging, high-altitude flight, as demanded by the scenery, was always competing in my mind with wanting to keep the drone close by, in case something went wrong with the system – a system in which I did not have a particularly great amount of trust yet, at least at the start of our trip. We also encountered strong winds, and flying at high altitude comes with aerodynamic performance concerns. I had had a fly-away on the second day, from which the drone returned on it’s own, barely avoiding trees. Cause for the fly-away had likely been operator error on my part, taking the impact of rocks on the fresnel zone lightly. At Yankee Boy Basin, I got some nice footage.
Ouray is a mellow town. It’s tourism-based, but does not have the wretchedness of trying too hard. We stayed another night, and decided to camp in an actual Campground for a change. There are two main difference between boondocking by the side of a trail, and camping in a camp site in camp ground. The view was almost the same, since our boondocking site was just as nice, and close to the campground. The first difference was that at the campground, the site was level. It’s nice to sleep in a level bed. The second difference is that at the campsite, we were visited by a bear in the middle of the night. We woke up when something rocked the van. Honoria jumped up and looked outside, seeing the Bear moving from the van to the fire pit, and then on to other campsites. Bears like campgrounds.
From Ouray, we headed south on the highway to find the Corkscrew Gulch trailhead, to go up to red mountain. Corkscrew Gulch trail was a muddy climb in the forest. “At least it’s not raining,” I thought, just before it started raining. Some jeeps and UTVs passed us, but the Sportsmobile held up fine. At the top, above the treeline, we found great views. High wind fought the drone, but the drone persevered. A number of jeep couples pulled up next to us. One of the jeep guys asked about the Sportsmobile, and I told him about it. “It has an Atlas and a V-10. “Ah, so you got plenty of power.” Later the jeep guy was talking to another jeep guy, and I overheard, “It has an Atlas.”
A lot of jeeps were driven by older couples. In mountain trail demographics, compared to UTV drivers, we are one as well. Several jeep guys we met reminded me of Dr. Feld, my dentist when I grew up in Germany: a no-nonsense but kind older man. I was scared of him, of course, but I also coveted his model airplanes. (He did not have a jeep.)
From red mountain, we drove the short distance to Hurricane Pass, which offered serious alpine tundra. Just beyond the pass we reached lake Como, which is deep turquoise – at least the few bits not still covered in ice were. We camped next to an old mineshaft overlooking the lake. I programmed some video flights, and the drone, at 12000 foot altitude and very low temperatures, finished one of the flights by smacking into the ground with considerable velocity. Luckily, the ground was a snow bank, which acted as a cushion. The drone rebounded, and flipped over, and only broke a set of props. The drone was flying a “cable camera”, where one records some points in the air, and then it flies a smooth line between them. The last leg of the cable included a descent, and it appears that the system just did not have enough power to slow the descent to the planned stop. This is the aforementioned high altitude flying risk.
From Lake Como, we crossed the adjacent California Pass to head down to Animas Fork Ghost Town, via California Valley. It was Sunday morning. This turned out to be a crowded drive, and Animas Fork turned out to be a buzzing weekend warrior basecamp that day. We took a break and watched a couple of dozen off-road vehicles come through. The plan was to ascend to Engineer Pass, to catch the coveted northern part of the Alpine loop, but I was not up for dealing with lots of traffic on the unforgiving ascent. So we headed south, to Silverton again, where we looked for a restaurant. What we found was some sort of Saloon. When we entered, three bikers were leaving, in jeans and leathers, accompanied by matching “biker chick” women. The saloon had a western/mountain interior with giant taxidermy trophies and knick-knacks covering the spaces between them, including hundreds of police department patches and a sign reading “Have You Flogged Your Crew Today ?” The food and service were fine – no complaints. The scenery, and patrons did put us in a Hunter S. Thompson state of mind.
We headed up Clear Lake trail near Silverton to camp, neglecting to check if the trail was open. Arriving at a snowbank above the treeline, we found it wasn’t. But the place was beautiful and there was no traffic, so we decided to make camp right there. A marmot on a rock greeted us, we thought, calling out into the valley. I pursued the marmot for some photos and admired its ability to walk up and down what appeared to be straight rock faces.
Then, half a dozen other marmots appeared: walking down the green slope, walking up the trail, and poking their heads out of holes. Marmots approached the van. The chief marmot jumped on a wheel and started chewing on something. We chased him away. We encircled the van with a line of fresh-ground pepper, but the marmots ignored it. One at a time, they would sneak up, inspect the van and look at us pleadingly. One of them marked a wheel. Facing the prospect of dealing with this all night long, and the danger of serious damage to hoses and cables on the asset, we broke camp and went downhill again after an hour in marmotland. We pulled into a lovely pull-off, much lower on the mountain, where the only visible wildlife was a peaceful snowshoed hare. The fire pit was stocked with wood from previous boondocks.
With Engineer’s Pass aborted, we re-routed ourselves to Mesa Verde National Park, west of Durango. Mesa Verde did not fit the original mountain theme of the trip, but is an impressive place. We camped in the park campground for two nights and took two tours of cliff dwellings. The first tour was led by a ranger who was a archaeologist from Berkeley. He told us the story of peaceful corn farmers moving into cliff dwellings, to be near their water sources during a drought. The cliff dwelling served as storage, offered ceremonial spaces, and hosted civic gatherings. The second tour was led by ranger who was more of an A&M type. His story included the great famine of 40,000 people in the plains nearby, leading to unspeakable violence, and the cliff dwellings serving as bug-out places of last resort, with desperate shamans doing double time rain ceremonies.
The second tour included climbing a 10-meter ladder (“of doom”), and crawling through a tight tunnel. A great amount of severe warnings were given about these obstacles and the impossibility of turning around when encountering them, but everyone in our 50 person group made it through. Tours are back to back, with a thousand visitors going through a site a day. I hung back for photos of the empty site, moments before the next group rushed in. Another guy did the same thing, with lots of comments from his daughters. “Where’s dad ? He’s taking pictures again.”
We took the asset to a car wash, returning it without the deep layer of mud that it had collected. At Tonto Trails in Durango, I did one last drone flight. This flight was cut short as a storm was coming in, and we suddenly found ourselves in strong boundary outflow winds.
The last night was spent in a hotel in Durango, which appears to be a stoner town, a mountain-Santa Cruz. American Airlines had a “weight restriction” on their plane and put us on standby without telling us, but we got home as planned.