Saturday, June 11, 2011

Colorado Backroads: Offroad Trails Map Update

Actually, some time ago I spent what seemed like a year one month completely going through the Colorado Master Map and updating it to include the trails in the book "Colorado Backroads & 4-Wheel Drive Trails" by Charles A. Wells and published by FunTrecks.

The book contains descriptions for trails through colorado's most scenic areas so I was excited to see how they traversed the actual globe. I quickly began experiencing difficulties almost around every corner. Wells sometime used, lets say, "alternate" road and area names – at least different than I could find in any of the databases.

I could see that the book had only sparse GPS coordinates but most of the time with even just a few you can follow Google Earth satellite images along the trails – not to be. Colorado is covered in snow much of the year and a canopy of green the rest of the time so trying to follow trails from the outer atmosphere is maddening.

So, even though it was updated months ago, and I decided to go ahead and publish what I could to the server; I, none-the-less realized people would need some explanation about the different format these trails required and planned a blog post. Which post, I'm sad to say, got delayed… until now.

For several reasons, the blog posting got pushed down in priorities until it was "below the fold" on my screen's todo list and hasn't seen the light of day, until now when I tried to assist a reader with a trail question. For those of you Colorado offroaders, or anyone who is planning a summer ride into one of the best offroad states in the west, you've really got a treat in store.
[A free Google Earth file of this route is available at: Colorado offroad trails Google Earth Trail - Colorado Master Map.]

Wells' paperback trail book contains full descriptions and specific riding advice for many, many off road trails all over western Colorado. It is written specifically for SUVs because that's Mssr. Wells' rig of choice.

Fortunately, however, many if not most of these trails run through US Forest Service lands which accommodate ATVs and other offroad vehicles. So they should be usable for 4-wheelers with a little pre-planning to locate a suitable trailhead and exit strategy.

Unfortunately, as I alluded to above, there is some difficulty in correlation with GPS coordinates. While still being a wise purchase to use as a guide, the book does contain several inaccuracies and is nearly devoid of any satellite-verifiable GPS related markings. When you couple these things with the poor trail visibility on Google's satellite images for the area there was some necessity of changing the format a bit.

Fortunately, many of the actual GPS trails have already been placed in the master map from Peter Massey's and other books so you can nearly always find at least a portion already mapped. When Google's images "thaw out," and trails become visible again, perhaps actual digitizing of the trail can be revisited.

Until then, what you will find now are Wells' seven riding areas each listed within the offroad areas we have previously been using, and which are used by other offroad trail books. Wells lists "Basecamps" for each of his areas, which are towns that a rider can use to obtain gas, supplies and even lodging if desired, as you explore the trails of that area. They are all shown with special symbols and coordinates.

Also, I was able to come up with a trailhead for all of his listed trails. If you click on any of them you will see a synopsis of our standard information about the trail, namely: difficulty rating, distance, time, location, map recommendations and sights.

What you don't see, always, is a complete trail "linestring." However, as I said, most of Wells' trails contain at least a segment from another trail which IS shown, and by the time you ride the snow should be gone so descriptions from the book should make sense on the ground. Please remember to record a GPS track and send it in.

Area 1 (Southwest Region)

Description: This area is one full of easily accessible high altitude back roads. The areas economy died in the early 20th century right along with the demise of the mining industry, paving the way for off road (and on-road) tourism.

In addition to general sightseeing from the convenience of air conditioned/heated vehicles on paved highways, a plethora of outdoor mountain activities draw thousands of participants each year to: 4-wheel, camp, hike, backpack, mountain bike, wildflower 'hunt' and fish.

Even though most other high altitude places in Colorado are closed much of the year due to snow, many trails in this area either remain accessible or are cleared of snow in early May. Some trails are 'almost' maintained in this area, others are left untouched to provide, intentionally or not, a much more difficult and 'rustic' experience.

Learning of the area's history will greatly improve your enjoyment of riding the trails in the area - as well as give you many more ideas for things to see. If you only have time to ride in one area of Colorado - this should be it!

Basecamps: Ouray, Silverton, Lake City, Telluride
Trails (difficulty): Owl Creek Pass (E), Yankee Boy Basin (M), Imogene Pass (D), Black Bear Pass (M), Ophir Pass (M), Clear Lake (M), Engineer Pass (M), Cinnamon Pass (M), Poughkeepsie Gulch (D), Picayne & Placer Gulch (M), Corkscrew Gulch (M), California Gulch (M), Eureka Gulch (E), Nellie Creek (M), Stony Pass (M), Maggie Gulch (E), Minnie Gulch (M), and Wager Gulch (M).

Area 2 (South Central Region

Description: Towns such as Aspen and Crested Butte in this area are internationally known for winter activities, but the snows hide much if not most of its beauty.

It is surrounded by FOUR wilderness areas including the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. Unlike in nearly ALL of the rest of the United States these wilderness areas were drawn contiguous with existing vehicular trails (showing that it can be done IF the sponsoring legislators are afraid of local constituencies) which leaves them accessible to the senior population who must use offroad transportation on trails.

Schofield Pass through Crystal River Canyon and Pearl Pass were of such renowned importance that they have been left alone for the multi-use of hikers and riders alike. Riders through this area are strongly urged to make it a point of improving the trail every time they use it by doing such things as carrying out at least one extra piece of trash that some fool has left behind.

Basecamps: Crested Butte, Aspen, Marble
Trails (difficulty): Schofield Pass, Crystal Riv. (D), Lead King Basin (D), Kebler & Ohio Pass (E), Gunsight Pass (M), Slate & Gothic Road (E), Pearl Pass (D), Taylor Pass (D) and Italian Creek Road (D).

Area 3 (South Central Region

Description: Being only two hours from Denver and Colorado Springs, this area is probably the most popular four-wheeling area in all of Colorado. Summer seems to last a little longer in this part of the state; and some back roads are even ridable in the winter because snows often miss the lower elevations entirely.

Similar to the areas of Aspen and Lake City the Buena Vista area owes its extensive trail system to the now largely absent mining industry. Route 162, which is the central corridor, offers fishing along Chalk Creek as well as forest service campgrounds close to the trailheads.

The steaming hot waters of Mt. Princeton Hot Springs draw offroaders into relaxing after-ride activities. The historic Alpine Tunnel is a great site to visit as well as the almost empty towns of St. Elmo and Tincup. The little town of Pitkin allows you to gas up at a vintage general store in the center of town.

Basecamps: Buena Vista, Monarch
Trails: Tincup Pass (M), Mt. Princeton (M), Sevenmile Road (E), Waunita & Black Sage Pass (E), Tomichi Pass (D), Hancock Pass, Alpine Tun. (M), Mt. Antero (D), Cumberland Pass (E), Old Monarch Pass (E), Pomeroy Lake Road (M) and Iron Chest (M).

Area 4 (North Central Region

Description: For the same distance as it takes to go to a ski resort you can be off road on a mountain trail in this area which runs adjacent to I-70 between Vail and Dillon. The 1880's mine trails now reveal their views to a variety of offroad vehicles in all seasons.

The Mosquito Pass trail was devoid of its intended mine trucks shortly after its construction due to the better transportation of the railroad. Hagerman Pass Road follows the same route as the first standard gauge railroad built across the continental divide. West Lake Creek Road trail and Weston Pass trail are favorites for offroaders today just as they were for stage coaches and freight wagons in the 1870's.

Leadville was one of the areas largest and most active mining towns and required a lot of supplies. Some of these mining trails became the functional roads of today, but we should be glad the area is forested so it is managed by the Forest Service (instead of the BLM) which has preserved the offroad experience for riders of today.

Basecamps: Vail, Leadville, Fairplay
Trails: West Lake Creek Road (E), Shrine Pass (E), Holy Cross (D), McCallister Gulch (M), Ptarmigan Pass (M), Wheeler Lake (D), Hagerman Pass (M), Mt. Lincoln (M), Mosquito Pass (M), Mt. Bross (M) and Weston Pass (E).

Area 5 (North Central Region

Description: Beautiful Breckenridge is but one of the several towns which can be used as a 'basecamp' for rides in this area. Five of these trails cross the continental divide between US-285 and I-70 connecting the resorts of Breckenridge, Keystone and Georgetown.

The rest of the trails in the area allow you to look down on the interstate from lofty viewpoints. All of them are rich in mining as well as railroad history and provide riders with all three levels of difficulty depending upon at which altitude they cross the divide.

From Guanella Pass, which can be traveled in a passenger car in good weather, to Red Cone, arguably the most terrifying drive in the state, this area has it all! You will probably need to wait to ride these trails until well into the summer if there has been heavy winter snows.

Basecamps: Breckenridge, Dillon, Como, Idaho Springs
Trails: Boreas Pass (E), Georgia Pass (M), Webster Pass (D), Red Cone (D), Lamartine, Saxton Road (E), Spring Creek (D) and Guanella Pass (E).

Area 6 (Front Range Region)

Description: Two of this area's trails (Mt. Herman Road and Rampart Range Road) actually depart from a metropolis which shows you how accessible they are. The low elevation and resultant lower snow pack also keep them open for most of the year, which has made them a popular tourist destination for many years and caused the development of a plethora of historical information such as on the Pike National Forest map.

One area trail, the Pikes Peak Highway, is often overlooked in offroading maps due to the fact of its extreme popularity and publicity elsewhere. There are trails of all difficulties in this area and despite their proximity to Colorado Springs they are terribly 'remote' in an emergency.

Basecamps: Colorado Springs, Woodland Park, Divide, Cannon City
Trails: La Salle Pass (E), Mt. Herman Road (E), Longwater Gulch (D), Hackett Gulch (D), Rampart Range Road (E), Mt. Baldy (M) and Phantom Canyon, Shelf Rd (E).

Area 7 (South Central Region

Description: Very remote from either Denver or Colorado Springs, it is the uniqueness of this area's trails which continues to draw offroaders. The Sangre De Cristo Mountain Range bisects the area in an 80-mile long sky-piercing dividing line which isolates trails from one another.

Hayden Pass is entirely by itself and the Medano Pass and Blanca Peak trails take two days to ride. Many consider Hayden Pass to be one of Colorado's best kept secrets and it provides just the right amount of challenge. Medano Pass gives access through the back door to the unbelievable Great Sand Dunes National Monument.

And truly the most challenging trail in all of the U.S., let alone this area, is to Blanca Peak; so it understandably draws 'hard-core' riders from all over the world.

Basecamps: Blanca, Westcliffe, Coaldale
Trails: Hayden Pass (M), Medano Pass (M) and Blanca Peak (D).


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