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Trip Report: Colorado's San Juan Mountains in a Toyota Land Cruiser

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author photo by Chris O'Neill November 2017

Over Labor Day weekend, my girlfriend and I took a trip to one of our favorite places -- southwestern Colorado's San Juan Mountains.

If you haven't heard of the San Jaun Mountain range, you aren't alone. It's a remote part of the Rocky Mountains located in southwestern Colorado, about 6 hours from either Denver, Salt Lake or Albuquerque. It's a hidden destination, but there's much to do in the area, as it's near three of the state's four national parks -- Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Mesa Verde and Great Sand Dunes -- and it's home to some of the best mountain towns in the west.

San Juan Mountains Toyota Land Cruiser Trip

Telluride sits on the western side of the range at a whopping 8,750 feet and is bordered on three sides by massive 13,000-foot mountain peaks. Although Telluride is now a small, wealthy, remote ski town, Butch Cassidy robbed a bank there once. To get a feel for the town's "challenging" existence, just google a picture of "Telluride Airport."

On the eastern side of the San Juans sits Ouray (pronounced "your-ray") and Silverton, two sleepy mining towns, both with populations of under 1,000. Ouray is one of the most beautiful small towns in America -- and it's known as the "Switzerland of America," as it's bordered by steep mountains. Silverton, just down the road, is Old West through and through, complete with wooden boardwalks and a functioning steam locomotive.

And yes, each town has a brewery.

As the crow flies, the three towns are all within 12 miles of one another -- but thanks to the epic mountain range between them, a highway drive all the way from Silverton to Telluride takes 2 hours.

That is, of course, unless you own a Toyota Land Cruiser and can just drive over the mountains themselves.

This is precisely what we had set out to do.

The first mountain trail was Ophir Pass, which starts just south of Telluride and leads over into Silverton. Peaking at 11,879ft, the trail is mostly gravel and requires a slow climb -- most of the weekend was spent in 4WD low. The overall highlight was the color-streaked mountainsides, not to mention a classic 80-Series Land Cruiser we passed along the way. Ultimately though, Ophir Pass turned out to be a mere warm-up for what lay ahead.

After strolling around Silverton for a bit, we headed north toward Ouray along the famed "Million Dollar Highway." The verdict is out on where the highway got its name, but my guess is from the millions upon millions of dollars in life insurance claims it's been responsible for over the years. Think steep cliffs, narrow lanes, and nonexistent guard rails. But also some of the most amazing mountain views imaginable.

We took a detour onto a forest road running parallel to the highway, and this is where things started to go awry. Essentially, one of my Land Cruiser's brakes fell apart. At 11,000 feet in elevation. In the middle of nowhere. Eventually, we patched together a solution that got us to an auto parts store an hour away, where we solved the problem altogether. Needless to say, this derailed our plans a little, and we ended up pitching our tent on a gravel road that night. Things could only get better from here though, right?

Damn right they did.

The next morning we refueled ourselves and the Land Cruiser in Ouray and set off for Yankee Boy Basin, which did not disappoint. It's basically half a mountain pass -- but instead of leading over the mountain, the trail just climbs and climbs until it reaches a massive bowl at 12,500 feet.

From Yankee Boy, we headed off for the big one -- Imogene Pass -- which turned out to be one of the most physically and mentally challenging experiences of my life.

Starting on the eastern side of the mountain range, we traversed about 7 miles of the 18-mile trail before making camp at the base of a waterfall in the late afternoon.

Off Roading in the Toyota Land Cruiser

I woke up the next morning thinking, 'OK, things should be pretty easy from here'. They weren't (there's a theme developing). After I needed both four-low and my rear differential locker to make it up a rocky, narrow ridge, the next few miles consisted of slow rolling across rocks and streams. Then we really started to climb. I felt the elevation setting in at around 11,000 feet. I dealt with it by keeping both hands on the wheel, remaining conscious of my breathing and avoiding conversation beyond the bare minimum. It can sneak up on you at first, but after a while you get used to it.

Once we crossed the threshold into "extreme" elevation, though, we came across the photo op. It looks a lot scarier than it is; just remember the brake is on the left. Or, wait, is it the right? Now I'm confused.

Once I backed down from my rocky perch, we continued to the summit. By now, we were well above the tree line, so it was all rocks and avalanche flows from here. The summit is a surreal place. It's you, an "Elevation 13,114 feet" sign, an old radio tower building and a rusty mailbox covered in stickers and bullet holes.

Ghost Town

The way down into Telluride is yet a whole other experience. You pass through Tomboy Ghost Town, a deserted early 1900s gold mining settlement. At this point, I expected things to finally get a little more reasonable -- but, of course, they didn't. The road down into Telluride is long and narrow -- and in most places, it's single-lane, with certain death just a few feet over -- the kind where you tuck your side-view mirrors in. I've never been happier to be back on pavement than when we finally rolled into Telluride an hour later.

Chris O'Neill grew up in the rust belt and now lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. He managed to work in the auto industry for a while without once crashing a corporate fleet vehicle. On Instagram, he is the @MountainWestCarSpotter.

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Used 2005 Toyota Land Cruiser
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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Trip Report: Colorado's San Juan Mountains in a Toyota Land Cruiser - Autotrader