4-Wheel-Drive Adventure: California Pass, Poughkeepsie Gulch

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From the crossroads (described on the previous page), I set off an unmarked road that turned off to the right (headed east, I think!).  The short drive led to California Pass, elevation 12,930 feet, then continued into California Gulch.

California Pass and Gulch, 4wd road near Silverton, Colorado

The drive up to California Pass is about as rough and steep as all the other roads in the area, except for one sharp hairpin curve.  I nearly chickened out when I reached the curve, which was so steep, I thought for a moment my SUV might flip over backwards.  The curve was even tougher to navigate on the way downhill.

California Pass and Gulch, 4wd road near Silverton, Colorado

I didn’t travel beyond the pass, but I didn’t need to.  The view here was better than I ever could have imagined.  Just a short climb uphill (from the sign pictured above) and you reach a great viewpoint.  To one side, Poughkeepsie Gulch and Lake Como…

…and on the other side, California Gulch.  The two couldn’t be more different: Poughkeepsie appeared harsh, while California was perfectly rounded, bottoming out at a small stream and another 4wd road.  No matter which direction you travel from here, you can’t lose.

After returning home, I studied a lot of topographical maps, and finally determined that Animas Forks (the ghost town which was my original destination) lies at the end of California Gulch.  So, if you continued down the other side of the mountain from here, and traveled through the gulch, I’m fairly certain you’d meet up with CO Rte. 110 again.  This would make for a great loop trip, without the need to backtrack (like I did).

California Pass and Gulch, 4wd road near Silverton, Colorado

The above photo gives you a closer look at Poughkeepsie Gulch.  Lake Como is on the lower left side, just outside the frame.  From there the road twists and turns into the valley.  We’ll tackle a small portion of Poughkeepsie Gulch Road on the next page.

California Pass and Gulch, 4wd road near Silverton, Colorado

Now here’s a good idea: navigate these roads aboard a dirt bike, instead of a big, bulky 4wd SUV.  An ATV would have also been nice, and easier to maneuver over these mountains.

If you don’t want to tackle California Gulch, head back downhill (the way you came) to the intersection (where the wrecked car is parked — see it on the previous page).

Lake Como – Poughkeepsie Gulch

From atop California Pass, beautiful Lake Como seemed just a short distance away, and incredibly tempting.  But, to reach the water’s edge, it’s necessary to drive the narrow and dangerous Poughkeepsie Gulch Road.

I read the ominous road sign and decided it didn’t apply to me, since I was an experienced driver (although never before on roads like these!).  So, I started down the road, with the simple goal of reaching the lake, then turning around.

Poughkeepsie was indeed rougher than any other road I had traveled that day, or on this entire trip.  It was steep, with bare rock jutting into my tires.  It was nothing I couldn’t handle, but still, I had to drive slow and remain focused.

  Then, I reached a big problem: a small washout.  I carefully tried to creep my way across, but when I felt my left front tire sink into the ditch, and my right rear tire leave the road completely, I knew I was in trouble.  I slowly backed out, then set the emergency brake and stepped out of the car.  The ditch was too deep to drive across, and turning around (or backing up) was out of the question.  So, I decided to rebuild the road.  Using nearby rocks, I filled in the ditch, creating a path just wide enough for my tires.  Then, I drove slowly over the bridge I had built, making 2 or 3 attempts in order to hit it just right.

So was all this effort worth it? You tell me.

Lake Como, Poughkeepsie Gulch Road, near Silverton

There are several good places to park near the edge of the lake.

Lake Como’s water is perfectly clear in shallow areas, and in the deeper areas, it’s a brilliant green-blue.  As you might expect, the water is bitterly cold, even in the summer, since it’s mostly melting snow that fills the lake.

Lake Como, Poughkeepsie Gulch Road, near Silverton

Lake Como, Poughkeepsie Gulch Road, near Silverton

With slightly less wind, I would have captured a great reflection here.

 Poughkeepsie Gulch Road, near Silverton

Since this area is above timberline, there are no trees, but the alpine tundra does spring to life in the summer.  August is a great time to find wildflowers blooming.

After taking in the quiet scenery for a while, I headed back up to the intersection (once again making it safely across my makeshift miniature bridge), then back-tracked my way to Silverton.

Be careful if you search the internet for more information on Lake Como.  It’s likely you’ll find something completely different, since the lake shares its name with one in Pasco County, Florida, which is home to a clothing-optional resort.  Also, there’s another Lake Como in Colorado, near the town of Alamosa.

Back at the intersection, I found a family standing outside their car, and pointing.  They had spotted a fox, or more accurately, the fox had spotted a potential easy meal.

fox

Now, you’re not supposed to feed the wildlife, so I want to make it clear, I’m not the one who gave this critter a slice of bread.  But I’m glad the other family did, because it kept the fox around long enough for me to snap a few good pictures.

fox

After the snack, the fox wandered away, up the mountainside, all the while keeping a close eye on the humans who were watching him.

san juan mountains

The trip back revealed more amazing scenery.  I took this shot directly above Lake Como (you can see the edge of it at the bottom of the frame).  If you look closely, you’ll also see my rear-view mirror in the corner, which tells you I shot this out the passenger-side window.

snow bank in august, san juan mountains

Even in August, this huge snow drift still stands as a testament to the rough San Juan winters.

4wd road, san juan mountains

Looking back towards Silverton, from near Hurricane Pass.

marmots, san juan mountains, colorado

On my way downhill, I spotted some more wildlife: a family of marmots living in the rocks at the side of the road.

marmots

After waiting for a moment, about 4-5 creatures appeared from their small cave.

wildflowers and mountains, san juan range, colorado

More wildflowers blooming!

waterfall, san juan mountains

There were several small waterfalls cascading down by the side of the road.

About halfway back to town, you’ll enjoy this great view of the Red Mountains, which are also visible from US Rte. 550 north of Silverton.

melting snow shelf, san juan mountains

I found one more interesting scene as I headed downhill, on my way back to Silverton.  A deep patch of snow was finally melting, with the help of the small creek that ran directly underneath.  The result was a delicate shelf of snow.

melting snow shelf, san juan mountains

I can only imagine how deep the snow must be here in the winter, if it’s still melting in August!

4wd on dirt road, san juan mountains

From the patch of snow, I looked back up at my car, and for a moment, I realized what it felt like to be living inside a Jeep commercial.

Continue back to Silverton, and US Rte. 550.  Be careful as you select the right dirt road for the return trip.  I chose one that branched off to the left, and ended up at an impassable water crossing (then had to drive in reverse for about 1/2 mile to return to the main road!).

Note: This trip was first published in 2005.

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