The mention of three words “Black – Bear – Pass” evokes emotions of respect, excitement or fear. Depending on who you are, you most likely fall into one of those categories; or perhaps all of them. It is the kind of mystique that, if in a crowded bar in downtown Telluride someone spoke softly the words “Black Bear Pass”, the music would stop, the old and young alike would stand with hats removed and a silence would fall over the crowd. The trail’s legendary status continues to grow as more roll overs, near misses, and served divorce papers come attempting this trail than any other in Colorado. It is considered by numerous publications as one of the most challenging and dangerous trails in America.
The overlook at Black Bear Pass stands touting tourists, ski bums, and mountain bikers below all year above the beautiful historic gold mining town of Telluride, Colorado. The winding switch backs zig zag like drapes blowing in the wind with hair pin turns and narrow shelves. Main Street in town literally dead ends at its feet- as it spews a continuous fountain of water from the towering water falls onto the worshipers in town like an ancient Idol providing the required life source to the adoring villagers.
To conquer this god of a trail, one must traverse the scenic back side of the mountain with gradual respect- offering words of adoration along the way. It cannot be approached from the level of the worshiping villagers in the valley. The entrance is from the famous Million Dollar Highway between Silverton and Ouray up lush green steep hillsides roamed by bellowing sheep and scrambling marmots.
The day started with no thoughts of the team attempting Black Bear. The loosely put together plan the evening before over adult refreshments was simple- leave Telluride, Colorado early in the morning and cross one mountain pass to get to the heart of the “Switzerland of the United States”- the San Juan Mountains of Southwest Colorado. The idea was to take advantage of the weather forecast and explore one of the most scenic by-ways in the United States – the Alpine Loop and return to “Base Camp Telluride” by highway for an easy but long first day of trails.
What began as an early start of day for a diverse team of 200 Series Land Cruiser Owners to conquer some of the most scenic trails in Southwest Colorado ended with what was most likely a record number of trails run by 200 Series Land Cruisers in a single day (14 hours).
Ophir pass was the first victim of the ambitious adventurists. It was then on to Silverton and Animas Forks to take Engineer pass to complete the Alpine Loop into Lake City. Fueled by some fresh “grub” from the Southern Café it was on to Cinnamon Pass, California Gulch and then Corkscrew Gulch down to the Million Dollar Highway. Even with such a long day, there was plenty of time for pictures, bathroom breaks and admiration of the vistas and intake of the fresh mountain air. However, after such a great day the maps showed the reality that was clear but regretful to the adrenalin fueled group of “imaginary renegade explorers”. We must repeat the earlier traversed Ophir Pass over the mountain back to Telluride.
Somber and quiet, the team assumed formation and began heading back. Then- striking life back into the group, the GPS lit up as the turn off for the legendary trail came into view. Quick Ham Radio communications and the new energy lead the team for a bold decision- “Let’s do Black Bear Now!”. A check of the time, glimpse of the sky, and repositioning of rigs for safe leaders and tail gunners and it was clear; leave now and we could make it to the overlook by twilight. The photographers in the group let out a grin that could only mean epic shots were to come. The last trail for the day would be the most rewarding and just what was needed for this group of fresh air crazed enthusiasts.
The sheep were clearly not impressed with our late decision and let us know was interrupting their late evening meal and social time. They seemed to have quite a bit to say- or perhaps they were mocking us for what some would view as a decision with unnecessary risks. On cue the lone literal black sheep of the herd stormed into view with his entourage of followers. Taking it as a sign and fueling the testosterone of the male drivers, radio chatter and side-splitting jokes ensued. It is a not so well-known pleasure of trailing with a great group with good radios, who, if they were not otherwise employed, would be on stage at the local comedy clubs performing for free drinks.
At the summit, the laughter subsided as the excitement and anticipation was building. The path continued to narrow down, and as a final taunt, an official sign warns there is no turning back from this point. The group trudged onward while carefully maneuvering down the main obstacles at the ledges on the edge of the waterfall. It was the most dangerous and rewarding section on the trail.
The clouds parted and the distant mountains stood transfixed. The setting sun was gold and red and the twinkling of the lights in the valley below came into frame like a fine work of art. Then briefly, the sky stood still, the cameras came out and all that could be heard was the rushing of the falls - it was the golden hour. It was “Twilight on Black Bear Pass”.
Photography by Emily Reiten - Story by Todd Gatewood