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Lizard Head Pass

A steep spire graces the top of a rounded 13000 foot mountain like the horn on the head of a unicorn. The picture has evoked the image of a lizard head in early travelers, and this pass acquired its name. Still, the best view of Lizard Head Peak, that I know of, is from Blackhawk Pass. As seen from the Lizard Head Pass road, the rock looks more like a monument standing in isolation, something fit for a southwestern canyon, and somehow isolated from its alpine environment. Other high alpine mountains are visible during a bike tour over the pass. Flanks of three 14 thousand foot peaks, El Diente, Mount Wilson and Wilson Peak can be glimpsed from far below, when a gap in the deep green canyoned foreground appears, to let the snow covered heights shine through.

The Lizard Head Pass - Dallas Divide route is one of two modern asphalt ribbons laid across the San Juan Mountains in a north southerly direction. The other one is the more centrally located Molas Pass/ Coal Bank Summit - Red Mountain Pass route. The route over Lizard Head Pass was more important in the very early history, but then was eclipsed by economic factors. When two railheads reached to both bottoms of Red Mountain Pass, it became the focus of road building activity.

Lizard Head Pass is also the western most paved pass in the San Juans. The summit that would intuitively occupy that position, the Dallas Divide, reaches within one mile "westerliness". In spite of this, the view to the west of Lizard Head Pass is not of a landscape falling off onto a plain, but of more mountains.

01.(6930ft,mile00) START-END SOUTH: Dolores
02.(7480ft,mile16) Stoner
03.(7690ft,mile20) Taylor Creek dirt road leaves on left
04.(8820ft,mile38) START-END SOUTH ALTERNATE: Rico
05.(9340ft,mile45) Dunton road joins from left
06.(10222ft,mile50) TOP: Lizard Head Pass
07.(9270ft,mile55) turnoff at Ophir Loop to Ophir Pass is on right
08.(8670ft,mile63) START-END NORTH ALTERNATE: Telluride is to the right at this T. Profile continues to left
09.(7550ft,mile72) Sawpit
10.(7320ft,mile75) Placerville
11.(7300ft,mile76) START-END NORTH: junction with Co62 and Dallas Divide Profile


From North. The first stretch of road, between Co62 connecting to the Dallas Divide, and Telluride can be unpleasant to ride during times when the rich commute to their weekend properties in Telluride en masse. At the turnoff to Telluride stands a new super sized gas station, doing all it can to dispel the idea of picturesqueness, and charging record prices for both milk and gasoline. Past the Telluride turnoff Co145 climbs a slanted plateau above the South Fork of the San Miguel River, affording good views of Sunshine Mountain. The climb surprises through its relatively shallow grade, even some extended downhills. The major peaks visible from here are set behind the steep canyon, carved by the  South Fork of the San Miguel. The road makes a hook to the east to cover Ophir Loop, the site of Otto Mears adventurous railroad trestle construction. Once the road passes mountain ringed Trout Lake and its surrounding peaks the summit is only 2 and a half miles away. 

From South. (also described upwards) The ride from Stoner following the Dolores River is a very long climb with a barely noticeable, gradual climb. The route follows the forested canyon of the Dolores River as steady as you can. This is a more sedate ride without the scenic drama of Telluride's box canyon or the high peaks of the summit. Even when the grade finally picks up, past the Dunton turnoff, the most talked about view in a group ride is that of the needle like rock piercing skyward. The surrounding high ranges hidden mostly from view. The summit is a broad alpine meadow, a rugged wall rising to the east, which is especially stone curtain like during very late light. The area is often used as primitive camp site.

A Day on a 15 Day Tour:

(<Dallas Divide|Hesperus Pass>)
Lizard Head Pass: Telluride > Lizard Head Pass > Stoner: 55 miles (mech Odo, m1:83.7.2)
Notes: measured with an old mechanical odometer, may include detours around town

A Dayride with this point as intermediate summit is on page: Lone Cone Pass



The nearby Dallas Divide was part of the well traveled Old Spanish Trail. Early Spanish explorers traveled it, and ta trail crossed the pass by the mid 1830s.

Hayden Survey (<Red Mountain Pass|Stony Pass>): In 1874 the area of prime mapping concern for the Hayden Survey was not the top of Lizard Head Pass, but rather access routes to an area showing signs of great mineral wealth, Baker's Park or today's Silverton area to the east. The survey had explored potential roads out of the isolated mountain valley in all directions, including today's general routes over Molas/ Coal Bank passes, Cinnamon Pass and Red Mountain Pass. None of them showed potential for a road that could carry heavy mining equipment.

In the next futile attempt we see them ascending the south fork of Vermilion Creek, then scrambling over something they named Bear Creek Pass, only to arrive above Trout Lake, near the top of Lizard Head Pass. This was a mountaineering route, and definitely unsuitable for heavy mining equipment. They mapped the area, then climbed Wilson Peak and Mount Sneffels. They scrambled back over the same difficult  route to Silverton. Their search for a road suitable for heavy equipment continued from Silverton to Stony Pass.

In spite of the fact that the Hayden Survey's priorities, guided by economic realities of the time, were centered further east, a wagon road crossed Lizard Head Pass before the other San Juan north south axis, the Red Mountain Pass route was improved into a reliable toll road by Otto Mears. A wagon road existed over Lizard Head Pass already by the 1870s. But when railheads reached both sides of Red Mountain Pass in Ouray and Silverton it became the principal axis of ore removal from the San Juans.

Railroads(<Dallas Divide|Rollins Pass>): If not Red Mountain Pass, then Lizard Head Pass. This was Otto's motto. An attempt to lay rail over Red Mountain Pass in order to provide a missing link between Denver Rio Grande tracks in Ridgway and Durango was left dangling on a cliff over Red Mountain Pass. But Otto Mears would not let his dreams of a railroad through the San Juan Mountains slip away so easily.

The Rio Grand Southern railway began building at both ends. Starting at existing DRG tracks in Durango the southern division crossed Hesperus Pass.  After crossing the Dallas Divide from Ridgway, the northern division turned up the San Miguel river, servicing mines wherever profitable, Placerville by the fall of 1890, followed by a spur to the Pandora mine near Columbia. - Columbia ? you say. Later Columbia was deplored by the postal service to change its name because of a bewildering preponderance of that name. Telluride seemed an appropriate name for a town where silver had just been found inside this mineral, and Telluride it became.

After completing the profitable spur to Telluride, the real challenge of the entire venture was now ahead, the final leg over Lizard Head Pass. To the cyclist who has crossed Red Mountain Pass and Lizard Head Pass the problems faced by track construction here may actually seem more difficult than over Red Mountain Pass. Both passes must overcome a box like canyon where the plateau characteristics of the San Juans become apparent. On Lizard Head Pass this happens near Ophir. Otto's answer was the Ophir Loop, a curved trestle switchback connecting two mountain shelfs, located above the turnoff to Ophir Pass. This time the effort was successful and rails crossed the gentle top between peeks ramping skywards in mid 1891. More trestles were required to descend the other side, where rails crossed the Dolores river about halfways between Ophir and Rico, labeled these days as the Galagher trestles. Lizard Head Pass was Mears' final pass building triumph. It seems fitting that he used a view of the needle like peak for which the pass is named, when publicizing the rail journey.

The magnanimous detour was finally complete when the celebratory last spike was driven between the spurs from both ends near Stoner.  Rail through the San Juans at last! After three years of work Otto Mears had his missing rail link in December 1891, all 217 miles of it. The distance over the wagon road between Silverton and Ouray, also belonging to him, was only 26 miles. To celebrate the event Mears hired the famous Hayden expedition photographer Jackson to ride along on the first journey and stop the train wherever inspiration struck. There was no shortage of narrow gauge rolling stock for the railroad. The DRG had converted to regular gauge. But discarded DRG narrow gauge stock continued to steam on the Rio Grande Southern.

After this remarkable effort this comes as a shock. But it only took two years for this "futile, transcendently triumphant" railroad to go bankrupt. It wasn't really Otto's fault. He had already proved his keen business sense by building an empire of toll roads stretching across Colorado. In 1893 president Cleveland repealed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, legislation that had in effect subsidized silver production and kept the mines operating at the expense of the taxpayer. The resulting panic put an end to the boom heard in Leadville many years earlier. But this thread is about the railroad, and it survived.

The DRG took receivership and steamed on. Especially hard times struck during the great depression, when another whimsical invention ingrained images of strange and weird rail travel into the minds of thousands, if not millions.

The vehicle dubbed the Galloping Goose begins in front with the sporty body of a Pierce Arrow Motor car. Without transition it metamorphoses to a full blown school bus, only to have a truck bed attached to its rear. The whole thing teeters on narrow gauge bogies that make the whole contrapture look like it's about to tip over. The image of a galloping goose, prominently displayed on the door of the school bus portion completes the unique picture. To me personally, the goose looks like it is sprinting. But who am I to say weather a goose gallops or sprints, when they are not really known for either. Galloping Goose is the official name for the vehicle. Trains were still running over Lizard Head Pass in 1952. But just a year later, even the steel rails were gone.

The images of the Otto Mears railroads remain. The Denver Rio Grande Southern, but especially Silverton Railroad are favorites with railroad modelers. This railroad is the undisputed quaintest, most charming, irresponsible and unpredictable railroad around. A scene modeled after the Silverton provokes suspicion of an overactive imagination, when instead it was inspired by a historical photograph.

Cycling - Ride the Rockies: (<Grand Mesa summit(u)|North La Veta Pass>): Between 1986 and 2005 Lizard Head Pass was twice on the Denver Post's "Ride the Rockies" itinerary. It is difficult to include the many great San Juan passes very often in a route that is usually anchored in Denver. But it happened in 99 and 03. The stage was Cortez to Telluride.