Red and I head up Poncha Creek on our way to Marshall Pass

Time Out: Marshall Pass Road & Aspen Gold

Red and I head up Poncha Creek on our way to Marshall Pass Red and I head up Poncha Creek on our way to Marshall Pass. (I was not driving when I shot this photo!)

Late this afternoon, after I finished writing two grant applications and one report on a landscape restoration consult, I gave myself a time out–that is, time outdoors, not punishment. Red and I took a leaf-peeping drive to see the aspen on the Marshall Pass Road southwest of Salida.

Marshall Pass is the old railroad route over the Continental Divide; between 1879 and 1890 it was the only line between Denver and Salt Lake City, and thus the Pacific Coast. During that time before cars and highways, Salida was the center of rail travel in the Colorado mountains, and saw trains carrying U.S. Presidents (including Ulysses S. Grant and Theodore Roosevelt) and other famous folk.

The Denver Rio Grande & Western train heading up Marshall Pass in about 1890 Photo: William Henry Jackson The Denver & Rio Grande Western train heading up 10,842-foot-elevation Marshall Pass in about 1890. Photo: William Henry Jackson

The Marshall Pass line was narrow-gauge, with rails just three feet apart, which allowed for a tighter turning radius in the switchbacks climbing the over the high passes but meant smaller cars and smaller freight loads.

D & RGW work train doing maintenance below Marshall Pass. Photo: Colorado Historical Society D & RGW work train below Marshall Pass. Photo: Colorado Historical Society

After the standard gauge line was built over Tennessee Pass above Leadville, the Marshall Pass line became a local route; the upper part of the grade was abandoned in the 1950s and became a scenic auto route. (I live along the lower part of former line where it cuts through the town of Salida; it is now a popular section of Salida’s 8.5-mile town trail system.)

The Marshall Pass Road along Poncha Creek (that's 13,275-foot-high Antora Peak in the background). The Marshall Pass Road along Poncha Creek (that’s 13,275-foot-high Antora Peak in the background).

The beginning of the grade is mellow, and then it begins to climb, and climb, and climb, winding its way toward Marshall Pass and the shoulder of Mt. Ouray.

Aspen flickers in the dark forest of ponderosa pines and Douglas-firs Aspen flickers in the dark forest of ponderosa pines and Douglas-firs

At first the patches of aspen were small, and scattered. But so bright! As the road wound its way uphill the clumps of aspen took on different hues, including orange and scarlet.

Aspen leaves from green to gold to red! Green aspens with red tips are particularly beautiful against the silvery-blue of that big Colorado blue spruce behind them.

I stopped to shoot photos and inhale the cool air whenever the sun came out from between afternoon rain-clouds, or the colors were especially lovely, or a cut in the old narrow gauge roadbed invited investigation, or whatever. [Warning: Possible aspen-color overdose ahead.]

The sun came out.... The sun came out….

Making the backlit mountain mahogany shrubs particularly lovely against gray clouds... making the back-lit seedheads on the mountain mahogany shrubs particularly lovely…

Aspen-dappled mountainside with Antora Peak in the background, but from higher up Aspen-dappled mountainside with Antora Peak in the background again…

And around another bend, this view of the Sangre de Cristos with aspens on their lower slopes, across the San Luis Valley... And around another bend, this view of the Sangre de Cristos with aspens on their lower slopes, across the San Luis Valley…

... and then a blast of brilliant aspens below the road, reflected in O'Haver Lake … and then a blast of brilliant aspens below the road, reflected in O’Haver Lake

Red, hanging out among the aspens while I shoot photos... Red, hanging out among the aspens while I shoot photos…

It's time to turn back, but let's just see what's around this curve... It’s time to turn back, but let’s just see what’s around this curve…

Oh yeah! Mt. Ouray spills a flood of aspen from above... Oh! Mt. Ouray spills a flood of aspen from above…

Okay, we'll turn around after this next curve... Okay, we’ll turn around after this next curve…

Well, just one more stop... Well, just one more stop…

... after this curve … after this curve

... and these crimson aspen … and these crimson aspen

we'll turn around and head downhill (in second gear)... Now we’ll turn around and head downhill (in second gear)…

and only stop a few more times... … and only stop a few more times

when it's impossible to resist one more shot... when it’s impossible to resist one more shot…

...or those scarlet-tipped aspens against the silver-blue spruces are just too lovely. …or those scarlet-tipped aspens against the silver-blue spruces are just too lovely.

Which explains why it took me almost two hours to drive the 36-mile round-trip between Salida and just below Marshall Pass.

From evening shadows in the mountains to a flood of golden sun in the valley. From evening shadows in the mountains to a flood of golden sun in the valley.

I was feeling worn-down before I left. Now I’m not. After time out among the aspens and the peaks, my heart is full of wonder and my spirit is tap-dancing.

And I am grateful once again for the gift of life on this numinous blue planet.

Yeah! Yeah!

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