Corkscrew Gulch: Steep Road with Fantastic Views


Here's just part of the view from the top switchbacks on Corkscrew Gulch Road, very near the pass itself. The area is surrounded by Red Mountains 1, 2, and 3. That road down there is not part of Corkscrew Gulch Road.

No exploration of the Colorado’s San Juans would be complete without an ascent or descent of Corkscrew Pass. It’s a steep road, averaging an almost 12% grade (rises 12 feet for every 100 feet forward), but it has far less scree than other roads. Not zero. Just less. You get to the road by traveling south from Ouray, Colorado, on US Highway 550 to Ironton Park. You’ll know you’re close as you climb up out of the steep canyons and suddenly find yourselves in a wide, U-shaped valley. The road sign is as shown in the image.

road side sign

This sign marks the turnoff. Note there is no mention of Corkscrew Pass. The arrow points east.

parking area

As you turn onto the road, you'll see the county road sign. To the left is a large area to park and unload your motorcycles or 4-wheelers.

If you’re on a street-legal dirtbike, you can just mosey on up. For those bringing in their bikes or four-wheelers on trailers or in the back of pickups, there’s a large parking area. Note that non-street-legal dirtbikes and all four-wheelers are NOT allowed on any Ouray or San Juan County paved roads. So you either need to retrace your steps or have someone meet you on the other end.

GPS track

Here's the annotated GPS track taking you from US Hwy 550 at the north, over Corkscrew Pass, and down onto the east side.

As you go down the road, you’ll quickly come to a fork. Turn right (south). The road is easy to follow from there.


Turn right at this sign to continue up Corkscrew Gulch. (I've never been to the left.)

There are some initial climbs, then the road levels out for a bit. The road is easy to follow.


This is one of the relatively level sections of road.

The final switchbacks are just plain steep. From the base of the switchbacks to the pass is only 0.9 miles, but in that distance you climb 1272 feet. That’s a grade of 27%! That means for every ten feet you go forward, you climb two and a half feet. BE PREPARED. Use first gear, keep your speed in the range where you have the most torque, probably 8 to 12 miles per hour. Use your very best technique on the corners and, if possible, take them gracefully while keeping your speed high enough to have good torque. Some turns have run-outs: relatively level places you can sit and recover for a moment. This is not a stretch of road to take sitting down, and keep all your focus on the road, not the views. STOP before looking around for photo opportunities.

The best views are from the switchbacks just before you get to the pass, as shown in the photo at the top of this post. These switchbacks are steep, but some of the corner run-outs are relatively flat, allowing you to dismount and make use of your camera. Once you get to the top you’ll find only a sign that seems to say that you’re at the boundary between Ouray and San Juan counties. Yep, you are. That’s also the pass. There’s a parking area at the top, but it’s not completely level, so be careful.


Here's the sign at the top of the pass. Not nearly so impressive as the sign at Engineer Pass, but the views make up for it.

From this point you can go back the way you came or you can go on. Either way makes for steep descents. Leave your bike in first gear. Note that if you drop below about 5 miles per hour, you run a real risk of simply falling over. I opted to go on over, but then opted not to go up over Hurricane Pass (already knowing from last year there’s lots of scree on the ascent) but down into Silverton. From there I went other places, but those are in separate posts.

Technical note: I left the battery for my Canon Lumix DMZ-TC5 at home! So I took short video snatches with my Kodak Zi8, then used the screen grabber in FastStone to capture still images. Not optimum, but it works.

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1 Response to Corkscrew Gulch: Steep Road with Fantastic Views

  1. Richard Jubinville says:

    WOW !! What beautiful views!!Soon it will be covered with snow however.

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