“Yee-haw, Mom!” the younger of the two boys shouted from the third bench of the 4×4 as it splashed axle-deep into one the nameless streams that crisscrossed the narrow Forest Service road hauling us towards Corkscrew Gulch.
Bundled up against the high elevation chill, Jack Frost ran the road ahead of us painting aspen and hardwood with bright fall colors in the west of the Great Divide in the San Juan Mountains south of Ouray, Colorado.
The bright red 4×4 from Switzerland of America Tours bounced and rocked the nine of us through the rich deep Colorado forest, skyward towards Hurricane Pass. Our driver, Steve, was a consummate storyteller as we left the old house serving as the SOA base off the main street in Ouray.
“Switzerland in America” is what Ouray calls itself. Nestled in a valley surrounded by the steep Rockies, the historic mining town is a collection of Victorian buildings telling a story of a rich lode hauled from high in the mountains to the coffers in town. It’s the epicenter of the Colorado fall color tours that draw families and off-roaders from all over the country.
Our tour-mates on the Corkscrew Pass/Red Mountain ride were two families, the intergenerational group with the boys, 8 and 12, were from Nashville, Tennessee, and the other, a couple with college-age girls were from Denver. The cloudy sky and 60-degree temperature were a far cry from the temperature we left behind in Phoenix.
The deep green pines stood in contrast to the golds and yellows of the aspen, oak and hardwoods standing sentinel close to the road. Despite the lateness of the season, streams and creeks tumbled aside the road, sometimes crossing for a cold splash bringing giggles from the brothers and groans from the grown-ups.
The Corkscrew is a seemingly never-ended series of twists and turns giving passengers on both sides of the 4×4 a view straight down the sheer edge of the road. For those too timid to look down at the climb we just completed, they can look ahead at the constant cascade of waterfalls from the high mountain snow melt.
The half-day tour is just one of ten routes SOA and other tour companies travel each day from Ouray. Corkscrew/Red Mountain starts at a 9,700 foot elevation when it leaves U.S. 550 at the Ironton ghost town. It climbs Ouray County Road 20 to the San Juan County Line at 12,200 feet. Then San Juan County Road 11 takes a dip and skirts the ridge of Red Mountain No. 1 (there are three Red Mountain peaks), and heads higher to Hurricane Pass.
Now well above the tree line, the colorfully-named Red Mountain contrasts vividly as it pokes through the neckline of the forest’s greens and golds ringing it like a t-shirt. Throw in the few red leaves from some hardwoods and the scene is colorfully etched in family memories.
We shoot pictures and walk around, glad to be on solid ground after the Corkscrew. A doe and two fawns graze nearby and even pose for a moment before picking up the noise and scents and bounding up the sheer slope of Red Mountain No. 1.
The weather is good, the snow was cleared and Steve takes us up to Hurricane Pass, 12,400 feet, with a wide, expansive view of the San Juans eastward across the Great Divide. The perch overlooking Como Lake is reached after a nerve-wracking ascent up a single lane track where it looks from my side of the 4×4 that the wheels are making traction in thin air. We navigate a couple of turnouts around brave souls driving their own Jeeps down the rock-strewn road.
Back at the Hot Springs Inn in Ouray, we park next to a mud-splattered jeep with Alabama plates. Frank, a minister from outside Birmingham, says that he and his wife come to area every year to drive the more than 40 off-road routes and soak in the town’s historic hot springs.
The well-preserved historic mining town sits at the head of the Million Dollar Highway. Myths say that the 12-mile stretch through the Uncompahgre Gorge gets its name from the original design where drivers would say, “I wouldn’t drive that road again for a million dollars.” It is a scenically beautiful, well-maintained and easily-driven road today.
Ouray is located in southwestern Colorado on U.S. 550 between Durango and Montrose. The nearest commercial airport is Montrose. The historic mining town of Silverton is a couple of hours south on U.S. 550. The town is also near Mesa Verde and Black Canyon of the Gunnison national parks.
Fall 2015 travel note (Sep. 8-Oct. 8, 2015): The Million Dollar Highway, U.S. 550 from Durango is closed weekdays 8:30 a.m. to noon and 1:00-5:00 p.m. for major road construction north of Silverton. One lane is open on weekends into Ouray. The scenic alternate route from Arizona is Hwy 145 north from Cortez to Dolores, then northeast. Hwy 145 becomes the San Juan Skyway to Placerville, past the Telluride junction. Turn east on Hwy 62 to Ridgway, and south on U.S. 550 to Ouray.