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St. Elmo 2004

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As part of a tour of the St. Elmo area, Fred, Scott, Michael, and some of Fred's Puebo pals met in St. Elmo, ran Grizzly Lake, nearby, and toured the historic area.

[The trail story as it appeared in Full Size Jeep Magazine]

Four-wheeling in my FSJ is all about adventure and exploration. Given the choice IÕd rather explore old mining towns than crawl up a pile of rocks any day. But sometimes you donÕt have to choose because you get to do a little of both. I found this out in 2004 when I visited the ghost town of St. Elmo in Colorado, USA not once, but twice.

Founded in October of 1880, the town originally known as Forest City was renamed to St. Elmo when the postal service complained because a town in California was also called Forest City. In its heyday the population peaked to about 2000 and by this time the town had shed its originally high moral character in favor of dance halls, saloons, and bawdy houses. It also featured several merchandise stores, hotels, restaurants, and sawmills. Over a century later, descendents of the townÕs elite Stark family own the area and have chosen to preserve but not restore the old buildings. As a result the town is awash with historic character. One of the buildings serves as a general store with modern provisions as well as some odd curiosities and souvenirs while other edifices together make up one of the best preserved examples of an old west mining town left standing.

The whole area was alive with mining activity and while some old townsites have forever vanished into history, the mountains are still dotted with old mines and crumbling shacks. The old Allie Belle mine sits cantilevered over the dirt road that passes under it, looking like it is about to fall at any minute. In fact it has been this way for decades but even so you might choose to exert a little bit of extra pressure on the skinny pedal as you drive by. And speaking of driving, quite a few historic sites are accessible in your FSJ. The byways range from dirt roads to challenging 4x4 trails.

On our first trip, several members from the Colorado Full Size Jeep Association met up to check out the area. Fred Greenwood volunteered to show us around and we couldnÕt have had a better guide as he has wheeled and camped in the area many times over the last couple decades. We decided to start with the hardest trail in the area, which leads to Grizzly Lake. Special permission is required from the land owner to use this trail. The first obstacle follows a stream crossing and features a rough, rocky ledge, which Fred and I were able to climb since we each have lifts, larger tires, and rear lockers. Our pal Scott with his stock 1974 Wagoneer got stuck had to be strapped up. FredÕs son-in-law, Shane, made it up ok in his stock Bronco.

The trail doesnÕt get any easier. We left the Bronco at the next rocky obstacle and proceeded onward. The hardest section was an extremely steep climb on a shelf road made up of loose rocks that required just the right amount of throttle to progress. The entire way up, my Jeep was bouncing, spinning tires, and then surging forward only inches at a time as it slowly scratched and clawed its way along. ScottÕs rig had a much harder time, so we decided to strap him up. Troubled Child, my 1986 Grand Wagoneer, summoned its strength and agility and slowly brought both rigs safely to the top.

After following tight trails for some time, we were at the lake eating lunch and enjoying the scenery. The way back was not much easier. At one obstacle I found myself tipping on two opposite wheels, a rather unsettling experience. At the original obstacle, Scott got hung up again and when we finished the trail, he discovered a bent transmission crossmember, crunched gas tank skid plate, and other dings. Ouch. We had just enough time for a quick look at Allie Belle and then headed out, while Fred and friends stayed behind to camp.

A few weeks later, the next trip to St. Elmo was far less eventful. I loved the area so much the first time I had to show my wife and two friends. On tap for the day was my favorite kind of wheeling: a nice, easy, laid back day on the trail soaking up the gorgeous alpine scenery and exploring new ground. Well, actually it turns out this was my third trip to St. Elmo, the first being about 5 years ago with another set of friends. I knew that general store looked familiar. This time around we explored the old town a little more and then headed up to Hancock Pass on the way to Tomichi Pass after a brief stop at the impressive Allie Belle mine area. The road up to Hancock Pass is not particularly challenging, but is a bit rough and narrow. The views are more than worth the time and effort to reach them. Along the way we spotted what initially looked like a large wild dog, but which turned out to be a yellow-bellied marmot, a cat-sized, curious rodent that frequents alpine meadows.  From the top of the pass we could see the valley ahead and the very steep climb up the other side. Off we went.

Incidentally, I recommend wheeling with at least two vehicles at any time in case you break down or get stuck. I carry many spare parts which lowers the risk. The populated trail was well within the capabilities of my lifted, locked Jeep and it helps that the engine, transmission, and axles have been rebuilt recently. I also carry survival gear and mobile amateur radios for emergencies. Still, thereÕs greater peace of mind knowing you have another vehicle along to help.

Once we made our way over Tomichi Pass and back down the other side, we found ourselves driving through the woods soon passing through what was once Tomichi but is now just invisible foundations overgrown with grass. Before long we ran across the Tomichi graveyard with a few dozen tombstones dating from the late 1800Õs, a reminder of times long past. Finally we reached the main highway and had a long drive back home, giving us plenty of time to talk about our memories of beautiful mountain shapes and colors, the historic sights, and unparalleled Jeeping adventures that are really only this good in a Full Size Jeep.

The historic ghost town of St. Elmo

Fred leads us up Grizzly Lake trail

Michael attempts the first Grizzly Lake obstacle

Scott gives Grizzly a whirl

Slow going through the trees

Steep, loose climb is a blast!

Stopping for lunch at the lake


Negotiating the way back down

The famous Allie Belle Mine near St. Elmo

One of many old mining buildings in the area

Old mining shack

Approaching Hancock Pass

The marmot

Hancock Pass towards Tomichi Pass

Now they tell us!

Near the old Tomichi town site