Bighorn Medicine Wheel in Wyoming

In this post, I discuss an ancient medicine wheel in the Bighorns!

 

There is a prehistoric Medicine Wheel hidden in the northern, Bighorn mountains.  It was built by the ancient ancestors of today’s American Indian tribes.  More than 80 tribes claim the wheel in their oral traditions so it can’t be attributed to any one group or culture, though it’s, obviously, a very sacred site.  

What does the Bighorn Medicine Wheel look like?

This is one of the largest, stone medicine wheels in North America (there are at least 150 spread throughout the continent).  It’s constructed with a center cairn with spokes emanating from it to an outer circle that connects six, smaller cairns that appear to be strategically placed.  

Archeologists aren’t sure of the wheel’s exact age, most estimates date it back at least 800 years, but it could be far older.  Archaeological evidence shows human habitation as far back as 12,000 years in this area!  

The ranger we spoke with stated the six rock cairns that dot the outer portion of the circle are believed to have a celestial purpose, but the exact function remains a mystery–it is thought that they may have been used during vision quests.  The last time the six cairns matched up with celestial markers was at least as far back as the 1700s!

Medicine Wheels are Sacred Sites

Religious ceremonies are still held at the wheel on a regular basis as many tribal members make religious pilgrimages to the site.  Some of the ceremonies involve large groups, while others include only a few individuals–two, small, private ceremonies occurred while we were there.  Anyone with American Indian heritage can participate in a ceremony.  

It’s always enthralling for me to observe religious practices that I’m not familiar with.  I’m fascinated by the emotions you see play out on the faces of the participants, and how descriptive their movements can be.  I find their actions evoke emotions within me as well.  You can actually feel the peace and tranquility emanating from them as they dance, pray, or worship in their own way.  

A tour of the wheel may be delayed if a ceremony is occurring, though they usually don’t last longer than 30 minutes, so please be patient and respectful during this time of worship.  Numerous religious offerings are tied to the fence that rings the site (or are placed within the wheel itself).  Please do not touch or photograph these items directly as they are sacred.  It is also requested that people not take photos or videos of the ceremonies, as they are occurring, to respect the privacy of the participants.  

Where is the Bighorn Medicine Wheel?

The wheel is located on Forest Road 12, off of US 14A, in the northern part of the Bighorns.  It’s about 20 miles from Burgess Junction (where 14A branches off from US 14 to the east) and about 30 miles from Lovell, Wyoming, to the west.

Related posts: Lake Helen, Bighorn Mountains, Wyoming; 4 Don’t Miss Sites in the Bighorn Mountains of WyomingWest Tensleep Trail, Bighorn Mountains, WyomingCamping in the Bighorns

The parking lot is a mile-and-a-half walk from the wheel on a graded, dirt road.  The hike isn’t bad, though it is uphill both ways (seriously 😝) and the altitude is over 9,000 feet, so take your time.  The site is also above tree line so bring a hat, water, and sunscreen, and be prepared for the ever-present, Wyoming wind.  It usually takes an hour or so to complete the entire route.  The site is free to visit, though donations are appreciated.  Because this is a sacred site, pets are not permitted and must be left in the parking area.

The only thing that marred the experience was the large, FAA radar placed on the adjoining peak (because none of the numerous, other peaks in the surrounding area, that were a little farther away, wouldn’t have worked?  REALLY?!)  Federal Government, do better! 😤      

Panoramic view of a rocky mountainside. Tree-covered mountains spread in the distance under a crystal clear, blue sky
The incredible view of the Bighorns from the Medicine Wheel site (to the right is the road you hike to reach the wheel)
Small stones on the ground form the center and outer portions of a wheel with stone spokes connecting them
The Medicine Wheel (you can see one of the rock cairns in the foreground to the left)

The Backroads of Wyoming

I’ve suggested before, to always take the scenic route, when time permits.  We enjoyed a good bit of that on this trip!  We started by taking Route 24, west, from where it branches off near the Island Park campground.  We then took Forest Road 408, to BLM Road 1117, on to Hyattville.  

This route is listed in the gazetteer as being Hyattville Road, but we saw NO signs reflecting this.  Similar to what we’ve found in Colorado, even though a road may be listed as a “major connector”, especially in the gazetteer, this could easily mean the road is actually dirt (sometimes wide and graded, other times little more than a narrow, two-track, high-clearance road that I wouldn’t be comfortable taking an Outback on). 😝 

We used three separate maps–the gazetteer, a Bighorns map we picked up at a local, outdoor store, and a road atlas–to gather a–somewhat accurate–estimate of the roads’ actual conditions.  Part of the difficulty was the roads traversed National Forest and BLM land in this area, and each department names and maintains their roads differently.  

Overlooking a rocky cliff with pine trees growing up from below
A view from our backroad trip

The drive was very manageable with Mr. Trekker’s Tacoma (any high-clearance, 4WD vehicle could handle it in good conditions).  There were no steep drop-offs and no, real, technical obstacles like what we’ve encountered on some of the roads in Colorado.  It was also beautiful, ranging from alpine, spruce forests and aspen groves, to dun-colored high prairies dotted with tan and red clay mounds, adorned with the varying greens of the diverse foliage.  Rock-rimmed canyons with their gaping mouths open onto prairie grasses far below, while rocky cliffs of various colors traverse throughout, all with the imposing Bighorns as a backdrop.  

Here is a video I made that showcases the beauty that is eastern Wyoming.

After leaving the Medicine Wheel, we decided we were game to try a few more back roads.  We took another scenic trip, east, on US 14A to Burgess Junction, where we picked up US 14 and took it west.  We took that road to Route 17, another “major connector”, that we then took to Alkali Road/BLM Road 1111/Route 228, back to Hyattville (this is a back way to reach the Medicine Wheel from the south).  

Again, these road numbers and names were listed on the gazetteer and one of the maps–some of these roads didn’t even appear on the Atlas–but were NOT shown on the actual road.  We just trusted the signs that directed us back to Hyattville.  You always need to be flexible when taking back roads, as you never know what kind of obstacles or conditions may cross your path.  I should also note, there was NO cell coverage in this remote location (and GPS can often be inaccurate), so maps are often times your only option–time to go “old school” folks!  

Another road we could have driven was labeled in the Gazetteer as the “Red Gulch, Alkali National Back Country Byway”.  We didn’t actually drive it this time–though we returned at a later date to check out the fossilized dinosaur footprints it leads to! 😯  

The Back Country Byway is more of a two-track, high-clearance path, at least in spots.  I certainly wouldn’t call it a “main road”.  Funnily enough, the roads we took back to Hyattville ended up being in better shape than the back road we brought out from the campground.  They were graded, gravel roads that one could expect to travel 30 – 40 mph on (if the rancher in front of us hadn’t decided a slower speed was better.  Unfortunately, on those roads, that are only about 1.5 lanes wide, passing really isn’t an option unless the person in front of you is feeling charitable and pulls over.  This man didn’t. 😜)  So, we enjoyed a leisurely, scenic stroll through the beautiful Wyoming countryside.  😁  

After reaching Hyattville we took Route R54 (another graded, well-maintained, gravel road) to Ten Sleep and then got to enjoy the, INCREDIBLY beautiful, US 16 east through Ten Sleep Canyon, back to our campground. (Did I mention, almost all of these roads, despite their varying conditions–with the exception of the highways–had the EXACT SAME indicators on the map? 😜)

Peering through the trees across tree-covered mountains out to the dry, high prairie far in the distance

The topography of Wyoming is very unique.  It’s characterized by the towering Bighorns in the northeast, to the Grand Tetons that criss-cross Yellowstone and the Rockies, in the west.  A drier, large, bluff-filled basin sits between Yellowstone and the Bighorns.  

Some parts of the state are prettier than others–while the dry, scrubland that surrounds the mountains can be pretty and green in spring, it usually turns rather drab in the later months.  The basin area is dotted with oil fields and sketchy-looking, government sites with warning signs plastered on the fences, which can be rather intimidating. 😳

Below are some more pics of our scenic drive:

Dry, green meadow with trees and rocky mountains far in the background, under a clear, blue skyWhite, rocky cliffs rise high aboveA dry, scrubland canyon with a dry, high plain in the far distanceDry, grassy meadow with dry, high plains and bluffs in the distanceDry, grassy meadow with dry, high plains and red-rock bluffs in the distanceDry, grassy meadow with tree-covered, white cliffs and dry, high plains and mountains in the backgroundDry, grassy high plains with pine-covered mountains in the background

MOOSE in the Bighorn Mountains!

Earlier that summer, we spent ten days in the Colorado high country during peak season and we didn’t see one moose.  Later that fall, we spent ten seconds in the Bighorn mountains of Wyoming (literally), and TWO moose were waiting to greet us when we arrived at our campsite!  Bighorns for the win!   

Two moose in a field as seen through the trees
Our ungulate friends (this year it was Maggie and Megan)

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m always surprised at how much this part of Wyoming reminds me of the Colorado mountains.  The scenery and critters are very similar, with the added benefit of being half as long a distance from the Black Hills and FAR less crowded than Colorado. 😉  

If you’re looking for an amazing, historical site to visit in the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming, check out the Bighorn Medicine Wheel!

Have you ever visited the prehistoric Medicine Wheel in the Bighorns?  Tell me about it in the comments! 

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Small stones on the ground form the center and outer portions of a wheel with stone spokes connecting them. Pin reads, "A Prehistoric Medicine Wheel in the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming"

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7 “Must-See” Colorado Ghost Towns

I review several ghost towns we toured around the Colorado High Country as well as our drive up Independence Pass.

 

The Trekkers LOVE visiting ghost towns! We try to include them whenever possible on our trips.  During our 2018 road trip, we got to check out several awesome ghost towns in Colorado.  

Ghost towns give you a true, visual understanding of how people lived “back in the day”.  I’m a very visual person so this helps me fully appreciate what the lives of the inhabitants of these towns must have been like.  I prefer the towns that are restored, with at least several buildings remaining that you can view.  Sometimes, however, the places that are comprised mostly of ruins allow you to use your own imagination of how they must have appeared in their heyday.

Click here for a list of ALL the ghost towns the Trekker’s have visited around the country!

Below is a list of seven ghost towns we visited in central and western Colorado…

Teller City Ghost Town: 

This was the first ghost town we visited and the one that required the most effort to access.  The townsite is near State Forest State Park, in far northern Colorado, around nine miles south of Gould, on Route 740 (Baker Pass Road).  You reach it by driving on a, somewhat rough, 4WD shelf road. (The Guide to Colorado Backroads† book that I mentioned in a previous post, rates this road as “easy”.  I would rate it as “moderate”.  A high clearance, 4WD vehicle should be all you’d need to access this site in good conditions).  

We didn’t actually complete the 4×4 road all the way to Baker Pass, though we spoke with a local who said it was worth the drive.  Alas, daylight was waning (and the mosquitoes were starting to bite!) 😝

 The way was fairly well-marked and obvious, but be watchful.  The road branched off several times and the correct route was only marked with orange, snowmobile trail markers (this is a snowmachine trail in the winter months).  

An old cabin sits amongst small trees in a grassy, open space. Tree-covered mountains are in the background.

An old, abandoned cabin without windows or a door

One plus with this site is that there’s a designated parking area and then you hike a Nature Trail loop to view the remains of the town.  Not much is left, but you could almost hear the voices of the patrons visiting the busy shops, and smell the dust kicked up by the wagons as they rolled along–what used to be–a bustling Main Street.  

At various places along the trail, markers describe the history of that home or business.  At one of the stops, the words of a young girl who came into town one winter night, via the pass, were noted.  Her description of the twinkling town lights flickering through the evening shadows was incredible.  

Below are a few more pics of the ruins at Teller City (as usual, thanks to Mr. Trekker for several of these):

The ruins of an old cabin sits amongst small trees in an open space. Tree-covered mountains are in the background.
The ruined walls of an old cabin sit in an open space. No roof or door remains. Tree-covered mountains are in the background.
The ruined walls of an old cabin sit in an open space. No roof or door remains. Tree-covered mountains are in the background.

A large, dark hole in the ground is circled by rocks and covered by a wrought-iron cage
An old well pit

Coalmont, Colorado: 

After leaving State Forest State Park, we visited Coalmont on our way to the Flattop Wilderness area.  Only the schoolhouse remains of this dusty hamlet, but from what we could see through the grime-spattered window, it appears to have been restored inside.  It would have been neat to be able to view it in more detail! 

The townsite is located off of Route 14, southwest of Walden, Colorado and can be reached via either Route 24 or Route 26 (they form a half-moon-shaped loop here).  The site is directly off of Route 26.

Old, white-boarded schoolhouse building sits in an arid landscape. Dark mountains are seen far in the background

Remains of an old ranch at Grand Mesa National Forest:

This site is located on top of the mesa, off the Land’s End Road.  It is the remains of a ranch that operated in this area long ago. Several cabins, one of which you can walk inside, and an old livestock corral, have been restored.  They can be viewed on a Nature Trail loop (it is part of a cross-country ski trail in the snowy months).  

A two-story cabin sits amongst tall, green grasses. It is a grey, cloudy day

An old, wooden fence-surround sits in a grassy, open space just outside a deep woods surrounded by tall pine trees
The old corral

Yellow wildflowers in a tall, grassy meadow. An old cabin can be seen down the hill

Pitkin Ghost Town: 

This “living” ghost town is located about 27 miles east of Gunnison Colorado.  Take US 50, east, from Gunnison, then turn left onto Route 76 in Parlin.  

As an aside, we enjoyed several good meals in Gunnison.  We had a wonderful breakfast at the W. Café, and, I can attest that the High Alpine Brewing Company makes great pizza!

Old, freshly-painted, one-story building sits on a plot in town. A statue of a prospector sits out front. The sign over the door reads, "Pitkin Assay Office"

Letters read "Pitkin Hotel" on the glass front of the building. Modern-day trucks sit on the street out front

At about the halfway point on Route 76, you will pass the “living” ghost town of Ohio City. (I call them “living” because some hearty souls are still living in both of these locations!) 

The rain was falling fairly heavily as we passed through Ohio City, so we chose not to stop, but Pitkin should definitely be on your list of places to visit!  It was one of the more “real-feel” ghost towns we toured as it wasn’t crowded with visitors, and enough of the old buildings have been restored that you felt as though you were actually walking down the town’s Main Street.  

The Silver Plume General Store, located on the east side of town at the corner of 9th and State Streets, is a great place to stop for lunch.  We certainly enjoyed our burgers from the outdoor grille! Note: Pitkin is the last chance at civilization if you’re venturing onward to Tincup, Cottonwood Pass, the Alpine Tunnel, or St. Elmo ghost town via Tincup Pass.

We didn’t make it to Tincup on this trip, being that Cottonwood Pass was closed for paving.  We are hoping to, one day, try the Tincup Pass between Tincup and St. Elmo and hike to the Alpine Tunnel.  Another journey for another time, I don’t worry that we’ll be back in Colorado soon!  😁

A two-story building with a belfry on top sits in front of a tree-covered hill. The sign under the belfry reads, "City Hall 1900"
Two old, single-story buildings with false fronts. One reads, "Pitkin Bank". A modern car sits in an alley nearby.
Two old, very small cabins sit so close they appear to connect. One sign reads, "Road Kill Cafe", the other "Stage Stop, Pitkin 1880"
An old, white-clapboard church and steeple

Below is a short video I took of the hummingbirds near the Pitkin Hotel.  I’ve always liked hummingbirds, but I’ve never heard them make this noise outside of Colorado…

St. Elmo Ghost Town: 

Everyone we talked to (and all the guide books we read) told us we HAD to visit St. Elmo, and it was, definitely, worth the visit!

The only disappointment I had with this site is that vehicles are allowed to park in the town itself.  Its spirit seems to be somewhat ruined when there’s a modern Audi parked in front of Town Hall. 😝  Also, they were restoring several buildings while we were there—which I’m sure is necessary and will be wonderful when it’s completed—but it meant that construction equipment was parked along Main Street.  *sigh*  Guess we’ll have to visit another time! 😉 

Two old, single-story buildings that look like they were once shops. One appears weathered, the other freshly-painted. A very tall, rocky mountain can be seen in the background

Two old, small, weathered cabins sit next to the dirt road

As I mentioned previously, if you’re daring, you can reach St. Elmo via Tincup Pass.  If you’re looking for a tamer route, you can do what we did and take the long way.  For this trek take Route 50 east of Gunnison through Monarch Pass (another great view) and turn north onto US 285 at Poncha Springs.  Then take Route 162 west–an out-and-back road (for the less daring among us)–toward the Mt. Princeton Hot Springs resort and on to St. Elmo.  

Near this area, there’s also a turnoff for Hagerman Pass Road to the site of another ghost town, Hancock.  From there, you can hike to the Alpine Tunnel from the east, though it sounded as though the hike is longer and the view isn’t quite as good as hiking from the west side–we chose not to complete the hike at this time due to time constraints and the monsoon-fueled thunderheads that were threatening.  

As I stated previously, since we missed a few ghostly spots this time around, we’ll be putting this area on our “must-visit” list for the future.  It’s always a shame when you visit a location and find out you HAVE to come back to explore further (that happens to us regularly on trips, especially in Colorado…have I mentioned that I enjoy vacationing in this state? 😉)

An old, wooden cabin with two chimneys. Two very tall mountains, one rocky, the other tree-covered, can be seen in the backdrop
Two old, wooden cabins sit amongst the trees
An old, one-story shop that reads, "Miners Exchange, St. Elmo General Store"

Much to the Tranquil Trekker’s dismay (we DON’T feed wildlife) one unique feature of St. Elmo is that visitors are encouraged to feed the WAY-overly-friendly and almost-aggressive local chipmunks. You can buy food for them at the General Store. 😝

The Cascades Waterfall near Buena Vista, Colorado:

After leaving Saint Elmo, on our way east, back to US 285, we stopped at The Cascades.  This is a lovely waterfall that’s just off the side of the road.  It’s a beautiful, peaceful location where you can walk right up to the base of the river that creates a picturesque waterfall in this area as it cascades across boulders–hence the name. 😉  

A creek runs over rocks and down a hill, creating a waterfall amongst the mountains and trees
Water from the creek dribbles over large boulders
A creek runs over rocks, creating a mini waterfall amongst the boulders and trees
A creek runs over rocks and down a hill, creating a waterfall amongst the mountains and trees

Gothic Ghost Town, Crested Butte, Colorado: 

I was a bit disappointed by this town.  The Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory bought the town and did an exceptional job of restoring many of the old buildings which the lab uses for its work.  This we knew going in… what I hadn’t realized is that the lab has taken over almost the entirety of the townsite.  As it’s now, mostly, all private property, it’s almost impossible to tour around and browse the various buildings. 😒

I’m glad the town is being used for something, and I’m thankful to the lab for helping to save its structures, I just wish the historical features were easier to access.  And a note to the general store in town:  you close by four? In the middle of summer?? On a Saturday???  REALLY?!  Afternoons are a good time for people to eat ice cream you know!  😝😳😉

Sign at the edge of town reads, "GOTHIC site of The Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory founded 1928"

No trespassing/no pets signs on a wooden fence. Old cabins sit in an open field within the fence. Rocky mountains are in the far background
Signs regarding the lab dotted the entire town 😕

You can reach Gothic by taking Gothic Road, Route 317, north of Crested Butte and the ski village.  You can’t miss it, this is, literally, the only main road going north of town! 😉  This will also lead you to Schofield Pass that I discussed in this post.  

Old cabins sit in front of a rocky mountain. Modern day cars and a construction cone are parked on the dirt street
Old cabins sit in a grassy field in front of a rocky mountain

Modern cars line both sides of the dirt street. Old cabins sit in front of a rocky mountain far in the background
Main Street in Gothic

Old cabins sit in an open field within a wooden fence. Tree-covered mountains are in the background

Old, brown, two-story building. Sign on front reads, "1880 Town Hall"
The General Store with its questionable hours of operation 😝

Old cabins sit amongst short trees with the forest in the background

Independence Ghost Town and Independence Pass:

Independence ghost town is located on Independence Pass (Route 82), around 16 miles east of Aspen, and around 21 miles west of Twin Lakes.  

It’s just east of the peak of the Pass itself, and is, actually, easy to miss.  It’s below the grade of the road and the two parking pullouts are small and not well-marked.  There are, blue, “Places of Interest” signs, but you have to be watching for them.  We actually saw the ruins of the mill, on the other side of the road, first.  

The townsite is located in a valley, along the Roaring Fork River, framed by the towering Sawatch Range on both sides.  

Independence Ghost Town:

This was my favorite ghost town of the entire trip!  It’s easy to access as the site is located directly on Independence Pass.  You actually park at a pullout on the Pass road and then hike out to the site, so no vehicles marred the view. 

The walk into the town site is about one-mile in each direction, on an old, two-track, dirt road. (The hike is pretty easy as there is almost no elevation gain.  Beware though, the town site still sits at about 10,000 feet in elevation.)  You can see the town from quite a ways off, which helps you to imagine what it must have felt like riding a horse or wagon along that route during the height of the town’s life.

This would have been an incredibly beautiful place to live! (Had it not been so isolated and suffered such extreme weather.)

Related Posts:  Guide to Colorado Backroads and 4-Wheel-Drive Trails: Book ReviewThe Best Hidden Gems of Northern ColoradoThe Backroads of ColoradoThe Drive to Crystal Mill in Colorado

The wooden remains of an old structure sit on a hill with a tree-covered mountain in the background
The old mill in Independence, Colorado. (This is the first building we saw to clue us in that we were “there”.)

The wooden remains of an old structure that has no roof. Trees are in the background

A two-track dirt road leads over a small, grassy hill. Old cabins in a grassy meadow can be seen far in the distance with tree-covered and rocky mountains in the background
I don’t imagine this view was much different when the town was thriving

An old cabin sits in a grassy meadow with a tree-covered mountain in the backgroundThe wooden remains of an old structure that has no roof or doors. Trees are in the backgroundThe wooden remains of an old, in-tact structure. Trees are in the backgroundA grassy meadow leads down the hill into a valley. Tree-covered and rocky mountains are in the backgroundThe remains of two old cabins sit on a grassy hill. A tree-covered mountain is in the background.

Independence Pass:

Independence Pass was incredibly beautiful, as well.  This one has been on my Colorado Bucket List for some time and it did not disappoint! (It was also the highest altitude we reached on this trip, maxing out at, just over, 12,000 feet!)  The scenic overlook and hiking area at the top of the Pass offer, almost, 360-degree views of the Continental Divide, which the Pass spans.

Looking down into a grassy, mountain valley. Rugged, rocky peaks and tree-covered mountains stretch to the horizon where they meet a blue sky filled with white, puffy clouds

Sign reads, "Independence Pass, elevation 12,095 feet, Continental Divide"

An analog device sits on a vehicle dashboard. It's dial is pointed to just over 12,000 feet
We finally topped 12,000 feet!

You may have noticed I’ve been enjoying using a Sun Company altimeter† in many of these posts.  It responds to changes in barometric pressure caused by weather as well as air pressure at-elevation, so you may have to recalibrate it a little each day to maintain the most accurate readings.  But, for amateur interest, it’s a fun, portable, way to keep track of changes in altitude–it connects to the vehicle using velcro so it can be easily removed and taken on a hike if you’re so inclined. 

A paved road winds down and around a hill. Rocky, rugged and tree-covered mountains are in the background and line both sides of the road

I made another video of our drive up Independence Pass.  I think my videographer skills got a “little” better with this one! 🤔

If you’re looking for something fun to do this summer, definitely check out the ghost towns of the Colorado High Country! 

Have you visited any of these amazing places?  Tell me about it in the comments!

 

Did you enjoy this post?  Pin it!

Four pictures of old buildings at ghost towns and Rocky Mountain passes. Pin reads, "The Ghost Towns of Colorado's High Country"

 

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The Drive to Crystal Mill in Colorado

In this post, I review our trip to Marble, Colorado, the renowned Crystal Mill, and the Crystal ghost town via a thrilling trek over a 4×4 road.

 

My palms are damp, my heart is racing, my stomach is churning as I grab the truck’s “Jesus handle” and see my life flash before my eyes!…Mr. Trekker slowly inches the vehicle ever closer to the drop-off….

Let’s back up and start this story at the beginning…

Crystal Mill

The Crystal Mill is one of the most photographed sites in all of Colorado (and a key reason we embarked on this road trip to begin with.) 

First off, let’s just get the technicalities out of the way.  The well-known structure that everyone takes pictures of and calls Crystal Mill…isn’t actually the mill (even though that’s the common name for it).  It’s actually the powerhouse for the mill.  This is all that remains of the abandoned site.  The actual mill lost its battle with nature many years ago.  I just wanted to get that out of the way for all the “sticklers-for-detail” out there, now for the fun stuff!  😁

After spending several days in the Grand Mesa National Forest, and enjoying a wonderful breakfast at Connie’s in Cedaredge, we were off on our long-anticipated adventure to Crystal Mill! 

We traversed a beautiful gorge dotted with coal mines and then a spectacular canyon on Route 133.  The drive into Marble, Colorado (the departure point for our adventure) was a sight to behold in itself!  This was the first real alpine view we’d had on that road trip in 2018, and the drive over McClure Pass and down the switchbacks into town was incredible.  

Before reaching the pass we could already see the dichotomy between opposing ecosystems; the drier scrubland on the western slopes and the wetter, alpine peaks on the eastern slopes of the pass.  As we rounded the first curves and began our descent down the eastern side of the pass, the yawning chasm of the valley opened up in front of us, edged by the towering peaks of the nearby mountains…

Colorado’s Alpine Beauty

THIS is why I love the mountains so much!  That first glimpse of the majestic, alpine peaks is what keeps me coming back time and again, never tiring of their pristine beauty.  It’s a humbling experience, feeling so small next to those gigantic monoliths that continue on, one after another, for miles on end, standing the test of time eternal.  How many eons has the rock that forms them been in existence?  How many more years will it continue existing, affected only by the passage of time?  It makes our puny, maybe-a-century-long, human existence on the planet seem paltry in comparison. 

Related Posts:  Guide to Colorado Backroads and 4-Wheel-Drive Trails: Book ReviewThe Best Hidden Gems of Northern ColoradoThe Backroads of Colorado7 “Must-See” Colorado Ghost Towns

Viewing vast expanses like this, for me, is a transcendent experience.  My spirit is refreshed more by a day in the mountains than a week in a church pew.  Being allowed the privilege of experiencing creation on this visceral level; as you breathe in the damp loam of the forest floor, and feel the competing elements of heat from the sun and the cool, mountain breeze that simultaneously caress your skin.  For me, these experiences leave no doubt of the presence of a Creator.  What better way to appreciate said Creator than by encountering its creation?       

The tiny village of Marble, Colorado

Marble, Colorado is the nearest town to the Crystal Mill.  A tiny hamlet with a permanent population of little more than 100 people, it is nestled into the Rocky Mountains along the Crystal River.  Its claim to fame is the marble–hence the name–in its quarries that has been used for a few well-known places.  These include portions of the Lincoln Memorial and Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington DC!  

Where is Crystal Mill?

The Crystal Mill is located approximately five miles east of the tiny town of Marble.  You can drive to the mill when the road is open and conditions are good.  This is a fairly technical, 4×4 road.  You should NOT attempt this road unless your vehicle has 4-wheel drive, is high clearance, and you are experienced driving off-road.  There are places this road can be quite dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing!

Have no fear though!  If you don’t feel your vehicle (or your nerves) are up to the challenge to drive this road, you can hike it!  The road doesn’t offer much by way of elevation change but beware you are at an altitude of almost 8000 feet in this area.

The mill is also only about 6.5 miles to the west of Gothic, Colorado.  You can drive this route from Gothic via Schofield Pass on Forest Route 317…however, this is an EXTREMELY dangerous and technical 4×4 road that should ONLY be attempted by EXPERIENCED off-road drivers! 

This is NOT an exaggeration! This route is extremely narrow, exposed, and difficult.  In many places, it only allows room for one vehicle and there are no turn-around options.  So, if two vehicles meet, one will be forced to back up for a potentially lengthy distance on a dangerous route. (The Devil’s Punchbowl is found on this route.)  I do NOT suggest anyone take this road unless they know what they are getting themselves into.  This is known as one of the state’s most dangerous 4×4 trails.  People have died while attempting this road! 

The Road to Crystal Mill

The main road to Crystal Mill, Forest Road 314, is listed as “moderate” in the 4×4 book I mentioned in this post.  It’s about a 10-mile, round-trip excursion from Marble to the mill, and then the ghost town of Crystal, beyond.  So, be prepared for a several-hour adventure, especially depending on your mode of transportation.  The road is open for hiking, biking, and vehicles, so all should proceed cautiously and be ready to encounter others along the way.  

I approached this route with a bit of trepidation.  We knew this would be one of our more challenging 4×4 adventures to date, so, with sweaty palms and a pounding heart, we passed Beaver Lake and headed toward the unknown.  

As it turned out, the technical difficulty of the road was completely manageable, our earlier drive on Montgomery Pass Road, as outlined hereactually proved more challenging.  The road was rocky, for sure, with a water crossing or two in places, but any high-clearance, 4WD vehicle could manage it in good conditions.  

The difficulty arose when you met people coming the other way on this one-lane, two-way, shelf road! 😳  The smashed cab of the ancient truck I saw lying at the bottom of one of the ravines didn’t help to quell my nerves any!  😕

A one-lane, dirt road through the trees. Tall, rugged mountains can be seen through the trees
The road to Crystal

There was only one, truly nerve-wracking moment when we were forced to hug the edge of a cliff as we waited for an ATV to pass us. (This is the moment described in the opening lines of this post!)  Fortunately, this was an area with a bit of a turn-off where the road “widened” to about 1 1/2-lane width, so it was actually the perfect place to meet an oncoming vehicle. 

As we hovered on the rim of the canyon, several hundred feet in the air, my acrophobic tendencies spiked as Mr. Trekker had to inch towards the drop-off to make room for the other car.  These conditions are a normal part of driving back roads in the mountains so, while manageable, these roads are not for the faint of heart! (Did I mention this was the “safe” and “easy” portion of this road?)  😜   

We did arrive safely at Crystal Mill, and it is, truly, all it’s lauded to be.  There’s a reason why this is one of the most photographed sites in all of Colorado.  The mountains provide a picturesque backdrop and aspens frame the Crystal River as it courses down a small waterfall and edges the side of the mill before continuing on to Marble, farther down the valley.  The water roars as it rushes past, caring naught for anyone or anything that gets in its path.  It presses on with one purpose, to obey the demand of its master–Nature–to continue on to where the call of gravity slackens.

An old, wooden structure sits on a cliff on the edge of a creek. Green trees and a creek surround it. Rugged mountains can be seen in the background
The iconic Crystal Mill (powerhouse) 😉

Crystal “Ghost Town”

The ghost town of Crystal is located only a few hundred feet beyond the site of the mill and is not, truly, abandoned–at least in the summer months.  Many of the old buildings have been restored and are now privately owned as small, mountain getaways.  

The town itself makes for a good turn-around point on the road for those of us who are less brave (wiser?) and are not willing to take on the Devil’s Punchbowl.  We returned to Marble, the way we had come, without further incident.       

An old, wooden cabin sits in a grassy field with trees around. Rugged mountains can be seen in the background
Crystal ghost town

The ruins of an old, wooden cabin sit in a grassy field with trees around. Tree-covered mountains can be seen in the background

“Just Groovin”!

After that adventure, we decided we had earned a celebratory meal (also, we were hungry!)  There is a cool BBQ restaurant, in Marble, called Slow Groovin BBQ.  The food was wonderful and was just what our appetites had ordered! (You can visit their website here, they also have a location that is open year-round in Snowmass, Colorado.) 

I liked the message they had printed on the bottom of their menu (see the pic below).  I took the message to mean we should focus on the present, appreciating the potential joy that every experience has to offer us.  So, we adopted this “just groovin'” attitude for the rest of our trip!

Now that we’ve returned home, this is something I’m trying to implement into my everyday life as well. (I always try to garner insight from our trips, and I always come away inspired when we visit Colorado–have I mentioned I LOVE this state? 😉)  It’s a struggle for me, particularly with my anxiety, but I’m always trying to be more Present…not rushing from task to task, not constantly being worried about how the next item on the list is going to get accomplished (or even what it is); “just groovin'” through the current moment.   

Logo of a restaurant includes the silhouette of mountains over an orange sky. Overtop of that it reads, "slow groovin BBQ"

A blown-up image of the bottom of the Slow Groovin menu. At the bottom it reads, "Slow Groovin - (Verb) To let go and live in the moment. Dining out should be an experience, not just a meal. Dining with us is a lifestyle. From the moment people step foot in Marble, time stops. Historic buildings remain, dogs roam free and cell phones stay in the car. What better place to appreciate great food? Our mission is to create an atmosphere that embraces the important things in life: Family, Nature, Community and of course ridiculously good BBQ. We take pride in every item on our menu. So kick back and Slow Groove your way into something to remember. --The Slow Groovin Crew"
This is the message that is printed at the bottom of the “Slow Groovin” menu that I found so inspiring (reprinted with permission).

To Conclude:

We had planned to camp at an RV park we located on the map in town.  Unfortunately, it was full for the night.  Since there is no cell service to speak of in the valley, and we were fresh off our life lesson to “just groove”, we decided to press on to see what camping options awaited us in the Gunnison National Forest.  We were SO glad we did!  

It turned out, merely 20 minutes down the road, we came upon a National Forest campground that was nestled against the Crystal River.  There we found, what ended up being, one of our favorite campsites of the entire trip (have I mentioned National Forest campgrounds are AWESOME?) 😉  

We happened to arrive shortly after the most scenic campsite in the entire campground became available, early.  So, we snatched it up!  Sometimes, “winging it” works out for the best!  It was located mere feet from the river itself!  Due to the Stage 2 fire ban, no campfires were allowed, so we enjoyed a relaxing evening riverside, dangling our feet into the cool water, and reading the books we brought along while enjoying the sounds of the bubbling river.  

This trek to the Crystal Mill was definitely one for the Bucket List. If you’re even in the central Colorado High Country, I’d encourage you to visit it as well.  You’ll be glad you did!

Have you visited this incredible, Colorado landmark?  Tell me about your experience getting there in the comments!

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An old, wooden structure sits on a cliff on the edge of a creek. Green trees and the blue water of a creek surround it. Pin reads, "Crystal Mill Marble, CO"

 

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The Backroads of Colorado

This post outlines our adventures on several Colorado backroads, including some at State Forest State Park and around the Crested Butte area.

 

On our 2018 road trip in the Colorado High Country, we really wanted to improve our 4×4 driving (and navigation) skills.  Fortunately, there are a number of backroads in Colorado that are perfect for this! 

One series of books we found to be incredibly helpful is A Guide to Colorado Backroads.  It’s actually a series of books covering the northern, central, and southern regions of the state.  These provide helpful information on the roads and trails including their difficulty level, equipment needed to successfully complete them, and details on each of the routes’ conditions.  

Below is a listing of the new roads we enjoyed:

Montgomery Pass Road, State Forest State Park

The first road we mastered, the Montgomery Pass Road at State Forest State Park, ended up being the most technical route we attempted on the entire trip. This out-and-back trek is listed as “moderate” in the guidebook.  It was fun, though, definitely, challenging.  A high clearance, 4WD vehicle is required and skid plates are an added benefit–we were VERY glad for them as we scraped across one particular rock.  Several spots even required me to exit the vehicle and play “spotter” for Mr. Trekker to assist him in navigating the obstacles…it was fun!  😁  The road was wide, with room to pass in most spots, and mostly traversed the forest, so, it lacked the stomach-churning shelf roads we experienced on much of the rest of the trip.  

The road ends before it reaches the top of Montgomery Pass, and the final half-mile or so must be completed on foot.  It’s an easy hike (minus the altitude) as the trail is an abandoned forest road.  It was windy at over 11,000 feet, but the incredible views of the Never Summer Mountains and the promise of the 360-degree vista at the top provide motivation despite beleaguered lungs.

Hand holding an analog dial showing a little over 11,000 feet elevation
Made it to the top of Montgomery Pass!

The wildflowers had begun to carpet the surrounding meadows while snow still blanketed portions of the nearby peaks (in early July!)   Another quality of this wilderness area is that we felt like we had the entire mountain to ourselves on a Monday morning, seeing only two other groups for the duration of the excursion.  You can also hike the entire way to the peak from the other side of the mountain.  The trailhead is found off Route 14 on the eastern edge of the park.   

A small, rock cairn in the foreground with a grassy meadow spreading out behind. A spine of grass and tree-covered mountain peaks can be seen in the distance with occasional spats of snow
The view from the summit

Bockman Road, State Forest State Park

We supplemented the adventure above with a side trip down Bockman Road which intersects the Montgomery Pass Road farther down the mountain.  This road was easy, I think my CRV may have been able to handle it if you were careful on a few of the bumpy sections.  It was dirt, but wide enough for two vehicles and mostly graded.  It made for a fun, relaxing afternoon as a bubbling creek accompanied us for much of the trip, as well as countless more wildflowers (have I mentioned the wildflowers are beautiful in Colorado this time of year?) 😉  

Gothic Road near Crested Butte

Probably the most nerve-wracking drive we completed was Gothic Road, from Gothic ghost town to Schofield Pass–I discuss Gothic in this post

The road is in good condition–a sedan could probably negotiate it.  The problem we ran into was that it is a 1 1/2-lane shelf road with a significant drop-off at one side and no barrier–a frequent condition we encountered on Colorado back roads.  

When we were there it was also INCREDIBLY busy; filled with 2-way traffic in addition to hikers and mountain bikers.  Part of the trouble was that we were there on a weekend in July (our fault, it was just the way the trip itinerary worked out).  But the horde of visitors combined with people who are unaccustomed to driving in those white-knuckle conditions made for what felt like a genuinely unsafe situation from time to time.  

From the top of the pass, a dangerous 4×4 road continues on through the acclaimed “Devil’s Punchbowl” to Crystal Mill–one of the worst 4×4 accidents in Colorado history occurred on this road.  We chose NOT to take that route, 😝 but check out this post for the 4×4 adventure we had on Forest Road 314 from Marble to Crystal Mill!

Schofield Pass and Slate River Road

Once we reached Schofield Pass, we completed the loop via Slate River Road (Forest Road 734) through Paradise Divide.  This section was not only FAR quieter and more relaxing, but it was also one of the most scenic drives I’ve ever been on (it made the other half of the loop worth the gray hairs). 😉  

Pine trees frame the rugged slopes of green, tree-covered mountains in the background
Paradise Divide

Showcasing towering mountains donning green meadows, grass-covered avalanche chutes, and streaming rivers fueled by snowmelt, this drive is incredible!  We were fortunate enough to grab one of the last remaining dispersed campsites in this area that was nestled right next to a small canyon.  We fell asleep listening to the water coursing through it that night!

Short, green, tree and grass-covered canyon walls with a small stream/waterfall flowing among them
Waterfall along Paradise Divide
An orange rooftop tent sits on a trailer in front of a truck with an awning. This is in a clearing with tall pine trees surrounding it
Our campsite

Below is a video I took of the Divide.  Be patient with me, my videographer experience is minimal, the road was bumpy, and this was taken on an iPhone.  But…this valley was so INCREDIBLY beautiful, I had to share this with you!  You can see why they gave it the name they did! 😎

The drive from Rifle to Grand Mesa Colorado

Even when not looking for a 4×4 adventure, we learned that travel on Colorado back roads can be an interesting experience.  We drove the back route from Rifle to Grand Mesa National Forest, taking Dry Hollow Road from Silt.  Then we continued, via Route 270, into Colbran and then took Route 121 to enter Grand Mesa the back way.  

The drive was lovely!  The eclectic scenery transitioned from desert-like scrubland in the Rifle area to aspen forest in the higher elevations, then to rolling farmland in the valleys (that reminded us of Pennsylvania) before ending in the spruce forests that comprise the Grand Mesa area.  

Related Posts:  Guide to Colorado Backroads and 4-Wheel-Drive Trails: Book ReviewThe Best Hidden Gems of Northern Colorado, 7 “Must-See” Colorado Ghost TownsThe Drive to Crystal Mill in Colorado

I mentioned earlier that the gazetteer didn’t always differentiate road surfaces well.  We found the regular road atlas (and the 4×4 book mentioned above) gave far better indications of what to expect for the actual conditions of the roads…

…In this situation, these routes were indicated to be “major connectors” (and I’m sure they were for that, extremely rural, area). However, this indication included roads that varied from paved and painted to those that are dirt/gravel, with some being extremely rough due to a washboard surface.  They were, often, also, narrow and winding (where two, full-size vehicles may struggle to pass).  Many also hugged the sides of cliffs on shelf roads.  They offered incredible views but may be alarming to people who aren’t accustomed to those conditions.  

We had a great time, but I note this so people are aware these conditions can make travel more difficult and may require you to budget additional time to complete the drive.     

Green grass and trees in the foreground spreading out to rocky, tree-covered mountains in the background. White puffy clouds on a blue sky
Viewpoint on the road to Grand Mesa from Silt

These portions of our trip were thrilling, nerve-wracking, and challenging.  However you manage to do it, whether it be machine-powered by a 4×4 vehicle or using your own two feet, I’d encourage you to venture out onto these lesser-traveled routes (as you are comfortable, of course).  You’ll see sites and experience adventures that the average person misses on the more well-traveled highways.  It will give you a whole different appreciation for the nature that surrounds us.

Have you ever tried out any of these Colorado backroads?  Tell me about your experience in the comments!

 

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Four pictures of a green, grassy meadow and a dirt road meandering around grass-covered mountains. Also a meadow filled with wildflowers and a lake in the background. Pin reads, "The Backroads of the Colorado High Country" 

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