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Red Mountain Pass

The San Juan Mountains are the largest contiguous area above 10000 feet in the 48 lower states and Red Mountain Pass is the highest paved pass through these mountains. The "contiguous 10000 feet statistic" gives a good idea about this landscape and  this pass. This is a plateau, as well as an alpine range. It's a set of sculptured peaks set on top of a table, set off by cliffs of varied steepness draping over the plains below.

The summit of Red Mountain Pass is a pretty spot with good views in two directions. But despite its altitude, within half a mile north of the summit, the road follows the headwaters of the Uncompaghre River, and deep forest is never far away. - Instead the most spectacular country along the road  is further down, along the Uncompaghre Canyon climbing up from Ouray. It was also the section, that was historically the most difficult to overcome. Above that, the leftovers from countless old mining structures, set between piles of red dirt, testify to the history of this route.

click on profile for more detail
01.(7000ft,mile00) START-END NORTH ALTERNATE: Ridgway turnoff on US550.
02.(7800ft,mile11) START-END NORTH downtown Ouray
03.(7890ft,mile11) turnoff to Imogene Pass trail is on right
04.(8870ft,mile15) turnoff to Denver and Engineer Passes is on left
05.(9700ft,mile19) Ironton Park, turnoff to Corkscrew Pass is on left
06.(11100ft,mile23) TOP: Red Mountain Pass
07.(11080ft,mile24) turnoff to Black Bear Pass is on right
08.(10100ft,mile29) turnoff to Ophir Pass is on right
09.(9440ft,mile31) turnoff to South Mineral Creek Road is on right
10.(9290ft,mile34) START-END SOUTH: downtown Silverton


From North. The profile begins down in Ridgway to show the maximum elevation gain. The pass road starts in Ouray at point 2. The Red Mountain Pass play starts with its main act. After a few introductory switchbacks above Ouray follows the traversal of Uncompaghre Canyon, using several short shelf road constructions. These have as much exposure to straight dropoffs immediately next to a narrow shoulder, as one is ever going to see in Colorado on a paved road.

At the head of the canyon the road enters a new landscape. You could call it a normal plateau, if it wasn't for a second layer of peaks reaching skywards from this level. So many Red Mountains line the road, that the task of naming them separately has been reduced to numbering them. After an extended relatively flat section the road steepens again and climaxes in a flurry of wide switchbacks between a mess of historic and modern mining ruins and tailing piles. The top is slightly below treeline, but still has some good views in both directions.

From South. (also described upwards) A steady climb following Mineral Creek offers glimpses up side valleys: ragged ridges reach above the tops of forested slopes. Near Chattanooga ( today, only a name on the map ) the road reaches a large radius switchback curve, that seems like a momentum gathering device, designed to catapult the traveler to the top in slingshot fashion. - If only it were that easy. Climbing above the valley floor, the old mining debris below slowly takes on a toylike appearance. At the same time the full dimensions of a series of cascades at the other end of the large radius switchback becomes apparent. After that the remainder of the climb is surprisingly straight.


The story of Red Mountain Pass are snapshots in time. Between the horse drawn wagon and the internal combustion engine, conditions conspired to get yet another mode of transportation through the narrows of Uncompaghre Canyon: the railroad. Sometimes it worked - sometimes it didn't.

Hayden Survey(<Molas/ Coal Bank Pass|Lizard Head Pass>): Little has been added to the maps produced by the Hayden Survey. During its second year of exploration, 1874, the Hayden Survey set its eyes on the San Juan Mountains and Baker Park, as the Silverton area was known. A major objective was to find a route into the isolated mining settlement that was suitable for heavy mining equipment.

Several primitive routes lead into the mountain fortress. All of them had their own peculiar set of unsolvable difficulties. They had entered the area from the east over Cinnamon Pass. Another option, a trail following Animas canyon from the south was considered impassable.  Also to the south, a trail existed following the east side of Sultan Mountain, the general area of today's Molas Pass road. It too was considered useless for mining equipment. Maybe the north had a better access route ? Their progress up Mineral Creek to Red Mountain Pass presented no problems. It was descending the other side to the box Canyon above Ouray, that geographer Rhoda concluded flatly : "The canyon bars all egress".

There was only one general direction they hadn't tried yet, west. The route lead them to an unnamed crossing above Trout Lake descending to Lizard Head Pass, a stretch that would be better described as a mountaineering route than a "suitable for heavy mining equipment". And so Red Mountain Pass alluded the Hayden Survey as a feasible connection between Ouray and Silverton of the 1870s, although the  motivation to find a route, in terms of potential profit for others, was high enough.

The Leadville Boom (<Cinnamon Pass|Stony Pass>) also Otto Mears Passes (<Owl Creek Pass|Hesperus Pass>): It took until 1882 for motivation to mount to the point of action. In 1882 construction began on a toll road over Red Mountain Pass. The final impetus was provided in the form of gold at the nearby Yankee Girl Mine. The fact that both Silverton and Ouray were about to have functioning rail heads, courtesy of the Denver Rio Grande Railway, also made this project more feasible..

Ouray grew and so did it's wealth. Insuring that the thriving town had toll roads, on which goods could flow in and out, was the business of Otto Mears. To the west his earlier additions to his toll road empire, going over Blue Mesa Summit and Cerro Summit, connected to other Mears roads further east. The transportation situation to the south however could stand some improvement. A very bad trail still followed lower Uncompaghre Canyon. One fork lead to Mineral Point, then followed a route east of Red Mountain Pass, connecting with the Engineer Pass - Cinnamon Pass Cutoff road between Lake City and Silverton. The other fork connected with mines on both sides of Red Mountain, and it was this fork that Otto Mears elected as his next project in 1882. Called the Rainbow Route, its most difficult part was the section of the Uncompaghre box canyon, Construction would cost 10000 dollars a mile, a huge amount for that time.

When the road reached the top,  Red Mountain Pass provided a connection between the color exuding mines at its top and Ouray, rather than Silverton, in spite of the fact that Silverton was located on the easier side of the pass. The town of Silverton begrudgingly corrected this situation by hiring old Otto to build the missing connection in 1884, and voila a Red Mountain Pass road. Otto operated the toll road until 1891, the same year that he completed a railroad that effectively reduced the need for the toll road as through road.

Railroads(<Hagermann Pass|Hesperus Pass>). Old Otto also plays the leading part in the next chapter about  Red Mountain Pass, the time when it was almost crossed by a railroad - almost, but not quite.  To explain how much it would have meant to lay tracks down that last remaining link between Ironton and Ouray, we have to paint a picture around it.

We last met the Denver Rio Grande railroad (DRG) laying rails to Aspen to thwart competition from the Colorado Midland railroad across Hagerman Pass. Meanwhile the DRG had extended its Aspen service through Glenwood Canyon to Grand Junction, converting it to standard gauge in the process. As already mentioned above, a spur from the new mainline also reached into Ouray. On the other side of the mountains the DRG San Juan branch in the San Luis Valley had grown too, reaching all the way up into the isolation of Silverton through the previously considered useless Animas Canyon route. The isolation of Baker Park was relegated to history with one set of iron rails that reached this el Dorado even before Ouray was connected to rails on the other end. Railroad topology was starting to resemble connected loops. The remaining tentacles reaching up valleys were getting less and less common. But one critical part of a loop was still missing, the connection between Ouray and Silverton. Traveling from Ouray to Silverton on rails still required a detour through Antonito, Alamosa, Buena Vista and Grand Junction, just to mention a few stops. The distance by wagon road between the two stations over the pass was 26 miles.

The idea that these 26 miles needed to be connected by rails was hatched by toll road operator Otto Mears, whose stature had grown far above toll road owner at this point. He was now in his 50s and slowly started selling his empire. 170 miles of toll road were still under his control, and 26 of them just happened to go over Red Mountain Pass, the missing link between Silverton and Ouray. Otto no longer had the ambition to build an industrial railroad empire. Instead he was at the point of selling whatever empire was left. But the rails between Silverton and Ouray became his fixation, a point to prove - just to show that it could be done.

He named his dream the Silverton Railroad, and during the summer of 1888 he successfully laid rails from Silverton over Red Mountain Pass at a spot a hundred feet above today's road. Unlike the toll road he had built earlier, this time he began building from the easier side of the pass. He called his crossing Sheridan Pass. The problem he faced after that was the same problem that the Hayden Survey under Franklin Rhoda faced 14 years earlier, how to get down Uncompaghre Canyon - only this time it was with a train instead of a survey party. Looking back from Ironton at the time, we would already see switchbacks zig zaging between tailing piles, and turntables busy shunting trains to mines at Vanderbilt, Yankee Girl, Corkscrew Gulch and Joker Tunnel. Otto considered an electric or a cog railway to cross the gulch ahead. But costs were too high for such a low population density. The line serviced mines from Silverton, but remained stuck on the precipe above Ouray. A distance of 8 miles with a 17 percent grade remained without rails. To take the train to the other side still required a detour through Antonito, Alamosa, Buena Vista, Aspen, Grand Junction, Ridgway and Ouray ( just to once again name a few stops along the way).

The failure irked Otto Mears. In his mind Silverton and Ouray still needed a rail connection that does not require a detour through Buena Vista and Grand Junction. If not over Red Mountain Pass, then perhaps the round about way over Lizard Head Pass Pass was feasible ? His next attempt would be longer than the Red Mountain Pass route, but still considerably shorter than the Grand Junction - Buena Vista option. Lizard Head Pass was the biggest obstacle on this route, but not the first one. The story continues with a minor often neglected crossing near Durango, Hesperus Pass.

Even though Otto Mear's Silverton railroad over Red Mountain Pass was a financial failure it was a success in other terms. Those 16 miles of railroad proved to be by far the most fabled, irresponsibly quaint, written about miles in Colorado railroad history. What other rail journey had a sleeper car on a two hour run covering 16 miles ?

Modern Highways (<Rabbit Ears Pass|Molas Pass/ Coal Bank Pass>): Enter the automobile. Red Mountain Pass became the first section of the "Million Dollar Highway" Route, a name that still is used in tourist brochures today. The name dates back to the time between the wars, 1921, when names like the "Victory Highway", "the Triangle Route" and the "Old Trails Road" were part of the vocabulary. The Million Dollar Highway route also included Molas Divide/ Coalbank Pass. In the following three years highway work resulted in a one way gravel road with turnouts, a significant improvement over what was before. By 1939 the road was kept open during the winter. Today's road is located above the old Mears Toll road.

Cycling - Ride the Rockies: (<Molas Divide/ Coal Bank Pass|Wolf Creek Pass>):  The Denver Posts "Ride the Rockies" cyclists have crossed Red Mountain Pass only three times between 86 and 05.

Red Mountain Pass (Summary)

Elevation/Highest Point: 11100 ft

Northern Approach:

from Ridgway (7000ft)
from Ouray (7900ft)
Western Approach:

from Silverton (9290ft)