“Pack water and a camera and fasten your seatbelt”
You don’t necessarily need a jeep to go over some of the mountain passes, though many call it “off-roading”. High alpine environments are fragile, and leaving the road destroys plants, habitats, and can cause erosion. Besides the fact that we should always “stay the trail”, it’s also illegal to off-road. So, the proper way to navigate those passes is to stay on the road, and the proper term is real “four-by-fouring”.
Four-by-fouring is an adventure in the Telluride area, but there are some safety precautions to remember. Check the weather. Snow can fall any time of year, and you don’t want to change the danger of sliding off a steep cliff, getting stuck, or losing track of the road. Some local gas stations, outdoor sports stores, or 4×4 rental companies keep status reports of the local passes.
Don’t ride the brakes. You really need to use gears when driving downhill. Hot brakes fail, and if even if they don’t, you don’t want to ride them all the way down and add extra wear and tear on a vehicle. Take it slow. Other 4x4s, as well as bikers, could potentially be on the same road and coming from the opposite direction. Remember, the person climbing always has the right-of-way. Those making a descent are responsible for stopping and potentially backing up.
One of the best passes to cross in the Telluride area is Ophir Pass. For a scenic drive out of town and past the Opus Hut, start in Ophir, Colorado just up Highway 145 from Telluride and slowly drive east out of the town. You’ll go up and over at an elevation of 11,789 feet. This is one of the easiest passes to navigate, but with no shortage of beauty. Summer and fall are ideal times to make this trip, as the ground is dryer, and the temperatures are friendlier. This will take you to Highway 550, just outside of Silverton, near Red Mountain pass. Check the topo map for details.
Imogene Pass is another must-drive for 4×4 adventuring. Starting from North Oak Street in Telluride, four-by-fours can make a right onto the dirt Tomboy Road that goes up past the Judd Weibe Trail. You’ll leave Telluride and find the old Town of Tomboy, where only ghosts and memories now live. You’ll never believe a blowing alley or a YMCA used to be housed there. Follow that road up to an elevation of 13,114, one of the highest passes in the Telluride area. After winding down, you’ll end up in Ouray, Colorado where you can enjoy the hot springs, or see the historic Beaumont Hotel and, then, there is the Last Dollar Pass. This is one that locals rely on in mudslide season. From Telluride, 4x4s take Last Dollar Road. You’ll enjoy sweeping views of the canyon and see the Telluride Regional Airport. You’ll drive through forest and through incredible high-altitude ranches and probably see big deer, as well as elk. There is an option to turn left, which will take you down into Sawpit, but staying right and on the Last Dollar will land you just short of Dallas Divide. You’ll end up close to Ridgway, Colorado and bypass much of Highway 145.
If making these passing makes you nervous, you’ve got another option: Hire a driver. Many guided jeep tours are based out of Telluride. You can take in the views and let someone else sweat the switchbacks. See tellurideoffroad.com.