Vail Daily column: Shrine Pass: A ride through history
July 14, 2014
The gently rolling 10.8 miles of Shrine Pass Road are graced daily by bikers, hikers, Jeepers, four-wheelers and hunters. Even in the winter, its rolling hills and dales are dotted daily by cross country skiers, hikers on snowshoe and snowmobilers. Shrine Pass is a favorite among locals and visitors alike, with its rushing creeks, luxurious carpets of wildflowers and miles of side roads that can take you to some of the highest ridges with the most magnificent views.
My friends and family who live in Red Cliff consider Shrine Pass to be an alternate route home from Denver. Shortcutting the main highway from Vail Pass that takes you through Vail, Minturn, and then up Battle Mountain with a more direct, but slightly bumpy dirt road, Shrine Pass Road brings a nice respite after the crowds and traffic of a day in the big city. But believe it or not, before U.S. Highway 6 was built in 1940, Shrine Pass was the main route west from Denver to Glenwood Springs.
Shrine Pass gets its name from the views that it offers of Holy Cross, and there are stories of pilgrims and faith healers that traveled over Shrine Pass in hopes of catching a glimpse of the elusive and revered Holy Cross Mountain. In the early 1920s, a series of faith healings and miracle cure pilgrimages were made to the mountain itself, or to places like Shrine Pass and Notch Mountain where the faithful could pray while viewing the famed holy mountain. At one point, a religious healer from Denver encouraged people too sick to make the journey themselves to mail their handkerchiefs to him. For a nominal fee, he would bless them upon the summit and return them to speed their healing. These and other pilgrims are largely responsible for the construction in 1924 of the cabin atop Notch Mountain and the Tigiwon Community House in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Before the Pilgrims
But before the pilgrims came, Shrine Pass was the place where timber was cut and milled to support Colorado's rapidly growing mines. The many side roads that today provide access to high country for recreational enthusiasts were once major highways for bringing down timbers to support the construction of roads and internal framework for new mining claims in and around Red Cliff, Gold Park and Leadville. Wearyman Road, which provides access from Shrine Pass to Ptarmigan Ridge and eventually Camp Hale, was initially a logging road providing timber to the Warren Brothers & Robinson mill near Red Cliff. The remains of another early mill that are easily visible from the main road are known locally as Benson's Sawmill.
Summer access to Shrine Pass is free, and the road's many treasures can be accessed from the top of Vail Pass or from the town of Red Cliff. Starting from Vail Pass, the first 2.3 miles are uphill, cresting in a gradual flat that turns into a steady decline for the remaining 8.5 miles or so. The road is usually passable with a 2WD vehicle, although the gates often open before all the snow has been cleared from the road, so beware if you are heading out in early springtime. In the Jeeping world, there is a certain status in being the first to come over Shrine despite the lingering snowbanks, and each year, I hear tales of those who got stuck trying.
Shrine Pass was named for its proximity to one of Colorado's treasured and slightly mysterious 14ers, but it has a rich history all its own. There are countless stories ground into its washboard curves and hills, each making its mark on the land and contributing to the rich cultural history of this place.
Jaymee Squires is the director of graduate programs at Walking Mountains Science Center. Special thanks to her husband and father-in-law for sharing some of the local lore of Shrine Pass and for helping her to appreciate the magic of dirt roads.