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Old 06-17-2016, 11:00 PM   #1
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Colorado Mountain Passes... not for the weak hearted!

Colorado contains many mountain passes. SIXTY that are listed as the Best of the Best known.

This week Thalweg and ourselves sweated out Monarch Pass at 11,312 feet, Cottonwood Pass at 12,126 and a number of other steep Passes, not listed among the sixty most convenient, although may... be but I want to avoid anyways. This is an exhilarating experience for anyone daring gravity from winning the complicated Brake and Transmission Tango.

Imagine towing a trailer up and down any of these and not having a second... or even the first thought of... what in the hell am I doing here?

Many... many other less developed and improved, unpaved passes, that exist for those who... well, for those who want to 'ski the highest mountain passes of North America on... wheels'. These beckon the best of the best drivers among the Airstream membership as a dare to attempt each and every Pass, if you feel it possible. Without trailer in tow... of course.

Monarch Pass at 11,312 feet... NEVER do I want to repeat that experience, again. Well, maybe once more... but NEVER a third time, for sure.

Independence Pass at 12,095 feet... and without any way to escape from Aspen to the Pass upon a narrow paved road whose entry says "NO Trailers"... but NO turnaround to be found. You have to pray there is no traffic coming down into Aspen until you are parked at the pass summit pullout parking lot. You have been... warned. The guard rails are just for looks... you and your Airstream exceed any possible comfort of being safely stuck to the pavement with vertical drops without a bottom!

You have to be a 'master of towing' using the brakes of tow vehicle and trailer... and manually operating the automatic transmission to prevent a hair raising ride and beat the Grim Reaper of taking your soul in the process!

Anyone have experience among Colorado's finest mountain passes?

Of all... Independence Pass towing a trailer and Monarch Pass towing a trailer are well worth the experience only if you have the experience and courage to attempt any of these, at least ONCE, in one lifetime.

Human Bean
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Old 06-17-2016, 11:23 PM   #2
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Well, Ray, I will avoid cottonwood and independence passes, thank you very much. You will keep that feat all for yourself. I have towed a 15 ft TaB trailer on San Juan skyway/hwy 550 from Durango to Montrose in 2013 on Molas and red mountain passes and then, camped at 10,500 ft at Silverton. Never again! I' ve towed the TaB and then the 16 ft Bambi...last summer 2015 to Durango and back to Denver twice last year across Wolfe creek, now, I've added Monarch pass (twice) to my pass list. I've learned to use engine and transmission to assist with braking. It's definitely a skill one needs to negotiate those high passes. I learn more every trip...and will keep on learning as I go. It's just what we do!

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Old 06-17-2016, 11:37 PM   #3
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Came through Denver on I-70 heading to Vegas, that was an experience, not only the steep grades but the 18 wheelers flying by on a 6% downhill run.......white knuckle but I survived thanks to downshifting the gears in conjunction with hill assist on my RAM.
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Old 06-20-2016, 10:21 PM   #4
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I've driven the passes you mention and find them quite comfortable to drive although Independence Pass needs to be driven early morning (5/6 am) to avoid leaving Aspen and encountering oncoming traffic. Today we have a 2016 GMC 2500HD TV and a 2015 25FB Serenity. As you mention there are no exits to turn around or navigate on parts of this pass (single lane in certain parts). Cottonwood Pass is a great shortcut to the Taylor resv/canyon with only the summit portion on the west side of the pass being a little tight for the first 1/2 mile or so. Otherwise its just another dirt road on the west side with a bump or ten thousand. Monarch Pass is well traveled and is a great paved highway along with Wolf Creek Pass, Molas Pass and the many others I've traveled and are mentioned. My least favorite pass is I-70 going east or west. It plain sucks! I drove last week twice (to and from Glenwood) on off hours and cannot stand the crazy insane out of control, no clue drivers I encounter on this stretch of road. Enjoy Colorado and be safe!

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Be well, fish on!

Allan & Vicki
Larkspur, CO

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Old 06-21-2016, 04:38 AM   #5
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I would add Slumgullen pass going north between Creed and Lake City as a cheap thrill.
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Old 06-21-2016, 05:42 AM   #6
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Aw, dang... you guys are scaring me to death! We're headed to Colorado in a few weeks... it will be our first 'mountain trip' with o ur 23D (we've made many trips with our Casita 17 footer). Decades of non-towing experience in the mountains, but this larger trailer is a whole new ballgame.
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Old 06-21-2016, 06:31 AM   #7
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Low gears before you start down, slow slow slow, do not let those who want to go faster cause you to speed up, let them go around or butt out. Trailer mode on transmission. Tap brakes if necessary, but not for too long, but will not need to brake if going slow enough. I am not aware of anyone who has ever had major problems going too slow, because of their speed, only those goof balls who want to speed around them.
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Old 06-21-2016, 06:49 AM   #8
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I have driven most of the Colorado passes towing either my Airstream or an earlier SOB. Independence just has to be planned ahead as stated by Bigcgar. I also agree about the statement going through the Eisenhower/Johnson tunnel, the road is good its just the other idiots and morons trying to break Mach that are the biggest problems. I don't give it a second thought going over any of the Colorado passes, just take it easy going down and ignore but be aware of the idiots and morons.

Please enjoy the Colorado Rockies with all of its beauty and splendor.
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Old 06-21-2016, 08:19 AM   #9
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Living in the mountains of Colorado means you have to eventually dispel your mountain fears and learn to drive some high passes to get where you need to go. I have to transverse Wolf Creek and the million dollar highway several times a year just to go east or north. There are some great places in the high country and it means many mountain passes to get there, but it's worth it. Actually I have found some of the passes in the CA High Sierras to be even scarier than Colorado's.

Get a copy of the Mountain Directory (East or West) and research where you are going and google the passes you question. I don't like passes that narrow down to 1 lane or a lane and a half (Independence or Douglas) because you don't know what you will meet around that blind corner traveling too fast to stop.
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Old 06-21-2016, 08:27 AM   #10
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Originally Posted by mojo View Post

Get a copy of the Mountain Directory (East or West) and research where you are going and google the passes you question. ...
I have the iPhone app for the Mountain Directory (East and West) which is useful, but has a very poor user interface.

I have downloaded some POI files from the POI-Factory, but the points do not include detailed information about the descent.

Does anyone know of a complete GPX file (free or purchase) that includes all of the steep grades for import into either Road Trip Planner software or a GPS?
Ray B.

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Old 06-21-2016, 08:52 AM   #11
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I followed Ray over Monarch a few days ago. It was a real struggle for my old truck. First or second gear the entire way up, with high RMP's. It just kept going up, and up, and up. I was waiting for something to break the entire time. Fortunately we made it to the top without incident. If I had a newer, more powerful truck I'd have been less concerned. I was more confident going down, but I've been driving mountain roads for many years. Second gear pretty much the entire way down, requiring little braking. Ray's concern is very real though. I saw many vehicles showing red brake lights almost continuously. Not surprisingly, most of them had license plates from lower and flatter states. Clearly, these passes are doable, however, there are many drivers out there that simply don't know how to do them safely.

I live at the foot of the Bighorn mountains in Wyoming. Every single day during tourist season I smell badly burnt brakes coming off of the hill. There are a couple of auto shops in town that do a good business in the summer repairing them. It is evident to me that many people need more education on mountain driving before venturing into them. This is not the same as a trip down the Florida Keys. We can hope that the lack of that education will only cost of the the operator some brake repairs and not something more tragic.
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Old 06-21-2016, 10:28 AM   #12
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I've lived in Colorado almost my whole life, and spend alot of time in the mountains. Agree with several other posts that I-70 can be the worst simply because of other drivers, not the road itself. Too much speed. Don't let others push you. I'm going through the Eisenhower tunnel and Vail Pass again this weekend. Use my engine, and some manual use of the trailer brake.
Independence Pass has TOTAL length restriction of 35 ft. Doubt many of us are under that so don't even attempt. I won't. You can get to Aspen other ways.

In two weeks I'm making my first trip over Berthoud Pass (11,307) with a trailer, even though I've driven it a thousand times skiing. Many hairpins.

The Fruita entrance to Colorado National Monument - no chickens here.
Just me, but I don't think Monarch Pass is that bad.

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Old 06-21-2016, 10:42 AM   #13
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What a bunch of horse pucky. Yes there are steep grades, they have those all over the country. Yes you can break the law and drive over Independence Pass ala Ray, but they love giving out revenue raising notes on the Aspen side. Know your limitations and the limitations of your rig. Bald tires, bad brakes, worn out transmission use the gift of common sense.

But for the most of us the roads here are no more challenging than anyplace else. Enjoy the ride and the scenery
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Old 06-21-2016, 10:59 AM   #14
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We crossed Wolf Creek Pass headed west in early May then Monarch headed east in early June. Both are steep... and long. I earn respect for my Tundra going up and both the Tundra and Airstream coming down. The Equal-I-zer did its job, too. My wife didn't appreciate the lack of guardrails on her side heading up into Monarch... I assured her that if the lack of guardrails became an issue for her, it would be one for me too. In both cases, managing speed before it becomes an issue is key. Slow going up and slow going down works for me.

Two other towing challenges to add to Ray's list:

1. US16 up and over the Big Horn National Forest in Wyoming. The eastern side includes a 9% grade and has the only runaway truck ramp I've ever seen with a downhill slope on a grade that steep. They must has repurposed arresting gear from an aircraft carrier for the nets in that thing.

2. Utah 46/Colorado 90 from La Sal, Utah to Bedrock, Colorado. I tried to confirm my memory which is that this is another 9% grade. I couldn't find that in any official source. In any case it has a switchback turn with a 20 MPH limit on a very steep downhill section eastbound near Paradox Valley.

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