Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Last Dollar Road

This is the third of five posts covering my trip to the San Juan Mountains of June 11 - 16, 2013. I figured smaller chunks would be more digestible.

Regular readers may remember my post, Brief Foray into Colorado, where I attempted to drive the Last Dollar Road from south to north in May of this year. I abandoned the attempt a few miles in after getting a shakey road report from two guys coming down the mountain, since I was still driving on OEM tires. I resolved to try it again once I had good tires installed.

June 13, 2013

In my last installment I'd driven through Ouray after visiting the Red Mountain Mining District. I filled the tank in Ridgway and drove west on highway 62 about 12 miles to the turn-off to the Last Dollar Road. It was late in the afternoon, but the road is reportedly only 21 miles long. My thrown-together plan was to drive past the mostly private lands at the north end of the road and find a dispersed camp site in the Uncompahgre National Forest.

Turning south off the highway, you drive up a small, narrow valley with a marshy stream along the bottom. Look for elk and other critters along the stream and beaver ponds. Several times along that stretch I saw marmots at the road's edge basking in the late afternoon sun.

Had to shoot this out of the window with the telephoto lens as these guys were skittish.

There were also shade-loving flowers along the road.

Beautiful Colorado Columbine flowers

The valley is only a couple of miles long, then you almost magically are deposited into a prairie-like meadow of epic proportions.

The Last Dollar Road runs alongside the Last Dollar Ranch. (View is northerly)

This view was an "ah, ha!" moment for me as I'd nearly forgotten about the very first time I'd ever heard of the Last Dollar Road. I'd seen an amazing landscape photograph, on Google+ I think, that showed a beautiful green field full of wildflowers behind an old, zig-zag wooden fence and a glorious mountain range behind it all. It was simply beautiful and I asked the photographer where it was taken and he replied with the name of this road... and here it was!

Last Dollar Ranch (View is easterly)

And now I have to explain something. The photos above, and the following photos of the flowering fields and sunny scenes below, were not from the June 13th of this trip report's narrative. On the 13th the sky was cloudy and not in a photogenic way. I was astonished at the beauty of the area, but disappointed that the weather was not favorable for photos. So, I resolved to return when the light was better. 

As it worked out, I returned the very next evening from Telluride by taking highways 145 and 62 through Placerville, driving down the Lost Dollar Road as far as the ranch and taking nearly 400 photographs (yes, 400! Be very thankful I'm only putting about 20 before your nose, here) before returning to the Telluride area via the highways just before dark. So the photos are in geographical, not chronological, order. OK ? So let's look at some of these photos.

The yellow flowers in the field are Mule's Ear Daisies, named for the leaf shape.

As I was walking up and down the road taking pictures I heard some movement in a thicket on the other side of the road. Soon I heard a strange "barking" from that direction. It didn't sound like a dog or coyote, so I was puzzled until I spotted this elk in the field keeping a close eye on me and "barking." I'm guessing she had a young calf in the thicket and the barking was a warning for it to keep to cover.

Momma Elk

There were blackbirds keeping an eye on me, too, from the fence tops.

Last Dollar Ranch

Mountain Lupine

A female blackbird keeping her eye on me, too.

American Vetch

One of my favorite photos of the afternoon.

Last Dollar Ranch

OK, let's return to the narrative of that first evening's drive down Last Dollar Road.

As I proceeded south along the road there were turn-offs to other homes and smaller ranches. The road would occasionally dip though a stream or run through a wooded area. Then the road started up into the mountains.

The road climbed and climbed. It was narrow in places, but in good condition. There were no places to turn off until I came to a spot I think of as the westerly overlook. (You can see how unattractive the clouds were that day and it took all my Photoshop skills to pull out any details in the valley below.)

Looking west from the top of the first mountain climb. See the Last Dollar Road below?
I believe that's the San Miguel River valley, with Fall Creek Canyon branching to the left.

The road continued to climb up the hill and finally there was a way to turn off the road on a small track that branched and led into deep forest. I investigated on foot to discover a couple dispersed campsites. I picked one and set-up my camp.

There was only a narrow shelf of level ground before it dropped away. Luckily there was a good sized log I could roll up to the back of the camper, otherwise I'd never have been able to reach the camper steps!

After supper I was feeling very good about how the day had turned out - it had started with a nice walk along South Mineral Creek near Silverton, an interesting drive through the Red Mountain Mining District, a spectacular drive along the high ridge above the Million Dollar Highway, viewing the Gorge at Ouray, then driving down the Last Dollar Road.

Yes, I was feeling pretty smug until I started to hear thunder, until the wind began blowing like the devil, and until the staccato of rain on the roof sounded like firecrackers on the Fourth of July! Suddenly those warning signs posted at both ends of the Last Dollar Road warning that it was impassible when muddy came to mind. It actually didn't rain all that long at this spot, but I kept hearing thunder around the nearby mountains for hours, so had visions of the road becoming a quagmire farther along. Or a tree falling in the wind and squishing me in my bed while I was camped out of sight down a narrow track off the "main" road. Ha, ha, I was telling myself "ghost stories!"

June 14, 2013

Of course the sun rose to clear skies in the morning and other than the dust on my truck now showing a pattern of splotches, there was no indication it had ever rained.

I broke camp and got back on the road. It climbed only about another mile or so before I came to a parking area for the Alder Creek Trail and a few more dispersed campsites. I walked around a little and took photos of the view.

View of the San Miguel Mountains and the Last Dollar Road. Looking southerly.

Last Dollar Mountain. You can see the road coming down the side.
Gray Head Peak on the left with radio towers between them.

The road crosses two talus slopes near the southern end.
The astute reader may recognize this photo is actually from my May trip.

Just past the talus slopes and an aspen grove, there are a few other dispersed campsites perched on the ridge where the road turns and goes down toward Telluride. The view there is fantastic, but probably not recommended when the wind is strong.

Beautiful views even from the lower, southern portion of the Last Dollar Road.

I promised to relate to readers of my earlier post (where I wrote about driving up the Last Dollar Road and then chickening out) about a delicious irony. Turns out I had already driven the rockiest, nastiest portion of the entire road that day in May on my OEM tires!

I'll close out this post with a repeat of the spectacular view of Telluride from near the end of wonderful Last Dollar Road. You owe it to yourself to take this drive!

Telluride as seen from the southern end of the Last Dollar Road.

Thanks for reading. Stay tuned for the next exciting episodes!


  1. wonderful travelogue! Last Dollar Road remains one of my favorites but I've only done in the fall which I highly recommend if you haven't photographed it then. Absolutely spectacular color!

    1. Thanks, Marianne, I appreciate you leaving a comment. I will try to make it up to that whole area in the fall, as I noticed all the aspen on this trip.

  2. What a lovely story you write Bill, and you accompany it with some very impressive photographs; a real treat. I liked the drama of your "ghost stories" (that turned out fine) and wish I could follow in your footsteps. You make the areas you visited look and sound great!

    At last, using Internet Explorer instead of Chrome, I can add my comments

    1. Thanks so much, Peter, I appreciate your continued interest and support... and kind words for my photos.

      So strange that Google's own browser cannot add comments to Google's own blogging platform. But glad you came up with a solution.

  3. Thank you for your detailed review of this wonderful road. I plan to make it there during the first week in October with my FWC Hawk and F150. From some of the posted video, there may be some spots that are narrow and only one vehicle to past. Did you have any issues with that?

    1. If you pay attention to the road ahead, looking for oncoming vehicles, you can find a wide spot to allow passing. A greater concern would be for the weather. If there has been a soaking rain or melting snow, many sections will become impassible even with 4WD. When I took the road this year, it was in much poorer condition than last year.

      Hopefully your timing will be good for the aspen.

  4. Bill,

    I've gotten to where I ignore most warnings. I don't know if the guys are trying to keep the traffic down, if they're just wusses or what, but in every instance I found nothing intimidating, let alone impassable. That said, allow me to recommend FR 250 to Platoro and Treasure Valley. I got on it from hwy 17 (at Antonito) and followed it N by NE to Monte Vista. See blogpost for 8/21/14.

    1. You do NOT want to try Last Dollar Road when muddy as there are places you will sink to your axles. I did try FR 250 a couple years ago and the washboard was so bad it literally shook screws out of my camper. I supposed I could have aired down, but didn't - maybe next time.


Thanks for taking the time to comment. I really appreciate it!