By Eilene Lyon
Our mountain biking trip this week took us to Old Lime Creek Road in the San Juan Mountains. It follows an ancient Ute Indian path that became a mining road, and later the route between the Animas Valley and Silverton. The Civilian Conservation Corps made improvements in the 1930s, but it was supplanted by the current highway alignment, which runs over Coal Bank Pass.
The ride can be done with a shuttle, starting at the north end, by driving over Coal Bank. On the northeast side of the pass, you can stop at an overlook to see the 1879 Lime Creek Burn. Reforestation began in 1911 and this is the only place you will find lodgepole pine in the San Juans – it isn’t native to these mountains.
Alternately, you can do an out-and-back ride, starting from the south end at Cascade Creek. We chose to shuttle and do the 11-mile ride from the north. Many websites will tell you that this road is in good condition and mostly drivable in a passenger car. Don’t believe them!
Back in the 1980s, I drove many of the mountain back roads in my Honda Accord, including this one. It seems that around 2002, the year of the Missionary Ridge Fire (GW’s first term), that Forest Service funding for road maintenance vanished.
Very few get graded anymore and the deterioration over the past two decades is obvious to locals. The increasing popularity of ATVs and backcountry travel has taken a toll as well. Even in our four-wheel-drive pickup, some roads make for downright unpleasant traveling.
The bike ride begins with a steady downhill to Lime Creek, though much slower than you would expect due to rocks jutting everywhere. You pass a couple side-stream waterfalls before reaching the main creek: a cottonwood-shaded, clearwater stream. There is a roomy disbursed camping area (free!) and good fishing.
Beyond this point, the road narrows more and begins winding up a ledge through the canyon. Twilight Peak looms to the east. A solid rock wall forms the road’s western barrier, with a steep drop to the creek on the other side. Columbines, elderberry, and asters bloom among tumbles of scree on the roadside.
As you approach the top of the climb, you’ll find stone guardrails built by the CCC and impressive views.
If you look at the upper-left corner of the photo above (red arrow), you can see a vehicle on the road. It hasn’t moved in several days, because…
(Please. Please. Please. Don’t be this guy.)
I cannot imagine why someone would take a rig like this off the pavement or onto anything but the best gravel road. I realize I’m not being very kind by making fun of his self-created predicament. Certainly we have been victims of our own blunders a time or two.
But hundreds of thousands of tourists roam the San Juans every year, and too many are injured or even killed because they don’t take the risks seriously, even on the paved roads.
If you see a sign like this one…
Or one that says “High clearance and 4 x 4 vehicles recommended” — do take them seriously. Do not take your Class A motorhome with tow-behind on these roads. Do not bypass the open area that will enable you to turn around and go back the way you came, awful as it must have been.
Do not proceed past this rock slide, then into tight turns you can’t negotiate. Because then you might come to an immovable object like this boulder or a fallen tree.
You can’t move forward and you better be darn comfortable driving in reverse on a ledge for a very long distance. ‘Nuf said.
After completing your climb out of the canyon, you pedal through aspens, pine, and spruce to where beavers create pretty wetland ponds below Spud Lake. (The official USGS name for the peak above — not shown here — is actually Potato Hill.)
Beyond the beaver ponds is a semi-gentle downhill ride back to the drop vehicle at the highway, with the road gradually improving as it passes through an area of private residences. Beyond an open meadow with dispersed camp sites, is the Cascade Creek Canyon.
Time to drive back over Coal Bank to get the bike-hauling vehicle and enjoy the beautiful trip back to Durango, or over Molas Pass for lunch in historic Silverton.
Feature image: The Putterer on Old Lime Creek Road with Twilight Peak to the left. The air was filled with smoke from regional wildfires in the morning, but mostly cleared up by midday.
P.S. In case you want to learn more about just how treacherous San Juan Mountain roads can be, check out this article. I warn you not to watch the video if you’re at all squeamish — it’s terrifying.