OURAY – Ouray County’s high country roads are starting to open up – albeit a few weeks behind schedule. After a winter of heavy snows and avalanche activity, road crews have been working hard to get the roads cleared in time for jeeping season.
“We are running a little bit behind because of all the snow,” said Brandy Ross, owner of jeep tour company Switzerland of America. “One of the big challenges is all the slide activity.”
A large slide across the first two switchbacks of Engineer Pass left the road buried in debris, Ross said. “The debris was so heavy it looked like the road was gone,” she said. Other than the large slides, however, the road has melted off, according to Chris Miller, Ouray County Road and Bridge Superintendent.
“Right now most of Engineer is pretty much melted off except for the snowslides, and the snowslides are huge,” he said. “We’re crossing one now that’s up to 200 yards long and somewhere around 15 feet deep. In a normal year we don’t have those kinds of slides up there.”
Cinnamon Pass is another story. The pass is clear in both directions, but the high runoff is eroding the road and causing rugged conditions suitable only for expert drivers, Ross said. Yankee Boy Basin is also open to Twin Falls, but Camp Bird Road is subject to high runoff and rockfall as well.
Other openings include Last Dollar Pass, the road from Silverton to the base of Engineer Pass, the Animas Forks road, Maggie and Minnie Gulches, Red Mountain Town, and the first three miles of Ophir Pass on the San Juan County side. As of press time, Owl Creek Pass was open to the forest service gate and is expected to open some time this week. Miller said that the road is clear of snow to the top but that clogged culverts are forcing water across the road. He said that Gunnison County has yet to clear its side of the pass.
Miller said that other than Corkscrew, crews are starting to get back on schedule with clearing. “We were several weeks behind. Yankee Boy usually takes us a week to 10 days and it took us a month this time,” he said. However, Red Mountain Town had very little snow on it, “which was odd. There was probably less snow up there than there was last year,” he said.
Other roads remain closed including the Anvil Mountain Trail, Black Bear Pass, Poughkeepsie Gulch, and Governor’s Basin. Corkscrew Pass is closed indefinitely.
San Miguel County crews are currently focused on clearing Ophir Pass and expect to have that road open this afternoon. “But they’re in a lot of snow so it could be a day or so after that,” said San Miguel County Road and Bridge Superintendent Mike Horner. “When we’re finished there we’ll start on Imogene.”
Horner said that they are running about two weeks behind due to the depth of the snow and to the cool spring, which kept the snowpack from melting off. He expected Imogene to be open by the middle of July. Work will then focus on Black Bear Pass, but being a one-way road, crews must drive around to San Juan County and plow down from there.
Ross said that despite its challenges, the abundant snowpack is making for a unique jeeping season, with towering walls of snow and a promising wildflower season.
“It’s neat. It’s very unusual in its own right,” she said. “We’re encouraging people to get up there and see it because they may not see it again for another twenty or thirty years.” She’s looking forward to getting up to the Alpine Loop. “I bet the snow banks up there will just be awesome.”
So far, the season has been slow, Ross said, but reservations are strong after June 15.
“We’re hearing people talk about the cost of fuel, but that’s not deterring them,” she said. “We feel like we’re going to have a strong year.”
For updates, check the Switzerland of America website at www.soajeep.com/custom1.shtml, or the Ouray County Road and Bridge Department’s website at ouraycountyco.gov/road.html. For information on San Miguel County roads, call 970/327-4835.