Independence Pass: a Rocky Mountain Must!
Independence Pass is the second highest paved pass in Colorado, reaching 12,095 feet at the summit, and crossing the Continental Divide via the Sawatch Mountain Range. With 32 miles of scenic, twisty roads filled with multiple terrain and landscape changes, it’s a no brainer to have this road on your must-ride list.
After one of the heaviest snow-blanketed winters the Colorado Rocky Mountains have seen in years, the scenic byways and high-altitude passes are opening one by one. The second highest paved road in Colorado, Independence Pass (Top of the Rockies Scenic Byway), opened slightly behind schedule this year, on May 31, 2019. We were able to make the drive on June 3rd and take the pass’s sights and sounds in in all of their winter-y glory.
HISTORY & FUN FACTS OF INDEPENDENCE PASS
The Early Days
Believe it or not, this unbelievable mountain pass was originally a stage coach road that was heavily trafficked in the 1880’s. At those times, mining was the primary driver for settlement and financials in the area. Businessmen of all sorts used the pass to get to the then-small mining town of Aspen, since railroads were non-existent. Imagine a traffic jam consisting of horses and buggies making their way over this pass on dirt roads that could be taken out by avalanches and rock slides at any time!
The Town of Independence
Independence, Colorado existed at one point in time. Gold was found in the area on July 4th, 1879, and the town was quickly named after the national holiday. At one time, 300 people lived along the Roaring Fork Valley floor, hunting for gold. However, only a few buildings remain at what is now an archaeological site and ghost town. In the summer months, you can hike down to the buildings. Currently, they’re covered in feet of snowpack.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
RIDING SKILLS REQUIRED.
This pass is NOT for the faint of heart, or novice motorcyclist. At times, the pass becomes a single lane road, and at others, you’re wondering if the road is going to begin to crumble and slide hundreds of feet into the valley below. Shoulders and guard rails are not always existent, and distracted drivers may exist, so be aware of your surroundings. If you wish to take in the sights, there are plenty of pull over points throughout the twists and turns along the way.
Luckily, vehicles over 35 feet in length are not allowed on the pass. You won’t be needing to dodge too many oversized automobiles along the tight and twisty road.
Weather on Independence Pass
Even in the middle of the summer, Independence Pass may see sunshine, snow, and lightning storms all within the same hour. Before you lose service outside of Aspen or Leadville, (depending which way you go) check the radar and decide if you’re comfortable riding through a potential storm. With altitudes over 12,000 feet, a lightning or snow storm is the last thing you’ll want to deal with a the summit.
Additionally, the area is known for rock slides in the summers, and avalanches during the winter months (when the road is closed for the winter). As you make your way through through the windy roads, you’ll see numerous destructive avalanche remnants lining the roads. Numerous waterfalls fall right along the road from the heavy snowpack that’s slowly melting as we get closer to summer.
Even with five to seven feet of snow currently blanketing the sides of the road at the summit, the snow acts like a refrigeration system to the surrounding climate. If it’s in the 50’s out at high elevation, you’ll still want to dress for winter until the snow melts.
PLAN YOUR RIDE
TIME IS NEEDED
The pass averages speeds of 10-30 MPH throughout its 32-mile entirety. Add in multiple stops to enjoy the scenery and a photo op or two, you’re looking at 3 or 4 hours to get from Aspen to Twin Lakes.
We made a giant loop from Denver to visit the pass. With multiple stops along the pass, a gas stop, and a few food stops, it took us roughly 12 hours round trip. Do your eyes get tired on long drives? Are you visiting with a group? Are you looking to make the most out of the area? If you answered yes to any of those questions, you should definitely stay in a nearby town or one of the many dispersed campgrounds in the area.
TO PACK SNACKS, OR NOT?
Unlike Mt Evans, which has a restaurant and gift shop at the summit road entrance in Echo Lake, the closest towns with multiple food options are Aspen and Leadville to the pass.
Drink plenty of water. It will help you to avoid altitude sickness. Snacks would be a smart choice to pack on your bike or in your car. Headed in from the western slope? Aspen, the closest town to the west, is a bit on the higher-end scale of things. Plan to stop in Glenwood Springs for food, if you’re on a budget. If time permits, take a dip in the town’s famous Hot Springs.
Headed to the pass via the eastern slope? Leadville is a historic mining town and has multiple food options, including the historic Silver Dollar Saloon. The saloon was built in the 1800’s, and is famed for Doc Holliday enjoying the bar during his residency in the town. The history speaks for itself within the building and in the photos that adorn every inch of the walls.
When is Independence Pass Open?
Independence Pass reopens for the Summer season around Memorial Day weekend every year, depending on snowfall and weather conditions. The pass traditionally closes in November, annually. Always check CDOT for the most up to date information on Independence Pass. Even in the summers, the road my close due to wildfires, accidents, or other reasons.