A small white church with a pointed steeple marks the entrance to this scenic drive in Colorado. Located on the Western Slope near Gunnison sits the tiny community of Tincup and its namesake pass, Tincup Pass. Among the many passes in Colorado, this is far from the most difficult but it offers more activities than most can boast. Its hidden location is traveled mostly by locals of the state and offers a chance to greet the Continental Divide. It climbs to an elevation of 12,192 feet with its lowest point just over 10,000 feet. The 12.1 miles of off-roading you will accomplish may be a short morning trip, but the experience along the way will be forever engraved in your memory.
After turning at the little white church, you will soon come upon Mirror Lake. A breathtaking view all its own, this lake worth a picture or two. The rugged section of Tincup Pass begins on the west side of the lake. The off road trail crosses a river and snakes along a narrow cliffside. This section is also speckled with large rocks jutting out of the earth. The most exciting part of the ride happens here. Climbing this ledge, you are sheltered by a canopy of rich coniferous trees that shield the sun from your eyes and the snow from melting until late July. The snowpack is still too deep to cross until this time of year and usually the trail is closed.
The summit of this trail is marked with a sign indicating you have reached the Continental Divide. This is the point where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans are connected by a drainage that runs along the mountainside. While looking at it in layman’s terms does not make it seem uber exciting, it is a big deal to take a picture next to this landmark. Not only does it mark the top of the pass, but if you were to float down the drainage you could end up in either ocean cuddling the United States. As a disclaimer, it is not a good idea to float in a drainage ditch despite what cool place it will take you.
The second half of the pass (or first depending on which end you begin your journey from) leads to the ghost town of Saint Elmo. A once thriving town due to mining and the railroad, Saint Elmo’s buildings have been deserted since the early 1900’s. The trail to here is very mallow. It is a gradual ride down with views of 12,000 foot peaks in the distance and groves of wild green grasses. The trail is slightly bumpy as you descend back to the timberline but nothing a high clearance vehicle could not handle. There are no steep drop offs but the rocks will have you shaking back and forth.
Tincup Pass is one of the easier off road trails in Colorado but it is a significant one. It connects you to either ocean at the summit, it is an incredibly scenic ride, and gives you a chance to view what was once a happening Colorado city. Scattered with mud holes and a few cows, you will certainly enjoy the obstacles nature throws your way. As a bonus, you can even see one of Colorado’s fishing honey holes, Mirror Lake, on the western end of Tincup Pass. Hidden far from the front range and only accessible by a high clearance, four-wheel drive vehicle, you will not run into rush hour out here. Whether you decide to start in Tincup as I always do or in the ghost town of Saint Elmo, you will be in for an exciting adventure. Just like many of the high alpine areas though, make sure you are back to camp by one. The afternoon’s storms are doozies.