Independance Pass - Top of The Rockies Scenic By-Way

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June 13th 2013
Published: June 13th 2013
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The length of the byway is 115 miles long and takes approximately three hours to drive, although you may allow more time for stops and photo opportunities.

The entire route is a paved, two lane highway with access to a vast network of trails and recreational activities including hiking, climbing, wildlife viewing, mountain biking, horseback riding, off-road 4WD touring,and ATVs. The numerous lakes and streams offer some of the finest trout fishing in the country, kayaking, canoeing or just relaxing by the shores. You may start the drive from Copper Mountain on Highway 91, from Leadville at the juncture of Highways 91 and 24, from Minturn on Highway 24 or from Aspen on Highway 82. The Colorado Scenic and Historic Byways Commission has adopted the Columbine, the Colorado state flower, as its logo. As you tour the byway, the Columbine signs will identify your route.
1.Don’t forget you camera breath taking view and abundant wildlife life all along the byway. Please pull of the road safely when taking pictures.

2.Plan your “peak” touring times around peak commuting times. Many locals of the communities on the Top of the Rockies Scenic and Historic Byway work in outlying resorts and commute during the early morning and evening hours.

3. Don’t forget to carry water with you; Altitude sickness is sometimes a problem at these heights. Symptoms include nausea, lightheadedness, headaches and shortness of breath. In case of emergency, call 911. Drinking lots of water may prevent Altitude sickness.

4.Carry out what you carry in, and stay on marked paths.

5.Remember to keep your distance from wildlife. They are not pets and are not friendly and may carry ticks and fleas that can carry diseases. Please don’t feed the wildlife. It is harmful to the birds and other animals.

6.Take advantage of travel information, and when traveling in the winter it may be good to call road condition for road closure and condition information.

7.Beware of changing weather conditions. You may wish to bring along warm clothes and rain gear as it is cooler at higher elevations, thunderstorms, or snow showers, are not uncommon, even in the summer months.
8.Independence Pass is a seasonal road typically open from Memorial Day to November 1st. Road closure is based on snow conditions. Please check the Colorado Department of Transportation link to determine if the road is open or closed in May/June and October/November.

The Top of the Rockies National Scenic and Historic Byway was shaped by the stories of the men and women who shaped the American West . .. .>.....

When Abe Lee discovered gold in 1860 in California Gulch the entire face of Colorado changed. The Boom began. Towns were established, the railway arrived and populations swelled. But, it wasn’t until the late 1870’s when the silver boom began that the Leadville fortunes were made by the likes of Horace Tabor, David May, J.J. Brown and his wife, Margaret also known as Molly Brown, the Guggenheims and the Boettcher family. With money came development and culture. Leadville was a wild mining town with a thriving red light district, countless saloons and a rough and rowdy history to match. This history is preserved in Leadville’s National Historic District which encompasses seventy square blocks of Victorian architecture as well as the adjoining twenty square mile Leadville mining district.

In 1887, with the arrival of the Rio Grande Railroad, Minturn was established. A hub for both railroad workers and miners seeking their fortunes in the nearby Gilman Mine, Minturn is one of two original historic towns located in eastern Eagle County. Established in 1879, Red Cliff is the oldest incorporated town in Eagle County and was home to hundreds of miners during the mining boom. Named for the spectacular quartzite rock that surrounds this mountain community, many of the town’s original structures remain intact, leaving visitors with a glimpse of life in the historic mining West.

The repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1893 effectively wiped out much of the wealth enjoyed by so many in the communities along the Top of the Rockies Byway route. With mining booms and busts, other industries had to flourish in order for these communities to continue to thrive. Now, tourism and recreation are the largest segments of the economy along the Byway.

The next significant event in reshaping this region came in 1942. During World War II, the 10th Mountain Division at Camp Hale began training on skis. Camp Hale was home to 16,000 troops in the 1940s. These “Soldiers of the Summit” fought valiantly in the Italian campaign and led the pursuit of the Germans toward the Austrian border. The men of the 10th Mountain Division were responsible, more than any other group, for the creation of the American Ski Industry.

The Independence Pass corridor

The Independence Pass corridor was probably once a summer hunting ground for primitive man in prehistoric times. In more recent times, the Ute Indian people inhabited the Roaring Fork Valley and undoubtedly roamed the Pass and surrounding peaks and valleys in the course of their seasonal travels and hunting trips. Such sites as the Ice Caves near the Grottoes recreation site may even as served as primitive refrigerators for the preservation of food. As white settlers began moving into the Colorado Mountains during the mid-1800's the Utes were gradually forced onto reservations and were finally removed from the western slope in the 1880's after the Meeker Massacre.

In 1873 the Roaring Fork Valley was first surveyed by the Hayden Geological Survey and was praised in the Survey Report for its great mineral potential. In 1879 the first prospectors crossed into the valley from the Leadville area. At that time, Independence Pass was called Hunter's Pass, and it quickly became the main gateway into the Roaring Fork Valley from the more developed mining towns east of the Continental Divide.

Silver mining took hold in the Aspen area and quickly grew into a major industry in Aspen. During these early years, the downvalley routes into the Roaring Fork were guarded both by the sheer walls of Glenwood Canyon and by the ongoing presence of the Ute Indians, whose territory included the Roaring Fork valley as far upriver as the Carbondale and Mount Sopris areas. Thus the upper Roaring Fork was settled from the top down, by settlers who struggled over the high passes of the Continental Divide.

The first real road over Independence Pass was built in 1880--81 by B. Clark Wheeler, one of Aspen's most prominent boosters and businessmen. Using hand tools and manual labor, Wheeler's crews established a toll road along the route of the trail that had been used by mule trains over the years.

There were several bridges along the 43 miles between Aspen and Twin Lakes on the east side of the Pass, and it was at these bridges where the tolls (25 cents for horses, 50 cents for wagons) were collected. During the mid-1880's the toll road was heavily used year-round, as it was virtually the only way in and out of the valley for ore, supplies and people.

The road over the Pass was studded with rest stops and inns in locations such as Weller and Lost Man, where Forest Service campgrounds now welcome summer travelers. The remains of some of these facilities, and the old road platform, are still visible in many locations along the corridor. In some locations, such as at the Grottoes, the old road has been incorporated into the trail system for recreational use.

In 1887 and 1888, railroads finally reached Aspen from downriver. The narrow-gauge Colorado Midland Railroad came into the roaring Fork via the Frying Pan Valley and Hagerman Pass while the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad came up the river from Glenwood Springs. The advent of the railroads spelled the end for Wheeler's toll road, which gradually fell into disuse and neglect.

The Town of Independence, about three miles west of the summit of the Pass, was founded, according to legend, by Billy Belden, one of the early prospectors in the area, who supposedly struck a rich vein of silver on the Pass on July 4, 1879. The camp that had been known as Farwell, Chipeta, Sparkhill and by other names, took the name of Independence, lending that name to the Pass that had been known as Hunter's.

By 1880, a town had grown up and the local mill processed over $100,000 worth of ore in the year that it operated. By 1882, the ore was played out and the bustling settlement, whose population peaked at 1,000, shrank to the ghost town that intrigues travelers today. The last year-round resident of Independence moved out around 1912. Satellite settlements, such as Ruby in the Lincoln Creek drainage, likewise rose and fell with the miner's fortunes.

Another interesting element of the history of the Independence Pass corridor is the water diversion structures that can be seen both along the Roaring Fork and the Lincoln Creek drainages. These are part of the Twin Lakes water project, that captures water in the upper Roaring Fork and diverts it, through a complex plumbing system, to the eastern slope. The project was first conceived as a means of providing irrigation water to sugar beet farmers east of Pueblo, but in the years since the water has been redirected to support municipal and industrial uses. Water from the Lost Man Creek drainage is collected at Lost Man Reservoir, where it is directed under the mountains to Grizzly Reservoir in the Lincoln Creek drainage. Grizzly Reservoir water is then sent under the Continental Divide to the Lake Fork drainage, which feeds Twin Lakes and points east.

Today the scars of the old toll road can still be discerned crisscrossing the uppermost slopes of the Pass, and tumbledown mining structures can still be found along the road and in the woods. Fortunately, the works of man have not spoiled the countryside along the Pass corridor, much of which is now protected by Federal Wilderness designation.

Additional photos below
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13th June 2013

Another great blog
Independence pass is so lovely. Your photos are fantastic.

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