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Blue Mesa Summit

This pesky, not so little hill shares appearance and size with many other less famous mesa crossings, summits that have never deserved the honor of a name. Blue Mesa Summit made a name for itself in history as "son of a bitch hill", a label that for some reason cannot be found on today's maps. The history of Blue Mesa Summit is distinguished from these other nameless summits by having countless unlucky travelers sent over it. For 150 years the Black Canyon of the Gunnison has forced travelers to cross Blue Mesa Summit rather than it. This remains until today and includes bicyclists.

Blue Mesa Summit often comes as a surprise to cycle tourists along US50. The road, basically following the Gunnison River on its south side, is forced to detour around the jagged Black Canyon area and in the process climb this broad, sage covered plateau. The summit is not named on National Forest, highway or topo maps. But it is marked with a sign at the top.

click on profile for more detail
1.(7530ft,mile00)  START-FINISH EAST: US50 crosses Blue Mesa Reservoir from north to south.
2.(7580ft,mile03) camper community of Sapinero
3.(8500ft,mile11) first summit
4.(8300ft,mile13) low point between summits, junction with dirt road ascending East Fork of the Little Blue River.
5.(8704ft.mile16) TOP: second summit
6.(6880ft,mile25) START-FINISH WEST: settlement of Cimarron.  Route continues down Cimarron Canyon on the right
7.(6700ft,mile25) START-FINISH WEST: low point in Cimarron Canyon before road ascents to Gunnison Dam.


From East. Starting the climb on a already hot summer day, it actually gets hotter with increasing elevation, instead of colder. The reason is the disappearing cooling influence of Curecanti Reservoir below. One short view of the canyon appears on this side. After that the scenery is dominated by sagebrush and industrial strength campgrounds, featuring camping with satellite dishes and rigs that expand like bloated whales. The wide shoulder disappears as the road approaches the first summit point (July/05).

A short descent leads into the small forested canyon of Blue Creek, cut in the same dark volcanic rock as nearby Black Canyon. But the creek flows in the opposite direction as the bicycle rolls. That situation cannot last very long. As the road climbs to its second summit it's back in the sage. There the rounded dessert plateau landscape of the western slope comes into view far below.
From West. (also described upwards) The profile starts slightly off US50, where the Cimarron Canyon Road crosses the Gunnison River. This is a short detour when traveling on US50. But there is an interesting railroad display down there, actually more interesting than anything the summit has to offer. More details below in the history section.

A steady climb leaves the town of Cimarron. There is one other small store between the town and the summit, before the road reaches a broad dip between two hills. Looking back one can make out a few peaks in the distant San Juan mountains as well as the enormous plateau, through which the Gunnison River cut its famous canyon.

view onto Gunnison River and the road cut of Black Mesa summit(u)

Dayride with this point as highest summit


(<Slumgullion Pass|Black Mesa Summit>)
Blue Mesa Summit x2:
Curecanti Needles area <> Blue Mesa Summit <> Cimarron: 50.4 miles with 3780 feet of climbing in 4.09 hours (VDO MC1.0 m3:5.7.19)

A Day on a Three Day Tour:


(<Jones Summit x2 |)
Blue Mesa Summit , Cerro Summit: day3: Montrose > Cerro Summit > Blue Mesa Summit > Gunnison: 68 miles (mech odo m1.93.5.31).
Notes: includes a few "around town miles". This was a Heartcycle Tour, but includes a few additional miles over unpaved roads on day2. Click the first pass in the list for an overview of the tour.

A Day on a 15 Day Tour with this point as highest summit:

( < Red Mountain Pass | Black Mesa s(u )> )
Blue Mesa Summit , Cerro Summit : campsite in Black Canyon NM > Cerro Summit > Blue Mesa Summit > Sapinero: 50.6miles (mech Odo r1:83.7.9).
Notes: measured with a mechanical Odometer. The previous day was an out and back ride through Black Canyon of the Gunnison NM. The day before that crossed Red Mountain Pass.

DRG railroad display on Cimarron Canyon Road


Blue Mesa Summit has a long history as detour around the Black Canyon, but not quite as long and extensive as the next summit to the west, Cerro Summit (even though lower in top elevation). More happened deep below than on Blue Mesa's nondescript top. This stretch of the canyon laid the most convincing reasons on practically motivated travelers and traffic planners to exit the canyon while they still can. The western end of the profile, Cimarron Canyon, provided the last chance to emerge from the depths and travel trough the sage instead.

Gunsion Rail Survey (<Cochetopa Pass|Cerro Summit>): ...And everything was going so well on top of Cochetopa Pass. But then Captain Gunnison's assessment for a transcontinental railroad over Cochetopa Pass, following the Gunnison river westwards took a nosedive. Now he had to deal with the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. He would have much preferred the canyon route over crossing Blue Mesa. It was later, inside what is now the national park, that two of his wagons overturned, and the plans for a transcontinental railline also were destroyed. Still, the canyon would bear Gunnison's name in the future 

Otto Mears Passes (<Pinos Pass|Cerro Summit>), also the San Juan Mining Boom. Otto Mears acquired the route over the smmit as part of his toll road kingdom shortly after 1875. In 1881 settlers poured over the pass to live on Ute lands, vacated as a result of the mining boom in the San Juans.

Railroads (<Loveland Pass|Cerro Summit>): The town of Gunnison was the second pot of gold won by the Denver Rio Grand Railway (DRG). Just as in the race to Leadville, the DRG's rails beat out the Denver South Park railroad's (DSP) more mountainous route. But both railways managed lay spur lines from Gunnison to service the surrounding mines. No additional passes needed to be crossed to do this. The DRG serviced Crested Butte and its anthracite coal deposits,  while the DSP built a branch line partly up Ohio Pass to service its mines.

In 1882 the DRG worked on expanding its line from Gunnison to Salt Lake City. That was the occasion for a railway through the Gunnison canyon to become reality after all, albeit not all the way, and only for a short time. While the DSP faced its biggest nightmares on the mountain passes, the DRG didn't have a picknick in the canyons either. Its most difficult venture up to this point had been the line through the Royal Gorge of the Arkansas. Yet the last mile of rail through this part of the Black Canyon cost the railroad more than then entire right of way through the Royal Gorge. Pioneering work in blasting techniques was done here. Extra long fuses were deployed when workers on scaffolding lowered into the canyon to set charges. While the extra long fuses were burning the workers would be hoisted out of the canyon. Four months were needed  to complete 15 miles of track by 1043 men. The source does not specify if the 1043 men refers to before the blasting started or after it was finished.

The rails burrowed through the canyon, exiting along the west end of the profile provided on top. Here began the climb through Cimarron Canyon on its way up Cerro Summit. An engine with two cars sitting on a partially restored bridge mark the spot today. The National Park Service also provides a visitor center complete with a park ranger, who can answer any burning historical questions that just can't wait any longer to be answered.

In 1971 the canyon was viewed as being more appropriate for water storage than a railline. The Morrow Point Dam submerged the canyon upstream from the point where the rails exited.

Cycling - Ride the Rockies (<Loveland Pass|Cerro Summit>): This summit has seen more than its share of the Denver Post's "Ride the Rockies" cyclists labor to its top. Even though never given the recognition of a pass label on their official map, the summit has been on the tours of 1987 89 92 97 99 02 and 05, only once less than the pass that is most associated with this tour, Loveland Pass. All of these stages grouped Blue Mesa Summit with Cerro Summit.


Blue Mesa Summit (summary)

Summit/highest elevation: 8704 ft

Eastern Approach:

from Blue Mesa Reservoir (7530ft)
from Sapinero (7580ft)
from low point after intermediate summit (8300ft)
404 ft~123m
2 miles~3.2km

Western Approach

low point in Cimarron Canyon (6700ft) 2004ft~611m

from Cimarron (6880ft)
9 miles~14.5km