Winding roads of Independence Pass worth the trip
Vail, CO Colorado
INDEPENDENCE PASS, Colorado – At the tundra-covered summit of Independence Pass, located in the Sawatch Mountains, there us an unobstructed, nearly 360-degree view of distant peaks.
At 12,095 feet, this pass is the highest in Colorado. Runoff on the west side of the pass drains to the Roaring Fork River, while the east side empties into the North Fork of Lake Creek. The scenic drive along CO 82 from Twin Lakes to Aspen via Independence Pass is well worth the time.
Because of heavy snow, the pass is closed in the winter, but it is usually open by Memorial Day each year. The narrow road and tight turns restrict travel to vehicles less than 35 feet in length.
On the summit, a short trail winds down to an overlook of the valley to the south. Walking this trail offers a great opportunity to get a first-hand view of alpine tundra. A number of tundra ponds can be found on the summit. The careful observer will see thousands of insect larvae in these ponds during the warmest summer months.
Road construction and the numerous visitors to the summit have damaged much of this ecosystem. Tundra damage can take hundreds of years to recover.
An Aspen-based foundation, The Independence Pass Foundation, works with local, state, and federal agencies on projects to maintain and restore the pass. Their restoration work can be seen particularly on the west side of the pass.
In 1881 B. Clark Wheeler built a toll road, named Hunter’s Pass, over Independence Pass as a supply route and a way to export silver ore mined in the area. This became a preferred route because it allowed travelers to avoid the Ute Indians in the Roaring Fork Valley and Mount Sopris area. In addition, by crossing at Independence Pass, settlers avoided having to negotiate the narrow gorge of Glenwood Canyon north of Aspen.
When the gold mill in Independence closed in 1883, use of this toll road fizzled out. Four years later, railroads arrived in Aspen from the north and the road became defunct. The remains of the old road can still be found along the valley walls – one section is visible off the west side of the summit of the pass.
West of the summit and at the foot of the pass is the ghost town of Independence. The site, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, rests at 10,900 feet.
One of the early prospectors in the area, Billy Belden, founded this mining town in 1879. It was known by many names in its short history. Locals knew it as Farwell, Sparkill, Mount Hope, Chipeta, and Mammoth City until the name Independence (the name of a nearby mine staked on July 4, 1879) finally stuck.
A major winter storm in 1899 completely cut off supplies to Independence and drove more than 100 miners out of town. They fashioned skis from the wood of their homes to make their way to Aspen. The last year-round resident of Independence moved out around 1912.
On the east side of the pass the traveler passes Twin Lakes and two towns, Twin Lakes Village and Interlaken. Twin Lakes Village, first settled in 1865, was once called Dayton. It was added to the National Historic Register in the 1970s.
In 1885, with tourism developing quickly in Colorado, the Interlaken Resort, in the town of Interlaken, was completed on the southern shore of the eastern Twin Lake. Like many resorts, it catered to the rich and famous, boasting a fancy restaurant and dance pavilion.
Tourists could travel across the lake on a small steamboat named the Idlewild. Operating at 9,000 feet, it may have been the highest steamboat in the world. A five-horsepower engine powered the 50-passenger, double-decked steamboat. Today, you can find the ruins of the historic Interlaken Resort by following the Colorado Trail along the south side of the lake from the trailhead that begins at its dam.
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.
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