Have I already mentioned to you that we don’t like to travel on interstates? Oh yes, when necessity dictates, a timely run, or the interstate is the only road option—but the interstate is to the destination as back roads are to the journey. We’ve been on some doozy roads, and I’ll share some of them with you here.
Highway 550 in Colorado is called the Million-Dollar Highway for the amount of precious metals that passed down that road to spark the fevers of fortune hunters; or perhaps it was the cost of a million dollars a mile to construct in the 1920s, or that its fill dirt contained a million dollars in gold ore. Needless to say, it twists twenty-five miles along the Animas river from the lovely old town of Silverton to Ouray, Colorado, along switchbacks and precipitous drop-offs—with no guardrails—over three mountain passes, each over 11,000 feet.
If you are not short of breath from the white-knuckle drive, you will be when you arrive in Ouray, not just from the simple beauty of a town nestled in the folds of the surrounding 13,000-foot mountains, but in the rarified 9,000-feet-above-sea-level air.
We drove this route on one of our travel expeditions and after that ordeal, chose more recently to experience it looking out from the windows of a 19th century steam-driven train. Add huge layers of adrenaline from sheer dropoffs outside the train car hundreds of feet down the canyon, to the raging rapids below.
Moki Dugway, Rte. 261 Utah
This is a road, if you can call it such, not for the faint-hearted, constructed in the late 1950s by a uranium mining company to shorten the distance of ore transport. Unsuspecting drivers arrive at the precipice of a mesa, and the asphalt abruptly—and unexpectedly—morphs to graded dirt. They peer out and down 11,000 feet to the valley below, and the approximately 14-foot-wide road, while the 11% downgrade beckons them to death. There are no guardrails to provide psychological safety, and trucks and RVs are informed in large-lettered signage to avoid traveling along the snake-like grade cut into the cliff face. We sucked in our breath and proceeded down, our truck in four-wheel-drive, realizing too late that some clown thought he could drive up pulling a large trailer. We weren’t about to play chicken. White knuckle cannot describe the timing of our encounter midway. We both had passed the point of no return. Luckily we found a slight pull-off on a potential hang glider launching site, and Ruth leaned out her window to slowly guide me, to inch our wheels within a foot of the dropoff. The rig passed us with inches to spare with both our mirrors pulled in. Why do vows to never do this again fade into time? “Well…” you may say to yourself, “why do I even bother to travel on the Moki Dugway?” If you’re interested in visiting the breathtaking Valley of the Gods, or the beautiful Four Corners region, you have a choice of driving the Dugway, or adding another 80 or so miles to your journey. Is that a rock and a hard place? Perhaps it would be better to say, “Between rocks and wide open space.”
Whitney Portal Road
Nearby Highway 395 in central California provides a staging area for those who seek to hike up to the lower 48 states’ highest mountain, Mt. Whitney. It, too, tests the temerity of drivers climbing up to the clouds along guardrail-less switchbacks. You watch the land fall away below, grip the wheel tightly, and in spring and autumn, hope that your tires grip equally as well over potential ice patches as you ascend 8,000 feet along 13 miles of switchbacks. There are frequent rock falls onto the road and if you should be unfortunate enough to drive off the road, the local bears get first pickings of human prime cuts.
The last five miles of this serpentine roadway has a grade of 9%. Once you settle your heart rate, the views from on top, down into the Owens Valley, are spectacular and the jagged peaks of Whitney beckon you to break through any residual fear of heights.
Saline Valley Road is not far from Mt. Whitney and makes up for what it lacks in scary precipitous dropoffs by providing about 25 miles of rocky, sometimes 10-12% grade four-wheel-drive slogging. The country around this rarely traveled “road” is stunning in beauty, and we bounced slowly along for almost three hours, imaging ourselves traveling back in time without worrying about our horse losing its footing on the rocky surface.
We were jolted back to the moment in the sudden blast of a low flying F18 from the nearby Air Force base. There is a reward for the traveler of this tire- and transmission-testing trackway: Saline Valley Hot Springs. Small-plane pilots in the know fly into this desert oasis on the edge of Death Valley, California—avoiding dogfighting jets—that is overseen by the National Park Service and manned by serious hardcore hot springs aficionados.
There is, by the way, some very high-temperature water boiling out of the ground, so care testing of toe placement is in order. We camped for about a week and learned that stays for up to a month are possible with careful provisioning.
Burr Trail was one of our discoveries on an early road trip in the Southwest. We crossed Bullfrog Bay in Lake Powell on the ferry, and drove a stunning scenic dirt road about 30 miles into Burr Canyon. Before us lay a zigzag road cut into the canyon rock face, 800 feet high with extremely tight switchbacks and, of course, no guardrails.
Intestinal fortitude is necessary to drive this scary mountain goat climb. Our first foray up the Trail was in our Toyota Tacoma stick shift, and I quickly learned to manage 4WD and careful speed management to prevent back creep on sharp switchbacks. Sliding backwards wasn’t an option, with the canyon below lying in wait. I became aware of a peculiar optical effect while rounding each bend going up, where the front of the hood prevented my view of the turn radius. This forced me to have to roll down the window and lean out to judge the truck’s position and not miss the road center. Ruth couldn’t take the white-knuckle scariness of the journey and opted for walking the duration of the way up. Afterwards she stated that the view from inside the cab of the truck was deceiving, that walking changed one’s perspective of drivability. I intellectually agreed but somehow the truck, by blocking road judgement, multiplied the fear factor. This is where you ponder the voice of Obi Wan Kenobi in your head to, “Use the Force.”
Pine Creek Canyon Road (Route 2)
We serendipitously discovered this off-the-beaten-path dirt mountain road on the edge of the California–Oregon border while looking for a camping spot next to a mountain lake. All went well and a number of years later while camped at Goose Lake State Park, we decided to reprise our visit and reclaim our memories. We just couldn’t believe we drove on the same road. Perhaps it was changed by trolls, gnomes, or tectonic plate movement? Our route reprise seemed much more narrow, twisty, rocky, inclined, and compounded by many camping vehicles trying to pass each other with few pullouts. Nevertheless, add this one to a way-off-the-road-camping-with-no-limits area.
Gates Pass Road runs east–west between Tucson and Saguaro National Park, and I’ll call this one a pink-knuckle drive on a narrow road, particularly near the top of the pass to and from Tucson.
The road drops with no guardrail protection steeply down into the Saguaro National Park region and some spectacular camping at the Gilbert Ray Campground. DO NOT THINK ABOUT driving an RV on this road or you will have nightmares that will require coaching to alleviate, and the next destination leads us to night terror sweats…Near the Gilbert Ray Campground is the famous Old Tucson former Old West film set, now tourist western reenactment amusement park. Expect stunt shows, train rides, saloon “family tame” burlesque entertainment, pony rides, shoot outs, sundry shlock, and much, much more. (Read Ruth’s review of it here.)
Doherty Rim, Oregon Hwy. 140
Traveling east–west in Nevada reveals the consistent “basin and range” topography. You drive up a 5,000–6,000 foot pass and down 5–10 miles into a barren, sage brush-inhabited basin, then up the next pass, and repeat, over and over. Traveling north, we decided to break free from this monotony and take the road less traveled into a region so sparse of population and lacking of any cell communications, that if you broke down, your bleached bones would warn the next intrepid traveler. We spent the night in the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge, where birds come to seek freedom from harassment, wild burros and horses range free, and hot springs run twenty-four hours a day through volunteer-built bathhouse showers. Can it be a strange coincidence that as you near the crossing from one state to another out West, the landscape changes and you can state clearly that now you are in Idaho, or Colorado, or Oregon? It seems as though the surveyors looked out, saw a geological change in the land, and drove a stake into the ground delineating one state from the next. We had barely crossed into Oregon when, on the road, the warning signs appeared. The ubiquitous image of a truck facing down a grade appeared with the 8% grade notification. Okay, this one was going to be steep. Mostly we see 6%ers. The next sign read, “Warning. Steep Grade Ahead. 25 mph. Trucks Use Low Gear.” Then, “Take Your Time, Don’t Rush, And You’ll Get There Alive.” With no apparent change in the prospect around us, we speculated what could all the fuss be about? A final large yellow sign read, “This Is Your Final Warning! Turn Back Now If You Have A Heart Condition!” Well…perhaps I embellished the last sign’s admonishment slightly.
We crossed the crest of the hill before us and I swear it was just like that roller-coaster moment when you arrive at the pinnacle of no return and you anticipate the terror of a dead drop…only this drop was 1,000 feet and a three-mile-long scream in duration. We dropped into walking speed, and sure enough, as is always the case, cars stacked up behind our 50 feet of truck/trailer in what I imagined was impatient rage. No one passed us though. What a surprise. Maybe they thought I would jerk the steering wheel over into their path to ease them of their need to get to the bottom two minutes ahead of us? In ten minutes we reached the bottom and vowed to never drive Highway 140 again, even if it meant driving around the entire West Coast to achieve a 100-mile trip.
Wheeler Peak, Great Basin, Nevada
If it’s summer and if you swelter from 100+ degree heat crossing the Loneliest Road in America, Highway 50, just set your compass on a half-hour drive up to Wheeler Peak, and watch your vehicle thermometer drop quickly to around a cool 60. This drive lacks most of those barrier-less roadways. I said “most.” You’ll get a lot of practice though, twisting your steering wheel around a 360-degree arc on your way up to the staging area for a four-mile hike in rarified air, to pay tribute to the Bristlecone Pine grove. If you are pulling a trailer or driving a large RV, don’t put yourself through the mental anguish. The Bristlecones won’t mind, though; they’ve seen it all, having lived 4,000 years or more—they are some of the oldest living things on Earth. See my earlier blog post on this subject here. One short side note: If you pull a rig, a trailer, or Class A, or even just tent camp, be wary of aggressive mice that have been habituated to human presence, and are known to suicidally stow away and end their lives on a road trip with you!
Hell’s Backbone, Box–Death Hollow, Hog’s Back Ridge
All three of these scary, off-putting, and dangerous-sounding locations are to be found in the same general area in Utah: Highway 12, between Escalante and Boulder. Hog’s Back Ridge is one of those roads that commences in gently undulating curves, lulling you into submission until it’s too late, and you find yourself on a narrow two-lane road, with no shoulder, and sheer dropoffs on each side. It’s incredible how your imagination can create a hell for you when none exists. You can walk a two-by-four plank on the ground without skipping a beat. Raise it 500 feet and all bets are off. So it is with Hog’s Back. Sometimes it’s just best to keep your eyes on the road, for a number of reasons.
Hell’s Backbone follows the same rules as above, though not quite as steering wheel-grippingly tense. Consistent curves lull you into a hypnotic trance until around a corner, a fine ribbon of asphalt leads you over a one-lane bridge. This bridge has a three-foot-high guardrail on each side, though I surmise its only function is to provide structural support as you cross over a 1,500-foot canyon. We stopped our truck on an earlier trailer-less road trip at the entrance to the bridge, and walked our dog across. No one came or passed us in either direction. Devilishly strange?
Box–Death Hollow. I just threw this in for the name…as far as I know! We discovered an awesome campground there one year with unlimited firewood left for us, no fee at that time, no other campers, and a creek tinkling around our tent site to lull us to sleep. I suppose this was payback for the harrowing drive to discover it. Thinking back on it, I must again say, “Devilishly strange.”
Bodie & Bodie Masonic Roads
We’ve sought out and visited the magical old ghost mining town of Bodie, nestled in the hills off California 395 on Highway 270. The drive is 10 miles on pavement and, depending on the season and state of the road, three more miles on the edge of 4WD. The altitude in town is nearly 8,500 feet, so expect very changeable weather. There are two ways into Bodie, and the Masonic Road is much rockier and somewhat longer. In a fit of adventure-seeking insanity, we attempted to reach the ghost town one winter day, despite warnings that the road “may be impassible due to snow.” Adventure always comes to those who are willing to cross the fence into lunatic land. We were lucky to get away from there before the spirits of the miners claimed our souls. The town of Bodie lies in situ, frozen in time, and it is worth the visit to walk streets that carried the feet of 100,000 aspirants of fortune, and stare into windows revealing stories of their lives. Smoke seems to emanate from chimneys, the sounds of laughter and music blend with the wind’s passage across rooftops. All about you the streets give the impression that just before you rounded the corner, they were there.
This is an eerie spot, and many claim the often troubled winds echo the insatiable cries of condemned spectral seekers of their always-elusive gold.
California SR 99 & Highway 108: Sonora Pass
There are a number of routes across the Sierras, and Highway 108, a southern east–west transit point, lies between Modesto, at the intersection of State Road 99, and Bridgeport, Highway 395. SR 99, incidentally, runs vertically down the center of California, and, despite its wide, flat, straight layout, is listed as the most deadly highway in America. Over the past five years there have been over 62 fatal accidents per 100 miles of the 400-mile stretch of highway. We try to avoid this route at all costs, which is not a good lead-in to Highway 108.
In a narrow band of seasons, driving a car on 108 presents no problems other than exercising steering wheel spinning like a Las Vegas roulette wheel. The highway takes you up to an elevation of 9,624 feet, one of the highest mountain roads in California. Switchbacks and hairpin turns are extremely numerous. There are up to 26% grades in some sections! Signs post warning restrictions on trucks and RVs to avoid traveling this highway. Each time we’ve taken this route, we’ve seen those warned vehicles trapped in hairpin turns, traffic stuck behind or being routed around them—warning signs are for others, after all. It’s messy when the center of a long vehicle sits on the pinnacle of a curve, seesawing and preventing the front and rear of the rig from moving. It can take hours to jack up the mass and clear the intersection.
If this is your rig, it will go down into the nightmare log book. If you plan on traveling on this gem of a road, weather often closes it down from November to May. If you exit the highway near Bridgeport, do a Google search for hot springs and take a free soak of a lifetime. One hot spring sits directly above the town with stunning views out across the valley. We enjoyed a winter snow camp adjacent to the springs one year, attaining such core body heat from lengthy soaks that we walked naked in the moonlight through snowdrifts, steam billowing around our bodies, blocking out starlight around us.