by Mark Cheater
f you're looking for a fall adventure that will take your breath away, the 20-mile Galloping Goose Trail in southwestern Colorado is certain to satisfy. Should the grandeur of the snow-capped mountains, azure skies and golden aspen leaves fail to make you gasp, the altitude surely will, as this path tops out at nearly two miles above sea level.
Along with the spectacular views and bracing mountain air, this rail-trail comes with a surprisingly colorful history. And it's situated near the world-class resort town of Telluride—complete with its host of recreational, cultural and culinary options—so there are plenty of ways to entertain yourself both before and after you hit the trail.
The tourists who flock to this isolated corner of Colorado today come primarily for the skiing, the mountain biking or the hiking—all of which are first-rate. But more than 130 years ago, people streamed to this area for the precious metals buried in the towering San Juan range. They staked claims, pitched tents and began digging. Mining camps in Telluride and elsewhere quickly turned into boomtowns flush with cash. That attracted bank robbers, including a young outlaw from Utah named Butch Cassidy, who made the first heist of his notorious career in Telluride on June 24, 1889.
Cassidy galloped quickly out of town with his haul, but law-abiding citizens seeking to move ore out of the area were forced to take slow mule teams over mountain passes to railroad junctions in Ridgway or Durango. Russian immigrant Otto Mears, who had built a rail line nearby, saw an opportunity. In 1890, he began the daunting task of building a narrow-gauge line through the treacherous topography.
To scale the 10,200-foot-high pass between Durango and Telluride, his crews had to blast ledges from the sides of cliffs, build winding loops and construct dozens of trestles. In just 18 months, they laid 150 miles of track, and Rio Grande Southern (RGS) Railroad trains began carrying ore down from the mines. Almost as soon as it was finished, however, the railroad fell on hard times, with the economic depression of 1893 sending the company into receivership.
But the trains kept running. As the area's economy diversified, the railroad began carrying lumber, cattle, passengers and mail. In the early 1930s, when the Great Depression hit, the line's operators hit on a scheme to save money. Rather than run locomotives, which required crews of four, they invented the gasoline-powered "galloping goose." This ungainly, silver hybrid—part car, part bus, part train—required only one person to run it. Seven "geese" were built, and they allowed the railroad to stay afloat for another two decades—until the postal service canceled the company's mail-delivery contract (the railroad's chief source of income) in 1951.
A group of passionate RGS enthusiasts, the Galloping Goose Historical Society, operates a museum in a restored depot in Dolores, about 65 miles south of Telluride. There you can climb inside a restored "goose," look at photos, displays and dioramas, and buy memorabilia. A day trip to the museum is not only a great way to learn about the history of the trail, but will help you get acclimatized to the altitude. (Flatlanders should give themselves at least a day to get accustomed to the thin air before jumping on a bike.)
The trail is well worth the wait. You can easily reach the northern trailhead (in the Lawson Hill subdivision about three miles west of Telluride) by one of two routes: a paved multi-use path that runs alongside Route 145 out of town, or a scenic, unpaved path along the San Miguel River. Both routes join near the junction where Route 145 heads south; cross the road here and ride on Society Drive about half a mile until you see a large, unpaved parking lot on the right, with a sign marking the trailhead.
The first section of the trail is a gradual descent into a canyon paralleling the river, through forests of green conifers and golden aspen and along a ledge of red rock strewn with boulders. Emerging on the valley floor, you cross a gravel road (state road 625, also known as Illium Road) and a short bridge, following the trail along the south fork of the San Miguel for about half a mile until the trail intersects with another gravel road (state road 624, also known as Sunshine Mesa Road). Turn left here, and follow the road as you begin the long ascent up to Lizard Head Pass along the west side of the valley.
The climb is gentle and the car traffic sparse on this on-road part of the route, so you'll have plenty of time to drink in the gorgeous scenery: the jagged red spires of the aptly named Ophir Needles, the snow-covered summit of Mount Wilson (whose likeness adorns labels of Coors beer), and, below these and other peaks and mesas, a curved valley draped with a carpet of evergreens and quaking aspen.
After about 2.5 miles, you'll see a small turnoff to the left with a gate and trailhead sign—this is where the path leaves the road and continues its march up the valley. The next several miles offer a variety of views and challenges, including wide scree slopes; sections where old railroad ties are interspersed with aspens; and narrow side valleys once spanned by trestles, decaying portions of which are still visible below and alongside the path. At several points in this stretch, the trail narrows to single-track with steep drop-offs or crosses through small streams, so the going can be slow.
As you move upward, you'll pass Ames. This hamlet is the site of the world's first commercial alternating-current (AC) power plant, built in 1890 to supply electricity to a mill at a nearby mine. The facility helped pave the way for the adoption of AC power across the nation. Nearby, the trail skirts a network of dirt mounds and tailing impoundments marked with "No trespassing" signs—a former dumping ground for mining waste.
But don't let this blemish discourage you; some scenic switchbacks through a lovely forest await, and you'll soon find yourself on the brink of Route 145 west of the town of Ophir. You've got two choices here: One is to take the bike tunnel under the highway and continue up the trail as it turns into single-track, then crosses and merges with several unsigned gravel roads and driveways—a route that may leave you lost and frustrated. The other choice is to pull onto the highway, ride the narrow shoulder for about a mile uphill (south) until you see a sign for Matterhorn campground and turn onto Priest Lake Road on your left.
Whichever route you choose, you'll end up riding south on Priest Lake Road past a camping area and some small lakes. After about a mile and a half, you'll reach Trout Lake Dam and the intersection with Trout Lake Road. Turn left here and follow the road around the lake, past a collection of small homes and an old railroad water tank. After about a mile and a half, the road crosses over a stream feeding the lake, and nearby you'll find a curving, banked railroad trestle that's been restored for viewing (but not riding or walking). Three more miles uphill and you'll arrive at 10,222-foot-high Lizard Head Pass trailhead, where you can linger to admire the spectacular snow-capped mountains around you and try to catch your breath in the thin air. After all, you've gained 1,580 feet of elevation on your climb.
Many visitors decide the round-trip is either too challenging because of the shortage of oxygen, or too time-consuming—so they opt for a one-way trip starting at Lizard Head Pass going downhill to Telluride. You can arrange this one-way jaunt on your own if you've got more than one car and driver. Better yet, let a local outfitter (like Further Adventures) shuttle you and your bike to the top of the pass. Some of these outfitters offer guided group trips down the trail, freeing you from the chore of navigating this sometimes cryptic path while delivering running commentary by an expert guide.
Whether you ride the Galloping Goose alone or as part of a group, this is sure to be one of the most exhilarating rail-trail rides you've taken. But come prepared—the path is often rough and winding, and the air is thin. Conditions can change from sunny and pleasant to cold and snowy in just minutes, so wear lots of layers, including a waterproof shell. This is a trail named for a goose, after all—if you're going to soar in the mountain air, you've got to be ready for some "fowl" weather.
Read Mark Cheater's article, including extended Travel Facts, as it appeared in the print magazine:
Destination: Colorado (PDF/1.01MB)