Hidden gem: If you can get past frightening Red Mountain Pass, Ironton Park Cross Country Ski Area i

If you can get past frightening Red Mountain Pass, Ironton Park Cross Country Ski Area is drop-dead gorgeous


Drive time and distance: 2 hours, 103.9 miles

Length: 4 miles of groomed trails; many more miles of backcountry trails

Elevation: 9,700 ft.

Ski time: 1-2 hours on the groomed stuff

Difficulty: Easy on groomed trails; backcountry is a different deal!

On a good day, with crystal clear skies and dry roads, the Ironton Park Cross Country Ski Area is 13 minutes from downtown Ouray, only two hours from Grand Junction.

On a bad day, you can’t get there from here.

The Ouray County Nordic Council maintains four miles of groomed trail with set Nordic track in this fairly level valley south of Ouray on Hwy 550.

That’s Red Mountain Pass, you know, and even on a bluebird day with dry, clear roads, Red Mountain Pass can be frightening.

Once you hit the trail, however, you’ll be in heaven. The trail glides around a snow-covered sludge pond created to catch the dregs from the old Idarado Mine’s massive tailings piles, and past the historic ghost town of Ironton. With the jagged, snow-covered peaks of the San Juans towering over the valley, it’s drop-dead gorgeous and you’d never know you were skiing anywhere near an old sludge pond.

The main part of the Idarado Mine operation is a few miles further up valley, and was one of the last operating mines in the San Juan Mountains. It ceased operations in the 1990s, but environmental cleanup is ongoing. The old historic town of Ironton was abandoned years before that.

Ironton was one of the largest towns in this rich Red Mountain mining district. Founded in 1883, the town boasted of 300 residents, a post office, fire station, municipal water station, electric plant and railroad station. In fact, it was an important supply center as the northern terminus of the Silverton Railroad, but as mining waned by the early 1900s, the town’s population rapidly dwindled. By the 1960’s, it was totally abandoned.

Although most of the town’s buildings are gone, many still stand in varying degrees of decay. Skiers and snowshoers can view the exteriors, but don’t enter, as they may collapse. Then, you’d be in deep yogurt.

The Ouray Nordic Council has done a great job of creating and maintaining these trails, with lots of help from private landowners and public agencies. It’s an easy glide, and very safe. No avalanche danger here. However, if you want a little more excitement, there are miles and miles of more challenging ungroomed trails, which are clearly marked, leading to historic mine sites and scenic overlooks. Most of those trails follow old jeep trails and mining roads. Trail maps are available at the trail head. Donations are welcome and encouraged to help fund trail grooming.

The Nordic Council advises that although some south-facing slopes and trails may melt off early, snow conditions for skiing and snowshoeing are generally reliable from early December well into April.

Be aware,” warns the Council, “that the snow in the San Juans is extremely powdery, which makes for heavenly turns downhill but hellish trail breaking and post-holing on the way up. Clear, deep blue sky days prevail, but beware that the weather can change rapidly. Dress appropriately in layers of synthetic material (cotton holds moisture and can cause serious hypothermia problems) and don’t forget your sunglasses and sunscreen.”

Sound advice.

To reach this area drive south from Grand Junction on U.S. Highway 50. It turns into U.S. Highway 550 just south of Main Street in Montrose. Stay on that all the way through the town of Ouray and up Red Mountain Pass. The Ironton Park Cross-Country Ski Area is found 7.5 miles south of town on the left hand (east) side of the road. At this point, you’ll be driving across a relatively flat open park, but to get there, Red Mountain Pass is steep, windy and its unguarded drop-offs are, as the Nordic Council suggests, “arresting.”  Nonetheless, this is a great place to ski.

This flat expanse of park seems out of place beneath the towering peaks of the San Juans, but was actually formed millions of years ago – at the end of the last Ice Age – “when sediment-laden streams filled the bed of a shallow lake,” according to Jeff La Frenierre in his excellent book, “San Juan Adventure Guide – a guide to hiking, biking and skiing in southwestern Colorado.”

The Council is actually a division of the Ouray Trail Group, a local community-based, non-profit organization composed of skiing and hiking enthusiasts. The organization is dedicated to encouraging safe, enjoyable hiking and other low-impact outdoor recreational activities in the San Juan Mountains and helping to protect the beauty and other resource values of this area.

This group provides excellent maps of all the hiking and skiing trails around this area. Go to   http://www.ouraytrails.org  for more information.

On a clear day, these maps lead to some awe-inspiring places. On a bad day, though, forget about it. Red Mountain Pass is tough enough when the pass is dry. On a bad day, it’s bone ugly!


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