Writing & Photography
For travelers, history buffs, readers, writers, and even the health conscious
Colorado’s little-known Owl Creek Pass Road gets you up close and personal with the spectacular country where the original True Grit was filmed. In Southwest Colorado, the scenery doesn’t get much bigger or bolder. Jagged peaks rip into cobalt blue skies. Narrow roads cling to high mountain cliffs. Massive aspen and pine forests carpet everything between broad valleys and bald mountain peaks. No less than seven scenic and historic byways give you a front-row seat to such grandeur.
At times, though, the sheer scale and magnitude of the landscape can get a bit overwhelming and feel somewhat untouchable—like a picture-perfect postcard that lacks the engagement of all the senses.
To truly connect with such scenery, sometimes it takes getting off established byways and discovering lesser-known routes that are just as worthwhile. One such road—long overshadowed by more popular relatives—is a dirt road that even many native Coloradans don’t know about: Owl Creek Pass Road.
It’s part of an 85-mile roundtrip from Montrose, Colorado, that starts and ends on pavement, but in between boasts Owl Creek Pass Road, a passable-for-all-cars track that brings you up close and personal with stunning scenery. The dirt road portion winds past Silver Jack Reservoir, through Uncompahgre National Forest, over 10,114 foot Owl Creek Pass, and brings you back onto pavement near Ridgway. The road’s relatively gentle path through rugged terrain not only attracted cattle drives in the 1880s, but even the attention of the king of all cowpokes—John Wayne—who battled bad guys here in the original True Grit. (The new Jeff Bridges True Grit was filmed in locations such as Bishop and Hot Creek, Calif., Mexico and Gunnison, Colo., and also stars Matt Damon reprising Glen Campbell’s Texas Ranger, and Josh Brolin taking bad guy Robert Duvall’s place.)
Saddling up with the Duke isn’t hard, especially
because the journey starts in the laid back,
charming town of Montrose. Broad, tree-lined
streets and mature neighborhoods lend a homey,
peaceful feel. Victorian brick buildings filled with
art galleries, local craft shops and cafes create a
vibrant main street that belies the town’s 17,000
restored older home—you can start your day with
a great cup of joe, chat with locals and hear the
joyously unencumbered laugh of one of the owners,
Phuong Nguyen. Help support local hospice
efforts by buying something at the interesting
Gallery, lots of local artists are displayed. And
wrap up the day by settling into the comfortable
East of town, on US 50, is the decidedly fun and funky Museum of the Mountain West, which offers guided tours through nine authentic storefronts and eight restored buildings, including the Diehl Carriage Works where Jack Dempsey trained and fought.
But all that can wait as you hear the call of the Duke to “Saddle up!” It’s time to hit the trail and experience the sublime beauty and peace of Owl Creek Pass Road.
Head east out of Montrose on paved US 50 over Cerro Pass to the fly-speck town of Cimarron. Make a quick stop at the Cimarron Visitor Center for maps, information and to see a narrow-gauge locomotive and cattle cars that sit on a trestle high above Cimarron Creek.
Continuing east on US 50 just beyond the center, take the turn to the right (south) signposted “National Forest Access Cimarron Road Silver Jack Res 21”. Much of the 21 miles to the reservoir follows the Cimarron River through the broad Cimarron Valley, which is neatly laid out in mostly privately owned ranches.
That’s not to say you won’t see any wildlife. Chipmunks love to sit
on the roadside fence posts and chatter to passersby, while
humming birds zip in and out of view. Deer are plentiful, from
bucks with fuzzy antlers, to does and fawns grazing. And there’s
always the possibility of cattle standing in the road—put there just to remind you to slow down and enjoy the day.
It’s easy to picture John Wayne galloping across such range, with the magnificent jagged Cimarron Ridge and Uncompahgre peaks in the distance. It’s in this Cinemascope landscape that you first notice one surprising thing: the aspens.
Even for the most jaded Colorado traveler, the aspens along this route are some of the finest and most dramatic you’ll ever see. Termed by some “white-bark aspens,” they are very tall, with very white bark (whiter than this author has ever seen) and with leaves that congregate in only the upper branches. All of which means the white trunks stand out on distant hill sides like ghostly sentinels waiting for your visit.
You can wander among such beauties once you leave the valley’s private land and enter Uncompahgre National Forest. Here, everything looks and feels different—no more ranches and barbed wire fences as the valley crumples up into rising hills, wildflower meadows, thick forests and alpine lakes.
ahead, Chimney Rock and the ragged edges of Courthouse Mountain dominate the foreground like eager parents at a kids parade.
Along this stretch, three side routes are worthwhile if you have a 4 wheel drive. East Fork Rd. 863 (about 1.5 miles long), Middle Fork Rd. 861 (about 4.5 miles) and West Fork Rd. 860 (about 3.5 miles) all lead to trail heads that can take hikers into the rugged backcountry of Uncompahgre Wilderness.
As Owl Creek Pass road heads toward Cimarron Ridge and the 10,114 summit, mountain vistas are exchanged for close up forest views. While the actual summit is a bit anticlimactic because its forest setting has no dramatic overlooks, the alpine meadows and stands of pines and aspens compensate nicely.
About a mile down the other side of the pass, you’ll come across a picturesque long meadow accented by a zigzag log fence and small ditch. This is Katie’s Meadow, the site of the showdown in the original True Grit. With John Wayne atop his horse at one end of the meadow, and bad guy Robert Duvall (now Josh Brolin) on his horse at the other end, Duvall shouts, “…Pretty big talk for a one-eyed fat man!” Wayne responds as only he could—gripping the reins in his teeth and spurring his horse on with guns blazing in both hands.
Today, the meadow is a bit more peaceful—and just as pretty in person as on film.
Coming down off the pass, the road narrows, winds through thick forest and needs some driving focus. But all too soon you leave Uncompahgre National Forest behind, the land opens back up and you find yourself gliding through the beautifully expansive and ranch-groomed Uncompahgre Valley, filled with ranches. Behind you in the distance are the sharp backs of the Uncompahgre Mountains along with the San Juan Mountains, reminding you of the wilderness that’s never far away.
Coming out onto paved road US 550, you can either turn right (north) and immediately head back to Montrose to complete this mini-road trip, or you can have a fun detour by turning left (south) and heading into Ridgway, two miles away. Ridgway is worth the time, for its quaint Old West look, friendly residents and eclectic shops (try the food at Kate’s Place, boasting “cuisine with heart and soul”). Much of Ridgway was in the original True Grit, playing the part of Fort Smith, Arkansas. Movie memorabilia can be found—where else!—in the True Grit Café.
Following the Duke on this road trip isn’t that much of a stretch—both the man and the route are known for being big and bold. Today, the Duke would be proud that the land is basically as he knew it—still beautiful and mostly wild. A man of few words, he would have only one thing to say: “Saddle up!”
Owl Creek Pass Road -- Riding with the Duke
Not to be out done, Montrose’s three museums are definitely worth a stop—they all give good and different perspectives to the land, people and cultures of the region.
In town, the Montrose County Historical Museum is housed in the old Denver Rio Grande train station and is stuffed like a Thanksgiving turkey with artifacts and photos documenting early pioneer life. South of town on US 550 is the small but well done Ute Indian Museum, complete with dioramas, changing exhibits and a fascinating 15-minute documentary on the tribe’s all-important Bear Dance. Silver Jack Reservoir, with its distinctive shimmering glacial jade water, has camping facilities and is open to fishing and non-engine boating. Turn off at the scenic overlook where a short, easy hike leads into stands of aspen or down to the lake. Sitting among the massive trees, looking up into the leaves that quake with every breeze, you get a sense that this is
how the land looked and felt to the pioneers and the Native Americans. There’s a calmness, a sense of permanence and peace that prevails, and it seeps into the spirit and feels good.
Back on the road heading for Owl Creek Pass, the scenery turns dramatic. Up