Some days are more memorable than others out on the 4X4 trails. We’ve had days with rollovers breakdowns, pregnancies, and just about any other thing you could imagine. Saturday was not one of those days, but it was memorable in its own right, just in smaller ways. In our club we divide into 3 groups based on the difficulty of the trail. Group 1 runs can be done by stock or near-stock 4X4s, Group 2 trails are for vehicles that have been built up a bit – lockers, lifts winches and bigger tires, Group 3 is only for the most extreme where breakage/body damage is likely, and winching is almost a given. We spend most of our time in group 2 as it fits my Jeep and driving preference the best. Every once in a while we’ll step it down a notch and enjoy an easy Group 1 trip. Hayden Pass is a great, easy trail that leads from Coaldale, CO. through the Sangre De Christo mountains into the San Louis Valley, ending near the town of Villa Grove. I had volunteered to lead the club’s Group 1 trip to Hayden this year due to its close proximity to home and the fact that I’m very familiar with it, having wheeled it multiple times in the past.
For a very rare time, this is not about Jeeping with kids as the group did not have a single little one along. Jodi and Peanut stayed home due to a rough cold, and the other couple with kids had managed to escape for a weekend – just the two of them.
The day started off as I met Rick, a first time Jeeper, at an intersection just outside Pueblo so we could travel together, but I didn’t notice that new “no parking” signs had been put up in the area where we were to meet. Normally I wouldn’t expect this to be an issue, but apparently the State Patrol was watching out for people using this newly closed off parking area. I had parked for less than a minute when an officer pulled up and pointed out my infraction. Just then Rick and another vehicle pulled in as well. So my day started off waiting for the State Trooper to run all three of our licenses to make sure we didn’t have any outstanding warrants or anything. Finally he let us go and Rick and I were off for the 1.5 hr drive to the trail head. It was a beautiful warm morning, and the Arkansas River was busy with rafters, kayakers, and fly fisherman, making for good people watching along the drive.
We turned south at Coaldale and just after the pavement turned to dirt, a massive orange snake raced across the road and right under my tires. Somehow it escaped damage and slithered off into the bushes. The curious kid in me couldn’t help but stop and give chase. We never found the mysterious serpent but it was a fun distraction. We met up with our small band at the trail head minutes later, we had 4 vehicles: 1 Jeep TJ, 2 Jeep YJs, and one built-up Land Rover Defender.
As we gazed up on the high mountains we were about to ascend, we observed that the tops were rather blanketed with white, fluffy clouds. They looked rather innocuous, but I knew they meant a dramatic change in conditions once we reached the pass.
The trip up the mountain was enjoyable and easy as Hayden climbs to an elevation of 10,709, but does not have any significant challenges. It does get very narrow and wet and can be extremely dangerous if run too early in the year, though. The water does drip down the mountain and across the road, creating a sheet of ice that can slide a vehicle straight off a 300 ft cliff, but this late in the year there is little danger there.
As we neared the top, our little band started to enter the cloud. At first the sky just darkened a little, then wisps of fog began to appear, and soon the drizzle started and we were socked in the middle of a thick, dark ball of moisture. We stopped at the top briefly to take pictures and a short rest, but the conditions inside a cloud aren’t especially pleasant, so we moved on to the south side of the pass.
The far side of Hayden is more rough and rocky and requires careful placement of tires, but leads to a spectacular overlook with beautiful views of the San Louis Valley. Another interesting distraction met us at this overlook in the form of hang gliders. A nearby peak is a popular jumping-off point, and with the winds being steady and strong and the sky clear, it must have been a perfect day to get in some gliding. There were nearly a dozen hang gliders circling the sky above us as we stopped to eat lunch. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many in the same airspace in my life.
The trip up the south side of the pass was by far the most difficult technical driving of the day. The two YJs were just slightly over stock and found some considerable challenge, needing a spot through the rockiest section of the trail. It was also quite convenient that this section was thick with wild raspberries and the stop for a spot gave us a great opportunity to pick a fresh snack.
Once we were through the rough section we continued back over the pass with only a short stop at the top. Before we knew it we were at the bottom of the mountain and were airing up our tires and saying our goodbyes. Was it a memorable trip?? Absolutely; good friends, fun side trips, picking raspberries, watching hang gliders, showing a first time wheeler what his Jeep was capable of … a memorable trip indeed!