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Old 04-19-2012, 11:43 AM   #1
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Thumbs up Terrific Mountain Pass Information

I'm planning a long trip to from Southern California to Michigan and back this summer. I want to avoid really tough mountain passes - or at least know what I'm getting into ahead of time. I looked online for help.

I found a terrific pair of books that describe 700 mountain passes in the US - which are most of the ones an Airstreamer would be likely to encounter. I hope I can identify them by name as I have no interest in them other than the excellent information they contain.

Written by a trucker, they describe each pass from the top down, as it's the braking a trucker is concerned about - big rigs can pull almost any grade. I'm more concerned about going uphill (not that downhill isn't important!). The grade percents, their length and the presence of slow switchbacks are all described. Very, very useful!

They are innocuously titled "Mountain Directory West (or East) for Truckers, RV and Motorhome Drivers", and are published by R&R Publishing, Baldwin City, KS, but you can Google them by name for purchase information. About $15 per book.

The trailer tower's bibles! Don
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Old 04-19-2012, 12:38 PM   #2
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Thanks for sharing.. I suspect many of have our "Never Again!" passes that we tried once and logged in Lesson Learned folder... The up can be bad, but so can the down.. For us, it was US Hwy 14 in northern Wyoming east of Greybull and "Granite Pass"...Yikes... The only positive was that faces of oncoming motorhome drivers looked worse than ours...
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Old 04-19-2012, 01:11 PM   #3
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There seem to be very different viewpoints on mountain passes. If you live where there are none or very few, or they aren't very high and you stay on expressways, big ones, long ones, winding ones, are something of a challenge. The first time I crossed the Rockies on US 30 (now I-80), I was surprised by how high the passes were and how long it was up and how long it was down. This was in 1959.

Now that I have lived in Colorado for 34 years, they are just part of traveling. The only things that bother me are blizzards and trucks. Actually, I'm used to blizzards too, but when on a busy highway (I-70 in Colorado) accidents frequently happen and close roads, so I avoid I-70 if I can. Trucks tend to roll downhill (sometimes too fast) and go slowly uphill, so we pass each other over and over. They do that to save fuel and because they may not be able to go uphill fast. I can maintain a steady speed though uphill I try to keep to 50-55.

The best way to deal with passes is to not speed uphill—it uses lots and lots of fuel and if your cooling system is not designed for it, may overheat. Going downhill means downshifting to take advantage of engine braking. Modern automatic transmissions will downshift automatically downhill, but you can manually downshift more and we do. The rule is to go downhill in the same gear you went uphill. But also very important is to make sure your brakes are in good condition. Trailer brakes are not great brakes, so keeping them in good condition and adjusting them frequently is necessary. Self adjusting brakes have been available for a few years and I have replaced all of ours with them. Most tow vehicles now have long lasting disc brakes, but they will not last as long if you tow a lot. If the rotors get too hot they can warp, so downshifting will not only be safer, but cost less money in the long run.

Some people do not like switchbacks on narrow mountain roads. Again, I'm used to it, but not everyone is. We have traveled on roads people post warnings about on the Forum without any problems. Just keep an eye (or two) on your mirrors to make sure the trailer is not going too close to the edge, the guardrail, trees and rocks. On really tight curves you may have to go over the centerline just like big trucks do, or stop because someone is coming the other way. One highway that is a test is the Pacific Coast Highway. High crowns tilt the trailer toward rocks on the east side of the road; tight curves, narrow bridges also test you. If you see big trucks on the road, you know you can fit.

We've done all this with a 25' trailer, so it can be done. The books surely help tell you what to expect, but how to drive them is more important.

Gene
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Old 04-19-2012, 01:15 PM   #4
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Is this the right location or is it further east?
Greybull, Big Horn, Wyoming 82426 - Google Maps

I don't see any smoke coming off the brakes on this one as it would have the engine retarder on it.

Looks like a long grade on this side.

Dave

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Thanks for sharing.. I suspect many of have our "Never Again!" passes that we tried once and logged in Lesson Learned folder... The up can be bad, but so can the down.. For us, it was US Hwy 14 in northern Wyoming east of Greybull and "Granite Pass"...Yikes... The only positive was that faces of oncoming motorhome drivers looked worse than ours...
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Old 04-19-2012, 01:58 PM   #5
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Is this the right location or is it further east?
Greybull, Big Horn, Wyoming 82426 - Google Maps

I don't see any smoke coming off the brakes on this one as it would have the engine retarder on it.

Looks like a long grade on this side.

Dave
That one is a long climb, 6 to 8% I think for about 12 miles. We did it last year and it climbs to about 9666 ft.
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We didn't have any problems, just took it slow in the low gears. We don't have a retarder.

We do have the Mountain Directory. It doesn't make the grade any easier but can be helpful if you have a choice of routes. I think the pass north of the one you linked is called "Oh My God" in the book. The steepest pass we encountered on out trip was 13% for 3 km up and 3 km down in Nova Scotia.

When I was working we were near a 32% grade about 3 blocks long. It was a great road test for the fire trucks.

Cheers, Dan
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Old 04-19-2012, 05:32 PM   #6
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Pulled our 26' Argosy over Hwy 14 between Cody and Grey Bull Wy. Last June, I considered it to be a good hi way. Of course I lived in Colorado for 38 years. Used to drive over Loveland Pass before I70 and the Eisenhower Tunnel existed. Drove US 30 every night between Cheyenne and Laramie, WY. US. 550 between Silverton and Ouray, CO is one you would want to avoid if you didn't like Grey Bull pass. The same goes for Lizard Head pass in SW Colorado.
I would not recommend trying the Bear Tooth Hwy between Cody, WY and Red Lodge, MT if you are not an experienced mountain driver.
I-80 is more friendly than I-70 for going over the continental divide. I-40 is better yet, but would be way out of the way.
Use to drive McClure pass before it was paved. Crawford Gene probably knows where it is. Use to camp on the summit.
I am sure this is way too much info, but good memories.
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Old 04-19-2012, 06:35 PM   #7
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We plan to go to Silverton next month sometime. Will go from Durango side. From 1 to 10 how would you rate Coalbank and Molas pass for difficulty? I am not so interested in going up as coming down.
Years ago we drove this rout but were only pulling a 19' Open Road. I don't recall that the grades were that difficult.
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Old 04-19-2012, 07:12 PM   #8
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I believe the Bear Tooth Hwy has limits for RV's. Best to check.

I am very familiar with McClure Pass. This is one of the easy ones (in my opinion). The north side is pretty steep. Both sides have areas where you have to watch for rocks. After the pass on the south side, lots of rocks fall along Paonia Res. so you have to watch for them. The ground is very unstable there and sometimes boulders the size of small cars fall down and close the road. Most times we go to Denver, we go that way.

ScrapIrony-2 lives in Silverton and he has a pretty long Airstream MH, so the passes aren't that bad. I haven't been that way in a long time, but I remember there's a long grade down into Silverton from the south and if you continue north on US 550, Red Mountain Pass has a lot of tight switchbacks. The alternate route is west of there over Lizard Head Pass and we travel that way at least once or twice a year.

I-80 in Wyo. more or less follows the Oregon Trail. This was one way west because South Pass is not much of a pass. You have to, as TG says, go far south if you want flat land driving to I-40 in NM.

If you go across the Rockies, it is pretty hard to avoid some passes and winding roads. I-40 is probably the best way to avoid mountains because the Rockies end just north of there in NM, but you'll go through mountains in Ariz., but no really hugh passes. If you take I-80 you will have to cross the Sierra Nevada (not Donner Pass, but really near it). There are mountains in Utah before I-70 ends at I-15. I-90 means mountains in the Idaho panhandle and the Cascades in Wash. Or you can go through the Panama Canal.

For us, there's just about no way we can leave or come back without traveling over passes or winding roads. In fall and spring we watch the weather because snow can happen anytime, even in summer. So checking the weather on a computer or using a weather radio helps. I'll take the passes anytime since tornados and hurricanes and (usually) earthquakes don't happen here. I-70 west may be the easiest way to escape except for the mountains in Utah and dust storms. Since you end up in Las Vegas, that may be dangerous too for other reasons.

Gene
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Old 04-20-2012, 03:57 AM   #9
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Hi Gene - not surprised to find you here, too!

I looked for and found the book after cutting my teeth on what I thought would be an easy pull for my new rig. Our first trip was to Death Valley from Santa Barbara. The route there, via Victorville and Barstow and entering the park from the east, has no major grades. Going home I decided to drive down Panamint Valley which requires traveling over 4956' Towne Pass. I thought "no sweat, not even 5000 feet". I forgot, of course, that I was starting from sea level. It's only about 20 miles from the base to the top going west, with 13 miles of 6-8% grade before the summit. I made it OK, with a couple of drops into first gear. At the summit I found it was lucky that I hadn't come in from the west - the 6 miles before the crest are a steady 9%! It was a very slow descent in first gear. Fortunately also, the weather was about 65.

There are two passes in Wyoming over the Bighorns west of Buffalo:

The first is Granite, on Hwy 14. The summit is 9033' and has some lengthy stretches of 5-7% grades in both directions if you stay on Hwy 14. However, you can go west from Burgess Junction on Hwy 14A, where you will be faced with "Oh My God Hill", which will test the mettle of almost any RV. It is (according to the book) 10 miles of 10% followed by 4 miles of 8%. I'm avoiding that!

I'm electing to scale the second, Powder River Pas on Hwy 16, which tops out at 9666', so there will be some heavy breathing at the top. But the ascent and descent are more civilized than Granite, with 5-7% grades the norm and no excessively long distances at the steeper inclines.

I'm planning to do Beartooth and Dead Indian Passes in one day - but without the Airstream.

I'm no stranger to uphill climbs as I towed a 25' boat & trailer that weighed around 5000 lb up to Tahoe from the Bay Area numerous times. Although I-80 to and over Donner Summit is pretty tame, I did the towing for the first couple of years with a V-6 Explorer. Never a whimper, even in 95 heat.

Happy climbing! Don
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Old 04-20-2012, 04:06 AM   #10
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PS My "new rig" was my "new" 2007 25' Airstream CCD pulled by my faithful but aging 2003 Expedition with 150,000 miles. I will have to break it to the old girl that I've taken on a fresher, if almost identical, face in the form of a new 2011 model that is still so low on miles I can't hook her up to tow. Winetripper
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Old 04-20-2012, 05:26 AM   #11
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I like the Panama Canal idea. I figure a cargo ship or barge to Calif. from Tampa. I wonder if they would let me stay in the AS on the trip? LOL. jim
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Old 04-20-2012, 07:53 AM   #12
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Pretty much the same here. The one I almost regret going over is Lukachukai Pass, sometimes called Buffalo Pass, depending on the map you look at. It's on BIA 13 shortly after it passes from NM into AZ. It does have warning signs, which I ignored. Once you make it to the top (if you make it to the top), the views back over to Shiprock are magnificent. Best advice: A strong motor to make it to the top and new brakes to make it down the other side.


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Old 04-20-2012, 08:56 AM   #13
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TG
We plan to go to Silverton next month sometime. Will go from Durango side. From 1 to 10 how would you rate Coalbank and Molas pass for difficulty? I am not so interested in going up as coming down.
Years ago we drove this rout but were only pulling a 19' Open Road. I don't recall that the grades were that difficult.
Not a big deal a 4-5...however, going north on 550 over Red Mountain can be white knuckle. Especially when you pull over at a wide spot only to find that it is the memorial to snow plow drivers that didn't make it. The only pass in SW Colorado that I try to avoid is Slumgullian (sp?) between Creede and Lake City.
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Old 04-20-2012, 09:09 AM   #14
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I believe the memorials you mention are between Silverton and Ouray on Hwy 550. Most if not all deaths were caused by the plow trucks being caught in an avalanche. The road is commonly called "The million dollar highway" because someone said there was that much good in the road bed.
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