trail story as it appeared in Full
Size Jeep Magazine]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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