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Marshall Pass

As the Sawatch Range approaches its southern end, its peaks become lower and more rounded. Its mountain passes also become lower and historically older. Marshall Pass predates all forms of the next crossing to the north, Monarch Pass crossing.

Marshall Pass is 500ft lower and gentle enough for an old railroad grade. It is a much more peaceful ride on a good dirt road through a majestic mountain environment. Both sides can also be used to make a loop ride over the Monarch Crest Trail s(u), and also the Rainbow Trail The 14er Region Mountain Bike Guide ( a free publication, available at local businesses ) has included Marshall Pass in its map of recommended bike routes since at least 1994, even with a detailed description.

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1.(mile00,7480ft) START-END EAST: Poncha Springs
2.(mile06,8440ft) Mears Junction, turn right from Poncha Pass road onto Marshall Pass road.
3.(mile08,8700ft) Marshall Pass road turns right uphill at this signed intersection
4.(mile19,10846ft) TOP: Marshall Pass. Monarch Crest Trail (Pahlone Pass) leaves on east end of top
5.(mile31,8980ft) dirt road from Pinnacle Mine joins from right
6.(mile36,8470ft) START-END WEST: Sargents

Principal Approaches

From East: In order to start at the bottom, the profile starts at the bottom of paved Poncha Pass. The  Marshall Pass route stays along Poncha Creek, while the paved main road to Poncha Pass diverts from the creek, whose name it shares.

Once on CR200 (which becomes FR200 at an indistinct point), signs for Marshall Pass actually divert you away from the first part of the railroad grade. But it's just as easy to follow the railroad grade instead, actually easier because it is flatter. Just stay left at the first intersection, following signs for the site of Shirley instead. At that point, follow a sign for the Poncho Creek Road. Then after crossing the one and only unmistakable bridge on the entire route, the road following the railroad grade swoops back towards the east in a unmistakable large railroad radius curve. If there are still any doubts that this is the old grade, the first rock cut should make a convincing argument.

These wildly curving switchbacks up the lower slopes of Mount Ouray gain altitude slowly. Instead they seam to exist for the pure joy of curving. Could it be the road wants to pay homage to nearby O'Haver Lake. No, it really couldn't.  A more rational explanation is the historic background of the road as railroad grade.

On these early low meanders of the road, O'Haver Lake appears below, nestled between green ridges and backgrounded by last rounded mountains above treeline of the Sawatch Range. Then, and as you make your way along the long traverse, with the changing perspective, finally the Sangre de Cristo Mountains appear behind the lake. There are also many great vantage points onto Mount Ouray. I think it looks more impressive from below. Mount Ouray is a large cone with a prominent cirque eroded at its center, and a cross country ski objective in the winter (1st picture).

The sight of a narrow gauge train on these bends must have been something.  With gained altitude and many switchbacks later, the appearance of Mount Ouray deteriorates to that of a giant, bloated pancake while the Sangre de Cristos take on a comb like appearance on the other horizon. Mount Ouray is better viewed in early morning light, while the Sangre de Cristos are preferable in late light. That's one reason for two different variations of cycling tours over the pass, one east to west, another west to east. The way to the summit summit leads through an expansive mountain meadow and tops out at what must be the most massive road cut (or rail cut) on the continental divide.

From West: (also described upwards) The dirt road starts through sage hills, following Marshall Creek into forested hills. This is a pleasant, quiet ride. Only two or three times triangular rock slopes appear between the canopy of trees. Switchbacks seem to curve around the summit even more than on the west side. Approaching the summit the rocks on the sofar very smooth road become just a little larger. The last straight approach to the summit is dominated by a view of comlex rouded hills above treeline. Is this Windy Peak (11800ft) ? The top of the pass shows up completely unexpectedly after a traverse, ending with an unexpected 90 degree turn to the left through aforementioned rail cut.

Alternate Approaches

Another option for the eastern approach is to take the Poncho Creek Road instead. It is fairly well behaved along the bottom. After the fork with the Starvation Trail (yet another longer way to approach the pass via a partial single track), the road becomes increasingly more rocky and steeper. There are none of the impressive views of Mount Ouray or the Sangre de Cristo Range along this route. There is really just one far view, located near the top, just before the Starvation Trail merges back into Poncho Road. A short, good section of dirt road stays flat along the top to connect with Marshall Pass.

Dayrides with this point as intermediate summit are on pages:

Old Monarch Pass
Colorado Trail m272.1 s(u)

Dayrides with this point as shoulder point are on pages:

Monarch Crest Trail s(u)
Colorado Trail m272.1 s(u)


The history of Marshall Pass is a story of railroads that didn't materialize, and others that did so reluctantly. It is a story of struggles between competing industrialists, and the battles of track layers. However the first story told is of a different nature. It's the story of a toothache leading to the discovery of the pass, at least as far as the official discovery is concerned.

In 1873 the Hayden survey was not the only survey crew, to criss cross the Rockies. The army's Wheeler survey was there too. As told in a story by Marshall Spraque in "the Great Gates" : while exploring in the San Juan mountains, Lietenant William Marshall developed a toothache. The conventional route separating a San Juan resident from his dentist would have lead him over Cinnamon Pass, Cochetopa Pass, and Mosca Pass, onwards to dental chairs in Denver or another Front Range city. Instead Marshall substituted today's Gunnison Valley and the pass today bearing his name for Cochetopa Pass and Mosca Pass, thus shortening the dental commute by four days, according to his own estimate. The name Marshall Pass proved itself infinitely more persistent than a toothache.

Gunnison Rail Survey (<Poncha Pass|Cochetopa Pass>) In 1853 the Gunnison Survey was tasked with exploring a feasible transcontinental railroad route through this part of the Rockies.  The Gunnison survey noted Marshall Pass for its potential while crossing Poncha Pass back to San Luis Valley. But the survey did not cross Marshall Pass. The real objective of the Gunnison survey in this area was to study the suitability of Cochetopa Pass

Still - Marshall Pass was eventually crossed by a railroad, even if it was a different venture than coast to coast. Marshall Pass is one of two Colorado passes, not only initially noted by the Gunnison rail survey, but eventually crossed by rails, with a destination other than transcontinental. More further below.

The Leadville Boom Period   (<  Old Monarch Pass | Black Sage Pass > ); also Otto Mears Passes (<Poncha Pass|Cotchetopa Pass>): Twenty four years later, we find Captian Gunnison's name attached to the valley of his adventures and also its new town. As the mining activity and the following wealth spread from Leadville into the Gunnison valley, the town of Gunnison emerged as regional center in its own right. A wagon road was needed to the new commercial center. There were two options Marshall Pass or today's Old Monarch Pass. Marshall Pass was a route preferred by the people whose opinion counts in these matters, the founders of Gunnison. They exerted pressure on toll road operator extraordinaire, Otto Mears, to improve the route from a set of tracks, into a toll road in 1877. Otto Mears was only too happy to oblige. His exisiting toll road over Poncha Pass could use a branch line, and it received one too.

Railroads (<Tennessee Pass|Williams Pass>): The story of railroads over Marshall Pass parallels the story of Otto Mears wagon road over the pass. In both cases the objective was to supply the growing boom town of Gunnison. But it also features two other elements, a monster tunneling battle and the secrect agreements of capitalists to circumnavigate the forces of competition.

This is the rail situation so far : It was several links back in this thread that we last saw the Denver South Park railroad (DSP) reach the Arkansas Valley via Trout Creek Pass. Since then the only rival, the Denver Rio Grande (DRG), has expanded its business into the main boom town of the Arkansas valley, Leadville, by laying tracks over Tennessee Pass and Fremont Pass.

The two railroad bosses had divided up the Arkansas valley neatly between them. The DRG could gouge prices in Leadville, and the DSP benefited from Buena Vista. DRG's Palmer had promised DSP's Evans not to build a line over Marshall Pass to compete with the DSP's plans to reach Gunnison over a very difficult route. The DSP was engaged in a major tunneling struggle to cross the Sawatch Range under Williams Pass, the Alpine Tunnel. The tunnel battle was not going well for the DSP. DSP's Evans eventually capitulated and was about the sell the railroad to the most corrupt railroad capitalist of the period, the UP's Jay Gould. Now DRG's Palmer considered his promise not to compete for the Gunnison Basin ore traffic null and void. It was made to John Evans personally. The promise was not transferrable to Jay Gould of the UP.

Both railroads were now equally determined to reach in Gunnison.Which railroad would reach Gunnison first, DRG or DSP ? While the DSP still hung on for dear life on alpine mountain shelfs, the DRG had the easier, but longer route that included Marshall Pass. In October 1880 Palmer's DRG bought the toll road across the pass from Otto Mears for 13000 dollars.

Between 1880 and 1883, the DRG employed a work force bigger than the US army in its effort to lay tracks across the top of Marshall Pass. While the DSP had spent two years on their tunnel project in the Sawatch Range, the DRG had comparatively easy going. Instead of a tunnel, but the DRG still needed 23 snowsheds to keep the line open during winter. The DRG entered Gunnison on August 8/81. To see how the DSP fared, this thread continues on the  Williams Pass.

The top of Marshall Pass even had a station with a post office. Unlike the DRG main line through the Arkansas valley, the Marshall Pass route remained narrow gauge until operations ended in 1952. The rail were salvaged three years later.

Modern Highways(<Poncha Pass|Old Monarch Pass>) Prior to 1922 Marshall Pass was considered the main highway connecting the Arkansas Valley with Gunnison. Then familiar question came up again. What's the best way to get to Gunnison ? The mode of tranportation du jour was now the automobile. The choice was between Marshall Pass and a route over Old Monarch Pass, which was not called old at the time. This time the opions, that mattered most, were those of the highway department. It favored Old Monarch Pass. Still, both routes persisited. When road names where changed to numbers in the 1930s, US50 was designated over Old Monarch Pass and the importance of Marshall Pass declined. The latest human venture through the top of Marshall Pass is a gas pipeline, built in the 1960s.

Cycling. An early mountain biking guide, first published in 1987 mentioned Marshall Pass as being suitable for mountain biking in its appendix, without describing it any further (William L. Stoehr's: Bicycling the Backcountry).

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