Passing fancy

Hiking Colorado's 12,000-foot passes

James Dziezynski | Boulder Weekly

Colorado’s Rocky Mountains have no shortage of interesting wilderness quests. Summit climbing, especially on our fabled 14,000-foot peaks, makes perfect sense in a state with so many wonderful destinations. But for those who want something a little different and equally epic, check out pass bagging. The term “pass bagging” may not inspire visions of brazen mountain climbing, and yet, as it turns out, there are some legitimately beefy climbs on the pass list.

Any good quest needs a tempting checklist. The standard amongst those who have taken a shine to pass bagging is to go for all the mountain passes over 12,000 feet. Colorado has 129 officially named passes that meet this criteria. Two passes are located on private, inaccessible property (Culebra and Whiskey Passes) so for legal intents that leaves 127. That’s more than double the number of 14,000-foot peaks (even if you go by the high-end count of 58 14ers), and that means lots of amazing parts of Colorado to explore.

Perhaps the first mistake people make (including this writer) is believing that the passes are either paved or boring 4×4 roads or subtle dips between more exciting mountains. Consider this: Only four of the 129 passes in Colorado are accessible by passenger car. Compare that stat to the 14ers, which have two paved drive-ups, meaning you can drive to the top of approximately 3.3 percent of the 14ers and only 3.1 percent of the passes. Minor victory for the passes! In fact, the majority of the 12,000-foot passes are on hiking trails or completely off-trail — in other words, they are not found on any kind of road. And many of the passes that are on 4×4 roads are rugged and remote enough to enjoy just as much as any other high-altitude hike.

There are two wonderful books to aid the potential pass bagger: Hiking the High Passes by Bob Martin and Crossing the High Divide by Sallie Varner. Martin’s book is a collection of 50 passes, most of them over 12,000 feet.

Varner’s book is a more focused project that explores 81 passes, all of them over 12,000 feet. Together, these books serve as excellent companion pieces.

It must be noted that not every saddle between peaks is considered a pass.

Varner’s definition is simple: A high-altitude pass is a gap that serves as a division between two watersheds.

There is a lot of appeal to getting up Colorado’s passes. None of them are technical hikes by their easiest routes (class 2 or easy class 3 scrambling), meaning many of the passes are accessible year-round by foot. Versatility is another hallmark of pass bagging. If hiking isn’t your thing, you can try mountain biking many of the passes or skiing them when there’s snow on the ground. One more bonus: Hiking Colorado’s passes offers a lot of dog-friendly adventures.

For those who think that passes are simply too tame and easy, might I suggest taking a crack at such challenging destinations as Boulder-Grand Pass in Rocky Mountain National Park and Knee-Knocker Pass in the rugged Gore Range. Both involve tricky, off-trail navigation and entail some very steep terrain. Passes in the southwestern San Juan Range are high above treeline, and some, such as Stony Pass, make a strong case for being placed in the most beautiful region in the Rockies. Hunchback Pass, out of the ruins of the ghostly Beartown, leads to an area in the remote Grenadier Range, one of the deepest pockets of true wilderness in the state. Don’t forget that many of these passes denote the start of ridges that lead to magnificent summits, so in the course of getting your passes you can also grab many of Colorado’s best peaks along the way.

The highest official pass is 13,207 foot Argentine Pass, not far from the popular Front Range classic Grays Peak. Aspen and Leadville are particularly good areas for high mountain passes, with each area boasting more than a dozen classic passes. Rocky Mountain National Park has some rugged gems, such as the challenging McHenry’s Notch. And for sheer beauty, the passes in the San Juans are often flush with wildflowers and rolling carpets of colorful alpine grasses.

Pass bagging may be a niche quest in contrast to 14ers, or even 13ers, but like other adventures, it can be addicting. Chances are, if you’ve spent any time in the mountains, you already have a few passes under your belt. Pass bagging is broader in scope than the 14ers and is an ideal task to complete over the course of a few years — and gives yet more reasons to explore different parts of Colorado. Not many people have heard of Virginius Pass or Three Step Pass, and that is part of the allure. Beyond the heavily trodden trails await a collection of unique destinations that are worthy goals for those ready to look beyond the mountaintops.