10 October 2014

Stardate 2014.775

Alpine rail grade, Sawatch Range, Colorado

Season of Wither Unam Partem

I desired a final, high elevation mountain bike ride before the icy grip of winter takes hold in the high country. Although the higher realms have received snow this year, webcams filming high peaks, along with a week of decent temperatures, indicated a bit of a melt-off. I decided on a loop consisting of the occupied ghost town St. Elmo, the Alpine Tunnel, the Continental Divide Trail and back down North Chalk Creek to St. Elmo. The loop is above 10,000 feet in its entirety. It also is highlighted by four-miles of seldom-traveled Continental Divide Trail that undulates across the tundra between 11,650 and 12,400 feet elevation. It was a date. Hair on fire, I was off to the Sawatch Range, Colorado, for a day of high adventure.

St. Elmo, 10,012 ft., Sawatch Range, Colorado

After an easy cruise through Colorado's Front Range and across South Park, I made my way up Chalk Creek to St. Elmo. The town is an official, historic ghost town inhabited by people with private holdings. As can be seen in the photo, 120/240-volt single-phase power has been brought in. Modern ghosts, I guess.

Chalk Creek, Alpine Tunnel Railroad Grade, Sawatch Range, Colorado

The ride to Alpine Tunnel is up the old Denver, South Park and Pacific narrow-gauge rail bed. At one time, the railroad provided transportation between Denver and Gunnison. It's an easy pedal. As the views expanded, I noticed most of the Aspens have dropped their leaves. A little snow could be seen on northerly aspects of Point 12,870, as well. In regard to the previous sentence, if a high peak is unnamed, its elevation is used as its name.

Mine ruins between St. Elmo and Hancock, Sawatch Range, Colorado

Old mine relics dot the forest between St. Elmo and the ghost site of Hancock.

Old town site of Hancock, Sawatch Range, Colorado

At one point, a town resided here. This is all of Hancock that remains. Hancock sat at 11,050 feet and primarily served the Alpine Tunnel workers; mining came second.

Alpine Tunnel rail grade, Sawatch Range, Colorado

At Hancock the route heads west toward the Continental Divide over unmodified history. Motorized vehicles are not allowed up the final three miles of rail grade. In places, old rotting railroad ties are still visible, as shown above.

Alpine Tunnel rail grade, Sawatch Range, Colorado

Riding along a north aspect, the ground began icing up around 11,300 feet.

There was more snow and ice than I had anticipated, even on north aspects.

In places, the rail grade was cut into the cliff face.

Looking down Chalk Creek from the Alpine Tunnel rail grade, Sawatch Range, Colorado

The views continue to broaden. Despite the snow and wet areas, I was able to stay in shorts as the day warmed up nicely. Yet, there was a swirling frozen nip in the air.

Just below the east portal of the Alpine Tunnel

After an easy nine miles up consistent grade, the final 100 yards to the east portal came into view. The grade swings to the left into the hillside.

Sealed east portal of the Alpine Tunnel

Above is what remains of the east portal. The west portal has been sealed, too. Four-wheel-drive access to the west portal is from Pitkin, or possibly from the east via Hancock Pass or Williams Pass. The Alpine Tunnel took more than two years to build and was in service by Denver, South Park and Pacific Railroad between only 1882 and 1910. The tunnel sits at an elevation of 11,523 feet and is 1,772 feet long.

Connector trail to the Continental Divide Trail

Access to the Continental Divide Trail is in the vicinity of the east portal. It's a short hike-a-bike up to 12,000-foot Alpine Pass.

Alpine Pass , Continental Divide, Sawatch Range, Colorado

After a good grunt gaining the Pass, the vistas open up to...

Alpine Pass, Continental Divide, Sawatch Range, Colorado

...miles and miles of one of my favorite landscapes – alpine tundra! If you look close in the right center of the pic, you can pick out the Continental Divide Trail. Hint, look for snow. It was time for an executive decision. After a short lunch so I can savor my surroundings, of course.

Stay Tuned



  1. What a beautiful part of the world. Gorgeous shots of waning autumn, and love the shots with the Black Pearl! Perhaps I can accompany you next time you venture toward Princeton and St. Elmo...

  2. My stomach clenched at the shot where the trail is cut into the cliff face. The stuff of nightmares!

    But Snowcatcher is right - it's a beautiful part of the world. I wonder what they mined up there? And who was the last person to live in Hancock? Did the people leave in a bunch, or were there holdouts? If only the mountain could speak....


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