Top of the Rockies Byway: Clinton Gulch, Climax


On Day 5, my primary objective was to drive from Silverthorne to Aspen.  Fortunately, there’s no such thing as an un-scenic route in this part of Colorado — so the drive to my next stopping point provided plenty to see.

Leaving Silverthorne, Interstate 70 heads south through Tenmile Canyon, before curving north again.  Just as that serpentine route bottoms out, there’s a scenic turnout for westbound travelers.  I stopped here for just a moment, but the truth is, there isn’t much scenery here besides the highway, a few small ponds, and of course the surrounding mountains.

This scenic turnout is just a few hundred yards from the Copper Mountain exit, which is also the start of Colorado Highway 91.  It’s one of two southbound routes that you could use to eventually get to Aspen (the other is US 24, which exits I-70 a few miles further west of here).  As soon as I noticed that CO 91 was branded as the “Top of the Rockies Byway”, I figured it would be the way to go, so I took it.

Colorado 91 starts off at around 9,800 feet, and starts climbing.  Around 11,000 feet, you reach…

Clinton Gulch Reservoir

This small reservoir is located on the east side of the road — in fact, the road crosses over the dam, separating the reservoir from Clinton Creek, which eventually drains down Tenmile Canyon.  You can park on either side of the dam, then follow trails that lead along the shoreline.  Looking to the southeast (not the best direction to be looking in the morning), you can see Fletcher Mountain on the left, and either Wheeler Mountain or Clinton Peak on the right, all of which are in the 13,800-foot range.

I’m fairly certain that’s Clinton Peak, but it could also be Bartlett Mountain, another 13’er.

After hiking a short distance out the trail, I turned back towards Highway 91 for this photo, which shows the dam, and more mountains on the other side.

I hiked a bit further, but since I really didn’t know where I was going, and I figured that there was no great vista that was about to be revealed if I went further, I turned around and headed back to the car.  Plus, even though it was June, it was still quite chilly at this elevation, and at this time of day.

For the next few miles, your views to the west are somewhat limited.  There are several tailings ponds in this area — a product of the mining operations nearby.  They’re actually quite beautiful, since they display a wide range of colors that wouldn’t be there naturally.  I only found one viewpoint, which looks over some of the ponds towards Sheep Mountain — a mere hill in these parts, just over 12,300 feet.

Climax, Colorado

Highway 91 reaches its climax at, well, a place called Climax.  It’s also known as Fremont Pass, but thanks to the big Climax Molybdenum Mine at the pass, you’re more likely to remember the area’s industrial side.  Across the street from the mine, there’s a small park, devoted to celebrating the wonders of molybdenum, and the processes by which it’s extracted from the earth.

In case you fell asleep in chemistry class, molybdenum is element #42 on the periodic table. Its biggest use is in the steel industry. Since it’s such a strong substance with a high melting point, it makes excellent steel alloys.

The park at Climax displays a wide range of mining equipment that’s used in the nearby mine.

Wander around the park, take a few pictures, and read a few signs.  Once you’re properly schooled on molybdenum mining, hop back in the car…

… and head downhill.  From its high point at 11,318 feet (3,450 meters), highway 91 drops down to around 10,000 feet and levels out, for the drive into Leadville.

Along the way, you can stop along the side of the road at a handful of small ponds, located along the East Fork of the Arkansas River.

Drivelapse Video

Here’s the time-lapse, dash-cam video of the drive from Silverthorne, over Fremont Pass, and through Leadville:

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