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Five mountain passes in Southwest Colorado keep drivers enthralled

‘They’re definitely five different characters in a novel,’ says CDOT spokeswoman

Silverton resident Jeremy Ham drives over two of Southwest Colorado’s five major mountain passes nearly every day – rain, shine, snow or sleet.

He comes to Durango early in the morning for work and returns at night. The 100-mile round trip commute takes him over Molas and Coal Bank passes.

While some drivers fight traffic, Ham enjoys the open road and breathtaking views of the San Juan Mountains.

“My favorite is in the winter,” he said. “A lot of times after a big storm, I’ll be out before the plows, and that’s when it’s really cool, when you get 2½ to 3 feet of fresh powder. The plows haven’t hit it yet, and you’re just following the posts on the side of the road trying to find your way through.”

Drivers make their way up U.S. Highway 550 on Friday, Nov. 17, 2023, where the road begins to get a little narrower coming down the north side of Molas Pass with steep drop-offs toward Silverton. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The five major mountain passes of Southwest Colorado – Coal Bank, Molas, Red Mountain, Wolf Creek and Lizard Head – mean different things to different people.

Drivers like Ham enjoy them any time of the year. Others will pick and choose which passes they are willing to drive based on conditions. And some people would prefer never having to drive any of the passes.

Those who are intimately familiar with the five mountain passes say each has its own personality. Some are more chill, others are more squirrely.

“They’re definitely five different characters in a novel,” said Lisa Schwantes, spokeswoman for Colorado Department of Transportation.

Drivers make their way up U.S. Highway 550 on Friday, Nov. 17, 2023, where the road begins to get a little narrower coming down the north side of Molas Pass with steep drop-offs toward Silverton. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

While each of the passes have their own personalities, they also have much in common. They all receive considerable snowfall. They all draw leaf peepers during the fall. And they all have sections that lack guardrails.

The following are snapshots of Southwest Colorado’s five mountain passes:

Coal Bank Pass

Coal Bank Pass is loved and loathed by local bicyclists for its steep 6-mile climb, especially during the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic.

About Coal Bank Pass

Location: U.S. Highway 550, north of Purgatory Resort

Milemarkers: 51.3 to 58.1 (6.8 miles)

Max elevation: 10,640

Maximum grade: 6.5%

Average daily vehicle trips: 2,000

First paved: 1950s

Avalanche paths: 12

Coal Bank Pass is one of the steepest passes in Southwest Colorado, especially for drivers heading off the top of the pass as they go southbound. That is why CDOT has built a runaway truck ramp at milepost 52.5, about 1½ miles from the Cascade Creek turn.

“It’s kind of a straightaway and a little wider – seems like people get a lot more speed going,” said Maintenance Area Supervisor Vance Kelso.

The Cascade Creek turn at the base of the pass on the south end is “notorious” for truck and vehicle crashes, he said.

Two onion trucks spilled their loads within six weeks of each other in 2021 on Coal Bank Pass, just one example of how common truck crashes can occur on the steep, narrow road.

Anecdotally, the top of Coal Bank Pass gets more snow than Molas and Red Mountain passes, Kelso said.

The curve over Lime Creek between Coal Bank and Molas Passes on U.S. Highway 550, seen here on Friday, Nov. 17, 2023, has caused several semis to go off the cliff and ending up down in the creek. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

“It’ll be the early snowmaker, too,” he said. “We’ll get those Santa Fe flows coming up and they’ll dump most of it between Coal Bank and the bowl going around to Wolf Creek.”

CDOT spokeswoman Adair Christensen said some drivers may have a false sense of security on Coal Bank Pass in the winter because it is close to Durango and Purgatory Resort. But avalanche paths can easily cut off access, including for drivers trying to return to Durango.

As winter nears, she urged high-country travelers to be prepared for the elements, which could include a night stuck in a vehicle.

“Even though you’re close to the amenities in Durango, avalanches could occur in that area,” she said.

Molas Pass

Molas Pass has a fairly gentle climb for northbound travelers, but after summiting at 10,910 feet in elevation, the road becomes steep, narrow and winding as it descends into Silverton.

About Molas Pass

Location: U.S. Highway 550, south of Silverton

Milemarkers: 56 to 70.1 (14.1 miles)

Max elevation: 10,910

Maximum grade: 7%

Average daily vehicle trips: 2,000

First paved: 1950s

Avalanche paths: 14

It also has stunning views. Drivers frequently stop on the north side of the pass to snap pictures of Silverton, which can look like a small village tucked into the Swiss Alps.

The summit and southside of the pass draw backcountry users – those who want to access Andrews Lake, the Colorado Trail, Little Molas Lake, snowmobile terrain and cross-country ski trails.

Similar to the south side of Coal Bank Pass, Molas Pass has a hairpin turn, called Big Bend, on the north side of the pass near Silverton.

“We’ve had a lot of trucks and cars come off that a little too hot,” said CDOT’s Clint Rhoades, first-level supervisor for the mountain passes in Southwest Colorado. “A lot of people rubberneck and (are) not paying attention to their speed, and then come into that corner and can’t hold it.”

Red Mountain Pass

Red Mountain Pass is one of the most dramatic mountain passes in all of Colorado, Schwantes said. It is dramatic in its views, the huge red cliff vistas and the amount of snow it receives, she said.

About Red Mountain Pass

Location: U.S. Highway 550, northwest of Silverton

Milemarkers: 71.8 to 92.9 (21.1 miles)

Max elevation: 11,018

Maximum grade: 7%

Average daily vehicle trips: 2,000

First paved: 1950s (1883 was first wagon road; 1921 was first widening and gravel surfacing)

Avalanche paths: 62

The natural beauty and narrow roads tend to make drivers go a little slower, Schwantes said. Similar passes with wider roads – like Molas, Lizard Head and Wolf Creek – give drivers a false sense of security, she said. Drivers pick up more speed and can get caught off guard by a hairpin turn.

“It’s the intimidation factor of it,” Rhoades said. “It definitely keeps people more alert. I don’t think we have as many accidents on Red Mountain as we do Molas and Coal Bank just because of that. People are more aware and more intimidated by Red Mountain.”

He said he enjoys the wildlife on Red Mountain, including bear, moose, elk, deer and lynx.

Cpl. Derek Linnell with the Ouray County Sheriff’s Office has responded to numerous vehicles that plunged 400 to 600 feet of the side of Red Mountain Pass.

He doesn’t make it a habit to patrol the pass in adverse weather conditions, but there have been many times when he drives the pass in blizzard conditions looking for any signs of vehicles that have gone off the edge.

It is mostly tire tracks – sometimes skid marks, sometimes snow tracks – that alert him to trouble.

“We do have vehicles that are down there that have been down there since the ’80s, ’90s – maybe even prior to that,” he said.

Some people get stranded overnight, stuck between two avalanche slides, he said.

Linnell said CDOT is good about closing Red Mountain when conditions become too hairy, but he’s also had truck drivers who take it upon themselves to open the gate and try to drive the pass and get stuck.

About once or twice a year, the driver of a recreational vehicle or other large vehicle will become too terrified to complete the pass, Linnell said. In those cases, he sometimes drives the vehicle off the pass for them.

He has also seen semitrailer drivers get too scared, leave their truck on the pass and walk away from the job, he said.

Signs on Molas Pass on U.S. Highway 550, seen here on Friday, Nov. 17, 2023, remind truck drivers that a steep grade lies ahead. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The section of road between Silverton and Ouray is called the Million Dollar Highway. There are theories as to how it got its name. One of the popular beliefs is that it cost about a million dollars per mile to build – back when a million dollars per mile was considered expensive.

“I like to believe it’s because of the million-dollar views,” Schwantes said.

Rhoades said Red Mountain Pass is one of the most beautiful, but it also gives road crews the most headaches. It is narrow, has the most active avalanche paths and it is being used more and more by recreationists.

“It’s been a pain in the butt dealing with the parking and skiers and all that,” he said.

In addition to the parking problems, it is an inconvenience to have more people drive the pass and using the parking areas while snow-removal crews are trying to work, he said.

CDOT’s first priority is to clear the asphalt. The second priority is to open parking areas. But after a fresh snowfall, outdoor enthusiasts rush to Red Mountain Pass to park and score first turns.

“They get in our way, and they don’t give us time to clear out areas to make it safe for them to park,” Rhoades said. “So they just need to be a little more patient with us.”

It can also cause problems when people park in avalanche zones, which can disrupt avalanche-control operations, he said.

Red Mountain, perhaps more than any other mountain pass in Southwest Colorado, seems to be missing a key safety feature: guardrails. Rhoades said that is largely by design.

“With no guardrails, (it) makes it a lot easier to push the snow all the way off,” he said.

Cpl. Lance Sanchez with the Colorado State Patrol, talks with truckers at the top of Wolf Creek Pass. October was Beware of the Wolf campaign to educate drivers on the mountains. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
Wolf Creek Pass

Wolf Creek Pass is wider than the other mountain passes in Southwest Colorado and receives more vehicle trips per day. Some sections have three or four lanes, which gives drivers a false sense of security, Christensen said.

About Wolf Creek Pass

Location: U.S. Highway 160, northeast of Pagosa Springs

Milemarkers: 157.4 to 176 (18.6 miles)

Max elevation: 10,850

Maximum grade: 6.8%

Average daily vehicle trips: 3,700

First paved: 1916

Avalanche paths: 14

Truckers often have to jump on their brakes as they approach a turn with a snowshed on the east side of the pass or a tight turn on the west side of the pass.

The hairpin turn on the west side surprises truck drivers if they’re not in a low enough gear, as well as out-of-state drivers if they don’t have appropriate tires for the snow.

Wolf Creek Pass, located on U.S. Highway 160, is part of a federally funded scenic byway, which gives it some extra publicity nationwide. It also has a famous trucking song by C W McCall named in its honor: “Wolf Creek Pass, way up on the great divide, truckin’ on down the other side,” the chorus goes.

The song mentions the deadly hairpin turn with the following lyrics: “Well, from there on down, it just wasn’t real pretty, it was hairpin county, and switchback city.”

Davy Pitcher, owner of Wolf Creek Ski Area, which sits atop the mountain pass, said the pass has a “terrible record” with the trucking world.

“There’s been a lot of fatalities on the overlook on the switchback and far more accidents than you can shake a stick at with trucking,” he said.

CDOT is continually spending money and doing public education campaigns about the dangers of high speed and trucking crashes on Wolf Creek, he said. The public education campaign is called Beware of the Wolf. The agency has also installed weight-sensing pads that activate flashing signs when a semi travels over them, Pitcher said.

“It still seems like it’s every two or three weeks that a semi’s on its side down there on that switchback,” he said.

When a truck does make the plunge, it is typically the responsibility of trucking companies and their insurance companies to recover wreckage from Forest Service lands.

“Obviously, if it’s happening within our right of way, that gets taken care of fairly easily,” Schwantes said. “But if it’s on that forest land and down a ravine and down a cliff, it takes a bit longer for that to happen.”

Drivers are almost certain to notice the huge swathes of spruce tree beetle kill on Wolf Creek Pass. The beetle kill became obvious about a decade ago.

“For me, emotionally, it was very hard to see the spruce beetle come through in the manner that they did,” Pitcher said.

He considered the trees “immortal,” and it was “heart-wrenching” to see their demise. But within a short amount of time, Engelmann spruce and fir trees have taken off in growth.

“It’s a changing environment,” Pitcher said.

Wolf Creek Pass also has a permanently installed remote-controlled avalanche system just east of the scenic overlook.

Lizard Head Pass

Lizard Head Pass tends to be the most gradual and relaxing for drivers of the five major mountain passes in Southwest Colorado.

About Lizard Head Pass

Location: Colorado Highway 145, between Dolores and San Miguel counties

Milemarkers: 53.5 to 68.9 (15.4 miles)

Max elevation: 10,222

Maximum grade: 4.1%

Average daily vehicle trips: 2,300

First paved: N/A

Avalanche paths: 47

It has three lanes in some parts, which allow for passing, and the maximum road grade is only 4%, compared to about 7% on the other mountain passes.

Because of its calming nature, some drivers rely on it to navigate the small towns of Southwest Colorado, even if it means adding time to their commute. Still, it is a mountain pass that receives significant winter weather, Christensen said.

Lizard Head Pass also has a permanently installed remote-controlled avalanche system just north of Rico.

During a major storm, Lizard Head receives higher priority for snowplow operations than Red Mountain Pass, Kelso said. That is to provide an open route via the entire San Juan Skyway, even if it means a daylong trek for someone in Silverton who needs to go to Ouray.

“In our rural part of the state, down in our Four Corners of the world, our alternate routes are pretty limited,” Schwantes said.


An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect location of the permanently installed avalanche system on Wolf Creek Pass.

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