Legend has it Forest Service Road 648, known as “Black Bear Pass,” was cut into the Rocky Mountains in the late 1800s by prospectors brave or crazy enough to go anywhere for gold. Fast forward a century and it’s one of the most incredible routes to explore in a 4x4. But that could change because people are dumb.

The Pass isn’t considered an extremely challenging off-road run per se, it’s just precarious. A good portion of the trail is chopped into ridiculously tight switchbacks that put tires dangling over thousand-foot drops.

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It’s for this reason that the route is only open for a few months a year, is partially one-way (downhill) only, and is allegedly marked with a sign that reads “Telluride -> City Of Gold. You don’t have to be crazy to drive this road, but it helps. Jeeps only.”

This quick clip on “How To Survive Black Bear Pass” gives you a pretty good idea of what it’s all about:

There have been accidents, and yes, people have died. Now Expedition Portal reports that a few days ago a couple from Florida was trying the Pass, got freaked, tried to turn around, and wound up parking their vehicle on its roof.

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They apparently escaped without serious injury, but tied up “the local Search and Rescue team as well as EMS, Fire and Sheriff Deputies” for a 90-minute extrication while causing a traffic jam on the trail of “more than 100 vehicles.”

For San Miguel County Sheriff Bill Masters, this is a “last straw” kind of situation. As he’s quoted in ExPo:

“At this time of year we are seeing hundreds of vehicles traveling on this extremely hazardous terrain. It’s not safe, and it’s not safe for our community when all of our resources are tied up for an incident like this.”

He does have a point. Amateurs recreating above their abilities has been a major frustration of rescue services in places like this since forever, and that’s basically never going to change.

But closing this trail would be a major blow to the off-road and sporting community. If Black Bear Pass were easy, it’d just be another road. Nobody takes this path because it’s a logical route from Ouray to Telluride, they take it because it’s exciting. It’s harrowing. And because to really live you must almost die.

Should we close the black diamonds at Telluride’s ski resorts because people have hurt themselves there? Ban motorcycles because there are safer ways to get around?

Sheriff Masters argues that San Miguel County’s resources are being wasted rescuing off-roaders. I would argue that those same off-roaders are major reason those resources exist.

Telluride, Colorado isn’t a tech startup hub. It’s not a manufacturing center. It’s a destination for sportsmen and women like the hundreds of Jeep people who visit every year, spend money on food and fuel and trinkets, and along with the ski resorts have kept the town prosperous after the precious metal mining scene dried up.

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Require each vehicle on the trail to carry personal satellite trackers. Charge a toll to pay for rescues. Hell, require an application process to tackle Black Bear Pass if you want to cut down on amateurs making it hard for the rest of us.

But don’t take away America’s right to have an adventure.


Andrew P. Collins is Jalopnik’s off-road and adventure guy. Shoot him an email at andrew@jalopnik.com or hit him up on Twitter @andr3wcollins to talk trucks.

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