SchofieldPass on Streetbikes
This story was originally written and posted to the Internet BMW Riders, the Long Distance Riders, and the Concours Owners Group e-mail lists in March, 2000.
The following is a little long. Some BMW GS riders will probably relate, everybody else will just think my brother and I were crazy and stupid. I think we're outgrowing both, but slowly.
I was 17 years old, and just out of high school in August 1980, when my older brother Ken and I took a motorcycle trip from Ohio to Colorado. Ken rode a tired 1976 Honda CB-750 that he'd bought used from a brother-in-law, while I rode my new , 1979 Kawasaki KZ-650 Custom.
I had two weeks, Ken had only one. So I rode solo to Colorado, stayed with my sister in Denver, and did day trips up to Central City, Estes Park, and Pike's Peak until Ken arrived.
On one of the day trips, in the gift shop at the summit of Pike's Peak, I bought a book on Colorado ghost towns, complete with maps. After reading it, I suddenly just had to go see some of these towns, in the worst way.
When Ken arrived in Denver a few days later, I showed him the book. He said visiting ghost towns sounded like a good time to him. Several of the trails were marked "4WD Only" in the book, but we figured "How bad could it be?"
The first pass road we took was Tincup Pass, marked 4WD on maps, from St. Elmo to Tincup. Both are former mining towns, now ghost towns. Though we were on large streetbikes, we were able to take narrow lines past the large mudholes up in the pass, and dodge all the nasty stuff easily. Our confidence soared, and we laughed at the author of the book for being overly cautious. Who needs 4WD? Not us..!
We learned much later that Tincup Pass is about the easiest pass road in the state that requires 4WD.
The next place that we thought would be fun to visit was the little ghost town of Crystal, near the headwaters of the Crystal River, upstream of Marble. We were in Crested Butte, and Schofield Pass (4WD Req'd) went from Crested Butte to Crystal. No problem, we thought.
Turns out that Schofield Pass is at the other end of the scale, compared to Tincup Pass. It's a tough 4WD trail, for Jeep enthusiasts. We had no idea...
We naively started over Schofield Pass on our two streetbikes, with several nylon duffel bags bungeed to the seat of each bike. Too many, really, but we'd never been motorcycle touring before - what did we know?
Leaving Crested Butte, the Schofield Pass road is like a nice country lane. The actual transition from one drainage to another is low, and idyllic. Very pleasant, and the perfect place for a picnic.
A group of dirtbikes approached us from Crystal, and waved. Every rider was wearing full armor, and riding off-road machines. That should've been a clue, but it wasn't. I simply thought "People out here sure do dress up for a ride down a country lane."
Then we went down a ledge / incline that had the undersides of both bikes scraping and banging on the rocky outcroppings. We thought: "Ah! That must be the part that requires 4WD. Well, we handled that alright..."
We forged ahead. The pleasantness returned, and we were very glad to have the hard part behind us, as that ledge looked like a it would be a real bear to get back up with a street bike. Incredible scenery, perfect weather, beautiful day - all was right with the world.
Then we came to the Crystal River. The bridge was out, and looked like it had been out for at least 50 years, only the log foundations remained. So we forded the river on our streetbikes, and then looked at the next phase.
Have any of the GS or dirtbike riders out there done this road?
After the river crossing, Schofield Pass is a shelf road hacked out of the side of the mountain. The mountain (and road) is comprised of sharp, layered rock. The road is off-camber, tilting toward the river in many spots, and extremely bumpy. The road is just wide enough for a Jeep, with loose gravel all over the place. As the Crystal River to the right descends rapidly alongside, the road keeps up with the river's descent - I've read since then that it's a 27% grade going into Crystal. For reference, I think the steepest paved road I've ever seen has been around 9%.
Thinking "This must be the bad part, once we're through this all will be well....", we started down. It took forever, it seemed, to get to the halfway point. At the halfway point, there was a crude log bridge, so that the road crossed from the left side of the river to the right. That's when the road got even worse, steeper than the upper half, with some big rock ledges to go around or over.
After taking a long break at the bridge, we started down the second half. Going up would've been impossible. We were crawling downhill, feet down for stability, using the brakes constantly. At one point, each of us got our street bikes stuck between rocks on the exhausts and frame and engine.... The bikes just stood there, and we climbed off and kicked ourselves for being so stupid, and then wondered how in the Hell we're going to get a couple 500 lb. streetbikes unstuck from the rocks at 10,000 feet.....
You've got to be kidding.....
And did I mention we were starting to run out of daylight? It was late afternoon at that point, in a canyon, and we had no idea how far to Crystal, how long the road might stay bad, or where in the heck we were going to eat supper or sleep.
And then I fell down. Minor in retrospect, but not minor at the time. My bike got rolling too fast downhill, hitting maybe 5 MPH, out of control and headed for the dropoff on the left, all in a helpless slow-mation. Going off the shelf road would have been fatal... I fell before I got to the edge. When the bike went over onto its right side, its tires about 2' from the edge...
At that point, I was a scared 17 year old kid far from home. Big brother Ken was putting on a brave front, much more mature than me since he was 23 (nearly 24), but I could tell it was a front. Truth be told, we were both terrified, with the river far below on our left now. We picked my bike up, and Ken came up with a plan.
We killed the engines on both bikes, and used the clutch as a back brake. That way, we could keep our feet down for stability. And that's how we descended Schofield Pass into Crystal...
Arriving at dusk in Crystal, we went to a small gift shop run by a little old woman named Dorothy. She sold us pop that she kept cool in the river, and offered to fix us supper in her cabin when we tried to buy hot dogs from her. Her response at our trying to buy hot dogs was "Now how're you boys gonna cook 'em if I sell 'em to you?" At which point she had us, as we didn't actually have pots or pans, and figured we'd have to build a fire to cook the dogs.....
So our evening was spent at Dorothy's cabin, in the ghost town of Crystal.
Turns out Dorothy owns the town. Her father bought up the mining claims in the area when she was a girl, hung onto them, and when he died she and her sisters inherited the town. She winters in California and summers at Crystal. She told us of the history of the town, about several of the buildings, the area. I don't recall what she fixed us. Maybe hotdogs. She simply said that her grandkids had gone home, and that she had all kinds of extra food. She told us of a horrible (and fatal) accident a few years back in Schofield Pass, a family headed up that road in a Suburban, drunk, in a thunderstorm, slid off the shelf road and into the river If I remember the story correctly, all were killed.
She also mentioned that conventional cars sometimes make the trip down Schofield Pass, but I still doubt that it happens very often. I also bet they don't come through unscathed, and that none go up the pass.
Then she told us where to camp, just upstream of the town... We only had one water crossing to deal with to get there, though it did have a log in it. We slept that night on the banks of the Crystal River, thankful for how well things had gone that day.
I've been back there a couple times since in a 4WD vehicle, and I've even ascended Schofield Pass in a 4WD. It's not an easy road, even with a 4WD. The bumps knock the wind out of you, and in places I remember the vehicle shuddering, shaking, sliding, and bumping so bad that my vision blurred. I had to keep my foot hard on the gas, and steer away from the edge.
But the story above is still vivid in my mind. It was my first big trip on a motorcycle, and an example of how things can go really wrong, and really right, all in the same day. And of using a motorcycle in totally inappropriate ways.
Oh, on getting out the next day - we continued west to Marble. Not for street bikes either, still a four-wheel-drive road, but seemed like a highway compared with where we'd been.
I'd really like to do this again someday, on a suitable dual-purpose bike, or a mountain bike, or on foot. Probably uphill, to keep speeds down. But I'm really not in any hurry...
PS - Yes, of course I have photos. One of my favorites is my KZ-650 crossing the Crystal River, water up to the points cover. Will post here if folks are curious....