Black Bear Pass: One Way to Telluride

“Courage is not
the absence of fear,
but the triumph
over it.”

Nelson Mandela

I have been very blessed to have traveled to some pretty remarkable places in my life so far. In the last five years alone, I was introduced to the world of off-roading and suddenly, the world grew a little bit bigger. In fact, prior to picking up my Toyota Tacoma, I had never truly off-roaded.

I knew nothing – I had zero skills with driving, I had zero experience – I legitimately did not know what the hell I was doing. All that I knew was that I had the truck of my dreams, a desire to learn, and a passion for exploring.

We all start at square one.

Fortunately, I quickly found myself surrounded by amazing people willing to teach me the ropes. I asked the dumb questions; I made many mistakes; I’d keep trying when a trail or obstacle was defeating; I would keep showing up.

This was not easy for a timid introvert, believe me. Never before in my life had a dream required me to step so wildly out of my comfort zone. I constantly pushed my limits and, more often than not, surprised my own damn self. Completing Black Bear Pass for the first time was one of those crowning moments. This is the story.

July 14, 2017

A group of off-road friends were planning a weekend trip to the San Juan mountains in Southwest Colorado. With the once snow covered trails opening just a week prior to our arrival, our sights were set on ones such as Black Bear Pass and Imogene Pass. I had never been to this region and had only known about these trails through Youtube videos and word of mouth.

Tucked away between towering peaks and steep mountain sides, these unforgiving trails are not for the inexperienced driver, nor for the faint of heart. One wrong move can easily be fatal. Fair warning had gone out prior to our departure from Salt Lake City, but I felt confident that I could keep my whits and nerves about me in order to navigate the trails as a solo driver.

Nestled between the two Colorado towns of Ouray and Telluride, Black Bear Pass summits at nearly 13,000 feet. This one-way trail down into the Telluride valley comes complete with the most incredible mountain views I’ve ever seen (accurately nicknamed The Swiss Alps of the West), sheer drop offs, off-camber sections, plus the infamous switchbacks at the end of the trail. As the sign blatantly states at the summit:

“Extreme Road Ahead
Expert drivers with high clearance,
short wheel base,
4×4 vehicles only

Black bear pass is a narrow shelf
road with 1,000 foot plus drop-offs
with dangerous switchbacks,
tight turns and loose shale.
Expert drivers only.
Travel at Your Own Risk”

I was definitely not about to admit that I was some expert driver by any means, but I knew I was with good company that would have my back and spot me through any sections I didn’t feel comfortable doing on my own. That paired with what confidence I did have and my ability to be patient and calm in “butt pucker” moments, I felt that I could conquer this trail.

On the Ouray side, the beginning of the trail up to the summit is easy going and remarkably scenic. You consistently climb in elevation and begin to watch the valley floor grow further and further away. Never having done this trail before, I kept thinking, “Well this is too easy!”

Once you reach the summit, the scenery begins to change. Sharp rock features are more prominent and the trail slowly begins to become more aggressive. The further down you travel, the steeper and tighter it gets, proving to be more and more unforgiving.

The best part of it all is this one fact: there’s absolutely no going back on a one-way trail.

I will never forget Sonny’s words that came over the radio as we crested over the summit and began the decent down :

“I know it’s tempting to look around and admire the view, but please don’t loose sight of what you are doing and what you are driving over. It’s about to get tricky so
Let’s all get down safely.”

I was already in complete awe of this place and I knew his advice was nothing to take lightly. Sure enough, as we made our way down and down, it became more and more apparent that one dumb move could easily spell disaster.

As we snaked our way slowly down the trail and came around a particular bend, there was a very definitive moment when the valley of Telluride came into view. I was left completely dumbfounded with amazement. It was a truly spectacular sight. Pictures just do not do it justice.

As trucks were stopping to take a few photos of the view, I ran up to Sonny in the lead truck. His smile said it all. “This view right here is exactly why I do this. This is what off-roading means to me.” I beamed a giant smile back.

For the rest of my life, I will forever remember that exact moment. Reason, I believe, is because that was the dawning of realization for what off-roading meant to ME. Here I was, thousands of feet on the side of this incredible mountainside, navigating MY own vehicle down one of the most famous trails in the state of Colorado, surrounded by people who genuinely cared for one another and were living that moment for all that it was worth.

I felt complete, pure joy.

However, I had to tuck that joy in my back pocket for the time being because from that point on, every last bit of focus was demanded for the remainder of the trail. Paralleling the river, the trail became off-camber and slick on the sharp rocks, in addition to being incredibly steep in some places.

Remnants of a once booming mining era speckled the area. It was hard to resist admiring the sudden dramatic change of scenery, but this was “make or break” time, and I was determined to not be the girl who needed saving – I was getting my own ass, and truck, down this mountain.

(Photo Credit – Alex Fishburn)

I remember on several occasions, the thought kept dawning on me that Telluride was still significantly lower in elevation than where we were, with the trail literally disappearing into nothing – as if it ended in a complete drop off. It was rather terrifying and incredibly exciting. I put trust in the vehicle ahead of me, making it a specific point to watch his lines and tire placement to stay the correct course.

The trail was slow going at this point, but the challenge was entertaining to me. Something about knowing my safety – my own life – squarely lied in my own two hands was invigorating.

Turn by turn, obstacle by obstacle, I was really doing this!

(Photo Credit – Alex Fishburn)

The famous Black Bear switchbacks were on us before we knew it. Very tight navigation is required for this section. My ego got the best of me on the first turn and I ended up in an odd predicament where I needed all the spotter help I could get. My rear bumper kissed the unmoving rock face a couple of times with my front driver-side tire barely staying on the opposing ledge, all the while knocking a few rocks loose to tumble down steep face. With some patience and complete trust in my spotter, I made it through. Nearly every other vehicle took the spotter guidance on that first turn. After that, it was relatively mild in comparison.

The river we followed all the way down had progressively grown in size over time and periodically switched to magnificent waterfalls. Towards the final turns of the switchbacks, the most glorious waterfall of them all appears. Perched atop the cliff face, an uninhabited mill house still stands guard over this fall – another reminder of the era that paved the foundation for this trail to even exist.

At this point, the trail becomes a tight, two-way road, accessible to cars and side-by-sides who are eager to see the waterfall up close. The trail makes it way right into the heart of Telluride, where we all stopped to reconvene and take a lunch break.

I’ll never forget looking back up the mountainside we had just navigated down and having the most overwhelming feeling of pride come over me. Never, in a million years, would I have ever thought I would have been able to conquer something like Black Bear Pass. I knew though, in the back of my mind, that I could do it only if I trusted the people around me, I trusted the vehicle I was driving, but most importantly, I trusted my self.

I’d say mission accomplished.

I took a moment to be proud and relish in the joy rushing through my veins. I was on a true life high; I was on Cloud 9; I was undeniably happy to be alive and truly grateful that I could experience this unforgettable moment. The imprint it left will be a forever reminder as to what off-roading means to me; that in the end, you are only grounded by the limitations of your own mind, and that you can truly do anything you set your mind to.

If a shy, intimidated, little Cristin can chase some wild dream of owning a Tacoma, which consequently forces her out of a life-long shell of reserved comfortability, only to one day lead her to literally conquer a mountain… I say you can do anything too.

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