Independence Pass and Aspen

independence pass sign

Independence Pass & Aspen History and Info

Independence Pass is one of Colorado’s top 10 Scenic By-ways.

Independence Pass Summit sign

  • The “Top of the Rockies,” and is also designated by the U.S. Secretary of Transportation as a National Scenic Byway and one of America’s 10 best By-ways.
  • The summit of Independence Pass at the Continental Divide is 12,095 feet above sea level.

Paved switchback on the east side of Independence Pass

Paved switchback on the east side of Independence Pass

  • The Pass is a 32-mile drive from the Arkansas River to Aspen.
  • It is the 3rd highest paved road in the Country.
  • The ride takes anywhere from an hour to 2 hours. Longer if you stop along the way to enjoy scenic views.
  • The road is steep, narrow and twisty with only a few guardrails and has several one lane sections on the West side.

Independenc pass on the Divide ride

  • Ferdinand Hayden first surveyed the pass in 1873 in what was at the time Ute Indian Territory.
  • Roadway improvements undertaken by B. Clark Wheeler in 1882 established the Pass as a toll road charging 25-cents for saddle horses and 50-cents for two-horse wagons.

Big Horn Sheep

Independence Pass was carved out of the land by glaciers and the erosive action of the Roaring Fork River over millions of years.

  • It is the site of the first road in the Roaring Fork Valley, which was pioneered over Hunter Pass, the original name of Independence Pass, in 1881.
  • An old stage road still remains visible from several locations on the West side.
  • Traffic over Independence Pass fell off following the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1893 that resulted in a crash of silver prices.
  • That devastated the mining communities throughout the valley.
  • The towns of Aspen, Ashcroft, Independence and Ruby all saw their population drop overnight as miners relocated to richer claims.
  • As a result, roadway improvements over the Pass did not occur until 1927, and the road was not paved until 1967.

Early in the morning it's only motorcycles at the summit of Independence Pass.

Early in the morning  it’s only motorcycles at the summit. Later in the afternoon good luck finding a place to park!

  • The ghost town of Independence sits three miles west of the summit and was inhabited by some 2,000 citizens who came to work mining claims in the area between 1880 and 1883.
  • When the silver boom went bust, most people moved on to pursue other claims or moved to the lower altitude of Aspen.
  • The final resident of Independence was Mr. J.R. Williams, who was one of the original miners and maintained a stamp mill in Independence until 1920.
  • Surveyors named the Williams Mountains after Mr. Williams.

East of the Independence Pass

The top Twin Lake at Independence Pass

The top Twin Lake East of Independence Pass

Highway 82 across Independence Pass is best driven from east to west, since this direction which offers the nicest views.

  • From the east, the journey begins just below the old Chaffee County seat of Granite, at the junction with US 24 in the upper Arkansas River valley, already at quite a high elevation of 9,100 feet.

The first few miles parallel the north shores of Twin Lakes Reservoirs – two scenic, interconnected lakes at the mouth of a narrow valley framed by several dramatic peaks beyond, attractively reflected in the calm waters.

  • The lakes are popular for fishing, boating and picnicking.
  • The highway rounds the marshy west end of the furthest lake and meets the inlet stream, which it follows for the next 12 miles – through quite a valley, bordered by smooth-sided, wooded mountain slopes.

Mt Elbert

The summit of Mt Elbert is 14,439 feet above level

To the right heading up the Pass, the hills rise up to Colorado’s highest peak Mount Elbert.

  • 14,439′ Mount Elbert is the highest summit of the Rocky Mountains in North America and the highest point in the U.S. state of Colorado and the entire Mississippi River drainage basin.
  • On the opposite side is La Plata Peak, at 14,360′ the fifth tallest mountain in the state, and several other summits in view also top 13,000 feet.
  • The highway passes two creekside campsites in a forested part of the canyon, then moves into more open land and bends to the north, while still climbing only gradually.

East side of Independence Pass

East side of Independence Pass

Soon the road begins a much steeper ascent as it bends back south, traversing an exposed slope at the head of the valley.

  • Several long switchbacks take the road 1,300 feet higher over the next 4 miles to Independence Pass, which sits on the Continental Divide, the crest of the Sawatch Range, and the boundary of the White River and San Isabel national forests.

The Summit of Independence Pass

Independence Pass Summit sign

The land around the summit is flattish, windswept, lonely, and covered by sparse vegetation of grass and delicate tundra plants – the treeline is a thousand feet lower down – yet all around are higher mountains, especially to the south and east.

  • Several shallow pools line the road around the pass, and patches of snow are likely to remain for most of the summer.

West of the Pass

Old cabins at the old mining town on Independence Pass

Old cabins at the old mining town on Independence Pass

West of Independence Pass, Hwy 82 descends at an 6% grade across steep, barren slopes of rock and bare earth.

  • Through an area prone to landslides, and soon reaches the very upper end of Roaring Fork River, which is then followed through thick woodland for 20 miles, all the way to the ski resort town of Aspen.
  • En route are various trailheads, campsites and riverside parking areas plus one ghost town – Independence, that was home to around 2,000 miners during a brief boom period in the late 1800s.
  • Relics include cabins on the valley floor and the wooden frame of Farwell Stamp Mill, right beside the road.
  • This section of the highway is generally narrower (a one-lane road in a few places) and a bit more bendy than east of the pass; partly because of the trees, the views are more restricted, starting a little ways west of Independence.

About the Independence Ghost Town:

  • The first mining site in the Roaring Fork Valley, today, Independence is an archaeological preserve, featuring interpretive stations that tell of the characters, enterprises, and structures that make it an integral part of area history.
  • Located just below the Continental Divide, the ghost town is on Independence Pass along the Top of the Rockies’ Scenic Byway.

A bit about Aspen History and a Timeline

Aspen Ski Slopes in the summer

Ski Slopes at Aspen in the summertime

When the silver mines around Aspen eventually petered out, this picturesque Victorian mountain town reinvented itself as a world-class ski resort.

  • It set the trend that followed across the American West and dozens of ski areas were created on government forest service land, catering to the rise in popularity of the sport of snow skiing.
  • Today, Aspen is arguably the most glamorous of America’s ski resort towns, being as popular with movie stars as it is with hardcore powder hounds.

The Silver Boom

aspem victorian house

In 1893, Aspen was a thriving Victorian mining town in the middle of the Rocky Mountains.

  • It had two theaters, an opera house, a hospital and several banks.
  • Many of these original Victorian-era buildings and homes still stand, giving the town its charming atmosphere.

The Silver Bust

  • In 1893, when US President Cleveland repealed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, the impetus disappeared for digging so much silver out of the mountains.
  • Within weeks of the repeal, dozens of Aspen mines closed and thousands of miners found themselves out of luck, abandoning the town in droves.

A Vision of Snow and Skiing

ski lift

In 1930, only 700 people lived in this once-thriving mining town.

  • However, the lovely old buildings were still intact and the town continued to see heavy snow each winter.
  • Friedl Pfeifer, a member of the 10th Mountain Division who had trained in the area during WWII, returned after the war and teamed up with Walter Paepcke to establish the Aspen Skiing Corporation in 1946.
  • The rest is Aspen history, as they say.
  • The town quickly grew into a hot spot for skiing and other alpine recreation.
  • The restored Hotel Jerome reopened in 1947, along with the refurbished Wheeler Opera House – two local landmarks that are still in operation today.
  • Aspen hosted the FIS World Championships in 1950, an event that put it on the global skiing map.

Ponderosa Lodge Logo

Culture to Match the Recreation

This has been a visionary town from the start.

  • During the 1960s, the skiing history of Aspen expanded with the opening of Buttermilk and the Highlands (1958), followed by Snowmass in 1967.
  • Aspen remains one of the world’s leading centers for alpine research, skiing and unique cultural events.
  • Its primary source of income is tourism, but it’s a bustling four-season town and one of the most expensive places to live in America.
  • Celebrities like author Hunter Thompson and singer-songwriter John Denver once called Aspen home, and most visitors wish they could do the same.
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