Chapter 8 : Wolf Creek Pass

The original version of this article was published in The Legend-News of 2000 July 17 and 2000 July 24. Slight changes have been made, but nothing that affects the facts.

Wednesday, 2000 May 31

Prelude to Terror

We had decided to start out at 07:00, but at about 06:00 I awakened and took a stroll around the grounds of the rest area. I noticed that Alan was no longer in the shelter, but in his car. Later, he told me that the weather was fine until the temperature reached the dew point and he found his sleeping bag covered with condensation and slowly getting wet, whereupon he retired to drier surroundings. I woke him at 07:00, and we headed to Denver.

About 10 miles further west, we crossed the Central/Mountain Time Zone boundary. Our early 07:00 start suddenly became an even earlier 06:00 start.

As we entered Colorado, 45 minutes later, the change in the land was obvious. Though we’d seen hills in Iowa, and Nebraska was fairly flat, Colorado was becoming mountainous. Not too mountainous yet, but the hills were more frequent and quite a bit steeper.

Our next stop was Aurora, Colorado, a suburb of Denver. Alan had lived there for a few years and we drove around looking for familiar places. What we found were more houses and more malls, the obvious result of an expanding metropolis. Damn, I hate expanding metropoli. After a short tour of the Aurora mall and lunch at the A&W, we plotted the next leg of the trip and then headed south. Our intention was to drive to U.S. 160 at Walsenberg (there’s a bunch a’ wild women there), then head west to Durango. And we were doing fine until we approached Colorado Springs, where we had to stop-and-go through several miles of backed-up traffic on I-25. It seemed that, according to the chatter on the CB, that we had decided to drive through Colorado Springs at the same time that the U.S. Air Force Academy’s graduation ceremony was ending. sigh

But after about an hour of creeping along, the traffic started moving steadily and we were southbound. We passed Pueblo, turned right at Walsenburg, climbed the North La Veta Pass (only 9413 feet in altitude) and then made steady progress through a relatively flat area of Colorado. At about half past 4 o’clock we reached South Fork, where the road turned to the southwest. We were about to begin our first really big climb over the Rockies, through forty-seven miles a’ hell called Wolf Creek Pass.

Up and Around and Down and Around and Around and Down

U.S. 160 turned southwest at South Fork, Colorado, and we did the same. Within a few minutes we were obviously entering the mountains, because walls of rock were rising up on one side or the other. The road was two lanes and twisty, and gradually going uphill.

Now the uphill side of the road to Wolf Creek Pass isn’t that bad, at least if you’re in a car. In a truck, it would be a struggle. In a car it’s still trying, but turn off your air conditioner to give the engine a break and you’ll be able to travel at the speed limit, which occasionally — but rarely — reaches 45 miles per hour.

Alan was huffing and puffing, though; well, his car was, anyway. The Metro didn’t accelerate quickly on flat roads, and on the uphills it was slowing down on the steep grades, dropping to a speed of 15 m.p.h. on the steeper sections. Nevertheless we stayed together, crawling along in the truck lane when there was one available. From the bottom to the top of the pass was about 24 miles, and we managed the journey in a little more than half an hour. We probably could have done it more quickly, but tourists we were, and we stopped to take a few pictures.

Roadside marker about the Rio Grande headwaters
From small streams up here, the Rio Grande is formed.

When someone mentions the Rio Grande River — usually mispronouncing it as “ree-oh grand” instead of the correct “ree-oh gron-day” — what do you think of? Texans chasing horse rustlers across a not-too-wide waterway? Well, Texas isn’t the only state with the Rio Grande. Yes, the Rio Grande. The river actually begins in southwest Colorado, then travels south across New Mexico before heading to the Gulf of Mexico. And as you head up Wolf Creek Pass, you’re getting closer to the headwaters of that river, which begins in the Rio Grande National Forest.

The not-yet-mighty Rio Grande
The not-yet-mighty Rio Grande

In the song “Aurora Borealis”, Bill wrote about “Lost Lake, Colorado”. Last year the members of the Other Wild Places mailing list debated the location of this lake. They didn’t reach any conclusion though, because according to the maps there are at least thirty “Lost Lakes” in Colorado and the song didn’t give enough information as to the location of the lake of which Bill spoke.

“The” Lost Lake of “Aurora Borealis”
The Lost Lake?

See that small body of water at the center of the map? Well, you may speculate all that you want, but Alan and I didn’t know about it on Wednesday; we did find out on Thursday afternoon, but that’s tomorrow’s story.

Anyway, we finally made it to the top, up there on The Great Divide. 10,850 feet above sea level. And here, on the 31st of May, there’s snow. Yeah, off the road a bit and near the trees, piles of that fluffy white stuff were still around. We reached the summit around 17:00. and the temperature was in the high 50s, normal for then. But the air at night is still cold, and the protection of the trees keeps the snow around until summer finally reaches the heights.

The summit of Wolf Creek Pass on 31 May 2000.
Which way does it flow? On top of the Great Divide at Wolf Creek Pass.

Spoiler Alert! If you don't want to hear the truth about the downhill side of Wolf Creek Pass, then you'd better bail out now, and don’t read the next three paragraphs. Just skip past the next picture before you start reading again.

Still there? Okay, you asked for it.

There is no tunnel on the downhill side of Wolf Creek Pass between the summit and Pagosa Springs. There’s no tunnel on the uphill side between South Fork and the summit, either. [As of 2000. Things have changed since them. — Ed.] The road does twist and turn, and if you’ve an automatic transmission in your vehicle you may find yourself riding the brakes often. But don’t bother trying to find the tunnel, ’cause it ain’t there. You could try to count the phone poles, if you can spot them. If you do, and if you estimate that you're travelling at 22,000 telephones an hour, be very careful because you’d be travelling faster than escape velocity. Yep, one wrong turn and you’ll be the next module on the International Space Station.

More bad news: there is no feed store in downtown Pagosa Springs. So if you’re comin’ down hot and you need something to slow you down, you'd better aim for one of the other stores.

Okay, the spoilers are over.

A scenic overlook, south of the summit
My, ain’t it purdy up here. The view from a scenic overlook south of the summit.

Alan and I safely reached the bottom, then continued west to a campground about 30 miles east of Durango and a mile off the road. Alan broke out the MREs (mine claimed to be some sort of beefsteak), then like the night before, we settled down in our cars. Tomorrow we were going to Durango, see The Silverton, and Red Mountain Pass, and meet the man who inspired us: Bill Fries.

Next: We’re Not Worthy!, or How We Broke C.W.’s Bed