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Gypsum Pass s(u)

Gypsum Pass is a topographic anomaly on the Colorado Plateau. Drainages in this area already existed before the enormous geological uplift in this area occurred. Established rivers carved valleys into canyons through the soft rock as the uplift occurred. As the drainages were modified, some canyons captured other rivers, leaving these canyons high and dry.

In this environment it is not surprising that Gypsum Pass, a true water divide, is anything but a topographic high point. Instead it is an interesting example of Colorado Plateau peculiarities. The pass is often marked as Gypsum Gap. This includes the deLorme Gazetteer, older highway maps published by the Colorado tourist board and topo maps. But it is a true water divide, and the Colorado Tourist Board's 2005 map identifies it as Gypsum Pass. Helmuth's book "Passes of Colorado" identifies the pass as a water divide between Disappointment Creek and Gypsum Creek, but keeps its name as "Gypsum Gap". Traffic along the entire route is sparse.

click on profile for more detail
1.(5470ft,mile00) START-WEST: West: Slick Rock Bridge; Co141 crosses the Dolores River
2.(5940ft,mile11) One of several dirt road roads joining from Disappointment Valley to the right. Lone Cone SWA summit(u) profile connects here.
3.(6125ft,mile12) Gypsum Pass
4.(6610ft,mile13) TOP: Gypsum Pass s(u), dirt road leaves towards left
5.(6520ft,mile23) START-END ALTERNATE EAST: settlement of Basin is to the right.
6.(5630ft,mile36) START-END EAST: junction with Co145


From South. A few initial curves extricate the road through an easy exit from Dolores Canyon. Then the road rolls over shallow dessert hills in a straight line towards a low hogback ridge. A slight gain in elevation can be noticed on a bicycle. But the only evidence is the improving view of the La Sal Mountains in Utah, which slowly creep above the valley horizon.

The triangular peak to the right of the road is not some obscure dessert butte in Disappointment Valley but Lone Cone Peak, western most sentinel of the San Juan Mountains. After reaching the crest of the low hogback ridge, which is Gypsum Pass, the road continues to climb in this new watershed in order to reach it highest elevation at a point dividing Dry Creek Basin and Big Gypsum Valley. The real summit along the road is actually also a water divide, but not a named one. It divides Dry Creek Basin from the Big Gypsum Creek drainage.  Dry Creek Basin is a closed basin, ie. precipitation evaporates inside the watershed. This makes the real summit a more unusual divide than the named pass.

From North. (described downwards).  The road drops straight as an arrow into Basin, which is a name on a map for a sometimes open store with informative BLM signage. The tablet explains the special nature of this watershed. Amazingly the highest parts of the drainage receive over 30 inches annual precipitation, which in other localities is enough to support downright jungle like forests. Take the of northern part of New York state for instance, which gets roughly the same amount. But here in Dry Creek Basin all of this moisture is evaporated by the sun, however not before doing its utmost to erode the watershed, much to the displeasure of the ranchers in this area. The rest of the sign forest describes their efforts to deter nature from this feat.



Escalante (<Hesperus Pass|Columbine Pass>). The low mesas surrounding Gypsum Gap don't force the overland traveler to stay in the valleys. Instead the flat topped mesas are tempting goals to climb, so that one might get a better overview of this complicated maze and catch a better view of the La Sal Mountains gleaming to the north. In this light it is logical that the Dominquez Escalante expedition of 1776 did not cross Gypsum Gap, but near it.

But their motives were very different than those of a hiker, biker or a modern landscape photographer. After all their mission was to blaze a trail to the Spanish missions of Monterey, not leave a 2000 mile trail through the maze of southwestern canyons, which today is memorialized by innumerable signs saying in effect: "Escalante slept here". A reconstruction of the route by Walter Briggs in "Without Noise of Arms" has the expedition pass through the eastern starting point of the profile, the Slick Rock Bridge area. Wanting to adhere to their westerly course to California they proceeded not along today's Co141, but up the Dolores.

After finding further progress up McIntire Canyon and the Dolores Canyon upstream from Big Gypsum Valley impassable, they were faced with the difficult decision weather to change their direction of travel. Since every padre and Indian guide had a different opinion on how to proceed, they again did what was logical, leave the matter to chance, or in their case religion. They cast lots, trusting that God in the form of lady luck would tell them the best course. Their diary does not mention in what form they did this, weather they threw stones on the ground, or played a game of luck. 

God told them to follow the lay of the land which also conveniently contained a good trail. This was Big Gypsum Valley. Unfortunately it headed in exactly the opposite direction, south east. Escalante's diary puts the course at north east. This is just one reason why the reconstruction of the route can be challenged. On the other hand, being off course is a characteristic of the Escalante expedition. After all, who else passes over Gypsum Pass on their way from New Mexico to California ?

Still, their cartographer Miera was annoyed to the point, that he persuaded the party to climb the mesa ridge to the north, causing much grumbling and hardship in the group. In this way the expedition crossed slightly north of the the high point on the Gypsum Pass route into Dry Creek Basin. As for Gypsum Pass itself ( located below the high point ), it was circumnavigated with a four day detour to the north. All that became apparent to our intrepid travelers on top of this mesa ridge, that is bleak to the point of being fascinating. Then they descended into Dry Creek Basin. The nearest spot on the highway is marked by a sign saying in effect "Escalante slept near here".

From here the group was able to travel north west again, but only for a short distance, by following Dry Creek upstream and following roughly the route of  EE21rd over an unnamed summit descending into Paradox Valley. There is no evidence in the Escalante journals, why at this point they did not follow the Paradox Valley north west towards today's Uravan, their preferred direction of travel. One has to assume that Indian guides and perhaps the view of a wide valley becoming ever deeper heading towards a major mountain range, filled them with suspicion of ever deeper canyons and hard travel in that direction.

Instead the reconstruction of the route has them crossing Paradox Valley and then Sawtooth Ridge in order to descend to the next major river, playing a paramount role in the Escalante journals, the San Pedro. Today's maps label this river as the San Miguel. From Indian guides they knew that their San Pedro joined waters with the river that had the most influence on their wandering lives so far, the Dolores. The location was presumably near a range that they called the "sierra de la Sal", the range of Salt, named after salt obtained there by Ute Indians. Upstream they presumed the San Pedro and San Miguel to originate in the Sierra de las Grullas, the range of the cranes. Unlike the name "la Sal Mountains", the mysterious designation Crane Mountains has not survived. However they were correct in their assumption that this river originated in a mountain complex that had the importance of a continental backbone.

They elected to follow the San Miguel upstream, south east. This was the wrong direction towards their goal. Downstream would have brought them towards their goal, California. They chose to head for the promise of mountains instead of the thread of wandering a canyon maze again. This lead them onto the Uncompahgre Plateau, where at least one speculation has them crossing Columbine Pass.

A Dayride with this point as intermediate summit is on page: Lone Cone SWA s(u)

Gypsum Pass (Summary)

Pass Altitude/Max elevation: 6125ft/6610ft

Western Approach:
from Slick Rock Bridge (5470ft)
from jct with rd up Disappointment Valey (5940ft)

Western Approach:

from jct with Co145 (5630ft)
from Basin (6520ft)