Moving through Colorado’s moose capital
Cameron Pass, located about 55 miles west of Fort Collins on CO 14, is the northern-most pass on the Colorado State Highway map.
Total traffic over this pass does not rival that over other passes in the state because it does not connect any major cities. No ski areas or tourist destinations exist in the region, and the area around the pass is dominated by Colorado State Forest and Roosevelt National Forest lands.
Several tribes of American Indians can claim to be the first human inhabitants of the Cameron Pass area. Though Ute, Crow, and Sioux bands all roamed through the area, the Arapaho and Cheyenne dominated this part of Colorado in the 19th century.
With the discovery of silver just southwest of Cameron Pass in the 1870s, Teller City, a mining camp, became the first major town in the area and in the Never Summer mountain range. A 100-mile toll road, completed in 1882 by the Cache La Poudre and North Park Toll Road Company, served as the first road over the pass, connecting Fort Collins to Teller.
Road improvements and construction continued, and by 1927 an automobile could travel from Fort Collins to Walden via Cameron Pass. Convict labor provided much of the construction.
The highway over Cameron Pass saw new improvements in the 1970s when developers proposed a plan to build a ski area on the pass. This plan was in response to a state bid to host the Winter Olympics in Colorado. Environmentalists and a statewide vote derailed the Olympic bid, and the ski area was never built. The road, however, was paved as part of the original development plan.
The Nokhu Crags, located just outside the northwest corner of Rocky Mountain National Park, are visible to the west of Cameron Pass. The Arapaho Indians named them nea ha-noXhu, meaning eagle’s nest, but the locals later shortened the name to Nokhu.
The crags began to form millions of years ago when shale layers were exposed to extreme heat and compression. These forces converted the shale into hornfels, a hard, erosion-resistant rock that tends to be brittle and easily broken.
When plate tectonic activity formed the Rocky Mountains, the hornfels lifted up along with the shale that surrounded it. Erosion eventually wore down the shale, leaving the dramatic mountain and rock formations seen from Colorado State Highway 14.
The forests around Cameron Pass provided much of the timber that the Transcontinental Railroad used for railroad ties. The men who made these ties were called tie hacks.
A really good tie hack could cut 30 to 40 ties a day, all by hand. Typical pay was 10 cents per tie. Tie hacks worked throughout the year, enduring freezing winters and difficult living conditions.
Every spring from 1870 to 1910, a tie drive was implemented to transport the ties from the forests near the pass to the town of La Porte, about 65 miles to the east. The tie hacks stacked the ties along the Cache La Poudre River until spring thaw came. Then they threw them in and let them float downstream to La Porte.
Inevitably, the ties would jam, requiring the drivers to dislodge them, sometimes with dynamite, to keep them moving. A tie drive was cold, dangerous work.
Widespread harvesting of the forests for ties almost destroyed them. However, thanks to the restoration work of Colorado State University in Fort Collins and the U.S. Forest Service, today you can hardly tell where the cutting occurred when traveling over Cameron Pass.
In 1876, when Colorado was granted statehood, the federal government granted in trust to the new state approximately 4.5 million acres of land for the purpose of generating revenues to support state schools. Because this land was divided into small, separated sections, many exchanges occurred to create larger contiguous blocks of land.
In 1938, a land exchange between the Colorado State Board of Land Commissioners and the U.S. Forest Service created the 70,980-acre parcel of land that the Colorado Legislature designated as the Colorado State Forest.
The Legislature required that the Colorado State Land Board “provide for and extend the practice of … forestry” in the state forest. The land board assumed responsibility for managing the grazing, recreation and forestry on state forest land.
Moose are not considered indigenous to Colorado. In 1978, the Colorado Division of Wildlife introduced 12 moose into North Park, about 15 miles west of Cameron Pass. These were the first moose ever introduced into Colorado.
It is estimated that there are now more than 600 moose in North Park, and the number in the state may be in the thousands. As evidence of the success of the introductions, the state legislature designated the town of Walden the “Moose Viewing Capital of Colorado” in 1995.
Rick Spitzer is the author of “Colorado Mountain Passes: the States Most Accessible High Country Roadways,” which is for sale at The Bookworm of Edwards for $21.95. Parts of the book will be serialized in the Vail Daily every Sunday this summer.