Perhaps my favorite four wheel drive road is Corkscrew Pass. Not too technical, but with plenty of drama, the road encompasses all of the majesty of the San Juans.
Heading south about 9 miles on 550 from Ouray, the entrance to Corkscrew is easy to find. Just past Crystal Lake, the signs for Ironton Park, Corkscrew and Brown Mountain. A left off of the highway, and accross the bridge, the adventure begins.
It never ceases to amaze me how drastically the terrain can change from day to day. Depending on the weather, there could be anything from one to three water crossings before beginning the main ascent on the “Corkscrew”. As the road travels up toward timberline, switchbacks are the name of the game. It almost feels like you should have your turn indicator on at times! One of the great things about Corkscrew though, is that you almost always have a clear view of the road above, and can easily see and anticipate traffic coming down.
Once at the top of the pass, the views are fantastic! Be sure to take time to get out, and walk around a bit. Definitely a place for pictures!
There are three options at this point…You can turn around and head back the way you came. Personally, I do not like going down the corkscrew – it’s pretty steep, and those tight switchbacks that were so fun to drive up? Yeah – not my favorite.
The trail to the right takes you down toward Silverton. After just a couple of miles, the road becomes an easy two wheel drive road. Evidence of the old mining days is everywhere, and dramatic views will take your breath away.
You can take the trail to the left. This will take you over Hurricane Pass, which is absolutely spectacular, but very rocky. Take your time as you ascend to even higher altitudes, and watch your tires. Hurricane Pass summits at 12,730 feet. Standing at the top, you can look down on Lake Como, and watch fellow adventurers traverse the road ahead. Descending from Hurricane, you can head left to Engineer, down past Lake Como to Pougheepsie (NOT recommended, unless you are a seasoned driver with your own vehicle), or go right, onto California Pass, which will take you to Animas Forks, and eventually into Silverton.
Once in Silverton, it is very important to park and walk around. This little town has changed less than Ouray, and the charming shops and restaurants beckon. Silverton has two “Main Streets”, so be sure to walk them both! The Silverton Durango Train, a vintage steam locomotive, takes passengers along the historic line from Durango to Silverton, and back again, or vice versa. Definitely one of the most popular attractions, this journey through time is well worth it!
Returning to Ouray often depends on time. After lunch and wandering the streets of Silverton for a while, it is nice to head home by way of the Million Dollar Highway. The 27 miles between towns is one of the most beautiful, dramatic stretches of highway in the country. As we enter into Fall, the aspen provide an almost surreal quality to the drive. Red and gold mingle with the green of the pines, to create a tapestry of color that has to be seen to be believed.