The approach to the airport is the first indication we’re in for something a little different. From an altitude of what feels like maybe 15,000 feet, the pilot announces we’ll be on the ground in just a few minutes. The quick math says we’re either about to drop quite suddenly, or the airport itself will rise up and meet us halfway. Soon after, the flaps go out and the landing gear comes down as we shoot into the narrow valley between two mountain peaks, and sure enough, the tarmac comes up to greet us. We’ve just landed at 9087 feet above sea level, on a plateau that claims stake to being the highest commercial airport in the country. This unconventional arrival sets the stage for what will be the two most incredible days of off-road driving this writer has ever experienced.
There are plenty of places more accessible than Telluride, Colorado, in which to drive new Land Rovers in the rough, but that’s not the point. This locale has special significance to Land Rover — it’s part of the company history, where one leg of the 1989 Great Divide Expedition crossed. That ambitious undertaking saw a pack of six US-spec Range Rovers traverse the length of the Continental Divide on its way through America, starting in Montana and ending in New Mexico. That was no simple feat; the team of Land Rover guides and journalists covered more than 1100 miles in just thirteen days, on mostly unpaved roads that followed old Native American trails and nineteenth-century mining roads. It was, in fact, the first time the Divide had been driven top to bottom by car.
If Land Rover has been there and done that, then why had we — a small handful of motoring and lifestyle journalists — been flown in to drive these same roads again? Guinea pig duty, apparently. Next year, Land Rover plans to offer the same opportunity to the public at large, and we’ve been invited along on some practice runs. Details of what will most likely become the Land Rover Telluride Experience will be announced later, but our two-day excursion gives us a pretty good idea of what next year’s participants will be up against.
The plan is to offer a two-day arrive-and-drive program for Land Rover owners, or for that matter anyone who wants to experience the full range of Rover capabilities. The use of brand new LR4s and Range Rovers will be included in the cost, as will lodging and meals. Accommodations will be considerably more luxurious than the original crew was afforded some two decades ago. Our base camp was the luxurious Lumiere resort hotel in Telluride’s neighboring Mountain Village, which seems perfectly suited to the task should it be chosen the hotel of choice.
Day 1 – Telluride to Ouray via Imogene Pass
After a good meal and a night to adjust to the altitude (9545 feet at the hotel), our first day behind the wheel starts with a drive into the village of Telluride. Riding shotgun in each vehicle is a certified trail guide, all of whom have years of expedition driving experience under their belts. Many are past participants and even winners in the Camel Trophy Challenge, and at least one was on the original Great Divide Expedition more than twenty years ago. Their job is to keep us from accidentally driving off the side of a mountain or bottoming an axle on a boulder. At certain points, they’ll be outside the trucks giving very specific directional instruction where it’s impossible for the driver to know where to put his vehicle. But for now they’re inside making sure we’re familiar with all the functions of our sophisticated rigs.
Ten minutes into the ride we turn onto a side street that rapidly devolves into a half-paved alley before completely falling apart into a burro trail climbing the mountainside just north of town. This is Tomboy Road, named for the Tomboy mine just a couple miles outside of town. The terrain is already strewn with boulders and ruts, and it’s hard to imagine stagecoaches running up and down this trail a century ago. We at least have the benefit of 375 horses to make the climb in our LR4, which is now in low range and with the air suspension at full lift. We’re told this is just a primer, an hors d’oeuvre to whet our appetites for what will come later in the day, and absolutely nothing compared to what we’ll face on the second day of the journey. The view from the right side is breathtaking as we scale the narrow path, with steep falloffs just inches away from our tires.
We stop for a short break when we reach the ruins of the old Tomboy mine. Decaying beams and crumbling masonry still succeed in painting a picture of how difficult life in these parts once was. Despite the stunning scenery all around us, the geography is downright inhospitable, offering little in the way of basic necessities like food and water. We live in better times, no doubt.
Back in the comfort of our Rovers, we press on from Tomboy on Imogene Pass, a trail famous among off-road drivers and riders alike. As we reach greater heights, vegetation becomes scarce. Up around 13,000 feet, there’s nothing on the ground but rocks. Big, sharp rocks. Not only is it barren up here, but the air is considerably cooler at the peak of our climb; the trucks are taking it all in stride so far.
Our midday break finds us conveniently at a scenic creek crossing. The gang of brand new Land Rovers must look at least mildly out of place to the lifted Jeeps and dirtbikes that pass us by while we enjoy our gourmet picnic from the tailgates. Bellies filled, we take to the trail for the afternoon, which turns out to be relatively tame, especially the section from Camp Bird to the town of Ouray. Compared to what we’ve just done, Highway 361 is a Sunday drive in the park, a glorified gravel road strewn with pickup trucks, rental Jeeps and Subarus with bike racks.
The group bunks overnight at the historic twelve-room Beaumont Hotel in the old mining town of Ouray, a fairly typical western boomtown that once housed numerous saloons, a couple seedy hotels and even its own red-light district, but today claims to be the Jeep capital of the world. Except on this night, when new Land Rovers dominate the streetscape. The second day, we’re told, will be more challenging than the first. By a lot. So far we’ve barely tapped our trucks’ capabilities, and our guides haven’t even had to leave the passenger seat yet.
Day 2 – Ouray to Silverton to Telluride via Black Bear Pass
A new day begins and we switch vehicles; I’m now piloting a $105,000 Range Rover Supercharged. The first leg puts us on Highway 550, a road cut into the steep mountainside over a century ago. Today it’s paved, but it’s surprisingly narrow, and features no guardrails in order to facilitate snow removal in the winter. This is the easy part of our day.
We soon turn off 550 onto the Alpine Loop, a rough mining trail with deep ruts, large jagged boulders and naturally flowing water crossing our path. We roll the Terrain Response knob into Mud and Ruts mode; the trans is already in low range, and the display on the center stack is showing the individual differentials locking and unlocking themselves as they negotiate the natural obstacles. At times the trail becomes more accommodating and we pick up the pace a bit. More often than not, we’re crawling at a snail’s pace, with hill descent control chattering away as it does its job. It’s reassuring to know we have all these safeguards, but in 1989 those Range Rovers had coil spring suspensions, and their only electronic aid was ABS.
We push on toward the town of Silverton for lunch, then we’re off to the final leg of the excursion, and the most grueling by far — Black Bear Pass. It’s a very demanding section, especially the descent down Bridal Veil Falls. The road here is one-way, the first indication that there’s zero margin of error. The surface is now a mix of gravel and giant granite boulders,and sometimes HDC can’t even keep the trucks from rolling on the loose stuff. Terrain Response gets switched to Rock Crawl in order to let the twenty-inch street tires claw at the wet rocks and deep ruts. The Land Rovers crawl their way through off-camber turns and into gullies that work their suspensions to the limits of travel, and they look so beautiful going about their work.
We reach a peak altitude of 12,840 feet before starting our treacherous descent. The spectacle at this height is like an over-saturated watercolor painting. The rocks are a mix of vibrant rust and tan colors, and the sky is a deep shade of blue. We gather for a group shot at this peak, standing in awe of nature’s beauty.
The moment of truth arrives once we cross Ingram Creek. In the distance below is Telluride, and the only way to get there from here is to drive down the tight and narrow switchbacks that barely exist on the steep face of the mountain as it drops nearly 4000 vertical feet to the valley floor. The pucker factor is at its highest here; sitting in the driver’s seat is not for the weak of heart, and riding passenger isn’t much easier. At this point our guide steps outside the vehicle, ostensibly to guide us precisely where we need to be, but perhaps as a self-preservation move as well. No sense going along for the ride if a novice confuses the brake and gas pedals at the wrong moment. It takes nearly forty-five minutes of tiptoeing on the loose, narrow trail before we finally reach the bottom, palms sweaty and hearts racing. Everyone makes it down in one piece, and we pack up for the short ride back to our hotel in Mountain Village.
In two full days of driving, we cover a grand total of about 80 miles. Without a doubt, it is the most challenging, rugged and beautiful drive I’ve ever experienced. It would be easy to say the vehicles do all the work, but that’s only part of the formula for success. A good trail guide is also essential, and Land Rover’s team is as good as they come. The truth is it also takes a patient, focused driver to keep the shiny side up.
For those who eventually sign up for this adventure next summer, it will be an experience they won’t soon forget. Not only will they be blown away by what a standard-issue Land Rover can accomplish, they’ll probably walk away surprised in themselves as well.
Thirteen days must have been a special kind of hell for those lucky enough to do the Great Divide Expedition, but I’m pretty sure I’d volunteer for a complete recreation of the trip in a heartbeat.