Black Bear Pass 4X4 Road
We were spending a wonderful week enjoying the astounding beauty, fresh air and proximity to the clouds during the third week of July 2005. I had organized the trip as a family reunion and chance for us to all get out for some 4X4 exploration of America's Switzerland, the incomparable San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. On the morning of the 22nd we departed our base camp at the beautiful amphitheater campground perched high on the cliffs above Ouray and headed south on US 550 for a run over the infamous Black Bear Pass.
This pass has over the years acquired a reputation as the most terrifying 4X4 road in North America. This reputation is based largely on the fact that the road descends down the near vertical face of Ingram Peak via a series of very tight switchbacks, past Ingram Falls and Colorado's Second highest waterfall, Bridal Veil Falls. The road then continues to drop down into the valley of the San Miguel River and to the booming suburb of Hollywood known as Telluride.
My brother had not yet arrived and was going to be driving a large Ford F350 Club Cab and was not going to be able to attempt Black Bear due to his long wheelbase so we were going to be making this run solo with my trail tested, stock Suburban. I had never been all the way over Black Bear but had made it into Ingram Basin about 21 years prior with my Mom, Dad and my new wife who was 7 month pregnant with our first child. That was a week of wheelin that she will always remember! I wanted to try the pass myself now but my vehicle was a 1999 Chevrolet 4x4 Suburban and I knew that the wheel base was longer than what was recommended for the tight switchbacks of this extreme road. I had been over Imogene Pass pulling a trailer a year earlier in the Suburban & was confident in my ability to drive the road but remained unsure about how the size of the vehicle would impact my attempt. I made several phone calls to tour guides & Jeep rental companies in Silverton & Ouray & all told me not to try the pass in a Suburban... all except one... a tour operator in Ouray. He said "Let me put it this way, I have 8 drivers including myself that drive these road around here for a living and of these 8 there are only 2 that would attempt to take a Suburban over Black Bear and I'm not one of them." I said "So your telling me it can be done?" He said "Yes but you better damn well know what you are doing!" We were a go!
En route to the turnoff for the Bear at the top of Red Mountain Pass we paused at Bear Creek Falls to enjoy the view for a while. This was the location of Otto Mears toll gate on his toll road between Ironton and Ouray. At this point there was no way for freighters or travelers to get around his toll gate so the toll had to be paid. Proceeding on we paused on one of the many switchbacks of Red Mountain Pass to look at the structures of the Idarado Mine that has tunnels winding all through the mountains between there and Telluride. (See the history section of the description of Black Bear) Arriving at the top of Red Mountain Pass we turned west onto Black Bear Pass Road and began our adventure! My wife, Jill had a few nervous moments
I had my own nervous moments as the fear of the unknown almost had me turning around at the point of no return, but we did fine! The attached photos document our successful run over this great Colorado 4X4 road.